Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 20, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

WAR AND DEMOCRACY....Via Stuart Benjamin of the Volokh Conspiracy comes a link to an interesting paper by William Niskanen and Peter Van Doren of the Cato Institute in which they claim that contrary to the "starve the beast" hypothesis federal spending doesn't get squeezed when tax revenues are cut. In fact, the opposite happens: spending actually goes up when tax revenues go down.

As it happens, Jacob Levy asks an obvious question about this finding: does it take into account the fact that "in a recession, spending rises and taxes fall automatically"? Unfortunately, I can't tell: Niskanen and Van Doren's equation doesn't explicitly account for countercyclical effects but it does include unemployment as a variable, which might amount to the same thing. It also includes an "autoregressive term" that, mysteriously, accounts for "all of the explanatory power of this equation." I don't know what that means either, so we'll have to leave this for smarter people to sort out.

That's a bit of a bust, isn't it? But it's still an interesting paper because of this paragraph:

American participation in every war in which the ground combat lasted more than a few days from the War of 1812 to the current war in Iraq was initiated by a unified government. One general reason is that each party in a divided government has the opportunity to block the most divisive measures proposed by the other party.

Now that's genuinely interesting, and doesn't require any mathematical background to understand. (It's worth noting that Gulf War I only barely fits this hypothesis, but even if there's one semi-exception it's still a worthwhile observation.)

There's an interesting corollary here to the idea that liberal democracies almost never attack other liberal democracies. The reason for that, I think, is that it's genuinely hard to whip a country into a war frenzy, and when two democracies face off it's pretty likely that public opinion in one country or the other will eventually calm things down. A single person, no matter how rabid, can't force either country into war.

The divided-government observation carries that a bit further: even if one side is an unmistakably evil dictatorship with no pressure to back down, it's still hard to get a war going if the other side is a democracy. In fact, even then the proper war frenzy can usually be created only if a democratic government is unified and therefore able to substantially control public opinion. You might say there's a sliding scale of likelihood to go to war, with absolute dictatorships at the top, followed by authoritarian governments, unified democracies, and finally divided democracies.

There are undoubtedly some very interesting conclusions to be drawn from all this. Feel free to start in comments.

Kevin Drum 7:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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