Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Libya

I don't know what I think the right action is in Libya. I'm skeptical of the action, mostly because all of the most hateful warmongers support it so vociferously.

Here's a quick email I wrote to Brian Downie of The New Republic, in response to this post, in which he (along with Jonathan Chait here) responds to Matt Yglesias' Libya post here.

Hi Mr Downie,

First of all, I want to thank you for engaging with Matt Y's piece. Mr. Chait's own response was sorely lacking and I was worried that would be the end of it on the blog.

However, I think your own response really misses the boat as well.

Your complaints against Matt take him to task for three factual errors (let's call them errors). Let's even stipulate that he was 100% wrong in everything he wrote in that entire paragraph. Still, it has nothing to do with his primary point. You can delete that entire paragraph from his post and his actual point is unimpaired.

That point is very simple: too many pundits only write columns (or blog posts, or speeches, or books, or ...) urging action in Africa when the proposed policy involves killing people. Policies that will save African lives without destroying other African lives are simply not written about, nearly as often.

And Matt is right about that. It's awful, and it's depressing.

Now Mr. Chait isn't the worst offender, but he's definitely one of them. And the reasons why Mr. Chait (and others) are driven in this direction may be perfectly reasonable: as Mr. Chait wrote, he's mostly just responding to conversations that other people are having.

But that's not good enough! A large part of the point of having liberals writing about politics, I would think, is to result in a world in which policies that liberals support happen more often at the margins. And one way to make that happen is to write about the things you really want to happen. If liberal columnists in general would write consistently about all the lives that are being needlessly lost due to malaria, etc. -- so that Matt's complaint was no longer right about that -- then, at the margins, the world would be a better place.

Mr. Chait is falling down in this regard. So are most other liberal pundits. I think they all need to be kicked in the pants about that. Don't you?

As to the part of your post where you address Matt's main argument, you write:

"And in the rest of the post, Yglesias focuses on arguing that providing malaria nets would be cheap and logistically simple compared to bombing Libya, yet never provides any evidence other than his own instinct that this is true. (While it obviously would be cheaper--one net costs less than ten dollars--distributing malaria nets is actually nightmarishly complicated: many recipients refuse to sleep under them, and since the nets only last three or four years, "if local people do not seek out new ones...today's remarkable and historic net donation effort will have to begin anew, and be repeated, indefinitely.")"

I hate to say it, but I think this is just silly. To the problem of refusal to sleep under nets, well, people who won't sleep under them won't gain the benefit from them! But the people who do, will, and lives will be saved! (And to the extent that nets don't work, other interventions that take better consideration of local conditions and cultures may do better. But we're not trying to do those other things, because we're more interested in interventions that include sexy things like bombings.) Let's compare the net benefit (lives saved per dollar spent) of trying to stop malaria versus military action in Libya. It's not even close.

The reason it isn't close is that our overall foreign policy effectively places a value of very very close to zero dollars and zero cents on the marginal life of an African person. But when it comes to military action, we pretend to care very deeply about those same lives, and we pretend that our actions are justified by saving them. It's a hollow farce.

Again, Mr. Chait is far from the worst of the participants in the farce. Folks like Bill Kristol and his ilk are at least a thousand times worse. But he is definitely among them. And his defensiveness and willingness to misrepresent the arguments of his adversaries when called on it -- that leads me to believe that he may know, in his heart, that his behavior has room for improvement.