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tom f

The underlying assumption that terrorists are not rational seems to put great stress on the more general economic belief that people are rational actors.

In writing that "some terrorists and their leaders do not care if they die as long as they inflict sufficient damage on their enemies," Professor Becker seems to argue that this is not a rational choice. In economic terms, however, if there is a benefit to the action that exceeds its cost, the action is rationally performed. We simply presume the benefit of living is higher than the benefit of inflicting damage on an enemy.

The danger, i think, in presuming irrationality in an opponent is that it discounts what rationality the opponent does have. I wonder sometimes about the harm that a discourse of irrationality has on our understanding of terrorism. Certainly by the end of the Cold War, America had come to understand the Russian government as a rational actor - but was that understanding so clear at the beginning?

The costs of presuming a terrorist's irrationality, especially when human experience bears out on a daily basis the general rationality of individual, seem to outweigh the benefits.

tom f.

Scott Scheule

Quite right, Scott. I don't think Becker betrayed any belief that terrorists were irrational actors--simply having strange preferences and goals does not irrationality make.

Such strange preferences do however make deterrence a problem, especially as I can think of no effective method of deterrence that is not slightly revolting. We could track down and kill the family of terrorists, post hoc, or, perhaps, torture those terrorists we manage to catch before their suicide.


I agree with you on the point you make here, but is it not justified to compare preemptive strikes against nations or organizations worldwide to a preemptive strike of labor against an employer? It seems to me that both the attacking nation and the striking labor force are looking out for the best interest of their members, so is it unfair to say that one who believes in preemptive attacks must believe in preemptive labor strikes?

I am in no way a student of economics, I was just wondering.

Johnnie Linn

There is an urban legend here

that Islamic terrorists can be deterred by burying their bodies with pigs. Whether this is true or not, as you see, has not been ascertained. But the idea does exploit a suicide bomber's weak spot--a body left behind.


Mr. Becker, apology accepted. However, I fear you still don't get it. This is not a case of few boo-boos and omissions. Your essay was universally rejected across the political spectrum; even by people who agree with you. It was just plain bad.

The problem is that you do not understand blogging. You think this is a casual medium, free of substantial criticism, and a fashionable place to dump your weakest efforts. You just got a little taste of that misperception. You are now competing in an arena filled with brilliant writers and analysts who now have the chance to show off their best work.

All your creds and previous accomplishments mean nothing here. So bring out your sparkle or expect nonstop mockery. (You will appreciate this advice at some point. You're welcome.)

scott cunningham

There are things that can be done without having to fall into torturing terrorists' loved ones ex ante. Iannaccone (Becker mentioned him in his original article) noted that attacking supply may actually be more difficult, and that focusing on demand might be more effective. I suspect this to be even more the case when one considers that the preferences of terrorists could be the result of recruiting.

There's also longterm deterrence. If institutions conducive to economic growth can be planted successfully in Iraq, then perhaps rising incomes might make it more difficult for recruiters to find terrorists. There was a study I saw recently by an economist at Princeton or Harvard who found upport that political freedom seemed to deter terrorism. If the presently discounted value of this present life is essentially zero, then the expected gains from the afterlife consumption don't even have to be gargantuan. They just have to be slightly positive in order for it to be rational to be a terrorist. But if this life gets rosier, then the costs of being a terrorist would rise, and the expected payout would fall. We don't tend to see too many terrorists in developed countries, it seems like to me.

Paul Gowder

Assuming you're right... It would seem, then, that the initial inquiry is whether a designated target for preemptive force is in fact so irrational.

Back to Iraq for a second. If your argument were to be used to justify an attack on Iraq, it would make the assumption that Saddam Hussein is actually an irrational actor who must be destroyed rather than deterred. I don't think that assumption is supported by any evidence.

(On the other hand, such an assumption clearly would be supported by evidence in the case of jihadists, suicide bombers, etc.)

The other problem with preemptive war, and one that you don't address, is perhaps best stated by Machiavelli:

"Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge."

History has shown that Western interference in the Middle East, in particular, has been ineffective and created generations of resentment, resentment which invariably leads to a backlash worse than the problem that provoked the interference in the first place. The most obvious example, of course, is the CIA toppling of Mussadegh in Iran, which led, 20-some years later, to the backlash and installation of Khomeini.

Is is not the case that an act which is seen as an unprovoked act of aggression can easily create more irrational terrorists than it removes?

scott cunningham

He's not saying they're irrational (why does wanting to die have to be irrational?).

If you consider that terrorist attacks are the product of supply and demand, and not just supply, then pre-emptive war won't necessarily result in the creation of more terrorists. Disrupting the demand-side seems fundamental to breaking the negative feedback you're describing (this is to Paul).

Paul Gowder


"Irrational," in the context I used it, means "not amenable to incentives." Deterrence works only on someone who is "rational" in the sense that the likelihood of negative feedback will affect their conduct. Someone who wants to die is "irrational" in the sense that it is unclear what outside influences can affect their behavior. Regardless of the terminology used, the point remains: Saddam (say) was responding quite well to the negative feedback of sanctions, so he was rational. Jihadists don't seem to respond to negative feedback, so they're not.

Terrorism doesn't seem to be amenable to a supply and demand model: the "supply" (terrorist acts) and the "demand" (political grievances) are held by the same aggregate group of people, no? If the U.S. invades Iran, that will inflame the entire populace (demand), which will induce a certain percentage of that surviving populace to become terrorists (supply).

I guess in that model, a preemptive war can be conceived of as attacking the present supply of terrorism, but with the necessary consequence of increasing demand, an increased demand which will lead to the growth of new sources of supply. ???

I suppose that makes sense, though it's a really awkward model... but how would you have this demand be reduced?

Paul Gowder

Scott: mea culpa. Under that definition of rationality, sure, jihadists etc. would be "rational."

The original point re: deterrence remains, though. To justify a preemptive war under Becker's logic, one would first have to prove that less costly/unpredictable non-war methods of persuasion, including primarily deterrence, would be ineffective in the specific case presented. I don't think that case has ever been made for Saddam convincingly.

(I haven't yet read the Duelfer Report, but, given the CIA's recent record, it should probably be taken with a substantial grain of salt!)

Johnnie Linn


"to justify war under Becker's logic"

Becker did not exclude arguments other than deterrence for punishment of criminal activity. One can kill an unpersuadable murderer not on the grounds that lesser means of persuasion failed, but on the grounds that a murderer has forfeited the right to live. Such grounds for punishment may persuade would-be murderers, but that persuasion has not been exhausted does not vitiate such grounds being relied upon.


Dear Professor Becker,

I have two points:
1. It seems that you endorse act utilitarianism, while I thought rule utilitarianism is better.
2. The comparison of unilateral preemptive wars with crime prevention does not seem right. Crime prevention by the policy requires the existence of the state, but the "preventive wars" in the present world is taken by individual countries, not authorized by any higher entity.

Paul Gowder

Johnnie: we're talking about "preventive" war here... surely a terrorist or dictator hasn't forfeited their right to live before they attack??


I'm glad Becker believes in deterence, but I am still slightly bothered that he thinks that some states, like the Soviet Union, can be deterred, but that "rogue states" like Iraq, cannot. I invite him to introduce evidence that "rogue states" act differently from all other states. I also invite him to introduce evidence that rogue states act more similarly to terrorist organizations, which clearly cannot be deterred (hence must be rooted out and destroyed).

Becker sayeth that dictators of rogue states are special because they don't care if lots of their countryman die (in stark contrast to President Bush, who is deeply troubled by each and every casualty in Iraq). Yet, they certainly care about their own lives, their families, their concubines, and being very rich, and therein lies the crux: Hussein didn't want to lose his fortune, and thus he was controllable.

Becker's thesis is an odd morph which opens him up to attack concomitantly from Realists, who believe all states act the same, and from the critics of Realism, who don't see states as the sole actors on the world stage (since Al Qaeda, for example, is not a state). The Realist justification for war was that states like Iraq are solely behind terrorism. Now Becker tells us that Iraq didn't really act like a state.

I do agree, of course, that preemptive war is sometimes justified. Would it have been ok to attack Afghanistan before 9/11? Of course. It seems like a stupid question to debate since the answer is fairly obvious, and since doctrines don't decide courses of actions, they justify them.

It also seems like, since the technology available to terrorists has supposedly improved so much recently, that nowadays, unlike back in the old days when one could conduct a splendid little war retribution-free, one should be MORE CAREFUL when conducting wars which might incite terrorism or play into the hands of Al Qaeda. As it happens, the war in Iraq was one such a war.

ok, i'll admit, although I'm not yet a fan of becker based on his first two posts, i will be very happy if my mind is as sharp as his is now when I am as old as he is. Old people's minds are set in stone, so i don't expect a mea culpa. It's always fun to see what lies conservative brains tell themselves to justify their failed policies.

Case in point: my friend, a very sharp guy, who graduated 2nd in his class from the Naval Academy and is now doing a PhD at Berkeley in Naval Architecture. In the runup to the war in Iraq, the causus belli, according to him, was that we had irreconciliable evidence that Iraq had a nuke program. I pointed out that while the administration kept saying they had such info and that they were releasing it, that they never released anything of the sort (which made me quite suspicious).
So, did my friend, who based his whole case for war on evidence that didn't exist, become angry at the administration for lying to him when it became clear that the administration never had any info on an alleged nuke program? Nope. He changed his rationale for war to something similar to Becker's rationale -- we can't trust a crazy man (except for the other crazy men, like Kim Jong Il).
Had there been evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program, then preemptive war very clearly would have been justified, so my friend at least started on solid ground. Here's a mystery for a Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist: Why do people continually lie to themselves? I.e., why are they such stubborn animals? Is there an economic psychological reason why? Are we somehow programmed to be loyal to those we consider friends? (Does this explain why even Nobel Prize winners and Naval Academy standouts make such weak arguments in favor of war?)

correction (in my first post I quoted Becker from Newsweek when I meant Businessweek. my tone was also unnecessarily harsh, perhaps)


"When threatened by an adversary, the options are either to preemptively attack, wait to retaliate until attacked, or wait to accumulate better information before deciding whether to attack preemptively."

Point 1: Those are not the only options. Unless, perhaps, diplomacy (among other things) is included in "waiting to accumulate better information."

Point 2: Why presuppose a threatening adversary? By which I mean to point out how eager we are to talk about war (yes, I know that we're embroiled in one, but seeing as how a lot of these comment threads are of the hypo-theoretical nature I described above, the fact that we're in a war seems moot to this dialogue). There need to be reasoned dialogue to preempt preemptive war, to put it poetically. In other words, I'm suggesting putting our best, brightest, and most talented minds to work on how to achieve sustainable, productive, global interrelationships.

Deb Frisch

"The reason is that some of the threats now come from irresponsible nations states with powerful weapons, as well as from terrorist groups that can also acquire these weapons."

If only you understood that an example of an IN w/PW was the USA.

Yikes. This from a winner of the fauxbel prize in economics.


I have to agree with Doug that it is a major fallacy on Becker's part to say that rogue regimes can't be deterred because their rulers don't care about their subjects. Presumably they do care about their regimes and lives which would seem to provide a very powerful tool for deterrence since the US could terminate both if ever attacked by WMD.

In the case of Hussein it is worthwhile remembering that he did possess bio/chemical weapons for many years but was successfully deterred from using them against the US during the first Gulf war. He had no problem using them against his own citizens who couldn't retaliate but was too afraid to use them against the US. This would seem to be a classic case of deterrence.

So what exactly is the evidence that rogue regimes can't be deterred?

Can Becker or anyone else provide a list of regimes in the world today which they feel aren't deterrable and evidence that they aren't?


What troubles me is Shrubya having access to the "football." That is the briefcase that has the launch codes for nuclear missiles. And how do people feel about a senile President like Reagan with his finger on the button? I remember his infamous comment about the bombing starting in 10 minutes (refering to a preemptive strike on the USSR). Should that alone have been enough for the Russians to launch a first strike. I would likely get myself arrested if I joked about having a bomb at the airport. And how much of Hitlers angry "madness" and poor military strategy (overruling his top generals etc.) was a result of the pills and shots his personal physician was providing him. Finally, it's a sick thought that a nuclear war can start by mistake or error, such as an accidental launch of a missile by computer malfunction. Too bad that "use it or lose it" doesn't simply refer to one's virginity.

Robert G.

I don't understand your argument about deterrent. Though I enjoy specualtive and moot arguments, let me apply this to the war in Iraq. I believe what we are doing there is noble and, knowing what we knew at the time, responsible. But we've extended our military to the point that we know longer have a reserve of readily available troops that can be leveraged diplomatically. The opportunity cost of this war (I don't mean the "we could have spent the money here" opportunity cost) has been extraordinarily high. We have given Iran dangerous amounts of freedom to pursue their nuclear ambitions. In a world with so manyu threats, isn't the best deterent flexibility?


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