Wednesday, August 09, 2006

On warfare theory, politics and economics

As a good-bye gesture when I left my pre-university tuition-saving job, a mentor of mine left me advice: “Never forget that 'war is a continuation of politics by other means is often misunderstood.' The sooner you understand that, the more time you'll save.” (I was working in the news industry and his comment was related to the content of our work) It's not often that I'm offered advice, so I took note of it. He was quoting Carl von Clausewitz from the book “On War,” a philosophical and political “treatise on the art of warfare.” I still wonder what to make of it.
The phrase “war is a continuation of politics” could be interpreted as a description or a prescription. As a description it's true; as a prescription it's subjective.

Von Clausewitz's treatise is scientific in nature, and throughout it a distinction can be made between normative analysis and positive analysis. In political science, anyone armed with a good newspaper and an interest in current events can offer a personal prescription to war. Von Clausewitz offers a description of war, although he stops short of using cryptic math-speak or complex formulas.
Normative analysis is as useful in “On War” as it is to any science. In political science/(economics) it's often been said that positive analysis should be accompanied by normative analysis, based on equity and efficiency, lest political scientists/(economists) appear detached from reality/(autistic). In warfare theory, positive analysis alone fails to sufficiently consider the welfare of civilians, militants, the rich or the poor. In von Clausewitz's words, “....talent and genius act beyond the law, and theory is in opposition to reality.”
On the other hand, normative analysis alone would have killed “On War,” so to speak. If Clausewitz had constructed “On War” with a reliance on prescriptions, he would have stunted his ability to brilliantly configure the science of war (not to say he wasn't biased, but this was no cheap manifesto either). It would be comparable to the case where scientific reasoning is crowded out of economics. When economists become push-overs to politicians, their ability to utilize positive economics as a scientific tool diminishes (a criticism that Milton Friedman has expressed on a few occasions). By overtly stressing normative analysis, an individual risks losing credibility (and perhaps a seat at the central bank), and does a disservice to society.
The complementary relationship between positive and normative analysis in economics is evident.
Faruk Gul and Wolfgang Pesendorfer (2005):

Normative statements (farm subsidies are inefficient) are used to define new positive questions (what makes farm subsidies persist?) that lead to better models of the underlying institution.

Although the two are sometimes treated as substitutes:

When economists or political scientists model the government, they do so either by endowing the government with certain objectives or by modeling government as an institution where conflicting incentives of various agents interact.

As it was suggested to me, the phrase “war is a continuation of politics” has saved me time. The phrase demonstrates how normative and positive analysis are omnipresent; they exist in economics, politics, warfare theory and elsewhere. They aren't always proportionally represented, but they should be distinguished from each other. The quicker this is understood, the more constructively individuals can interpret the works of people like von Clausewitz, and the lesser the likelihood of costly misunderstandings leading to greed, corruption, violence or painful sentimentalism.
I would like to think we can complement von Clausewitz's brilliant phrase with a normative statement. Perhaps, “war is a continuation of politics...only when the costs remain hidden to us.” I strongly suspect this isn't quite the lesson my mentor had in mind, but it's the one I prefer to take home.

RIP Raymond Arndt

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