Dangerous lunacy

Mike O’Hare analyzes the danger of fixating on abstract principles.

Mike O’Hare is puzzled and dismayed:

Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, three stars short of a full set if Chinese ranks match ours, but still an important guy, proposes that China should be willing to lose “all our cities east of Xian” (which means every Chinese city you’ve ever heard of except Chongqing) in a nuclear exchange with the US if we intervene in any military conflict over Taiwan.

What makes this important is that, obviously, someone more important than Zhu in the Chinese hierarchy thought this idea should be out and about.

The idea that it could possibly be better for anyone in the world–Chinese people, Chinese leadership, Gen. Zhu, anyone–that China should start from scratch with half its territory uninhabitable desert in order to have political control over a similarly devastated Taiwan, a place demonstrably happy to sell the value it creates peacably, is so crazy it’s hard to engage. But it symbolizes the insanity to which a pit-bull adhesion to principle (in this case, that “Taiwan is part of China”) can lead otherwise reasonable people.

Recall the blood spilled to affirm that Algeria was “part of France métropolitaine”. I’ve always thought the idea that the war in Iraq was “about oil” implausible because that oil would be so much cheaper to buy than to conquer, but maybe some such monomania was operating in that case on our side.

The substitution of an abstraction for real thinking about reality must be one of the truly evil tendencies in human affairs, right up there with analyzing practical realities without principles or a capacity to abstract.

Not only three stars short of a full set, but at least a couple of bricks shy of a full load, I’d say. Mike misses my favorite example: the Falklands War.

Of course, there can be a rationality underlying apparent irrationality: if your opponents think you’re stark, staring bonkers they may do what you want, or refrain from doing what you don’t want, because they’re afraid of you.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com