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The problem with Pacifism

Stardate 20011014

Imagine World Peace, they exhort us.

OK, let's imagine it. You have a world where no-one is ever violent. Everyone lives in harmony with their neighbors, no-one lifts a hand in anger. Love prevails.

What's wrong with this picture? The problem with it is that it isn't stable. It's beautiful, moral, spiritually uplifting -- and doomed to failure.

It's susceptible to the tragedy of the commons. Suppose that one person among the billions decides not to live that way and resorts to a life of crime and violence. If he wants things which don't belong to him, he takes them. If he fancies a woman who doesn't want him, he rapes her. If he gets angry at a neighbor, he hits the neighbor -- or shoots him. What is to prevent this? Well, disapproval of his neighbors, for one. But what if he doesn't care what anyone else thinks? They shout at him, so he shoots them, too.

So what do you do in such a case when this person shows up at your door to attack you, rape your wife, and steal your property? Call the police, right? Sorry -- no police. That's violence. There might be some sort of patrol, but if they're not armed, then they're no more capable of stopping him than you are; calling them is pointless.

The problem is that if, in this idyllic utopia, someone cheats on the social compact of non-violence and refuses to follow it, then they gain more than they lose. Thus there is an incentive to do so -- and crime will break out. When this happens on an individual basis, this is known as the prisoner's dilemma. When it happens collectively, we call it the tragedy of the commons. Individuals acting to rationally maximize their own circumstances poison the soup for everyone. The logical result of this process is violent anarchy, with all the pacifists dead and everyone else fighting constantly. The only way to prevent the tragedy of the commons is to arrange a situation where those who cheat on the social compact lose more than they gain. Then a rationally self-interested participant gains more by playing by the rules than he does by cheating, and relative peace is maintained. In other words, individual citizens and the society as a whole follow the social compact only with those who also follow it, and greet the violent with violence in turn.

We Americans do live in a society which is relatively peaceful, but that's because it has real police who carry guns. If I get angry and punch my neighbor in the nose, he'll call the police who will come for me. If I resist, they'll draw their guns. If I have a gun, too, they'll shoot me. When I go with them, they take me to a court, where I'm given a trial, and then they take me to a prison, where I'm prevented from leaving by guards who also have guns. So I don't punch my neighbor in the nose, because I don't want to go to prison.

Peace only comes to those who are willing to fight. Because they are willing to defend themselves, they usually won't have to. But that isn't universally true, and it will sometimes be necessary to do so. There will be people who think that it's an empty threat and decide to test the system. When that happens they must be treated violently in turn, so as to prove that the deterrent is real.

A 100% peaceful society isn't possible unless we change ourselves (i.e. redesign our genes). As long as humans are the way they are, the way to get the most peace is to be willing to fight, but that means it will sometimes be necessary to fight when someone who is desperate, or cunning, or vile, or insane decides to test the system.

The police capture and try if they can, but will kill if they must. Violent criminals in extreme circumstances are directly killed by the police all the time in this country. When a man is carrying an assault rifle down the middle of a street after a botched robbery, shooting at anything that moves, it's no good to reason with him. (And the Los Angeles police didn't try; they shot and killed him.)

The same thing applies internationally, only in that case there are no police. Settle everything by diplomacy, right? But why should anyone compromise with you diplomatically? If we disagree with some other nation or group and negotiate with them for a mutually acceptable compromise, then someone has to give away something they wanted to keep. (If there were no disagreement, no diplomacy would be needed.)

So imagine world peace. All nations live in harmony; no nation has an army. All nations live in peace with each other. The problem is that exactly the same thing happens: there is an incentive for one nation to cheat and break the international compact. If it creates an army, it gets more than it loses. The nations of the world disapprove and denounce our villainous nation publicly, but its people and leaders don't care about that and ignore it. They use their army to move into a neighboring nation and take from it things it wants which the neighbor wasn't willing to give voluntarily and enslave its people -- and by so doing this villainous nation gets more than it would have gotten by obeying the international compact. And what is to prevent this?

Again, the threat of force. The only way to prevent a nation from doing this is to make it so that it loses more than it gains by doing so, and the only way to do that is to fight back -- which means you need an army of your own. If a nation uses its army to invade or attack your nation, your army and the armies of your allies combine to fight back, destroy that nations army, and punish its government and people. Thus they lose more than they gain by being aggressive. Because they know this, they won't attack, and because you're willing to fight you usually won't have to. If you're unwilling to fight, you're guaranteed to be attacked eventually.

In diplomacy, if you are pacifistic and unwilling to fight, if you want peace but the nation you are negotiating with doesn't care, then you'll do all the compromising -- and you'll give away the farm. When your nation negotiates with another nation, the reason they are willing to negotiate honestly and to compromise is because if they don't, you'll attack with your army. Equally, if you don't negotiate honestly, they will attack you with their army. Therefore both nations have more to lose by not negotiating in good faith than there is to win. All successful diplomacy is backed by the threat of force.

If, in an armed world, one nation renounces the use of force, then that nation can only survive and prosper if it is implicitly protected by the willingness of another country to use force on its behalf. The nation of Costa Rica has no army -- but it has a powerful friend up north who would fight for it if need be.

And as with crime within a nation, there will necessarily be war between them. Some nation will decide that it doesn't believe the threat and will call the bluff. In that case you must prove that it is not a bluff by doing what you threatened to do: mobilize your army and punish the miscreant. If you do not, then you no longer have a threat of force the next time you negotiate, and your diplomatic partner will refuse to compromise.

A nation can act peacefully with other nations who follow the international compact of peaceful coexistence, but must fight against those who become warlike. This gives nations who are considering war an incentive to remain peaceful.

It's imperfect, but it's better than the alternative. To disarm and become pacifistic is to paint a target on your chest. Individuals within a society can be pacifists and still be safe because they are protected by others who are willing to fight on their behalf (the police). In the international realm, a nation which refuses to fight and has no friends willing to fight on its behalf will be destroyed.

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