Opportunity cost of military action

Sorry for the long radio-silence; life got busy and apparently once I break a habit of writing regularly, it’s pretty difficult to get started again. However, an argument broke out today between two authors that I regularly read (Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias), and it felt worthwhile to add my two cents. The topic of conversation was the United States’ (apparently) impending military strike against the Syrian regime. Yglesias used the opportunity to talk about the US’s most recent military intervention in the region, in Libya—while considering the US mission a success, Yglesias raises the point that:

According to The Life You Can Save, handing out these [anti-malarial] bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent. That’s to say that if the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. America’s other allies in Libya spent about $3 billion in total together.

Chait finds Yglesias unconvincing, and comes down surprisingly harshly against his argument:

Matthew Yglesias, for instance, regularly makes arguments against any kind of military intervention that impress other Iraq War–era neoliberals but strike me as insanely reductive. The arguments Yglesias poses today against a military strike against Syria eerily echo the arguments conservatives and libertarians make against any kind of domestic government intervention…

This piece of his argument, making the case that the Libya intervention failed, is really striking:

[Yglesias:] It’s also worth noting that the successful military intervention in Libya has hardly brought an end to violent conflict or political repression there. Whether it’s the assassination of a few dozen political activists here or the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians from their homes by rebel forces, it turns out that the new Powers That Be in Libya have their own range of bad behaviors. Bombs are just a bit of a crude instrument with which to shape the domestic politics of countries featuring significant social cleavages, a lack of trust, and a recent history of resolving disputes with military force.

Chait goes on to say that:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians…But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against. It’s telling that, rather than arguing that the overall costs exceeded the benefits, opponents are resorting to listing any bad things that have happened since.

The two don’t have anything to do with each other, of course. Intervening or not intervening in Syria won’t change the dynamics that prevent an increase in anti-malarial aid.

I think an impartial reading of the two pieces has to come down on the side of Yglesias here…not only does Chait misrepresent the entire argument of Yglesias, but by Chait’s own standards of evaluation, Yglesias’ preferred policy (anti-mosquito nets) is preferable to military intervention.

First off, the paragraph that Chait quotes from Yglesias was basically an after-thought; Yglesias’ entire argument was one about opportunity cost. The United States made a decision to spend $1.1 Billion dollars preventing the deaths of tens of thousands of Libyans. In a situation where the DoD (and the US government in general) has limited resources, spending that $1.1 Billion on Libya means that the US could not spend the money doing something else, such as saving 590,000 people that have/will die from malaria. Yglesias then goes on to say that in addition to saving an order of magnitude+ fewer lives, the intervention in Libya also failed to stabilize the state, etc.

This argument seems pretty straightforward to me, and it’s surprising that Chait missed it, especially when his rationalization for success in Libya was that it ‘prevented an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians.’ If the US could have saved even more lives by spending the $1.1 Billion elsewhere, why shouldn’t it have done so? What makes a Libyan civilian life worth ten times more than the life of a child in Sierra Leone dying from malaria?

The most puzzling thing of all is Chait’s final statement that ‘intervening or not intervening in Syria won’t change the dynamics that prevent an increase in anti-malarial aid.’ This is the final giveaway—Chait really doesn’t get it, because the whole point that Yglesias makes, the entire purpose of the opportunity cost argument, is that the costs of DoD intervention and the costs of anti-malarial aid are linked, because the DOD could spend the money that it otherwise would spend in Syria on anti-mosquito nets in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, there might be other concerns or rationale for intervening in Syria besides simply preventing the death of civilians—particularly troubling is the (alleged) use of chemical weapons, and I am not opposed to establishing the precedent that use of chemical weapons will be met by militaristic retaliation, so long as the retaliation is proportional and appropriate.

However, the military/national security leaders of our country desperately need more thinkers like Yglesias; the entire post 9/11 infrastructure that has been built up over the last 10 years is a massive, massive use of resources that could have been deployed elsewhere; rather than dismissing opportunity cost arguments out-of-hand, I would like to see proponents of military intervention (and, for that matter, proponents of NSA-type surveillance) start to make public cases for why the billions and billions of dollars that we spend on national security should be spent there—I suspect we would quickly find that the cost-effectiveness of our national security infrastructure ($/life saved) is extremely poor.

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