War as a bar fight: Why democracies win

by John MacBeath Watkins

Part of the allure of the authoritarian leader is that they won't be namby-pamby about pursuing their nation's interest, right?

But that perception is puzzling in light of the evidence that democracies win a lot more of their wars than autocracies do. If you're interested in results rather than bravado, the stongman who leads his country into battle isn't the best choice.

Benjamin A. T. Graham, Erik Gartzk, and Christopher J. Faris,  have written a paper that explains this in terms of a bar fight.

In The Bar Fight Theory of International Conflict: Regime Type, Coalition Size, and Victory, (The European Political Science Association, 2015) they raise the question, who wins a bar fight? The answer is, usually the person with the most friends in the bar.Think of how many more allies Britain had than Germany during World War II. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the U.S. led coalition had 32 members aligned against him.

One reason that was possible was that other countries knew that unlike Hussein, we did not intend to keep Kuwait. Standing up for the little guy, it turns out, is more popular than taking his lunch money and his oil fields.

And consider the web of alliances in which America is a prominent member. NATO, SEATO, and other alliances are certainly better than the paltry alliances our old opponent, Russia, has managed to muster. Those who admire Putin for taking decisive action in seizing Crimea should remember, Russia's whole conflict with the Ukraine goes back to the fact that when it came time to choose between getting closer to Russia or the democratic West, the people of Ukraine made it clear they wanted it to be the West. Putin took action because he was losing to the soft power of the democratic nations of western Europe, and his "decisive" action was made necessary by his weakness, not his strength.

Graham and the other researchers write:
The biggest martial asset of democracies may well be that they are better at making friends, not that they are better at vanquishing their enemies.
Not that vanquishing your enemies is anything to be sniffed at. In general, wealthier countries beat poorer countries. But why are they wealthier?

Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, James A Robinson, and Pascual Restrepo, in the 2014 study Democracy Does Cause Growth, (NBER Working Paper No. 20004
Issued in March 2014) argue that--well, the title says it all, doesn't it?

Here's a graph illustrating their point:

In an introduction to the study, they state the following:
When we disentangle what components of democracy matter the most for growth, we find that civil liberties are what seem to be the most important. We also find positive effects of democracy on economic reforms, private investment, the size and capacity of government, and a reduction in social conflict. Clearly all of these are channels by which democracy can increase economic growth, and a great deal of further research is needed.
So, it isn't voting that matters, it's freedom. Not that you are likely to keep civil liberties if the rest of the institutions of democracy, such as rule of law and rule by the consent of the governed, disappear. You need those institutions to ensure that you can keep civil liberties, but the freedom to think and say what you want is, according to Acemoglu and his co-authors, the real spur to economic growth.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. After all, the strength of democracy is not in executing policy, it is in deciding what policy is worth pursuing. And if the example of the Soviet Union showed us anything, it is that the ability to produce the most steel is not as important as being able to decide what to produce. Consider American capitalism without the input of the Wall Street Journal and other commentators on the economic scene. Without them, who would embarrass inept executives, or question company policy? And if you say, well, dissident shareholders, well, they need freedom of speech as well. Consider that the youth of the Soviet Union wanted Levi jeans, not Soviet work pants. Free speech gives you fashion magazines and other means of deciding what to wear, therefore what is worth making.

But freedom of speech is not the only civil liberty. Being secure in your property is not a feature of many authoritarian regimes, who seize the property of anyone they deem an opponent. If you can't be secure in your property, why invest in it?

And as for the reduction in social conflict, that the study cites, that has a lot to do with John Locke's insight in A Letter Concerning Toleration:that it is not people believing different things that causes social upheaval, it is trying to get them to believe the same thing. Given freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, a great deal that used to cause violence ends up just causing arguments.
Arguments may not seem productive, but they are at least not as destructive as kristallnacht or other ethnic conflicts that result in the destruction of the businesses, homes or temples of the targeted groups.