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Why do we go to war?


Dylan Matthews interviews economist Chris Blattman (@cblatts) about his new book Why We Fight, which examines the root causes of war and what can be done to stop it. In a wide-ranging discussion that touches on conflict all over the world, Dylan and Chris discuss the role of the state, commonalities among historical conflicts, and the game theory of war.


Chris Blattman’s book, Why We Fight

Chris’s research work

Research on how drug gangs govern in Colombia

How therapy can reduce conflict

Using summer vacations to study peace deal mediators

The influence of royal mounties in the 19th century may make Canadian hockey less violent now

Blattman on Ukraine before the war

Civil war predictions in the US


Dylan Matthews (@dylanmatt), senior correspondent, Vox


Sofi LaLonde, producer and engineer

Libby Nelson, editorial adviser

Amber Hall, deputy editorial director of talk podcasts

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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Ever. It's a mystery novel, it's an adventure novel, it's a puzzle, it's everything all in one. We don't have the answers. Which is what makes it fun. This week on Unexplainable, did trees kill the world? It's all about Earth, life, and a lot of time. Listen for new episodes every Wednesday. - Hello and welcome to another episode of The Weeds. I'm your host, Dylan Matthews, and instead of our usual Tuesday panel show, we're going to be doing a very special interview episode today with Chris Blattman, who is a professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy. Welcome, Chris. - Thanks for having me.
Chris studies war and violence, and he's written some of my favorite papers in recent economics and political science, especially about developing countries and problems related to war and violence in that context. He also just released a book. Called Why We Fight that attempts to summarize what he's learned for lay audiences. And it's really fantastic. I really recommend it to anyone who wants to think more systematically and seriously about conflict. And since part of the book is about credibly signaling. I will say that I don't always say this when I do interviews with book authors. So today we're going to Talk a little about the book and about how Chris's broad framework for thinking about violence and what we can do to prevent violence. So Chris, I wanted to start with sort of the organizing philosophy of the book. You start from a standpoint that is might be kind of surprising for
Book about war, which is that war usually is a bad idea. It usually isn't in anybody's best interest. Most conflicts are resolved peaceably. Can you explain sort of that? organizing framework and why you think that's important just as a baseline. It's kind of amazing how much attention we pay to the violence that's actually going on. I mean, it makes a lot of sense, right? We want doctors to pay a lot of attention to sick people, but then we don't want them to forget that most people are healthy. So for example... Two weeks into Russia's invasion of the Ukraine, India accidentally lobbed a cruise missile at Pakistan and calm ensued. And we shouldn't be surprised at that. Likewise, you know, school children will learn about the US invasion of Afghanistan for decades, and very few kids will be taught about the US invasion of Haiti in 1994, which ended before it began. Yeah, basically I believe it was Colin Powell went to the coup leader who just ousted a democratic elected president.
Showed him a video of US troops bloating into planes and taking off and said this isn't live this happened two hours ago and he sort of surrendered right there. So all of these things are happening all the time and they're happening for. A pretty simple reason, which is that if you're Pakistan thinking, what do I do? It's really, it's just going to be ruinous if you go to war over this, even if you think it might not have been an accident. And this co-leader, this military leader in Haiti was equally just sort of looking at, it wasn't just. The U S was strong and Haiti was weak, which was part of it. We know that weak parties can mount insurgencies. It just looked at this and he said, this isn't gonna be worth it because I can basically use whatever bargaining power I have to get some kind of deal, right? He probably started negotiating with Powell right there about what kind of deal he could get given the power he had. And so that's, that's just. Normal everyday business of what happens precise because we're so costly. And so then, you know, basically.
Basically what that means is we have to think about violence and fighting as the product of something that's so powerful. That it overcomes that other incentive. So peace has this gravitational pull from all the. And so war only happens because some other force like yanked it out of that orbit, which is actually pretty hard to do. >> Yeah, and sort of the conceptual framework you're using here, the term bargaining range is incredibly important. What a bargaining range is and then sort of why it's useful for thinking about these kinds of conflicts and why some of them result in war and some of them don't. In some ways it's basic arithmetic but it's also a basic strategy which means it's sort of basic game theory and it goes back to Thomas Schelling and James Fearon, it goes back to economists and others who studied labor strikes or court battles. Like all of these.
Things just are problematic. So it's this analytical framework that has a lot of history before me. and... I guess I would say I kept waiting for someone to sort of tell this to everybody else. And I waited and waited and waited. I think the world's been waiting like 50 years and so somebody had to do it. And so I decided this would be me. One of the striking things about the book is how important game theory is to it. And perhaps that shouldn't have been surprising to me. But it was a little bit just because that's not really what I associate with your work, that you do a lot of empirical work. Work, you have run a lot of randomized controlled trials, which is sort of the height of empiricism, just sort of trying to get as much real world evidence as precisely specified as you can,
again and again to game theory, which is a theory. It's theoretical, it's about modeling things and then checking if the model works. Why did that provide such a useful model for thinking about the problems you study empirically? I feel like half of it is game theory and half of it is behavioral science and psychology and I'm trying to marry them So I think that most people in the world they look at this and they say
lot of game theory here. And then the political scientists, and especially the game theorists, look at it and go, what's all this other stuff? And so I'm trying to bring it all together in some sense. And, but, but the game theory is probably the least familiar. I like to call it strategy. Game theory sounds more intimidating than it is. None of the ideas are that complicated. So I was working in villages in Liberia, trying to understand why, why households were having violent fights over property, why ethnic groups within that village were sometimes going to something that looks like war against one another, white villages. Were going to war against one another, why Liberia went to war itself. So I was trying to understand this, and I did the same, I've been doing the same in and in Medellin with street gangs. Empirically you want to say, Well, In this, why is this happening? And also what can we do to stop it? And what I realized is it's sort of like a, you know, I need.
It to know the theory for the same reason that a doctor has to understand. Germ theory and disease, right? Because you're not gonna design better treatments in the field. If you're a field doctor, you're gonna do a lot better at treating problems if you understand the. And what I realized is all of these tools that I had acquired as a student and by reading about understanding why nations go to war, and from labor strikes and courts, just made a lot of sense for the kinds of everyday conflict and the less everyday conflict and violence that I was seeing in these places. So, so that's the thing. So I had to go back to a viral doctor and I were trying to say, well, how do we solve, I don't know, the worst diseases in, in Sub-Saharan Africa or the earth health problems on the, you know, in Chicago, I would have to teach you a little bit about medicine. And I'd be, I'd be crazy. I'd be driven nuts if nobody knew it. Right. It's as if I'm a doctor and nobody knows germ theory. That's kind of the world we're in when it comes to conflict. Right.
You don't want a doctor who's such an empiricist that they're like, We're going to try leeches for a while. Oh, right. And you don't want a world where the doctors all know that leeches don't work, but the world is like, you know what leeches big win, big win for medicine. That's actually a good transition. Toward the end of the book, one of my favorite chapters is you're summarizing the leeches. And sort of trying to go through some common theories behind conflict and sort of why they don't cash out. I wonder if you could walk through a-- Of those because I think some of them are surprising for people and sort of puncture a lot of folk wisdom that I've been hearing, especially sort of in the midst of the Ukraine war. One is poverty and economic volatility. If you live in my world of economics, you tend to think this is really important, partly because a lot of poor countries have more conflict, but also because, as we all know, the fastest way to write a paper in economics is to find.
Some sort of thing that some sort of almost like natural experiment that can help you figure out what causes conflict. And so you can you can find something like changes in commodity prices or sudden and oil shocks or these sorts of things so that make people richer or poorer. And then you can associate that with conflict. This is the route I went down for my first dissertation. So before I ever went to, you know, sub-Saharan Africa or the South side of or Latin America to work on this. I was in the, whatever, the 12th basement of Harvard and Berkeley libraries, collecting data on commodity volatility and history to associate with political instability and it didn't really work out. And, and I was puzzled why this didn't make any sense to me.
To be that important. And then I went back to this theory, I went back to the germ theory of conflict, I went back to this idea that war shouldn't happen, there's some powerful force. And the fact is, is that, you know, two sides are trying to split a pie and it shrinks suddenly, but we're still costly. So, you know, it's, it's, yes, there's maybe less room for you to bargain to some degree, but you still have a big stake. Can in not fighting. So I don't want to say poverty is irrelevant. So I do talk about ways in which it matters, but I just don't, it's just, it turns out that it's, doesn't really shape our core incentives in such a And I will say like some of my colleagues don't agree with me, but I think I'm slowly convincing most of them. So the bulk of the book is not about the theories that don't work. It's about the germ theory of war, the reasons that do work. Down into five explanations for war, which are all sort of explanations of how bargaining breaks down and why people can't reach agreements peaceably. Could you walk through those five and maybe...
You have an example of each of them in the world so people have something to grasp onto? - I mean, I call them unchecked leaders, intangible incentives, misperceptions, uncertainty, and commitment problems. And say three of them come from, are more strategic in nature, and then two are more psychological. Let me just start with a couple examples that I think are the most intuitive. So we live in a world with a lot of autocrats. And even if they're not autocrats, we live in a world where leaders are not totally constrained by their people, which means they don't have to do the thing that's in the interest of their group, especially someone who is completely unaccountable, like a personalized dictator, which Putin has increasingly become.
And so if you're a personalized dictator, you don't have to consider all these costs of war. You consider some of them, but you consider much narrower range, so you're much more ready to use violence. And then sometimes leaders, particularly dictators, have a special incentive to invade or attack that their group doesn't share. And they'll actually do something against the interests of the group. So if I'm, you know, when I worked in Liberia, maybe the warlord Charles Taylor thinks he's going to get more diamond profits by keeping the war going. Or maybe Putin thinks that to keep his regime of control. To keep going, he actually has to do something aggressive. And so if they have that, and then even against the interest of the group, that leader, it's sufficient just to take that group to war. So that's one example of one of these very powerful things that can sort of yank us out of that.
For orbit. And then another which is related, I call intangible incentives. And it's to say what if the group or a leader or in particular the Dictatorial personalized ruler has some ethereal benefits, something they value. It gives them a strong incentive to go to war. So it's not like a material incentive, like diamonds or, you know, something strategic, like I need to gain this territory in Ukraine or exterminate democracy there because it's going to threaten me rather it's this nationalist ideal of a unified Russia or in Charles Taylor's case, like a nationalist ideal of a, of a unified Russia. West African Republic that by the way he would rule. So these are these are common. It could be personal glory, wanting to be the next Catherine the Great. It could be the desire to... Exterminator heretic in some kind of religious or ethnic ideal.
If you value this thing that only war can bring you, then again, it's going to yank you out of the peaceful orbit. So I'll just go into those two in detail. The other two misperceptions is all the ways we do this by mistake. Uncertainty is about the ways that Basically when we don't know the strength of our opponent, we don't know their resolve that sometimes it's, it might be the optimal choice to fight strategically. And then commitment problems are. Mostly cases where there's some way we can avert our opponent being strong in future and so it actually pays to invade now to avoid, basically to basically lock in our advantage forever and that can overcome the costs. Well and I think, yeah, misperception and/or uncertainty. Seems like something that's become more important in the Ukraine context lately that I remember reading before the invasion started, sort of leaked intelligence assessments in the troops would be marching through Kiev in a matter of weeks.
And so not only was Putin probably sort of misperceiving, or at least making bad decisions under uncertainty about Ukrainian military strength, but there was just a lot of general uncertainty because no one really knows a lot about-- about the dynamics of that kind of conflict. - Yeah, well, you know, in general, I think a mistake we make with most conflicts is any ex-ante uncertainty at ex-post becomes a mistake. An error. And on some level, I get it, but you know, it might still might have been the right guess.
Oh, you know, we all know in hindsight that the Taliban was extremely strong and maybe one of the most capable insurgent organizations of the 20th, 21st century. That was not actually what it appeared in 2003 or even 2005. There were hints, but the US in some ways got a bad draw, just like Russia got a bad draw on how strong its military was, how plucky and capable the Ukrainians have been and how unified the West has been in sanctions. So none of these were unpredictable and some people guessed right, but I think you're right that most people guessed wrong beforehand and we are surprised. So I think what went on was decision-making under uncertainty. Still there were mistakes, of course, but less so. - We're gonna take a quick break now, but when we come back, we're gonna talk about some specific wars and conflicts that Chris covers in his book and sort of how those illuminate.
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That. Follow Profity Markets on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts to automatically... We'll see you next time. >> We're back. Chris, I first wanted to ask you just about the range of case studies that you talk about in this book. So we've talked about a lot of them, but civil war in Liberia, Colombian narco gangs, gangs in Chicago.
There's a section where you talk about the Spanish Armada's attack on Elizabeth in England. And I guess one question a reader might have is, why treat these as having more in common than a part? Or even if not more in common, why are these similar enough to be one subject rather than very specific things that you might have to analyze using different tools? Well, I mean, the answer is both. I mean, we do learn a lot and I, I did, I mean, I had to stretch my shot. I mean, I talk about the Peloponnesian war at length and, and, you know, which is not my expertise, but I had to learn a lot and I was like, It was, and it was fascinating. And, and the thing is there are a lot of differences and that's what political scientists, which is sort of like half the hat I wear do really well is categorize war to different levels. And different tactics and really try to understand them and make progress. And that's, I've been part of that and that's important. But what always struck me as I would read about the Peloponnese
Wars, I would see some parallels to what was going on with gangs in Medellin. And that's illuminating. And it's illuminating not just because you start to see what's really universally important. What I started to Realizes some of the, you know, there's a lot of things at the international level for international peace building where we have rotten evidence, right? 'Cause you can't randomize sanctions and there aren't really any good natural experiments, but there's lots of examples of similar. Kinds of policies at the city level and at the national level to deal with criminal groups and that's different But we can learn about their Efficacy, we can learn about some of the unintended consequences by at least paying attention to this evidence. And those are not literatures that. Talk to one another. And so even in my work here in Chicago now, I think there's all this stuff I bring and these instinctual avenues towards...
Island's reduction that I bring having worked in civil wars and peace building. I look at this, I'm like, why aren't we doing this stuff? Like, why aren't we doing some of this? And we could do a much better job if we actually had more cross pollination. Definitely. Tell me a bit about the, the Colombian cartels. 'Cause this was, one thing I learned from the book is that the structure of gangs in Medellin is vastly more complicated than I imagined it would be, and oddly hierarchical, that there are gangs above gangs and councils of gangs. Sort of explain that world to me, and sort of what you learned about--
Of like studying it. - So this hierarchy of criminal organizations and criminal organizations that govern other criminal organizations is actually really, really common. You find it in the United States, especially in the prison system. You see it in Mexico, you see it in Colombia, you see it in Brazil and on and on and on. What makes Medellin unique is, maybe not unique, but they're at the upper end of both the level of how capable and organized they are and also how peaceful they are. And how they've made an accommodation with the state in some ways. So what you have, you have these 400 street gangs, roughly, and you have about 17 mafia-like organizations. The street gangs, they're called combos in the... The mafia-like organizations, some people call it bandas or raisones. And these street combos are selling drugs. They do many things, they're collecting extortion and selling protection and sorts of things, but they're collecting drugs. And this is, of course, happening in most cities.
You know, and you have lots and lots of gangs and cities selling drugs. And the thing is, is if you're a gang selling drugs, you can't turn to the government to enforce your property rights, like your territory, and you'd love to be able to coordinate with all the gangs next door to all sell at a higher price so that you guys could basically collude charge monopolistic prices. That's really hard to do, but there's really big incentives to coordinating because you'll have less conflict and you'll have monopolistic. That you can split amongst yourselves. And so there's a demand for some other organization to come in and organize you and provide that contract enforcement and provide that security and provide a bargaining table and coordinate in some fashion the drug prices. So in Brazil, you have the Red Command and the PCC emerging to do this in prison. And they emerge from, as prison gangs.
And they control the street from prison. Because prison is a really powerful place from which to control the street because everybody in the street knows they might pass through at some point. And in Medellin it happens to be these. Mafia-like organizations, some of which have their roots in paramilitary organizations. And in Chicago, it was the Supergangs. So a few blocks north of me was where the Black Disciples were originally founded. They're no longer there. They're far west of here. A few blocks south is where the Black Pea Stones were founded. They're still there a little bit. I don't think the University of Chicago recruitment office loves it when I point this out, but it, nonetheless, this is part of our history. National super gangs that organized and to some extent vertically integrated all the other many, many street gangs and created a set of affiliations. So we have a handful of super gangs, these meso-level organizations that organize the street-level organizations, and that doesn't exist.
Any longer because the US government was very good about cutting off the heads of these organizations for a long time. So this hierarchical organization is really pervasive in crime because of this criminal governance. You, you draw an analogy with kind of the, the international system that I thought was, was really interesting and telling that in a way governments like the, the U S and Canada and Russia and Ukraine. There's no super government that governs them, but they still have sort of governance institutions. Can you walk a bit through that analogy since I think it's sort of important for the broader argument you're making that you see these structures of all different levels? This is what was so illuminating for me. This is a great example of cross-pollination. So, you don't have an anarchic metagenes of 400 combos that are all fighting one another, or competing with one another, even if they found some way not to fight violently. You have a...
A small number of larger sort of meso level organizations, use personas that sort of create long-term relationships with. Hegemon and they create an alliance, a hegemonic alliance with the, with their combos. And then they keep the peace within that alliance. And now there's a smaller number of players to sort of have to deal with at the city level. And in fact, the, the Rossones also line up into two major factions. And so that actually facilitates bargaining. So that looks a lot like the international world. We don't have a world with, you know, 200 countries all competing in anarchy. We have, we have a few hegemons with the United States, which is sort of. Keeps the peace within the Americas and has all of it, you know, it's combos in the Caribbean and we have Europe and we have Russia and we have China. And they all have their spheres of influence. So we have these hegemonic alliances and they bargain them with one another. It's an easier problem to bargain.
Two or three or four or five actors in between 200. So that's one way in which it resembles. And then the other ways is that these higher level organizations and create institutions. Which to facilitate that bargaining. So they create the UN Security Council and treaty organizations. and in And in Medellin, they created La Mesa or La Fesina, depending on, they call it the table or the office. And that's the bargaining table, that's the UN Security Council. And it's just as quasi-effective and just as unequal and just as problematic as the UN Security Council is in many ways. And so yeah, that's just a great example for me of how these things map on one another. - Well, in another case which sort of pointed to another kind of interesting parallel was Liberia, that you've mentioned some of your work in Liberia before, you've done a lot of sort of on the ground research there.
One of the more interesting, at least to me, papers you've done there is sort of on the effects of psychotherapy and how sort of talking through sort of conflict and disagreements can mitigate them. Tell me a bit about that, since I think some people might be surprised to learn like therapy principles can be... In a really brutal post-Civil War situation in a country with not a lot of resources. I mean this Back to one of those five buckets of explanations that we didn't talk about misperceptions where. At the individual level, two things are really important to understanding interpersonal violence, whether that's homicides on the streets of the US or domestic violence, or my relationship with my nine-year-old son and so on, right? One is just that we're emotional creatures. We have a capacity for quick and reactive anger, which we all need to understand.
To deal with and we're trained to deal with. We learn skills, we learn to count to 10, we learn to breathe, we learn to maybe to not sort of escalate the situation. That's a set of skills that can be taught. They might be taught to us on our grandmother's knee or they might be taught in preschool or you might need them taught remedially to you when you're 22. All of us could benefit to some degree from this but the people who are maybe the most reactive and most violent. Can benefit more. And I will say that's universally true, but that's not, that's really useful for understanding interpersonal conflict. That's, I think, a lot less useful. - It's useful understanding group level conflict, especially international conflict, because our passions and our emotions and these react-- things get moderated and mediated both by like the bureaucracies and the institutions that we make this But also because these are really long, drawn out wars. So you might reactively do something quickly, but...
In year four of World War I, presumably something else is keeping you fighting other than like your reactive passions from day one. So therapy and this... It's learning these skills can help, but the parallel that I think makes more sense because I thought I was going to write the chapter and I was going to call it misperceptions and passions. But like I just said, I don't think the passion is actually. Matter for group level conflict, but misperceptions do. And what do I mean by that? I mean, like we have really. Persistently erroneous beliefs about the other side. And we might be overconfident and just consistently just draw the wrong conclusion from the data because. We selectively interpret it. Or we might also project like certain characteristics onto another group in a sense of justice that looks more like our own than their sense of justice. Justice. So we might misunderstand them systematically. And that also happens interpersonally. Like usually if I have a problem with my wife or my
son or family member or even some hated enemy. I just have some rigid poisonous view about them and everything they do I interpret through that view rather than pausing and sort of reflecting that my lens might be really distorted. And so learning to undistort that lens is also a skill that we can learn at the individual level. And I wish I had an intervention for unlearning it at an international level, because that is a source of conflict. But, but it's also, I think you make a persuasive case that that's sort of the misperception correction can happen at a bunch of different political. Levels that you you mentioned a really clever study not not by you but another political scientist on mediation for civil wars and international conflict and find some things somewhat similar. And he, this is, this was a, someone who's a graduate student of mine and then a co-author and a close friend, Baron Weber who, um, he did something really. However, he basically noticed that most conflicts don't get mediators, except...
When European parliamentarians are on summer vacation. And so he found that if you're, if you know, enemies are coming to truces and at an even pace all throughout the year, all around the world. But if you happen to come to a temporary truce and start some talks in July or Likely to get an international mediator. And then he found that those pieces tended to be more durable. So now, what's in that black box of mediators? we don't really know. This was, when I talked about Liberian villages, this was the experiment we were running at the village level is what happens when you teach people mediation negotiation skills? And we did find it led to more durable pieces at this more interpersonal level. And the reason it was partly the. Were resolving uncertainty, but they were also teaching people skills of conflict resolution that resolve some of these problems, including controlling the passions and misperceptions. So it had a lot in common with this cognitive behavior therapy in that it's imparting skills of...
Holding your anger, undistorting this lens you have, learning to share information, and seeing the value. You and doing all of those things for yourself. So, so there's some real parallels. And so I think mediation does try to like basically get adversaries out of these distorted and emotional positions. I know there's a big theme. Through the book. And as listeners are probably picking up, war is complicated and there's not a simple answer to each of them. And you explore a lot of different sort of phenomena that can explain these conflicts. And one thing that really comes through is the power of the state. So we talked about this a bit with Columbia, that having higher level organizations to control street gangs raises the cost of violence, prevents some. Uncertainty and misperception between the groups. But you had another case study which was equal.
Novel to me as an American, which is the Canadian Mounties. Oh, right. And I had no idea that there was apparently a legend among you Canadians that the Mounties are the reason you didn't have a Wild West like the US. My theory was always it's like really cold in Alberta, but walk me through that and sort of what the Mounties did wind up doing. This is a paper by Pascual Restrepo. He's a Colombian actually. And he wrote a paper about Mounties violence in hockey, so that's impressive for a non-Canadian. Okay, so I mean, there's this puzzle, like why is Canada more peaceful than... United States. And one thing that people would talk about, I actually hadn't heard about this thesis until I actually read that article, but it but is the idea that The police and the state arrived in the west of these countries at different periods. So people arrived in the western US before the...
Did and the state arrived in Western Canada before most people did. And very similar people went to those two places, in particular people, they often called them the Scott Irish, which is which is a, you know. More pastoral people of that region that were known for a culture of honor. That were known for sort of maybe not having a state before and thus learning to settle their own differences through feuding and revenge killings and things. And so what this, this paper is kind of brilliant. They said, well, let's look where the Mountie forts went and they no longer exist. And we'll actually show you that like within the sphere of the closer you were to these mountie forts the less violent the west was Which isn't so surprising but now They're gone. The best part of this is these places are apparently less violent today. And the way he measures that is he looks at hockey penalties. So basically you spend more. Time in the penalty box in the NHL, the further you grew up from one of these historical mountie forts that hasn't existed for decades. So it's kind of like a cute, probably...
But maybe not exactly correct. Is there an illustration of this? Idea that when we have a relatively well-run, impartial institution providing justice, that we don't have to provide our own justice, and that that retributional killings and social norms around violence might slowly change and become more peaceable over a century. And that can help understand some of the variation and violence in the world. We're going to take one more break, but when we're back, I'm going to ask Chris about some Solutions to violence, and also about what his framework can tell us about the war in Ukraine. Stay with us. And we're back. So we've talked about some of the solutions in your book. And we're back. So we've, we've talked about some of the solutions in your book. Talk about sort of mediation and therapy so that people are talking to each other about sort of states and controlling entities that can put a damper on violence.
And another sort of theme that comes up again and again is distributing power. If you centralize less, you have more regional decision makers. You've, if minority groups feel included, they feel like they can, can meet their goals nonviolently, but also there are fewer agency problems. There are fewer cases of Charles Taylor going to war, knowing it will make all of his constituents in Liberia worse off, but it will make him a lot of diamond wealth. And that totally makes sense to me. I was curious reading it that sort of talking to political scientists who study America, often you hear the exact opposite, that, that we have too many decision makers and that they're sort of strangling our politics. And you go to things like the Senate where you not only need a majority, you need 60 votes often, and then also a majority in the House, and this happens very rarely, and then the Supreme Court can overrule.
Something you did if they don't like it. Reading about people who try to build apartment buildings in California, it's not just sort of the layers of good but like anyone can sue you and I'm curious how you think about like drawing that balance It might be the case that the US has all these checks and balances and they're really For me in the moment, but also we don't have a civil war and so maybe it's worth it. Yeah. But I'm curious how you think of that trade-off. So it's, it's a trade-off that very few countries have to worry about right now. I feel like the United States may be alone in just having dialed up checks and balances a little bit too much to the point of political paralysis. And, and my favorite person on this is a colleague of mine, will howl, who's written But just in general, if you grew up in Canada as I did, where there's no filibuster and majority rules...
You're like, this would not be the end of the world if we just had a majority rule set. Like this, this is just actually, and we don't even have a second house. Uh, let alone, let alone, uh, uh, a Senate that's like weird and powerless. Yeah. Totally powerless, but they're appointed and don't wield power very often because they're not very legitimate. And we do fine. But most other countries are not dealing with too much decentralization of power. That's, they're all various degrees of centralized power. And to me... That is like, as it happens, I actually think it's like the great root of bad policy. It's the great root of under development. It also happens to be the great root of instability because obviously mechanically centralization of power creates this problem of unchecked leaders who don't have to.
Bear the costs of war and so are too ready to use violence. But it actually aggravates all the other four causes of war. It makes us more susceptible to the intangible incentives of our leader. If they have a nationalistic vision or they happen to hate a particular ethnic group, we will be carried along by their ethereal value. It makes us more victim of their misperceptions and starts to make passions more relevant because they're not remediated by bureaucracies. Certainty because now we have to sort of understand the mind of this individual. And it's also harder for them to make commitments, credible commitments about, well, I'm powerful in the future, but trust me, I won't attack because. There's nothing to constrain them. And so it accentuates all the commitment problems. So it was basically just the worst thing that you can do for political stability is to have really central. Power. And I learned that in Liberia and I learned it from a mentor of mine who was not just a political scientist but sort of experienced this firsthand as the president of Liberia.
Little bit more about your friend Amos Sawyer, that he does come up in the book and he's kind of a fascinating figure in that he's both a political scientist and was the president of Liberia. And seems very humble about this. You have a story of where his advisor keeps having to remind people when he's giving a talk somewhere that he used to be the president of -- Life here. Yeah. I mean, he really is one of the most gentle and thoughtful and humble people I have met in my lifetime. And I met him because he was on my wife's dissertation committee. So he, after being president of Liberia, he was forced to flee Charles Taylor took over and Eleanor Ostrom hosted him in Indiana Bloomington. And, and then he got to know Jeannie, my wife. And who is working with me in Northern Uganda, or I was rather, I was working with her to be correct. And then. When we finished our dissertation work, he said, Come to Liberia, because there was peace. And he was going back to head. Governance commission because his mission was to decentralize, try to decentralize power.
Has to be one of those centralized places with those centralized power in the world, yet still be nominally a democracy because you do, you do get to elect the president every five years, but once in office, that president has almost absolute power. They appoint every mayor in the country. There is a house and a senate, this is one of the few places, because it's a quasi-American colony that actually adopted, poor them, at least the people. Trappings of American government, but they're not very strong. And this is true in a lot of countries with elections, but no checks on power is you basically get to elect a dictator every five years. This is very fundamentally unstable for the reasons I explained and that keeps falling. On deaf ears amongst those in power, which is not that surprising, even though there have been some fabulous public servants and cabinet leaders and presidents. Once in power, it's really hard to give it up.
It's really hard to say I want to decentralize this because it means giving influence and opportunity to your political enemies. Push comes to shove, you just don't want to do it. So it's hard. So we're having this conversation sort of as the war in Ukraine rages. And we we've talked about some, some of the causes before of sort of uncertainty on Putin's part. Putin may be having some intangible motivations, like not wanting to be the
Lost Ukraine to the West. And I imagine you've been asked a lot about Ukraine, as you do press for this book. But when it broke out, you wrote a short post that I thought was really thoughtful, to sort of asking the question of why diplomacy didn't work, why the countries hadn't been able to come to a deal. Looking back as the war has raged for over a month now, how do you think about that question, and sort of how do you apply some of the lessons in this book to that context? So, I mean, I know exactly how to apply each of them. Lessons and the break the sources of breakdown. I, what I don't know is which ones are correct, right? So you can make sense of them in all ways. And I think what it comes down to is you either think.
Putin with Skabal is being strategic or they're not? And I always lean on the side of recognizing that they're like these non-strategic forces, but that fundamentally they're not bonkers. They're going to, you know, they're, they're, and certainly on week four, they've woken up and they're becoming. Strategic, but at many lunch hours, I knock on the door of my colleague, Constantine Sonnen, who used to be provost of one of Universities and head of the economic school in Moscow. And I ask him what he thinks, and he is so strong, and he's a game theorist. So he's the kind of person who's biased to think that everything's strategic and he thinks it's completely non-strategic. So he thinks his inner circle has basically gone downhill in quality and of thought and quality of individual and experience. And that they're sort of both mass diluted and ideological. So he puts it in the misperceptions and the intangible incentives. And that's enough for him and I, and many other people who are.
Know, not represented all Russia experts. I'm lean more towards the strategic camp. Like we can all understand Constantine's point of view. Cause it's what we read in the paper every day. I'm always suspicious of it because it gives those people very little agency. It denigrates them. It makes us feel superior. And we do this all the time. This is how a lot of people explain the US invasion of Iraq. And I think that's wrong. I think those things are relevant, but I think the strategic forces matter. And here, I think it comes down to Putin's uncheckedness and the fact that he is not responsible for the costs and he has some private incentives in terms of the preservation of his regime to exterminate democracy in Ukraine. I think it comes down to the uncertainty, which we already.
Talked about and that he got bad draws and Ukraine got good draws on all these things we're uncertain about. And maybe a little bit of a commitment problem in the sense that he would look to, as his efforts to capture Ukrainian politics peacefully failed over the last decade, and he accidentally or unintentionally pushed Ukraine closer to the West. Could see a point where they are more democratic, closer to the west, maybe even armed with long range missiles by the west and thus impossible to invade. So the window of opportunity is closing. So better to do now. Window of opportunity closing is your code word for a potential commitment problem. So I think those are really important to understanding, standing the war, but for the record, Constantine totally disagrees with me.
One thing I appreciate about reading your book is sort of going through the footnotes and finding sort of other stuff to get into. And one of the best things I found there was from your late former colleague, Robert Jervis, who did a kind of post-mortem on. Some of the errors in decision-making that led to the US war in Iraq. That was interesting to me both just as I was 13, and the US invaded Iraq and it was this incredibly formative moment in my life of like, what the hell are we doing? How did this happen? And so it's interesting to read just to make sense of. Sort of this total event for me, but it's also, it made me kind of sad thinking about Ukraine in that Jervis was able to deal with a security state, but a security state and a democracy that declassifies things and is willing to offer some information. And now we know 20 years later a lot better what happened.
I don't know if we're going to ever know entirely the decision making that happened within Russia that led to this. Right. And yet, and despite. That you know this uncertainty that Constantine and I have in these disagreements and Others have, they might not get resolved even if we had all that information because. Political scientists, very smart people like Bob Jervis and others are arguing about whether misperceptions or strategic forces were more important in In the US invasion of Iraq. And so it's not settled even all that time. I think there's a degree of agreement that both mattered. And the public is aware of the misperceptions and the intangible incentives that most people don't. Understand the strategic logic of that invasion, why it probably made strategic sense under the circumstances, but that we can still argue over this and write.
People write competing books. And so we'll continue to do that on Russia. We won't settle this. I wanted to bring things back to sort of political violence in the U S um, as, as we wrap up, um, So I think it's fair to say the US is still fully not over what happens on January 6th last year. And there has recently been sort of a lot more discourse Sort of on the extreme end, your colleague Barbara Walter has a book sort of raising the possibility of widespread political violence in the US, even if not like Liberia-style civil war, then widespread terror, something maybe akin to the dirty
Wars in many Latin American countries between right-wing and left-wing militias. I'm curious how you think about that question, especially because I left the book oddly hopeful about it and oddly, just that the costs of something like that are so enormous that the book was a strong reminder to me that we have a lot of reasons to try to stop short of that. >> Yeah. Well, Barbara's not the extreme. There's people who think there could be full-scale civil war. And so Barbara's more like, well, you know, to sort of say, well, this is probably going to look like the Irish Troubles, or as you pointed out, Dirty Wars, and that it's not assured. So I... She's definitely more pessimistic than I am. I agree with a lot of what she says. We just, I just have very different probabilities. Yeah. It's another illustration. We can all look at the same evidence and disagree, and we'll always disagree. I think, again, it comes down to these costs. These costs are very...
High. And we have a lot of institutions that have not been politicized and that are very good at internalizing these costs and therefore will work very hard to avoid them. Them. And so the thing that would push me more to be as pessimistic as Barbara is if those institutions like our military and our Supreme Court. And police forces were more split or more unaccountable, and thus were not internalizing these costs of violence. That would be a big one, but I actually have found those institutions to be amazingly resilient in a polarized age. And so I draw some optimism from that. Well, I think we're going to wrap up there. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Chris. Again, Chris Blattman's book is Why We Fight. It is available in
bookstores now. Chris, thanks for joining me. No, thank you. This is great. Our producer is Sophie Lalonde. Libby Nelson is our editorial advisor. Amber Hall is the deputy editorial director for Talk Podcasts. And I'm your host, Dylan Matthews. The Weeds is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. Here's the truth about AI. Is only as powerful as the platform it's built into. ServiceNow puts AI to work for people across your business, removing friction and frustration for your employees, supercharging productivity for your developers. Providing intelligent tools for your service agents to make customers happier. All built into a single platform you can use right now. That's why the world works with ServiceNow. Visit servicenow.com/ai4people
Transcript generated on 2024-05-29.