Going to War: Ancient and Modern

Aristotle reports an ancient example of rational choice theory in international affairs. Indeed, if rational choice theory had existed at the time, Aristotle’s report would have begged the complaint of caricature given the parties to the conflict not only viewed their goals instrumentally, but even reduced their goals to cash equivalents.

In chapter 7 of Book II of his Politics, discussing Phaleas’s proposed constitution, Aristotle develops several objections, and in passing mentions the following:

Enough [property] needs to be available for use within the city-state, but also to meet external dangers. That is why there should not be so much property on hand that more powerful neighbors will covet it, and the owners will be unable to repel the attackers, nor so little that they cannot sustain a war even against equal or similar people.  . . .  Perhaps the best limit is such that those who are stronger will not profit if they go to war because of the excess, but as they would if the property were not so great.

For example, when Autophradates was about the lay siege to Atarneus, its ruler, Eubulus, told him to consider how long it would take to capture the place, and then to figure what such time would cost, for he said he was willing to abandon Atarneus at once for less. These words caused Autophradates to have second thoughts and to abandon the siege.

The transaction between the two rulers is an interesting one, not least because it is so coldly instrumental.

One explanation for the exchange is Eubulus knew he could not outlast Autophradates’s siege; Autophradates would ultimately take the city. This would cause untold suffering to the people of Atarneus, and the outcome would still be the loss of the city. So Eubulus offers to surrender the town to Autophradates at a lower cost than the siege would cost Autophradates if he had to carry it out. The city would still go to Autophradates, although without the cost in lives and destruction to the people of Atarneus. Eubulus would escape with his life, presumably pocketing the price Autophradates paid to call off the siege.

Or we can develop a more public-choicey sort of story: Atarneus is worth more to Autophradates than it is to Eubulus. Autophradates aimed to strip the city of its wealth. Eubulus could not do the same as its ruler; its citizens presumably would not permit him to continue to rule if he attempted it. Nonetheless, as ruler, Eubulus is able to extract some stream of value as rent. So the deal here is that Eubulus would sell out his city for some current amount greater than the discounted value stream of income he could extract as rent from ruling the city. The present value to Eubulus of future rents is less than the cost of the siege to Autophradates plus the value of the city’s existing stock of wealth.

Beyond the exchange itself, two items draw interest. First, the story provides a counterpoint to the common view today that instrumental rationality is a modern phenomenon, one conceptually derived from the same spirit animating the creation of the modern economic or rational man. Ancients, the thought goes, valued honor and glory more than cash. Indeed, they were not even commensurable goods. Yet here we have an ancient ruler engaging in a coldly calculating transaction, perhaps for the benefit of his city, perhaps just for his personal benefit.

To be sure, analogous events are not unknown today. Consider the occasional dictator induced to leave his office (and country) with the promise of safe exile with the bulk of his kleptocratically derived wealth left intact.

But, indeed, there are counterexamples; counterexamples nonetheless that differ from the ancient example. We have seen sacrifices prompted not by aristocratic virtues like honor and glory (at least not personal honor and glory), but instead by ideology. Indeed, and this is the odd bit, it is in the nations in which instrumental rationality has taken deepest root that the sort of overt instrumental calculation of Aristotle’s example would be viewed as most offensive. Perhaps ancients and moderns aren’t so different after all. Or, perhaps, some of us who view ourselves as most modern in fact could out-ancient the ancients in willingness to sacrifice all for a cause. But with a difference as well. Modern causes tend not to involve sacrifice for honor and glory, but rather involve sacrifice for an idea, for a theory.

Reader Discussion

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on November 27, 2017 at 13:48:05 pm

Another thought-provoking post!

And the first thought that comes to mind is, “Seriously? Rogers doesn’t have anything better to do over the Thanksgiving holidays than flip through Aristotle’s Politics and, basically, read the footnotes?”

This discussion of wealth has been one of the great talking points of libertarians: One way to keep government from becoming a target of corrupting special interests is to render government so impotent as to remove any motivation to capture it. Thus we would be rid of government corruption—and overrun with organized crime, robber barons, financial scandals, unmanaged fires and pandemics, and widespread illiteracy. If you subscribe to the view that any degree of private corruption is preferable than even the most modest degree of public inefficiency, then this is a world you prefer. Not surprisingly, most voters have not embraced this view.

Moreover, this same reasoning—the advantages of keeping targets small—applies to all forms of wealth and power. Libertarians value property rights, but sometimes fail to acknowledge that rights are not self-enforcing. If we value rights (or anything else), we will likely have to allocate resources for its maintenance. That may mean money for guards/enforcers. Or it may mean bread & circuses (a/k/a transfer payments) to placate the masses. If you believe that property rights should be free, these costs will seem like extortion payments. To everyone else, they will seem like a necessary accommodation to reality.

What accounts for the recent populist uprisings sweeping Western nations? Perhaps this reflects a failure by the elites to sufficiently placate the other social classes. That is, liberal policies have made the world much richer, but the bulk of those riches have flowed into relatively few pocket. So now we see the non-elites voting for Brexit or the end US trade treaties. At first blush, these policies do not seem well designed to promote the welfare of the non-elites, any more than a labor stoppage would promote the welfare of workers. Yet the strategy does work indirectly: By threatening the source of the elite’s wealth (even at some threat to themselves), the non-elites may induce the elites to share a larger slice of the pie.

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on November 27, 2017 at 15:57:32 pm


1) agreed that rogers could have spent his Thanksgiving doing something other than poring over Aristotle's Politics - perhaps, another bottle of Red would have served him well.

2) Yep, there is a cost to "maintaining" wealth.
3) Yep, "bread and circuses", at least the modern variety, may be transfer payments.

4) "So now we see the non-elites voting for Brexit or the end US trade treaties" You appear to equate the two, at least in terms of the motivations for both. Brexit is / was far more than a reaction of the *fabled* "homo economicus". Perhaps, you should look to the writer profiled in the next essay, Walker Percy, who wrote of the value of *place* (home). I would advance the proposition that Walker Percy provides a better explanation of Brexit than does the Chicago or Austrian Schools of Economics.

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on November 28, 2017 at 12:51:59 pm

As exemplified by the following from a Powerline Essay of 11/28:

Posted on November 28, 2017 by Steven Hayward in Europe, European Decline, Germany
The German Question, Again

As noted here a few days ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel is having trouble putting together a coalition government in Germany following a terrible showing in the last election. The German result was similar to the recent French election in one respect: it represents a repudiation of the main ruling parties.

There is one big difference: while the French economy continues to stagnate, the German economy is arguably the best in the world right now, at least by its surface measures. Unemployment is below 4 percent. In fact, Timothy Garton Ash notes some unusual poll results about the voters for the new Alternative for Germany Party that is considered “far right”:

In a 2016 poll, four out of five AfD voters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.” This is not a party of the economically “left behind.” It gathers the discontented from every walk of life, but those who predominate in its ranks are educated, middle-class men. A leading CDU politician told me that the angry protest letters he gets from defectors to the Alternative will typically be from a doctor, businessman, lawyer, or professor. This strong presence of the educated upper middle class distinguishes German populism from many other populisms.

In other words, the anti-establishment populism in Germany is not exactly identical with the white working class Trump voters of the upper midwest, though there are some similarities. (A lot of the AfD voters were concentrated in the former East Germany, which remains depressed relative to the rest of Germany, making it a bit like the forlorn factory towns of Ohio, Michigan, etc.) Ash puts his finger on the main factor: Culture, er, Kultur:

“It’s the economy, stupid” simply does not apply to Germany’s populist voters. Rather, it’s the Kultur. (I say Kultur, rather than simply culture, because the German word implies both culture and ethno-cultural identity, and has traditionally been counterposed to liberal, cosmopolitan Zivilisation.) In a poll shown on German television on election night, 95 percent of AfD voters said they were very worried that “we are experiencing a loss of German culture and language,” 94 percent that “our life in Germany will change too much,” and 92 percent that “the influence of Islam in Germany will become too strong.” Feeding this politics of cultural despair—to recall a famous phrase of the historian Fritz Stern—is a milieu of writers, media, and books whose arguments and vocabulary connect back to themes of an earlier German right-wing culture in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a new German right with distinct echoes of the old."

As I said, I look to Walker Percy rather than Hayek in this matter.

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on November 28, 2017 at 14:35:47 pm


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