Wars and Presidents: Avoiding the Power-Display Bias

This week on EconTalk, Russ Roberts interviewed Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on how presidents who took the United States to war find themselves higher in the rankings of “Great Presidents” (see this paper by Henderson and Gochenour on the issue)  For some time now, I have found myself in agreement with that contention as wars are generally momentous events that stand out in history. In contrast, the man who sits by and does nothing except preventing a war or making it easier for people to trade, that is harder to observe.  But why would evaluating Presidents be associated with such a premium? Individuals are aware that wars are bad, so why are they praising this? On other metrics, how do Presidents fare?

On the power-display bias 

In my forthcoming book on Canadian economic history (published by Palgrave McMillan as part of their Studies in Economic History), I reviewed some pantheons and counter-pantheons of Presidents (which I will present below) and I felt I had to offer my argument regarding these pantheons:

The established pantheon and the counter-pantheon differ mostly due to people’s bias towards positively assessing outward signs of power. When he wrote to one of his correspondents that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” British historian Lord Acton was not only speaking of politicians, but also of those would retroactively judge them: Acton was referring to a general human tendency – accentuated amongst historians – to be more forgiving of those who hold power, because the powerful are judged by their actions. Indeed, it is easier to size up a politician who undertook significant reforms – regardless of the results obtained thereby – than to evaluate the achievements of one who passively held the line. If the reformer fails, it can be said that at least he tried. Moreover, a given president’s place in the pantheon is closely linked to how many Americans he killed during the military conflicts that defined his reign. The more Americans killed per capita overall, the higher a given president’s ranking in the list of “greats.”

Economic history teaches us, however, that the most proactive presidents may not be the most beneficial to their country, on the contrary. For several years now, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) has been the subject of increased criticism in the economic literature for his interventionist economic policies between 1932 and 1939. Economists Albrecht Ritschl, Monique Ebell, Lee Ohanian and Harold Cole have determined that FDR’s interventionist policies in fact served to prolong the Great Depression.

In other words, the bias we have when evaluating men with power is that we evaluate based on the exercise of displaying the use of power. Those who refrain from using it are, properly, not recorded as historical events are conflicts/tensions/oppositions. This I think is generally a bias that is easily to fall prey to. I am not immune to that even if I happen to have libertarian leanings. I often see in one politician or another in history a man/woman that I wish would be here today to “save the day” (one of my childish belief). But each time I dig around that person, I am less enthused. For example, I used to be an admirer of William Pitt the Younger – a fierce one. After all, he had assisted Wilberforce in ending the slave trade, he had instituted a sinking fund to repay the British public debt (he had willfully tied his hands) and he he had been moderately sympathetic to the American revolution. I saw his role in the wars against France as a contest of circumstances. But, that was the point, I was ready to discount the war. In addition, as I read the work of Jane Humphries on child labor in industrializing Britain (here and here), I discovered more unsettling things.  During the French Wars, the build-up of the British state did lead to some crowding-out on factors markets, notably the labor market. Upon complaints of manufacturers, Pitt proposed to “Yoke Up the Children”. More precisely, he proposed the use of orphan in the public care to work as pauper apprentices to firms at pences on the shilling (bad pun of pennies on the dollar). He “lent” orphans to private firms and its hard to assume that they consented to work (as Humphries’s use of oral histories makes clear). If a person with libertarian leanings like me was willing to excuse such a man before, it is quite telling of how limited knowledge shores up the reputations of powerful men. This is because their use of power overshadows all the rest. Their use of power is like the joke about economists looking where the lamppost is: we evaluate them on what their use of power has illuminated.

Other Metrics

So, are there any other metrics that are less subjected to our inherent power-display bias? Obviously, anything that has a subjective element will be biased. However, evaluating the evolution of living standards under their rule is one way to go at it. Mark Zachary Taylor, in an article published in PS: Political Science and Politicsproposed an economic ranking of US Presidents since 1789. Whichever way you cut it, there is a weak rank correlation between the rankings of presidential greatness and the ranking of economic grades.

Ranking.png

There is another type of ranking, which is more subtle. It measures how much Presidents refrained from expanding federal power. This exercise was made by Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway (two great economic historians) who measured presidents based on their changes to the size of government and inflation. This measure alone (see table below) is not sufficient to be convincing, but taken as part of a constellation of rankings, it provides a key piece of evidence. This is really a counter-pantheon to the rankings of presidential greatness. In fact, one could see it as the cost for societies of presidential greatness.

presidentialgreatness

When comes the time to evaluate great rulers, being aware of our biases is crucial (as Lord Acton, I think they should rarely be excused based on flimsy excused like circumstances – the virtue of being an historian/economic historian is that we have enough hindsight to say how terrible certain choices were).  And that awareness should lead us to develop a “dashboard” of rankings to properly weigh the impact of such rulers.

Why Republican Libertarianism? V Concluding Remarks

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

There is a tendency within liberty oriented though which sees the intrusions of the state in the modern world as something to do with republicanism and the democratic political spirit. The development of what has been called the administrative state, administered society, the iron cage of bureaucracy, disciplinarity (generalised power throughout society), biopower (sovereignty over life and health), and so on, has taken place in all state forms. It is deeply embedded in the emergence of modern industrial world, where traditional authority structures and customary laws are eroded by city life, national and international markets and technological innovation.

This process has one aspect the emergence of a modern state in which we see national debt financing an investor class, and the expanded central state enforcing uniform legal codes. There is a political economy of this which ties interest groups to the state, and tries to find ways in which everyone could be defined as belonging to a group that benefits from state action. At any time we see states in the double process of maintaining such a political economy and using state power to protect the associated institutions.

There are periods in which such developments of the state take place at a heightened pace, usually due to war of some kind and maybe a collapse of attempts at peaceful balance between groups in a society. Groups  which seem marginal or even as the source of violent resistance are assimilated or subject to maximum state force.  in practice has always gone along with these developments, in all forms of state.

A lot of this has come out of the pre-modern monarchical state reinforcing its traditional power. Resisting he administrative-bureaucratic state means engaging in politics, in citizen movements, in peaceful civil disobedience where necessary to defend basic rights. That is not  looking back to pre-modern forms of law, authority and statehood, in which pluralism exists in rigid state enforced hierarchies, and tradition limits individual self-creation. In the modern world republicanism has sometimes acquired a ‘Jacobin’ form of intense and violent state creation, but as Tocqueville pointed out in The French Revolution and the Old Regime, it carries on the work of the old monarchy in doing so.

The republican political tradition has to some degree acquired a tainted reputation due to association with the most violent aspects of the French Revolution, and Machiavelli’s frankness about what can happen when regimes change. However, the violence attributed to the republican moment was always at work before in the strengthening of central political institutions and the unified ordering of the society concerned. There have been such moments throughout history, but the shift to the modern administrative state has made them  much more thoroughgoing in  their influence on social relations.

Republicanism is a way of coping with this that tries to bring in the restraints of law and accountability to the public in various forms. It has not been an escape from the modern administrative state, or the violence accompanying much of the historical emergence of that state, but no other way of doing politics has escaped either, and the republican way even in its worse moments has at least emphasised the principles of law above persons, the non-passive rights of citizens, and the importance of instruments of political accountability. The monarchist and depoliticised forms of thinking about liberty have also sometimes collapsed into state terror, without the message that a better way exists. The conservative empire and the traditionalist state have used, maintained, and intensified violence in reaction to real and perceived threats without being able to offer the prospect of better political forms and structures than the hierarchies of tradition. The differences are not absolute, as Tocqueville indicates, and at times republican city governments have existed within traditional hereditary states, and monarchist reformers have attempted to bring in ideas with republican origins. A republic can collapse into a permanent system of personalised authority, but it is the republican tradition which tells us what is wrong with that.

In any case, republicanism as it exists now in political thought is concerned with restraints on power not intensification of state power. Its engagement with historical situation and concrete politics, its appeal (at least in the form associated with Hannah Arendt) to individuality and contestation in politics is the best way of making a complete application of the principle of liberty to the political and historical world.

Useful neoconservative insights

It is not common for liberals to praise neoconservative thinkers. Regardless if this concerns domestic politics or international affairs.  While this normally makes a lot of sense, sometimes the liberals are clearly at fault. I recently re-read two of Robert Kagan’s most famous books: Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003) and The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008). The power of Kagan’s analysis struck me again in these two concise books, predominantly his balanced treatment of the enduring and dominant role of power in world politics. This is something not many liberals are keen to accept, the classical liberals excepted, most notably Hume, Smith and the certainly the hawkish Hayek.

In the light of the topical situation in Eastern Europe, let me quote a few lines from The Return of History.

  • ‘One of the geopolitical fault lines runs along the western frontier of Russia, [Ukraine included] with Russia on one side, and the European Union and the United States on the other. Instead of an anticipated zone of peace, western Eurasia has once again become a zone of competition.’
  • ‘If Russia was where history most dramatically ended two decades ago, today it is where history has most dramatically returned. Russia’s turn toward liberalism at home stalled and then reversed, and so has its foreign policy […….] Great power nationalism has returned to Russia and with it traditional great power calculations and ambitions.’
  • ‘Contrary to the dismissive views of many in the West, Russia is a great power, and it takes pride in being a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.’
  • ‘its oil and gas wealth has allowed Moscow to increase defense spending by more than 20 percent annually over the past three years’.
  • ‘This new sense of power today fuels Russian nationalism. It also stirs up deep resentment and feelings of humiliation […] such as acceptance of NATO enlargement, the withdrawal of troops from former Soviet republics and the ceding of independence to Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states.’

Recall this was in 2008 and it just a very brief selection. There was not much the liberals (of all persuasions) could have added to this. Liberals generally lack realistic let alone original views on world politics. That is simply not good enough, if they have intentions to widens the appeal of liberal thought. An embrace of neoconservative insights such as Kagan’s would be a good start.