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Tuesday
Dec302008

The Limits of Force: Why the coercion constraint matters

News junkies out there will notice the trend I am talking about, that conventional militaries have been less successful at solving problems lately. There is actually a very good and succint explanation for why this phenomenon exists and how it operates. Since I don't hear this discussed much I'm laying it out here, with a proper shout-out to my undergrad poli-sci professor, Victor Magagna, who explained this idea (and others) so well.

The coercion constraint is the concept that cost of coercion increases geometrically for the coercer with each additional increment of force used.  In other words, it becomes increasingly costly to make someone do something for you.  You have to expend more effort, provide more incentives, and so forth.  The end result is a lot like one of the things Sartre said, "we always have choices."  For the sake of simplicity imagine you want a specific person to eat an apple and assume that they would rather not.  You can bargain with them, you can provide incentives and inducements, but you actually cannot force them to do so.  If they absolutely refused you can threaten them with death, but if they still refuse and you carry out that threat, the apple is not eaten. On the other hand you can force-feed them the apple but then they still didn't do it, you fed it to them. If the point had been for the apple to be eaten, then it would have been significantly less costly for you to do it yourself. Now consumption of an apple is a minor issue and could probably be accomplished with basic incentives, but the point is that the only way to get there is a bargain with the other agent. The use of force is really a bargaining mechanism, whereby you increase the cost to someone else of not doing the thing you want them too.

The coercion constraint matters as a blunt point of reality, but it also carries important implications for conflict in the 21st century. Coercive threats mattered a lot more in pre-modern times because the ideologies that supported them were much stronger. The constable showing up with goons to take a percentage of your grain always sucked, but it was underlined by a whole range of assumptions (usually believed by the elite themselves too) such as the state's legitimacy being divine and hence the right of the nobility to take their share. Nowadays people find such justifications absurd. It's not that they believe less in God, it's rather that God has been recast in their image. Modernity required that sovereignty be popular for the state to function, and the axial view (and axial deity) came into to line with that. Now God supports popular sovereignty (read the preamble to the American constitution for an example of this formulation.

The result of the trend to popular sovereignty raised the costs of coercion dramatically. States couldn't make unjustified wars with obfuscation or treachery, but more importantly, short of killing everyone who disagreed with them (genocide), wars could no longer change people's minds. Consequently violence these days no longer has much truck with things like conquering territory, but it is rather and attempt (however unjustified or ineffective) to make other people agree. This is why Israel's operation in Gaza is doomed, there is no way it's going to make the people of Gaza agree with their aims. It is has also been at the heart of Western strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Militants in Afghanistan cannot be coerced to stop their insurgency and regular people cannot be coerced into not supporting them, they have to be convinced. So who has been successful in convincing? The two most successful military organisations of recent years are actually parastatal organisations with armed wings--yep, love 'em or hate 'em they are Hamas and Hizbullah. Along with their aid-related activities, their enemies have played a large role in convincing people to support them, by attacking them. Part of the Taliban's ongoing weakness has been its failure to provide real public goods.

The lesson of the increasing cost of coercion is that we can only accomplish our objectives when our strategies are within the bounds of reality. Coercion is no long a realistic means to produce desired outcomes and genocide (and other forms of collective punishment) are generally unacceptable. Organisations like the Taliban and Israel are engaged in a war against reality (wars against abstract nouns are bad, but that's another rant) and it truly is sad to watch bystanders get killed and hurt for such causes.

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Reader Comments (2)

Hi Scott, it's a good argument but I don't think most people (at heart) see the use of force as a means to any end other than feeling better. As you know, I grew up in Texas and the South and while many I've met attempt to justify military action through arguments you redress here, what lies at their hearts once someone breaks down their arguments is anger and a feeling of helplessness which has been garnered for political gain and focused into a war (or multiple wars) being enacted with no goals or thought to the result.

January 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGrigsby

That's a good point. The interesting thing is that this is the reality of modern day politics/warfare and the violence will become less feasible and fruitful, as Israel will soon discover to its dismay. That precise feeling of helpless is actually behind a lot of the conflict we see today. The reality is people have to grow up and deal with it, which is why I'm pushing new morality for the modern world, so that people can better contextualise their emotions. I see this as kind of compassionate duty to help people limit their own self-destructive behaviour, or else they learn the hard way! Anyway, keep the comments coming.

January 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Bohlinger

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