August 03, 2006

I'VE LONG SAID that if the Palestinians had had a Gandhi, they would have had their own state years ago. Matthew Yglesias makes the point at more length:

(continued below the fold, to accomodate those who do not come to Instapundit for my marathon-style post length. Those who are interested can pretend it's a hyperlink to another site.)

Following up on a lot of recent posts about the limited utility of brutality for the United States, it's worth noting that the converse is also true -- unrestrained violence doesn't have an especiallly good track record as an insurgent tactic. . . .

One reason is simply that international opinion matters in these conflicts and it's helpful when looking for support abroad for people not to think of your organization as composed of wanton murderers. But more fundamentally, the trouble with brutality on the insurgent side is the same as the trouble on the other side -- your military means need to match up with your political goals.

Normally, an insurgent movement is going to want to eventually strike some kind of a compromise with its enemies. Unrestrained slaughter is fine as a method if your actual goal is to kill everyone on the other side. But if that's not your goal, then killing without restraint merely gives the impression that your goal is total massacre and makes the other side disinclined to bargain.

During the Anglo-Irish war, for example, one thing the Irish side needed to do successfully was convince the English that the price of staying in Ireland was going to be too high. They also needed, however, to convince the English that the price of leaving wouldn't be too high.

The ever-brilliant Tyler Cowen's post from yesterday is apposite:

Remember that game where two people bid sucessively for a dollar bill? The highest bidder takes the dollar home. You also pay your highest bid whether or not you win the dollar. The Nash equilibrium is an infinite bid from both players, or alternatively the equilibrium is undefined.

In a business school class on decision science, I ended up as one of the idiots bidding for a $20 bill. The problem is, of course, that whenever one player outbids the other, the other is suddenly on the hook for their last bid, with no $20 to offset the cost. The bidding thus continues until each bid is far higher than $20, because no matter how much you have to bid to get the $20, you're still better off bidding more than $20, and getting it, than having the losing bid.

The game ended when we colluded, and then welshed on the professor.

Why is this little bit of game theory relevant to current events? Because at this point, both sides seem to have as their major goal not losing, rather than winning. Hezbollah can't defeat the Israeli military--but the IDF isn't going to eradicate Hezbollah, either. Indeed, they seem to have given up on even the idea of seriously damaging Hezbollah. What they are trying to do now is prevent Hezbollah from declaring a win when the US makes them pull out.

Why is this a problem? Because people, and governments, will go a lot farther to avoid losing than they will to win. For one thing, winning is a concrete goal--we knew we'd won WWII when Japan and Germany surrendered. Loss is trickier--did we win or lose the Tet Offensive?--which means the more you do the more things you can point to as evidence that you weren't defeated. Hopefully, one will stick.

But much deeper than that is the fact that we hate loss much more than we love gain. Psychologists and economists have a term for this: loss aversion. It can make us powerfully irrational, with some researchers finding that people will pay twice as much to avoid a loss as they will to secure a gain.

So, for example, I'll pay $229 a year for homeowner's insurance, which will replace up to $30,000 worth of goods if I'm robbed or have a fire. But there are only 322 burglaries per 100,000 people in New York City, where I live. And since I live in a very small apartment in a building with a part-time doorman and full-time super, and have a very large and scary looking dog, my chances of being burglarized are much lower than average. My chances of having a fire are similarly small--in Manhattan last year there were only 5,325 non-structural fires in about 800,000 housing units in Manhattan last year (my masonry-construction building is vanishingly unlikely to have a structural fire). Plus, even if I had a burglary or a fire, chances are it wouldn't take every single thing I owned. Would I pay $230, cash on the barrel, for a 0.01% chance at getting, say, a new computer, some pots and pans, and a sofa? No I would not. But I will pay $230 to make sure I don't lose those things.

Wars in which the sides are fighting not to lose, rather than to gain, should tend to be more brutal and destructive than those in which there are clear objectives. This is also helpful in thinking about the tactics of Hamas versus the Israeli Defense Force. In some sense, the Israelis can't really lose the conflict--even if they retreat to the 1967 borders, they've still got a big chunk of land they didn't have before, and this is still recent enough history to matter. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have to accept a big defeat in order to call a draw. That's one possible explanation for why they are more willing to use terror tactics than the IDF.