Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Wed, 12 Sep 2018, 02:30 PM


Syria: the knowledge problem

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There's a danger that the question of whether we should intervene in Syria is becoming a left-right issue. Not only is this false, it's a means of (deliberately?) ignoring the basic issue - one that is much more general than merely the conjunctural question of Syria.

It's false because there are many rightists who have doubted the case for military intervention, such as John Baron, Julian Lewis and, I gather, Kate Andrews on Question Time last night. I don't think this is wholly because they are little Englanders who care only about British interests. It's because of their stance towards a key general question in politics: how much can governments know?

The case against bombing Syria is not that we should support Russia or Assad or that a "political solution" can be found. It's that we do not know enough about the country to be confident that intervention will work. Yes, the situation is awful. But it's quite possible that bombing will make it worse.

Faced with uncertainty, we must err on the side of doing nothing: if in doubt, do nowt. The Brainard principle should apply to all policy, not just monetary policy.

To put this another way, bombing Syria is an irreversible decision. We cannot unbomb the country if we decide that we were wrong to do so. If we don't bomb, though, we can bomb later if we decide that the case for doing so has become strong. Bog-standard economics tells us that when we have uncertainty and irreversible investment opportunities, we should wait and see. (Dan Davies, has, as usual been good on this).

This is one lesson of the Chilcot report. He wrote (par 863):

Ground truth is vital. Over‑optimistic assessments lead to bad decisions.

Can we really be confident we have sufficient "ground truth"?

The contrary case to all this has been put by Johnny Mercer:

On issues of sensitive intelligence and national security, the PM sees the whole picture, and we should not constrain her

This, though, begs the question: does the PM really have the whole picture?

From this perspective, it's no surprise at all that some rightists oppose military action. Free marketers such as Kate think the government doesn't know enough about the economy to intervene successfully. By the same token, they might doubt whether governments can know enough to intervene militarily in other countries. This is a consistent scepticism about what policy-makers can know. Hayek's famous essay on the limits of knowledge doesn't just apply to economics.

Much of New Labour had the opposite view. I suspect that Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq was the product of his overall ideology - an overconfidence about what top-down leaders could know.

In this sense, the Syria question should not be a left-vs-right one at all. Free market rightists and market socialists like me agree that centralized knowledge is often insufficient and so are intervention-sceptics. Those who are more optimistic about state capacity disagree*.

The debate we should have - not just in the Syria context but more generally - is: how much can we know? But because many politicians and columnists have built careers upon being overconfident, this is a question they don't want asked. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it".

* You might object that this is not Corbyn's motive for opposing intervention. Maybe not. But doing the right thing for the wrong reasons isn't entirely to be deplored.

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