War and Violence (#273) | Chris Blattman on the Lex Fridman Podcast

Check out the Lex Fridman Podcast episode page

Key Takeaways

  • Long prolonged war is hardly ever positive-sum; the costs almost always outweigh the implied justice
    • “Fighting is just politics by other means–inefficient, devastating, and costly means.” – Chris Blattman
    • “War is the violence that doesn’t make sense” – Chris Blattman
    • War is a breakdown of reason – everybody loses something from war and there’s usually a better and more efficient solution
  • War is rare and history shows we’re pretty successful at avoiding it–but that’s not how history is taught
    • We overemphasize the anecdotal and don’t look at the objective data–usually to fuel the warmonger narrative, which is driven by one of the five root causes of war (below)
  • Both Russia and Ukraine have incentives to bluff, which can result in many short-term conflicts but also affect long-term compromise/appeasement
    • “If you bluff and lose, it’s not because you miscalculated. You made an optimal choice given the uncertainty of the situation to take a gamble–that’s a wiser thing for you to do than to not bluff.” – Chris Blattman
    • This call and bluff dynamic could end up with Russia getting what they originally were asking for from Ukraine–but only after incurring unnecessary costs
  • “There’s a reason for every war and a war for every reason”The five roots of war:
    • Unchecked leaders: leaders do not bear the majority of costs or have a private incentive (Chris believes this is the fundamental cause of most violence in the world)
    • Uncertainty: when the opposing group’s strength or intentions are ambiguous, war seems like an appropriate risk to combat uncertainty
    • Commitment problems: some circumstances give one side an irresistible incentive to risk war
    • Intangible incentives: intransigence for ideologies, choosing war rather than changing your view
    • Misperceptions: miscalculating the complexity of the enemy or yourselves

Intro

  • Chris Blattman (@cblatts) is an economist and political scientist with professional affiliation at the University of Chicago. Check out his new book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.
  • Lex and Chris discuss the root causes of war, how war is always an inefficient solution and the current state of the geopolitical climate.
  • Host: Lex Fridman (@lexfridman)

What is War?

  • War: a prolonged violent struggle between groups
    • “War is the violence that doesn’t make sense” – Chris Blattman
  • Long prolonged war is hardly ever positive-sum, the costs almost always outweigh the implied justice
    • Leaders wage war and the people pay the price
  • You’re always bargaining for something and violence is always an option–but it’s rarely the right decision.
    • “Fighting is just politics by other means–inefficient, devastating and costly means.”Chris Blattman
    • War is a breakdown of reason – everybody loses something from war and there’s usually a better and more efficient solution
  • “Every time you try to define something, the process illuminates and the destination doesn’t matter. The moment you arrive at a definition, you lose the power.” – Lex Fridman
    • When does a war begin?
    • How many people have to die for it to be a war?
    • What defines the first act of violence?

War is Not Common

  • War is rare and history shows we’re pretty successful at avoiding it–but that’s not how history is taught
    • We overemphasize the anecdotal and don’t look at the objective data. Some version of compromise is the most popular conflict result in human history.
    • “Loathing in peace” or appeasement is typically negotiated alternatives to war
    • Operation Uphold Democracy, US invasion of Haiti in 1994: The Haitian coup d’état that overthrew the elected President compromised before the war could even breakout
  • “Let’s be better doctors of politics in the world by recognizing the normal state is health, and then we’re gonna identify what diseases are causing this warfare”Chris Blattman
    • Our body’s natural state is health, and the natural state of society is peace

The 5 Roots of War

  • “There’s a reason for every war and a war for every reason”The five roots of war:
  • Unchecked leaders: leaders do not bear the majority of costs or have a private incentive (Chris believes this is the fundamental cause of most violence in the world)
  • Uncertainty: when the opposing group’s strength or intentions are ambiguous, war seems like an appropriate risk to combat uncertainty
  • Commitment problems: some circumstances give one side an irresistible incentive to risk war
  • Intangible incentives: intransigence for ideologies, choosing war rather than changing your view
  • Misperceptions: miscalculating the complexity of our enemy or ourselves

War in Ukraine

  • “For me, it starts with Ukrainians failing to make that sensible rational deal that says we should relinquish some of our sovereignty because Russia is more powerful than we are”Chris Blattman
    • Lex retorts this point by referencing Winston Churchill’s speech “We shall fight on the beaches” and comparing it to Zelenskky’s stance on honor
    • Which path minimizes human suffering in the long term? We’ll never know.
  • Chris argues that Russia has revitalized its economy and leveraged its control on resources enough to demand the roll-back of Western success
    • “Why would [Ukraine] fight if it’s so costly, why not find a deal? It’s because they weren’t willing to give Russia the thing that their power ‘deserved‘.” – Chris Blattman
  • Both sides have incentives to bluff, which can result in many short-term conflicts but also long-term compromise/appeasement
    • “If you bluff and lose, it’s not because you miscalculated. You made an optimal choice given the uncertainty of the situation to take a gamble–that’s a wiser thing for you to do than to not bluff.” – Chris Blattman
    • This call and bluff dynamic could end up with Russia getting what they originally were asking for from Ukraine
    • Chris’ main point is, why suffer all the costs of war when you could just compromise upfront–referring to Ukraine but generally speaking about all conflicts
  • The fundamental cause of most violence in the world is unaccountable power
    • Nothing happening in NATO or Ukraine was a threat to the Russian people, they are only a threat to the Russian political regime
    • Putin, among many other unchecked leaders, will manipulate the public enough to buy into the propaganda
    • “When you start to believe the lies with which you’re controlling the populous, you become detached from being able to resolve conflict in a human way” – Lex Fridman
    • Sanctions are designed to make unchecked leaders face the cost of war
  • Check out more Podcast Notes on the War in Ukraine

End of the World?

  • Whether it be a Nuclear War, a new American Civil War, or a total Argentinian-style financial collapse, the likelihood is not zero
    • The fact that it is not zero is enough to be concerning
  • Why do people get so excited to talk about the destruction of human civilization?
    • Lex thinks there’s too much cynicism porn in the world

Other Geopolitical Topics

  • Germany & Hitler utilized the “commitment problem” framework as their bargaining tactic in WW2
    • They knew they were only temporarily powerful and took their chances with war to attempt to solidify their power–commonly referred to as a ‘closing window’
    • How often is war simply predicated on the assumption that “the time is now”?
  • The Constitution of the United States was a deal made to states who knew they were going to be weak in the future
    • Serves as an equalizer to prevent the tyranny of the majority
  • Increasing interdependence and more checks and balances on power reduce the incentives for war – this is the path to peace between China & the US
    • Cultural, social, and economic interconnectivity creates a necessary cushion for the relationship
    • We’ll see how the relationship is maintained as time goes on

Mortality and Advice

  • Chris always minimizes risk in his research work and life. Which in a way, is being in a constant state of unconscious mortality contemplation–but he doesn’t actively think about it much
  • Chris writes lots of advice on his blog because he feels like he never got the advice he needed to help pursue his career, he wants to pay it forward
    • Find work that you would do for free
    • Finding the perfect career can take plenty of trial and error–if the movie is not good, walk out of the movie theatre
Lex Fridman Podcast : , , , , , , , , , , ,
Notes By Drew Waterstreet

More Notes on these topics

Top Insights and Tactics From

31 Best Podcasts of All Time

FREE when you join over 25,000 subscribers to the
Podcast Notes newsletter

No Thanks