The Not Unreasonable Podcast

Chris Blattman on Why We Fight

June 10, 2022 David Wright
The Not Unreasonable Podcast
Chris Blattman on Why We Fight
Show Notes Transcript

Chris Blattman is an economist and political scientist and author of several books, most recently *Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace*.  

This is another installment in my investigation for how to pursue social change.  What I notice about insurance is that the institution is so deeply encoded in our society that we don't even realize how important it is. So deeply encoded that we actually kind of hate it, yet it persists because of how important it is. 

What are other ways of pursuing beneficial social change? Persistent beneficial social change? Violent conflict is a pretty big, nasty problem. But what are its roots and what are its causes? What might need to change about our world to reduce it? What is the relationship between peripheral and central societies and how is that related to violence? 

All that plus tons on James C Scott and more!

youtube: https://youtu.be/H-bcj1LJy80
show notes: https://notunreasonable.com?p=7498

David Wright:

My guest today is Chris Blattman Professor of global conflict studies at the University of Chicago. Chris is an economist and political scientist who studies global conflict, crime and poverty. His latest book, Why We Fight is the subject of today's show, Chris, welcome.

Chris Blattman:

Thanks for having me.

David Wright:

So I want to grant the your project succeeds. That kind of deeper analysis of your project, you can even disagree with this premise, if you'd like to be interesting, but let's say it's wildly successful, and we dramatically reduce human violent, violent human conflict. So obviously, one consequence of that is a reduction in human conflict and the suffering that comes directly as a result of human conflict. But I'm wondering, like, what other ways that world would be different from ours today? Maybe there are things we wouldn't like about that world come along with a bundle of behaviors that give us conflict.

Chris Blattman:

So, you know, conflict is often one side, just trying to get its way with the other through bargaining through bloodshed is I think what met Chairman Mao called it. So so, you know, suppose the conflict was off the table in Russia versus the Ukraine, or China versus Taiwan or US versus Venezuela, right. Suppose that we waved a magic wand, and it was just impossible to conceive now, yeah. You know, the US is still gonna meddle with Venezuela. And, and Russia is gonna still meddle in Ukraine and China will still meddle in Taiwan. And they might do that through trade sanctions, or trade carrots. Right. They might do that through propaganda, they might do that through, you know, assassinations and poisonings. So politics will always happen. And it will happen outside of pitch battles. If any, you know, might happen through the, you know, peaceful projection of soft power, we're big and friendly, and we're gonna send your Hollywood movies in and sort of give you reasons to want to be in a collaborative enterprise with us. So that's, that that would be that would and that happens, right? That's a nice world. But but politics through these other means that are not bloodshed can be ugly sometimes. Yeah. And, and so and actually, I'd like to point out, you know, let you know, right now, as we're recording this, there's this month, four or five of this war in Ukraine. But for 20 years, this is what you know, Vladimir Putin was trying to do every other underhanded thing possible in that country, short of invasion, including all these nasty things that I mentioned. So. So that's, that's not always pretty. And that's that's that, but that would be better, that would be better than what we have right now.

David Wright:

So you're not really taking off the table, the new wave of want, as you mentioned, but maybe we can go a little deeper into the mechanisms that might achieve such a thing. So it's such a one doesn't exist, there are actually real identified, you identify them in your book, drivers of war, right? And adversarial interactions are very much part of the world you just described. So that hasn't changed. But is that what the necessary thing would be to actually achieve that? So absent a wand, like, and I know, you make a great point, your book about the piecemeal engineer, actually small steps, and actually being modest in your ambitions. I'm kind of asking you to skip that. You don't have to talk too much about mechanisms, but like, what is the end state like what's like a realistic outcome that could happen if if the if you if you motivate a million piecemeal engineers been successful over a generation or two?

Chris Blattman:

So I think a let me say one general thing, and then one specific thing. So the general thing is, some people think in terms of negative peace and positive peace, which is a word negative peace just means we're not actually in pitched battles. We just loathe one another, we're doing up to all sorts of other nefarious tricks. That's the relationship that say, you know, we might have with, you know, in a civil war that's just ended, or between Russia and Ukraine, when this current thing is over, then there's something that people call positive peace, which is basically to say, like, we're pretty tightly bound. So Canada, and the US is a good example. Right? Like we're peaceful, but it's also like a really, really integrated, we are engaged in cooperation. We're so so so the aim is for, and there's an awful lot of that out there. Right? You can look at a lot of just take the Americas, for example, even though we disagree on a lot of things most countries in throughout the Americas are basically working together collectively. You know, we're not arming our borders against the other side's imminent invasion. And, and there's this big collaborative enterprise. So I think the future a future more positive peace looks like that. It's to say that we've actually built these these sorts of communities in the world of, you know, the European Union as one I think, many growing parts of Africa. I think, the whole Americas where we're basically people are these these diff and pupils are in partnership and, and things are pretty close and, and war is unimaginable. And so, and I think we get there, in lots of ways. Most of all, I think we will get there. And I think we will get there by having, basically by having a lot fewer personalized dictators, and unchecked autocracies over time, which is my hope. And I think if we get there, then we get really close to much more collaborative enterprises.

David Wright:

So what's what's, and that's, that makes a lot of sense to me. What is intriguing to me about the descriptions of the causes as you lay them out in the book, you have, and you're alluding to one there, which is unchecked power, right? The biggest one you readily admit in the book, there's a lot of other things, though, that seem to interact with unchecked power. And so in your answer there, you're kind of re emphasizing unchecked power as being kind of like the critical causal element. But there's all kinds of really interesting sociology in the rest of it, you know, mostly kind of to do with uncertainty and ways in which we have a hard time dealing with uncertainty, which seems to sort of add variants to kind of everything. You don't really have any kind of thoughts on whether affecting the way that you know, humans make decisions or institutions around how we deal with uncertainty isn't as fruitful of a path you think.

Chris Blattman:

So. So I would say the, you know, the key message, and I will say, not just the book, I mean, the book, as you know, is me just trying to say, listen, here's like decades and decades of deep insight from all these fields. And it's a crime that most people don't know them. So anybody who wants to understand why we fight. It turns out, there's an awful lot of answers. And a lot of people could have written this book, I have no idea why no one hasn't written this book. I got sick of waiting, so I wrote it. And and because this is obviously an important question, and the answer that comes across from this isn't my answer. It's just the answer of the whole disciplines, saying wars ruinous, like look at what's happening in the pickle picker conflict that's going on in the world. It's, it's, it's just indescribably ugly and costly. And that's why most of the time, we don't bargain through bloodshed, we tried to find we use some other kinds of politics, even if it's nasty. And so every answer and why we fight is a reason that our society or leaders ignore those costs. And then the book walks through those reasons. And the thing is, is one of them, like you say is, in a simple sense, is unchecked power. It's saying that well, if a leader especially say a personalized dictator, doesn't isn't accountable for those costs, they're gonna ignore them. And so they're just going to be too quick to use violence, they might even have their own reasons to go to war. And since they don't pay the costs, they'll happily pay that price. That's a story here about Putin, right? He, he, it's in his personal interest to exterminate this democratic, you know, icon on his doorstep. He has his own ideological goals, and, and then he's not accountable to anyone or the class. So he, he can go to war. That's actually pretty. It's the first approximation, that's pretty good explanation for what happened. But, but there's, you know, I sort of say there's other reasons that we ignore the costs. And you know, we're really logical there's, there's uncertainty, there's this thing in the book I call commitment problems. There's all the ways in which we're irrational and we misperceive. And I imagine we'll talk about those. But I guess the thing I would say is really like over centralized power, like basically autocrats make all of those things worse. So it's not just there's that this there's a simple well autocrats don't pay the costs are for the two ready to use war. It's that they make the world more uncertain place, they can't really make credible deals and commitments, they were vulnerable to their ideologies and their misperceptions. And so that's kind of the larger picture. I think what happens in something like Russia's invasion of Ukraine is the fact if, frankly, if Putin instead of being a personalized dictator, if if Russia was run by a Politburo, I think there would have been less likely to conflict. And if and if, and if Russia were run up by the Politburo, but a plutocracy, plus a Politburo meaning a whole bunch of oligarchs, who actually have real political power, that I think we would have been much less likely to see a word like the broader and broader, broader that like power gets out of the hands of a single individual. I think the less likely we are to see these kinds of really violent, miserable tactics.

David Wright:

You know, another interesting kind of like, maybe philosophical subtext here, is if you talk to, you know, a roaring libertarian of some kind, they're gonna say all state power is at the point of a gun. Right. And one of the books you recommend is a few books by James C. Scott, who I am also a fan of his and will come to me with some as other work through this, hopefully, but one of them is the art of not being governed. Yeah. And I just held it up for Chris for the audio guests. And in it, he makes this distinction between Let's call it the periphery is a term other anthropologists have used to describe this right? He talks about zooming out, which is in kind of Southeast Asia, we live in the mountains. And he talks about when the plains who are the structure hierarchical societies, and and I was reading that I was thinking about, like, what are the ways that you can actually create a society. And one of them seems to be institutional structure rules, really heavily enforced norms, it probably a, you know, a religion, there's all kinds of stuff that societies have discovered to force people into certain behaviors, which is well adapted, let's call it in an evolutionary sense, they're dominating, those societies are dominating. And then Scott makes the point there displacing all of these kind of more rural societies, but the rural societies are not rural. But peripheral societies have this other mechanism, which is kind of like a charismatic leader, who was unnecessarily fragmenting these societies continuously into all these little buckets. And sometimes they'll assemble under a really charismatic leader, but then it will span very quickly afterwards. And so like, I see that there's two systems for, for organizing people, and both of them could be said as being like, inherently violent. But yet, you know, empirically, I suppose you think that that isn't the case.

Chris Blattman:

So, so funny, strange from Scott is my first job was a professor at Yale. And when I arrived, he says he was there. And I was for the four years I was there. So sad to say, I was too scared to talk to him. Oh, no, I thought he wasn't You seem very intimidating. He's turns out he's actually one of the nicest people. But I didn't know that. And so that's my, that's like, he just retired too. So it's not too late. But, but that's one of the that's one of my life's sadnesses. Um, I mean, I think I think what you're saying is, what you're saying is, you know, also it goes like, Max waiver and like, do we have the Gresham legal societies or charismatically? Like, I guess I would say, Listen, violence, we're trying to solve a couple of problems as a society or group, let's say we're a group, it could be 150 hunter gatherers, or we could be a village or city, state, or nation, right? We're trying to do two things. One is we don't want we're not we're trying not to kill each other. We just don't want a lot of homicides and blood feuds and revenge killings and wife, killings and all these sorts of things, right. So we've tried to solve disorder within our group. And then we're trying to, we'd like to avoid going to work into the next group. Alright, and there are just so many ways we come up with humans are pretty ingenious about finding laws and states and cultural norms to avoid violence, just because it's so miserable. Nobody likes living in a more violent society. And charismatic authority can be one way to control violence in society, as long as that charismatic authority lasts,

David Wright:

Right. It can only last as long as one lifetime.

Chris Blattman:

Exactly. They're often they're not great at the handing it down. works. All right, but not that, well, the problem. But even if it's a solution to order in that society, that charismatic authority, the big danger of it, is that it's that concentrated power typically, in there, those, those guys, and they're usually guys, those guys are so much more likely to take their group to war against somebody else. So even if they're fabulous for their lifetime, or even through their dynasty of keeping order at home, the more concentrated that power, the more likely it is that they are to take their there are people get killed by fighting some other group. And, and so that's that, you know, so that's, that's, that's the sense in which I might disagree.

David Wright:

So there's a there's another anthropologist that I've read a fair bit of, I don't know if you've heard of Mary Douglas, but she, she wrote this a book on risk. And so they call it the sociology or anthropology of risk. And she describes a lot of tribes that that she describes the fragmentation process and a lot of detail, which is in the periphery, is where this is important. And she makes this somewhat distinction to Scott, where she talks about the kind of the center and the periphery, and on the periphery, you have these fragmented groups, and there's sort of always fragmenting again and again, and again and again and again. And that the kind of the key thing to observe about that is that that fragmentation results in a lot of, I don't know, call it problems for these people. And, you know, in some societies, they'll try and take over the kind of the mean, the main part of society, but they're kind of always they're always agitated, right. Yeah. And so like, in a world where you would lose, you would lose violence is you're somehow like, finally assimilating the last of those folks who are like, really want really want to not be part of the mainstream. Right. And this is, what do you do with them? You know?

Chris Blattman:

Well, I you know, I don't know her work. That sounds super fascinating, I guess for most of human history being part of the center. And this is Scott's Great point. Being part of the center being part of the main society meant being probably subjugated. Yeah. Because yeah, so So right now, being part of a nation state feels like a good thing because most nation states offer a lot of their schools and health care. They're organizing lots of public goods and security. And, and it functions well enough that I don't have to say if some, if someone insults me or hurt me, I don't have to sort of seek out vengeance and start a blood feud. I can just if there's a court system, this is terrific. That, but there are societies. I mean, Russia is a good example today. Where that that is also extremely repressive, and now it's not, it's still, you can still live a very good life in Russia. And as long as you don't get involved in politics, no one's going to come and clobber you on the head. But you go back a little bit further in history, and most of our societies are just, it's just a small group of elites just subjugating the masses. And so yeah, the peripheral, all these peripheral societies are just escaping that. They're just trying to get away from that, as is, you know, probably we all would, if we could. So, so, so what I think let me connect this to the idea of the book. The book is saying that, most of the time, we don't fight because we're so costly. And so the reason why we have throughout human history, all of these elites dominating the masses who are just, they're not revolting, just like Russians today, they're not revolting. Right, Putin has exerted. He's an he's a, he's, he's, he's, he's, he's a very successful authoritarian, because it's just too costly to fight. Right. And so there's nothing just about peace, most of these pieces, whether it's the US, I don't know, say, dominating Latin American countries, as it has to its history or some small elite. In a in some ancient city, state or nation dominating, you know, all of the, the masses, there, there aren't violent revolts. Yeah, and so getting rid of violence is good. But it also can entrench like an unjust social order. And so I think if you want both peace and justice, so to speak, or peace and equality, you need two things. One is you need to sort of avoid this terrible thing that's fighting. But you also need to sort of leverage you basically need to increase the, the bargaining power of the masses, visa vie the elites, especially in places where they're oppressed. And I think if you do that, what history shows and that's where that's how we get modern democracies, most of most modern free societies have been a series of revolutions without violent revolts. There have been violent revolutions. But most of the time concessions of power and freedom have come because the masses, or at least some of them get a little bit more material power, or military power, or they're better able to mobilize and then they demand more of the pie. And the elites conceded rather than fight.

David Wright:

So, you know, from time to time, during my research for this, I've been looking into the question of how, what the kind of the empirical history is of violent conflict. And I'm having a hard time, maybe you can tell me your perspective on that? What is the literature? So like? Did it work? Is it working? So I absolutely love your point there about the focus on you know, peace or justice, kind of pick one? I know you're not saying that, but like, that's a brilliant because it illustrates exactly what I'm looking for here. It's like, what are the trade offs? Like we can all say, Oh, we love peace, or we love justice. Let's just get them both like, well, what if there's a trade off there? And I'm wondering, you know, what the kind of historical record shows about that trade off? Like, have we more or less been achieving both? We're not?

Chris Blattman:

Well, I wouldn't say funny, you know, economists don't usually say there are trade offs. But in this case, I'll say there isn't a trade off in the sense that like, even when the situation is unjust, on some level, it doesn't make sense to revolt violently. Because, because you're because you can probably you know, if you if you actually have the means to improve your position by using violence, which then then you should be able to obtain it without actually using the violence, you should just the credible threat of using that violence should get you what you want. And so so so you could always get away with the fight, there's no trade off is the because of and if you can't, if you're not going to win an expectation, or you can get a better deal through violence, and you probably shouldn't use violence. So I won't say that that's not true all the time. But but so I will say there's not necessarily a trade off there. The fundamental problem is that is that in an unjust situation, the fundamental problem is that one side has no bargain. any power. In the end, the additional problem is that violence sets them further back rather than putting them ahead. And that's why we just see this unjust sort of stasis. And so, so many so much, basically, that's the story of human history until recently. And then I'm sorry, now I forget, are we less violent? Are we less violent? Yes. Although I think we have to say like, Okay. Again, let's, let's distinguish about violence within societies versus between societies, right? The thing that's absolutely true. So someone like Steven Pinker, Ian Morris, and others have shown us that we're just a lot less likely to get killed by homicide or blood feud or whatever, at any time in human history, at least for the average human. And that's because we've created states and we've ordered our societies so that interpersonal violence is far far, far, far lower than it ever has before. Then some people including pinker have said, we're also less likely to fight between groups. And that, hmm, not quite clear. That's true. Okay. It's it, because sometimes it takes down and then it suddenly takes up and, and actually doesn't. And to the extent that it is even ticking down, you could say, well, wars getting more costly over time, we have these things called nuclear weapons, but even if we don't have nuclear weapons, we have like some really disruptive stuff. Yeah. Other stuff, too. Yeah. And so it's a war is really costly. And if we, if we avoid fighting, because it's costly, then presumably making it more costly, makes us less likely to fight. And I think that's true. But then when we do fight, it's a doozy. Yeah. And so that's, that's the other thing that even if the risk of an actual war has gone down, the when it breaks out, if it breaks out, it's just enormously destructive. And, and so that's the sense in which it's not clear, there's less work for them before

David Wright:

it would have I would, I mean, hypothesize, we can sit in a room chair and lean back and think about this kind of thing here today, which is, as the call interludes grow near the sociology of peace becomes a more important and there's kind of this, I don't know, sometimes I worry that there's a cyclical nature to this kind of thing, right? So a couple generations go by nuclear weapons. I read about it, you know, they talked about it in class somewhere, but is it really that bad? I don't know. Read some statistics, they all look the same. Maybe we can start toying with the concept now that everybody who ever saw really go down, they're all dead, maybe even their grandparents or, you know, grandchildren are dead, you know, if they're gonna generations go by, we sort of lose touch with the cost of war. And and so we're more likely to, you know, think about that.

Chris Blattman:

I think there's something to that. I think it might be more true for conventional warfare, the nuclear warfare. Sure. There is a, I guess I, it that's kind of saying, you know, I went back, again, like that sort of refrain, like every reason why we fight as a reason we ignore the costs, you're articulating a way in which we might make a mistake what I've called a misperception in the book, it's one of the ways we ignore the costs. It's we basically underestimate them. I would say that that's, of all the ways we underestimate costs. I think that probably it's not just the lack of experience or the fading from memory. I think it might actually, one of the things I talked about in the book, and I give some examples. I think there's a lot of recent American examples of this as well, is there's maybe more of an institutional failure to really think through what how many things could go wrong. So to bring this to the maybe not to the insurance industry, but to the larger financial industry. Would we have mergers and acquisitions? Or as many as if we do is if if CEOs weren't systematically overconfident? Would we have a mutual fund management industry? If really smart individuals couldn't be systematically overconfident? Maybe there's an insurance analogy, as well. I think what this goes to show is it's possible for really smart, highly paid people in really checked and balanced institutions, making really high stakes decisions to really be systematically overconfident a lot of the time, until there's a lot of money as a result, and to do it again and again and again and again and again. So So I think there's something going on there. That I think there's an analogous thing going on in politics, and we don't we really haven't quite figured it out. Exactly what that broken this is because it's not just one. Like Putin like dictators sort of being delusional, this is happening in smart organizations full of good people,

David Wright:

the fear I would have there is an equivalent, the insurance industry and the cyclical nature of returns there. And, you know, the fear that I have is that in in a conversation I had with Robin Hanson on this podcast, where he was talking about like, what are like the permanent aspects of social life. And after a while the can the real thing that emerged in that conversation was the concept of competition. So they're inherently competitive systems. Everything is a competitive system in sociology. So it goes this line of thinking, which I found pretty persuasive. And in those systems, the competition drives you to try and win. Right, yeah, you know, that the market will find the efficient behavior, which is going to be pretty dicey. Right? Yeah. Because it has to be because otherwise, you're gonna get beat up by somebody that doesn't, and without a corrective mechanism to sort of push you back down. And that corrective mechanism might be a, you know, after a couple of generations, you got way too close probability of something bad happening as low, you got lucky, you ruled double sixes for a while, or sorry, really anything other than double sixes, and suddenly get the boxcars, and it's game over. So like, there's something inherent about our ability to design sort of the competitive pressure operating in a system that doesn't have any kind of deep checks on it, right to prevent something really bad from happening.

Chris Blattman:

So I think that I guess what I would say is that, I think, I think there's lots of capacity to make mistakes and for whether it's whether they're cyclical or not. I think that, that, that that's true. But I think that the incentives to go to war are just so great that we're just constantly making mistakes. Our leaders are kind of like anybody else. They're inept, they're making mistakes all the time. And we're so costly that those mistakes don't carry us into war. I think they only matter. And this is the argument I make in the book, I say, there are three ways that we ignore the cost of war in a more systematic way that are either psychological or strategic, that, that basically make the situation really fragile and then vulnerable to some tiny shock. Right? So it's a little bit like, like, you might say, to me, most old people die of, of a preventable disease like pneumonia. Right, which is probably true. That's a That's true. Therefore, if we could, you know, cure pneumonia, old people wouldn't die like that. We know that's not true, right? Because we know fundamentally, the real, the real problem was they were frail and fragile, right? And it wasn't pneumonia, it would be something else. And so I think what I'm saying in the book is there's a set of things that make us frail and fragile. And then, then you're talking about the pneumonia. And I don't want to ignore the pneumonia. So we're the world because we great to cure pneumonia, and people would live longer as a result. But let's not that we focus too much on the pneumonias and not on like the fundamentals.

David Wright:

You know, one thing that you mentioned a couple of minutes ago, actually, that I want to come back to, is the the concept of, of justice, and peace. And what seems to me to be interesting is like, in this is one of the one of the one of the five causes you point out in the book, and just as as an intangible benefit, right? It doesn't really have any material manifestation in the world. It's just sort of how we feel about stuff, right? We happen to have a value system, which incorporates this, or many of us do anyway, not everybody, in the same sense where to begin and egalitarian justice, let's say. And there's actually another book by James Scott, I don't know if you know, this one called the moral economy of the peasant that he wrote in the 70s. And at the end of it, he actually anticipates I reread it. Frankly, this anticipates quite a lot of the arguments that you you have in in your book talking about how in the periphery, there's these there's this bargain going on between the charismatic leaders, and an Am I ready to attack yet is that I've accumulated enough power to bargain for something new. And if I have, then I'm gonna threaten that. And if they don't understand me, it's not quite as succinct as where you're putting it, but quite a lot of the similar have similar argumentation. And his point, there is like a sense of injustice is a galvanizing force to accumulate power. Right? So it can be a story you can tell to generate power for yourself or generate, you know, influence and and, you know, more bodies to then bargain for something. Right? Yeah. And so, like, there's something going on there that don't totally get, you know, like, you know, would we need to have some kind of protection that is consistent with our moral framework from these entry points, right, because it seems to me that like a violation of an implicit moral code Would is enough to enrage certain people with the charismatic leader who can then create a imbalance of power, which needs to be resolved either through conflict or something else. Like, do we need to make progress on that for one of the underlying causes to really be produced

Chris Blattman:

Yeah, so let me let me parse that out, because I think it's a really important and deep point. And it, it's it, it affects conflict in a couple of different ways. Let's just, let's not just think about injustice alone, let's just think about anything that makes acting in a certain way intrinsically rewarding, okay. Now, think about this. So in one way that matters is like this, I mean, so as your company, I can, and I want to get people to work, I want them to show up to work, and I want them to work hard, I can either pay them with extrinsic incentives, right, or I can just sort of try to make them motivated, right, and buy into the idea of the organization's vision or the vision, whatever it is, right. And if I can do that, and if I'm good at that, then I get to pay them less, right? That's so so political leaders are exactly the same, right? I need to mobilize an arm against my opposition, my opponent, and the better I am, and I only have so many resources. So the better I am at just sort of motivating people intrinsically, to want to fight or accept the deal, the bit more I can arm versus my opponent, the more and the more bargaining power I have. And so groups that are really good at motor motivating and mobilizing people, in their cause in their collective cause, then can sort of wield the threat of more sustained violence against an opponent. And then hopefully not have to ever exercise that violence, and then just get more of the pie because they can wield it. Now. So the tricky part, though, is now think about. So So So in theory, this is like this is this is a way in which we arm ourselves and have more bargaining power, and then we still don't fight. But the tricky part is that what you're doing is we're saying, like, I'm going to convince my population that they're, they're actually going to be, they're willing to pay some costs of war, in order to get this. So for example, let's make this concrete. We have to decide whether or not to support Ukraine or not in its fight against Russia, and we're so costly, they should probably find a bargain. But if if I can successfully convince Ukrainians and Americans, to that whole range of settlements would be totally unjust. And to make you angry, then even though they make sense in some rational way, you're just going to refuse to accept them, and you will pay some of these horrible costs of war, just to avoid them. So you've now cut off a whole range of bargains and settlements that were basically unfavorable to you. So if I'm a politician, and I don't feel any of these things, I could actually in a calculating way, improve my marketing position visa vers visa vie, Russia, but basically saying, Listen, you know, we could concede Crimea, we could concede land, but you know, what, I've been so successful at convincing my people, that that's unacceptable, that that's off the table. Now, I can't make that commitment. And, you know, the other side has the they're like, Wow, gosh, that is a problem. Now, there's all these unfavorable settlements, maybe I better convince my population I better like, completely manipulate the information they have, and convince them that anything less than, you know, keeping Crimea and Donbass would be unacceptable, right? Because then I'm going to tie my hands. Right. So I'm trying to each side is trying to improve its bargaining power visa vie the other by basically making their people ideological. Machines. Yes. And then we will hope that like, you know, hopefully, neither side goes so far that just don't eliminate the ability to compromise altogether. Yeah. Because right, hopefully, you know, they each are skillful enough, at least. And then they sort of split it, right. And maybe that's what will happen. But what sometimes happens in these cases is you're so successful at convincing your people or yourself as a leader, or the next leader who gets elected represents these ideologies, refuses to make concessions, and then you just fight on that one way in which we might ignore the cost of war, be willing to pay them and find ourselves doing this terrible thing on principle. And sometimes those principles are good. I'm just showing, I'm illustrating an example of actually how we might actually, leaders might construct these principles, how we're often manipulated into in order to improve our group's bargaining power.

David Wright:

Well, as you as I think you alluded to there, but I want to put his point out there and see we think about it is like they're, these are our capacity for moral inspiration generates a heck of a lot of, of could be, in many instances in history has generated a lot of positive outcomes, right. So If we're very passionate about something, I feel this way and my job, right and my podcast, when I love something, I work 10 times harder at it, and I will generate that much more surplus for society as a result of my passion and enthusiasm. And so that capacity for passionate enthusiasm is I don't let me think I think it's a necessary part of the human condition and flourishing and continued economic growth. I'm only saying,

Chris Blattman:

I think we're fundamentally cooperative species more than we are a competitive and hateful species. And so, so I do think the net effect of our of this sort of moral sense is, is to create a better human society.

David Wright:

Right. And yet, and yet, it can get that train can get hijacked. Right. Yeah. And, and it seems to me like how do you what I think it was sort of, you know, kind of trying to get out here today is, how do you stop the hijacking? Because I think that what we're saying here is, you don't want to stop the train. Right? All these all these kind of sociological, psychological kind of adaptations are kind of what got us here. And we like this place. And we like where it's going. We want to prevent it from getting used for the bad stuff. But that sounds like a kind of a tiny little tweak. We're saying because you're not you're not can eliminate it, you've got to somehow just touch it a couple times. Right. Subtle work? Yeah.

Chris Blattman:

Well, I think there's a couple answers. So I mean, one of the things that happens in a lot of societies, say certain Indian cities, where you have a religious elites who are trying to mobilize their Muslim or Hindu followers into violence against the other, or various American political elites who are trying to stoke rage, and inspire their followers to, you know, commit violence against one side or the other. So this is a common, it's a common phenomenon. It's so first of all, having systems that investigate, punish, or disincentivize elites, from trying to stoke rage. is a is a good first step. Right? Yeah. So in most societies are successful with this, you know, we just, you know, the, because it's, it's really costly to have those kinds of interactions and riots and things of this nature. So you want to, you want to create a set of incentives where these unchecked elites just think it's let's let's do this nefarious stuff with just without violence? Um, the second way to do this, and that gets us to like a negative piece, right? Yep. The second way to do this is actually to try to just have less polarization in general for there to be more interconnections amongst society, whether they're social or economic, or for people that have intersecting identities. And, you know, the example in India is that I talked about in the book is, is how there are some parts of the country that have these, like long standing historical, economic, and social ties, such as Muslims, and Hindus are much more intertwined in everyday life than they otherwise would be. Those are not those are the places that are among the least violent in the country, and the least vulnerable to these kinds of, you know, religious nationalist politics. And indeed, you know, the America which remains, despite being polarized is not a particularly violent place, at least in in terms of, say, along those political fault lines. I think we all can, I think we're in a particularly polarized moment, but I think there was a time not so far in our history when it wasn't as polarized. When and I think there were we weren't as geographically and socially separated from members of the other political party than we are now. Right. And so I think that's the problem. Why do we have a negative piece and in the United States, we don't have a positive piece, it doesn't feel like a positive piece, I think because some of those interdependencies and inter linkages have eroded somewhat. So So So anyway, so I think the bigger solution is to try to rebuild those things.

David Wright:

What do you think about the thesis? I suppose that we have a pretty strong desire for centralized power inherently, because it makes the story easier to tell. You can see this over the course of the history United States, were going to have this federal government, which was supposed to be kind of not much to see here, folks keep moving along. And we have this ever increasing. You know, I think the narrative has become more kind of kind of a unitary, I suppose, or I guess there's two narratives. And then there's a there's like a central figure in that, that that film which is the presidential candidate either president. And so we all kind of like really like the simplicity of that, right? And we're sort of happily handing all of this decision making power or trying to write the institutions or slowing us down, right in the United States in a way. But now that doesn't seem to me like a permanently stable situation.

Chris Blattman:

Yeah, I think it's a great question. It's not stable, it doesn't make sense to have this sort of centralized charismatic, charismatic authority, on average, it's a lot less successful. And then we tend to forget that because we get frustrated by we find checks and balances, frustrating because it feels like an absence of progress. We want great powerful leaps forward by these strong men. And, and we kind of forget that those leaps go backwards as often as they go forwards. So and I don't have a good answer. I, it's so pervasive that I think there's maybe just some deep selection bias in our minds, potentially, where we fail to see the leaps backwards as being as dangerous as the LEAP forwards. Or I don't know, I have wondered, I'm not a evolutionary biologist. I have wonder if it's sort of like, in our, our chimp like makeup, right? We're very status conscious. very hierarchical species. In some ways, I think. And I don't know if this is just the silverback. so deeply programmed Silverback Silverback respect instinct. I, so I don't know, that's super speculative. But it's, it's to me, it's like one of the most important questions.

David Wright:

So there's, there's a one other topic that I want to touch on a part of your of your research, but I, I don't, I haven't been able to see kind of a conclusive story for what happened here. So Chicago, and you've done a lot of work in Chicago, the there's this funny world there, where if you compare Chicago, and I think you call it Medellin in some of your podcasts, but again, from some movie, I might have seen

Chris Blattman:

the people they're called Medellin, and everybody else will call Medellin, it's like whether or not you adopt there what you call their place accent which is indoctrinated. And

David Wright:

I will probably not try to pretend to do that. But now like, I know, the Medellin accent either where that came from. So the that really thing happened in Chicago was that you lost gangs, but increased violence. And so I read an article and it said, there's like some housing projects, some of those demolished, well, the gang lords were living, and then suddenly they got arrested or killed or whatever. And then now you sort of have this like dispersed low level kind of violence. So you've gotten rid of the charismatic, autocratic leaders, but and the violence goes up, which is sort of the opposite of kind of a theme of some of our discussion earlier.

Chris Blattman:

Yeah. Well, you know, that, that, that we don't really that's, that's, I think that's plausible, I don't think we really know that that's true. The the problem, here's the thing, is, there was a time when Chicago's crime was much more organized. And when, which is to say these were really coherent firms that were making a lot of money. And they were colluding to make a lot of money, you know, because they kept the drug markets less competitive in their own territories, on and on and on. And super gangs came to dominate all this smaller street gangs. And so you had this handful of super gangs that eventually went national. And those are patterns that occur in most cities. And the thing that often accompanies that structure and organization is, especially the leaders of the super gangs, figure out you know, what, we do not make as much money when these guys are fighting, let's just keep the peace on the streets. Also, when there's when there's fighting like the government comes after us. So let's just keep the keep it cool. That didn't happen in Chicago, actually, the so so even though they arrested the leaders, and even though until we have a bunch of disorganized kids, committing a lot of the wildlands now even though they got dispersed around the city, Chicago was less violent than it was in the 70s because the super gangs and big gangs couldn't figure out their differences and they were constantly at war with one another so Chicago was much more violent. On average, though, one of the big terrible trade offs that if you live in a city with lots of organized crime is you can kind of like go after the leaders and knock them down and disorganized the drug market and but then you're but but they were probably keeping order. And so you're gonna probably have a more violent city but you'll have less powerful organized crime. Chicago, the worst of both worlds it really organized crime and lots of violence because the organized criminals couldn't sorted out. There's a great book actually the by guy named John Hagedorn called the insane Chicago way that is actually partly a part of the stories about the Italian Mafia trying to like To give like basically give all this tutelage to Chicago gangs, especially the Latin gangs, and they're like guys need to stop fighting like you have, why have you not figured this out? Like you need to organize, and you're gonna make so much more money? Like, what are you fighting into the Italian Mafia has figured this out a long time ago. And the Chicago gangs never really did, unfortunately.

David Wright:

And so they weren't have the Italian Mafia as if they're even still around, like, out. So the non Chicago gangs, have they've been similarly beheaded. And has there been a different consequence elsewhere in the United States?

Chris Blattman:

Yeah, that's good. You know, I'm still I'm a bit of a novice when it comes to us crime and violence. My sense is that that cities like New York have been really successful at really curbing the mob curving organized violence and not having a lot more violent and disorganized violence. It's just been in I don't I hear lots of hypotheses. I don't I haven't heard anything that I find truly convincing. So I'm not I'm not sure. What explains it in a better sense of maybe more Latin America and a few other places.

David Wright:

And so in those places, have you had a similar kind of elimination of the gang structure as it happened anywhere other than, you know, in the United States?

Chris Blattman:

So the the funnel, here's the fundamental problem, is the fundamental problem is that okay, so why is the mob less powerful today than then in the last 100 years, really, you could argue that it's because their fundamental reason for existence disappeared. They made their money from Numbers rackets. And but we just the lottery, they made their money from labor racketeering, but unionization and the kind of laborers on the decline. They made their money from protection rackets but we basically got our policing act together and, and provide just a lot more police per capita than we did so so the United States government, and then they made their money from prohibition, selling alcohol, but then we legalized alcohol, they and then they were late to enter the drug trade. So they just never really managed to monopolize the drug trade. So basically, every business line they were in, kind of like dwindled. And it was, therefore, by the 1980s. You know, that plus, I think, a really smart group of prosecutors, when some legal innovations, were able to basically knock them out and really weaken them. But fundamentally, I don't think that would have been possible if it weren't for the fact that their basic revenue streams were eroding. And the reason for them to exist, did not it did not. The problem with a lot of the organized crime we have today in the United States and in the Americas, is their business is retail drugs, and there's enormous consumer demand. And so as long as we have, as long as we are, as long as we have a legal drugs, we will have this immense set of organ that we have this immense incentive for these organizations to exist in will, they will have an immense incentive to collude to keep prices high, and earn even more profits and be organized. And they'll be able to use those profits to fight back in any war on them and to actually just try to buy off politicians through peaceful means, because they don't like to fight either. And so unless that fundamental so that's why I'm kind of pessimistic is because I don't see their their consumer demand eroding. And I don't see really any significant political consensus on decriminalization being the least bad option

David Wright:

for marijuana, did it have an effect?

Chris Blattman:

It's a good question. I don't I haven't seen the research on that may exist. In principle, it should. Yeah, in the sense that no one sees it. But here's the thing like once these once you like, they had prohibition the mobs formed. And then it took decades to get them out because they just moved into business lines. So I'm told, like an enormous number of the avocados that crossed the border from Mexico are basically controlled by cartels. And and avocados are expensive, partly because they're controlled by organized crime. I'm not I don't know how true that is. They've but they basically branch out into other markets. So having made marijuana illegal for a long period of time creates these organizations that are specialized in illicit stuff. And then you suddenly decriminalize marijuana, it helps reduces the revenues but they exist already. So so even if we delete legalized all these drugs, tomorrow, these are very powerful, rich, well organized firms that will move into something else. It will be easier to eradicate them but they won't go away. I I'm very much in favor of like, especially for these relatively non addictive relatively less detrimental substances, like marijuana, a bunch of different kinds of pills, not all of them. You know, decriminalization is ugly for some reasons, but we just have to do it.

David Wright:

So the they're one of the reasons I was really excited to get to talk to you is that there's some pieces of research, I think of this, you know, I think the problem that, you know, we're kind of like, what frustrated by today is an example of, of how to how to like, how to understand an idea which you and I do here today and others? And how do you kind of build it into society? Like, how do you enact real social change with a concept like that that lasts? And, you know, I've had a whole variety of guests on this podcast, and I tend to ask just about everybody a version of this question, like, Do you believe in social progress? And how did we do it? Right? And one of the things that you've been able to not everybody says yes. To that, surprisingly, one of the things that you've been able to do, which is really cool, is there a couple of studies? I know the cognitive behavioral therapy one is yours. I remember the ADR one is that was your study, too. Yeah. So there's two instances where three education, were able to one of them from a psychological standpoint, and other one from maybe a sociological standpoint, teach people, concepts, give them words, and they change behavior in a predictable and long lasting sense. I mean, that's, I find that very uplifting. I don't know, if you're gonna apply here somehow. Maybe you could describe that research a little bit, because I love it.

Chris Blattman:

Yeah. So I think at root, I think we have I would say that this alternative dispute resolution was developed to in the United States to keep stuff out of courts, right, in court battles are the same as violent conflicts 95 90% of the time, we avoid them because they're just too costly. And occasionally, we find them so and the reasons we find ourselves in court battles, is are often the same reasons in terms of my typology, that we find ourselves in conflict, and alternative dispute resolution, it was basically designed to like, basically, get us to focus more on those costs, and help us avoid the pitfalls and thus avoid this costly thing that is a court battle. And it turns out, it can be widely applied to a lot of violent conflict, and then kind of behavioral therapy. So it's a set of skills and norms. Right? It's like a technology and CBT applied to CBT is also like a technology, it's a it's a set of skills and norms that help us help us essentially control especially in interpersonal or control some of our, our are less rational selves and in does not make the kinds of mistakes end up in court or conflict. So and what they have in common is the idea that, so why so why do we fight, we fight win, win powers to concentrate, we talked about that. That's not I don't think ADR and CBT are solutions to that we fight when we're ideologically driven, we've talked about that, I don't really think those are CBT, or ADR solutions to that we fight when we are when we miss perceive the situation. And we sort of make these systematic mistakes, or inner biased individuals, you know, or in our bias groups, we sort of perceive the situation wrong, and we maybe act irrationally or an error. ADR and cognitive therapy are both really designed to sort of get us to be a little bit more rational. They get us to see the other side's perspective, to treat that as a skill. Right, that's to sort of recognize that that and they teach us to manage our emotions when they start to get away from us. And they get us to see our systematic misperceptions in the way that we may be systematically overconfident or systematically misunderstanding the other side, attributing to them motives that may not exist, seeing everything they do in a negative light, when that's not the appropriate way to look at it. So that's a really key aspect of these skills is we need to train ourselves as individuals but also as groups, and really institutionalize it to actually not make those mistakes. And if we do that, then we're much more much less likely to, to do to engage in conflict. The other thing that ADR alternative dispute resolution does is it tries to address the fact that the uncertainty and the inability to find a deal that we call a commitment problem, the inherent unreliability of our opponent are real hindrances to a piece, whether that's a court battle or violent conflict. ADR is also designed to sort of create a structured information sharing and find ways to make deals and create norms of sticking to deals that solve those problems too. So so like every intervention that reduces violence Um, they sort of identify the reasons we overlook the costs of conflict, and then get us to and then basically roll those back.

David Wright:

What I, one of the things that I reflected on as I was reading anything about it afterwards was that I mean, I bet this podcast for a few years, right? And I'll go, I will, it won't happen to you, Chris. But I forget all that, like I forget, I did, much less anything.

Chris Blattman:

Temporary, is I've got a four by even by the by academic standards, my strength is in synthesis and not memory. So I can't remember any specifics.

David Wright:

Gone. Right, like, exactly holy cow. That's. And so in acknowledging that, but myself, I have come to be pessimistic about our ability to really learn things. Yeah, as individuals, right, is that a reliable mechanism for doing anything? But you have shown I think it both those studies, or a three year follow up study where you showed that the effects persisted.

Chris Blattman:

Yeah, and with with cognitive, whatever, we just fit, we follow that we just released through the tenure results last week, and long term persistent results in terms of reduced violence. I think that, okay. These don't have to be there, they might be persistent for different reasons. So kind of behavioral therapy was what we're trying to do both in Liberia and now in Chicago, trying to find the most violent men in the city, and help them learn to manage their emotions and social situations differently. And that recognizing that they can actually do a better job and that they'd be happier, they'd be less, less less risk at risk themselves, and help them transition to a new nonviolent identity. So it was a very individually based program. And it was about sort of really entrenching those behaviors, like practice, practice, practice, and until they become second nature, right, and a cognitive that's what cognitive behavioral techniques do, right? You know, for the exam, you know, an everyday cognitive behavioral technique that a lot of people might have discovered for themselves is I need to put my keys in the same place every day, because otherwise I'm gonna forget my keys. And if you just and then you just train yourself to do that, and it'll become second nature. And if you can successfully train yourself to do it, then you'll always do it, and then you never lose your keys. Right? So it's sustained, because you kind of intention is like a habit. Because we can do that as human. And alternative dispute resolution is a little bit, it's the same, some of it's just our the habits that we formed for dealing with everyday disputes. I'm not going to like a classic one is I'm not going to escalate like somebody, you know, we're all like arguing with their spouse, maybe at some point, and they say something that's like, hurtful or like, and you and then if and then a really useful skill is for like, you just have a little voice in the back of your head that says, Don't escalate, don't escalate. Because you have a choice at that moment, you can bring it up, or you can bring it down, you can raise or lower the temperature. And if you just adopt the policy of habitually, I'm gonna lower the temperature. And you can ingrain that, then that's just going to that's to us really useful skill. But the reason I think ADR often works is because it's communal, and that this is true for some of the CBT behaviors, it's that these things really entrenched, if we actually convince our whole community that escalating, raising the temperature is bad, and lowering the temperature is good. And we're going to give you respect, when you do one, and shame when you do the other, or reacting violently is going to be bad. And, you know, finding a peaceful solution is going to be good. And we're going to see if we can just collectively change the social norm about what's acceptable behavior, and then give out sanctions and praise systematically. That's really, that's how we change human behavior. And that's what makes human societies and so and then ADR and CBT are just mechanisms of doing that. And we've got 1000s of mechanisms for doing that. And we're really successful at it. And that's why interpersonally I think our society is so much more ordered than it was in the past. The

David Wright:

the kind of the dark side of the at least the ADR paper, I think was the idea of paper. Was that the conclusion? You came to us? This works pretty expensive, and not sure how scalable it is?

Chris Blattman:

Yeah, it wasn't well, but it is listen. You go if you went to like, Mr. Rogers, or sesam, the writers of Sesame Street, right? They are actually they've got psychologists and sociologists, they've got all these child development people. And they're saying, oh, here are the sets of skills and norms, which make for a more peaceful society. Let's embed them in our mass media. Right. Right. And if you look at a preschool curriculum, at least in the United States, there are and the way that teach As they're trained, they're trained in order to inculcate these skills in small children. So those are ways in which we have come up with cheap, scalable ways to basically entrench social norms and socialize our societies to, to have the skills. And so the skills that we're teaching in this program in Liberia, or Chicago, or the skills that we're teaching in ADR are kind of like remedial skills, and we can all benefit from remedial skills, some of us really needed especially if we missed out on all those things from preschool or grandmother's knee or something. So, so the way in which they did it in Liberia was kind of expensive, and by brute force. But you could distill these ideas, and indeed we do through educational curriculum, mass media, social norms, marketing, there's lots of ways in which this happens, and I think has been pretty successful.

David Wright:

Is it? Is it a is it inside? My kids jolla mount your school, but are they gonna learn this stuff? And is it in the, you know, typical us curriculum for?

Chris Blattman:

I don't think so, you know, my kids. So the this, this idea of socio emotional skill investments in early childhood education is really pervasive. It was invented, I think you're at the University of Chicago and what we call the lab school. So I see it more in my kids curriculum than elsewhere, maybe because we're at ground zero for that. But I think like imagine, like, but I mean, I saw it in our preschool in New York, like, the kids will learn to like, Okay, here's the very basic skill for managing anger, is counting to 10. Walking away, distracting yourself. Right? Those are, like kids in a lot of kindred, like kindergarten, like a good kindergarten teacher, hopefully, is actually teaching those skills explicitly. Or they're being reinforced at home. No, of course, that doesn't always happen. We both saw that.

David Wright:

I guess I'm not doing it. Although I, you know, I remember even myself in, in school, at some point, getting handed lessons with this sort of content. And I mean, kind of dismissive. You know, this is maybe back to the point of cyclicality of history. I didn't really understand why this mattered, right? I mean, I grew up in a place that didn't have a lot of violent conflict. I never, you know, yeah, yeah. A lot of fights as a kid, it wasn't around me, right. And so, you know, when you're teaching me those skills, maybe it's kind of like going to the same place at the podcast interviews went, like, never to be seen again. And so like, you know, do you have to kind of maybe the people in Liberia, they value dispute resolution skills, and maybe this is why they stick in their heads is because they're using it every day. Right?

Chris Blattman:

Yeah, that's true. That's true. I mean, I would say, yeah, that's surely true. I think like, some of these things are, you know, we, I think they are there. And maybe we they're subtle. So we don't always see them. One of the things, there's a really, you can go to YouTube, and you can actually see Mr. Rogers testify in Congress. Interesting. It's an amazing video. It's, it's, it's an absolutely it's, it was early in the days of, of, I think, PBS, and, and there was a senator who was very much against funding public education, television. And, and Mr. Rogers comes in, in his calm and sensible way, and just talks about what he does, and the philosophy behind it. And he reads out a song he wrote for kids about how to manage their emotions and, and, and how to react about match. And he says, this is the kind of thing we teach every day. And we're doing it because that's these are these ordinary, everyday angry problems that kids need to deal with. And it's just heart melt. And, and at the end of the, at the end of the thing, I won't spoil how it ends,

David Wright:

I can imagine teams that have crushed it.

Chris Blattman:

He crushed it and that was what that must have been in the 70s or something like that. So these are ideas that are ancient, they are suddenly imbued in so much of what we have so so in a Mr. Rogers song you may not remember but probably influenced you in some way and how to deal with your anger. Yeah. But if so I of course, I want people to like leave this podcast and buy this book. But but but if but what they should do before that is they should go and they should go and watch this 10 minute YouTube of Mr. Rogers in Congress, and it's absolutely incredible.

David Wright:

Yeah, that's amazing. So we'll end it there. Chris. We're out of time. Can you just sort of give a couple words of where to find the book. It's a wonderful book. Why We Fight?

Chris Blattman:

Yeah, well, I think you can basically get it anywhere corner bookshops, hopefully certainly on all the usual online places. I liked to tell people it's it's sort of a kind of a story driven way to sort of get 50 years of social science in just a couple 100 pages and And a book that should have been written 20 years ago and hasn't been so hopefully hopefully they enjoy it.

David Wright:

Well thank you for showing up for that and thank you for being with me today my guest today is Chris Blattman, thanks very much.

Chris Blattman:

Thanks