Military Strikes Are An Extremely Cheap Way To Help Foreigners

…at least potentially.

Lately a bunch of my Facebook friends have been sharing the Slate article Military Strikes Are An Extremely Expensive Way To Help Foreigners, which is too bad because it’s super super wrong. It is wrong both in design and in execution, and it consigns itself to the special hell for people who make a numerical argument without checking any actual numbers.

Here is its argument: the United States is currently considering whether or not to intervene in Syria. Some people say there are humanitarian grounds for this – after all, Syrians are currently under the heel of a repressive regime and trapped in a deadly war. However, if we were true humanitarians, we could just take the cost of intervening in Syria – maybe a few billion dollars – and donate that money to GiveWell, which would save even more lives.

What I mean by “wrong in design” is that saying “this is less effective than GiveWell’s number one top rated efficient charity” is damning by really really faint praise. Tautologically, if you believe GiveWell then everything is less effective than GiveWell’s number one top rated efficient charity. This includes policies that you – and Matt Yglesias – support. For example, he says nice things about publicly subsidized preschools, but spending money on these preschools is less effective than GiveWell’s top-rated charity. The same is true of other nice things you presumably like such as public libraries, food stamps, PBS, et cetera.

So imagine that in the debate over whether to de-fund PBS a few years ago, someone had brought up that PBS is less cost-effective than GiveWell’s top charities, probably even less effective than its top US charities. And then we all patted ourselves on the back for noticing and decided not to renew funding for PBS. What do you think are the chances that all that funding would have ended up in the hands of poor African villagers?

If someone wants to propose a bill that our government can only spend money on the most effective things, starting with the most effective and only moving on to the second most effective once number one has been saturated, I’d be totally in support of that (and I’ve even tried imagining what such a government could look like). In the absence of such a policy, “let’s stop funding PBS since it’s less effective than GiveWell’s top-rated charity” is a terrible idea, and so is abandoning Syria to its fate for the same reason.

A better policy might be “defund things that produce less utility than tax cuts or the typical government policy”, since we can expect the money saved to either be refunded in taxes or to be distributed among other government policies. And this is where it becomes important that the Slate article was also wrong in its execution.

The article focuses on Libya as an example of an intervention which, although “successful”, was apparently “too expensive”. Let’s calculate how expensive it really was.

The US spent about $1 billion on military intervention in Libya (our allies contributed some more, but we can assume that US participation “bought” allied participation).

There’s no good way of calculating how many lives US intervention saved, but the war up to that point had caused 25,000 casualties, and everyone expected the rebels’ final defeat to be something of a bloodbath. Let’s say intervention prevented another 25,000 casualties.

Suppose the average Libyan currently alive can be expected to live 25 more years. We multiply by 0.7 (for reasons to be explained later) and so those 25,000 lives saved = a gain of 437,500 QALYs.

However, intervention did more than save potential casualties. It also freed everyone from the government of Moammar Gaddafi, a ridiculously evil guy who squandered the country’s wealth and raped his populace both figuratively and literally.

How much should this count for? When I tried to elicit conditional utility weights from people, I didn’t have anything that exactly corresponded to Libya, but it seems reasonable to say it was better than North Korea but worse than China, so maybe around 0.6? And that though post-Gaddafi Libya is still poor and conflict-ridden, it’s just a little bit better, so perhaps 0.7?

So if you improve the lives of 6 million people by 0.1 QALYs/year x 25 years, that’s another 15 million QALYs gained, for a total of about 16 million.

If you purchase 15.5 million QALYs for $1 billion, you find you spent about $65 per QALY.

Compare this to the Against Malaria Foundation. The Slate article boasts that “according to The Life You Can Save, handing out these bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent.”

So here $1,865 buys one life = 50 QALYs (we said 25 before, but let’s be generous since most deaths from malaria are children and so will have more lifespan left to save), but in this case we multiply by 0.5 (the weight the survey gave to life in Ethiopia, which is a proxy for the sorts of countries where AMF likely operates) and get about $75.

So if you accept the main premise of the above – that life is ~10% better in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown – military intervention in Libya was a bit more effective towards humanitarian goals than donations to AMF, buying QALYs for $65 versus $75.

Let’s put these numbers in a broader context than “one is bigger than the other”. In health care, anything that costs less than about $25,000 per QALY is generally considered excellent value. People wax poetic about the amazing cost-effectiveness of preventative health care because it usually comes out to “only” $1000 – $5000 per QALY. These numbers are both mind-bogglingly low.

And in the case of Libya, this may an underestimate, since it doesn’t take into account shortening the war, or spurring foreign investment, or the fact that Gaddafi probably would have become more repressive after the rebellion, or less tangible effects like deterrence of future dictators.

Didn’t I just say that donating to GiveWell’s top charity must tautologically be the best use of money if you trust GiveWell? Yes, but that’s only true for the average person with a marginal dollar to spare. If you happen to be a superpower with an air force of 5,500 planes and several billions of dollars to burn, you have options that GiveWell probably will not have evaluated.

My guess is a perfectly utilitarian US Air Force (now there’s a plot hook!) would probably require its own GiveWell, at least for a while, rather than selling its planes for scrap and donating to the civilian version.

Am I saying that military intervention is always more cost-effective than civilian charity? Certainly not. Military interventions sometimes cause large numbers of deaths, don’t always keep the costs down as effectively as the Libyan operation did, don’t always succeed, and when they do succeed they risk unintended consequences (like replacing a brutal-but-effective dictator with an anarchic power vacuum).

But if we still had InTrade, we could come up with a probability that each of those things would happen, factor them into our calculations, and who knows, it might still be better than giving to Against Malaria Foundation. Or at least better than giving money to Egypt to buy weapons to point at Israel to counteract the money we gave to Israel to buy weapons to point at Egypt – which, let’s face it, is a much more realistic description of where the typical foreign aid dollar goes than Against Malaria Foundation is.

(note that I do not intend this article to assert that intervening in Syria at present is a good idea. I am currently neutral-ish on this point, since the possibility of making the situation much better seems counterbalanced by a good chance of making it much worse. But this should not be taken as a critique of interventions more broadly, let alone a Fully General one.)

Yglesias’ article ends by saying:

Now, before the kill-and-maim-for-the-sake-of-humanity crowd shoots a Tomahawk missile at me, it’s worth conceding up front that none of this amounts to a logically airtight case against blowing up some Syrian infrastructure and killing various Syrian bad guys. It is very possible for a given undertaking to be worth doing without being the optimal policy. But I do think it’s worth interrogating the larger political and ideological construct that says that spending a few billions dollars to help foreigners is a thinkable undertaking if and only if the means of providing assistance is to kill some people and blow some stuff up. The explosives-heavy approach to humanitarianism has a lot of unpredictable side effects, sometimes backfires massively, and offers an extremely poor value proposition. So whatever you think about killing some Syrians this summer, please consider throwing a few dollars in the direction of a cost-effective charity of some kind.

A big “amen!” to all of that except the “extremely poor value proposition” part.

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48 Responses to Military Strikes Are An Extremely Cheap Way To Help Foreigners

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  2. Nick de Vera says:

    Not quite USAF, but Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency comics are about a utilitarian extralegal paramilitary force. Which, disappointingly, just hints at but doesn’t engage with how it’s kind of a utility monster: “collateral damage” murder, coverup, whatever it takes, keep the wheels spinning, avert current crisis.

  3. Erik says:

    I’ll add this commentary by the War Nerd via Isegoria. Here’s my summary:
    -the Alawites are a minority group in Syria (about 2 million in a country of 20 million), who used to be persecuted a lot back in the Ottoman Empire
    -when the French took over, the Alawites signed on with the secular foreign power which treated them rather better
    -the Alawites inherited power from the French and now run Syria
    -the Assad family are Alawites
    -the rebels may conclude from western support that they have western endorsement for violent non-democratic triumph over the Alawites
    -if the Alawites lose under these circumstances, they are likely to be figuratively and literally fucked.

    So the calculation of military intervention should take into account some likelihood of accidentally causing some genocide or ethnic cleansing against a 2 million minority group. Or should we also budget for some semi-colonial intervention afterwards to make sure the rebels run the country nicely?

  4. Tom Womack says:

    For example, the capabilities of a superpower include printing three million green cards, making a polite suggestion that they would buy every ticket on up to thirty 747 flights that United might wish to run daily from Diyarbakir to New York, and declaring that every Syrian refugee is welcome in the United States. That costs two billion dollars up-front and, since the quality-adjustment in the US is higher than in any conceivable post-war Syria, improves happiness by even more.

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  6. Douglas Knight says:

    This post needs a link to If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing With Made-Up Statistics. Perhaps in the first paragraph, with anchor text “checking any actual numbers”?

  7. Platypus says:

    This is probably a dumb question, but I can’t help but wonder: a few years ago we tried to help out the people of Iraq by toppling their corrupt dictator, and once the dictator fell, Iraq promptly broke out in civil war and religious terrorism.

    Do we have any reason to believe that toppling Syria’s corrupt dictator won’t have the same result? Is this just a “there’s already so much terrorism and civil war in Syria that removing the corrupt dictator can’t possibly make it worse” argument?

  8. Harvey says:

    So, you made up some numbers, compared them, and went “aha!”… even though in your very first sentence you go “or not” to your entire premise.

    It must be interesting to live in a world where this counts as logic.

  9. Barry Kort says:

    The most powerful act any individual can perform is to bear accurate witness.

    On Friday, John Kerry stood up to bear accurate witness as to what transpired in Syria, based on US Intelligence.

    So far so good.

    Now what?

    Now the US — having clearly observed Assad engaging in crimes against humanity — is obliged to act by taking the evidence to the International Court, there to indict and try Mr. Assad and his participating lieutenants on war crimes, under the aegis of International Law.

    This is how the US, being a leader among civilized nations and a leader in the practice of the Rule of Law, demonstrates how a civilized nation operates in accordance with the Rule of Law, as it applies to international law governing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

    This is how a Nobel Peace Prize Winner demonstrates how state-sponsored violence is answered with non-violence, under the Rule of International Law.

    In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

    • Multiheaded says:



    • Barry Kort says:

      Modern day humans devised the Protocols of the Scientific Method as our most reliable method for sorting out accurate hypotheses from incorrect ones. Politicians, alas, are notorious for declining to rely on the Scientific Method for drawing conclusions.

      Will this episode prove to be yet another failure of our government to arrive at the ground truth by a trustworthy method?

      Or will this episode mark an historic turning point in our methods and practices for making wise and sensible decisions?

      I reckon the political operatives scripting this drama will go out of their way to depart from the protocols of the scientific method.

      The first duty of a scientist is to array all conceivable hypotheses and then try like the dickens to falsify each and every one of them.

      I have not yet seen any attempt to array the alternate hypotheses or to falsify the one that the Obama administration (and the Military-Industrial Complex) favors.

      And so the meta-question stands before us. We have the Null Hypothesis and the Working Hypothesis, and the challenge to falsify either of them.

      H₀ (Null Hypothesis) – The US rigorously adheres to the protocols of the scientific method and the concepts of the Rule of Law.

      H₁ (Working Hypothesis) – The US routinely departs from the protocols of the scientific method and the concepts of the Rule of Law.

      This episode now in play will help determine which of the two hypotheses best characterizes the practices of our national governance model and methodology.

    • The most powerful act is bearing witness and then taking appropriate action– and it’s not obvious to me what the appropriate action for Syria is.

      The thing is, I just read about Dozier, and it took decades of witness-bearing until action happened.

    • Barry Kort says:

      The concept of state-sponsored violence under the rule of law dates back some 4000 years to Hammurabi of Mesopotamia.

      That model does not hold up under 20th Century insights. But long before modern scientific methods came into use, theologians also argued against state-sponsored violence under the color of law.

      The concept of bearing accurate witness dates back to Moses. Today, bearing accurate witness also includes applications of the mathematical tools for thought that support scientific review of antiquated cultural practices that are long past their sell-by date.

  10. Boris Borcic says:

    I’d say if we start to do similar calculations the cheapest way to move things is with the top down or dietetic war procedure.

    1) sit commanders in chief at a negotiation table
    2) if they find agreement, leave the algorithm in peace
    3) allow each to resign. If any or both resign, skip step 4)
    4) have them take a round of russian roulette against each other
    5) replace any who has resigned or died in combat with next in chain of command
    6) restart at step 1)


    1) Russian roulette could nicely be replaced by an equivalent untamperable quantum teleportation “schrödinger cat box pair” device, which would allow the commanders in chief to duel without themselves nor their bodyguards getting close to each other.

    2) As an illustration, the Iraq war goal to topple Saddam Hussein IN THE UNFAVORABLE CASE where he wouldn’t resign, would have had 50% chance of achievement without any loss of life except his own, an expected cost of just 1 American life and a 99.9% probability of achievement at a cost of no more than 10 American lives.

  11. Rand says:

    A million times “Thank You!” for writing this this article.

    I first saw this on Facebook at about 4am sometime last week, and it took a remarkable amount of willpower for me not to starting writing a 5000 word response to all the flaws and fallacies in the article. And I’m really happy that you took the time to do so, even catching some flawed assumptions that I missed.

    One thing that I consider worth expanding upon is the potential future gain from a healthier and more prosperous Libya. Increased prosperity and political freedom is something that has an effect well outside the borders of Libya itself, and it’s an effect that doesn’t go away. One of the reasons, I imagine, that GiveWell puts GiveDirectly as its #2 charity (or even has a number 2 charity) is that it offers the possibility of compounding returns (and therefore potentially infinite returns) in a way that AMF doesn’t seem to. And obviously that’s hard to quantify in QALYs (which strike me a pretty rough Fermi estimates anyhow) but no less relevant.

    And obviously US government policy can’t be all about maximizing QALYs regardless of location, otherwise we’d be in an all out rush towards the Repugnant Conclusion (or something resembling it) rather than our current policy, which is nearly the opposite. The US perceives spreading democracy, human rights and free market as deeply in its interests, and ultimately it’s right. (And this reflects individual Americans’ outlooks as well.) So ultimately, even when looking at “humanitarian interventions” you have to be looking through a slightly different lens than GiveWell’s.

    • Damien says:

      But that’s assuming Libya will be healthier and more prosperous, which AFAIK has yet to be demonstrated.
      E.g. collective revenge killings:
      Fighting warlords have cut off oil exports:

      • Rand says:

        Of course.

        That’s why I say “potential future gain” (and Scott is very clear about this too).

        And Syria is obviously a very different story. At the moment, I have no good idea of how this conflict can ever be brought to a close, meaning I can’t really formulate an educated opinion about whether removing Assad (as the most powerful/potentially destructive player) is likely to help. (I really need to reread my history of the Lebanese Civil War, which seems likely to be the closest equivalent, and particular how it eventually ended.) And in context, removing Assad doesn’t even seem to be on the table, the US is just trying to prevent future use of Chemical weapons and maintain credibility in it’s “red lines” (largely for it’s dealings with Iran’s at this point, I imagine). So we’d need a very different approach to calculating the expected payoff, which I don’t expect would be particularly high, if positive.

  12. Luke Parrish says:

    Didn’t I just say that donating to GiveWell’s top charity must tautologically be the best use of money if you trust GiveWell? Yes, but that’s only true for the average person with a marginal dollar to spare. If you happen to be a superpower with an air force of 5,500 planes and several billions of dollars to burn, you have options that GiveWell probably will not have evaluated.

    By the same token, shouldn’t we be comparing this against nonviolent ways to spend a few billion dollars? It seems like almost anything done on a scale of billions of dollars will have economies of scale and network effect advantages not present on smaller scales. The fact that killing people and blowing up their stuff has utilitarian advantages at extremely large scales shouldn’t exactly be surprising, but if the advantage is greater than even the best-selected nonviolent humanitarian intervention at the same scale, it should come as a surprise.

    • Damien says:

      Especially if we look at the probability distribution of outcomes. Best case is Libya, worst case is something like WWI, where Russia gets violent in defending its last ally and foreign naval base, middle case is killing a bunch of people without doing much good and continuing our reputation as a violent nation. (Pretty much every US President ends up bombing or invading someone. Interesting pattern.)

      What’s the risk and variance in strikes vs. some humanitarian intervention like mosquito nets or vaccines?

      • Damien says:

        Like, a recent article was about the Gates Foundation asking for $1 billion from the US to top off a polio eradication effort. Bomb Syria, or eradicate polio once and for all? (Not many people get polio, but that’s because of a constant vaccination effort, with its own costs.)

      • Also, if you specifically want to help Syrians, there’s supporting refugees.

        • Damien says:

          That’s a risky argument; seems likely that it’d be much cheaper to prevent refugees from having to flee than to help them as refugees. Preventive care rather than treatment.

          It’s possible that the most cost effective way of helping living Syrians would be to help Assad crush the rebels quickly and firmly, under the logic that life under a dictatorship that keeps law and order is better than life in a multi-way civil war.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Good point. What do you think is the best utilitarian way to spend $5 billion?

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        The best suggestions may be unconventional, or else they would already be done by someone. Possibilities:

        – research the neuroscience of (un)pleasantness and well-being, develop better ways to affect it
        – research wild animal suffering and possible ways to reduce it
        – breed domesticated animals that don’t suffer
        – popularize certain non-popular utilitarian ideas like hedonium(to the degree to which that is possible)
        – economically self-reinforcing stuff (invest now, give later?)
        – help get AI right

      • Luke Parrish says:

        Like Hedonic Treader says, it is likely to be nonconventional or unintuitive. Like GiveDirectly — it’s surprising in retrospect how intuitive it is not, to just give money to the world’s poorest people without strings attached. But we now have good evidence that this is something that works, very well, increasing nutrition and education of children, reducing use of economically burdensome things like thatch roofs, improving employment prospects and business activity in adults, and so forth.

        How to make $5 billion work better than just donating directly to families in need? Well, mass producing the world’s most valuable, most scale-friendly good is one approach. So maybe funding open source software, or rationality literature (perhaps a rationalist equivalent of the pocket sized Bibles that Christians have covered the landscape with). But such things rely on people having the time, education, and inclination to use them. Also there are groups whose interests almost any specific thing conflicts with, so they would fight it, resulting in waste. So giving money directly has a high prior probability of being better than almost anything else.

        My current favorite idea for upgrading the GiveDirectly approach would be to combine it with the effect that makes people suspicious of bitcoin — the early adopter advantage. One could mint up say 100 million cheap, hard-to-counterfeit plastic tokens which could be called Utility Coins or something. Small, cheap chunks of bitcoin with a special label (colored coins) could be made substitutable for the tokens for economies where smartphone are ubiquitous already. Once the coins are distributed to the world’s poorest, the $5 billion would be used to steadily buy up and destroy the Utility Coins. Charities and philanthropists could be given the first crack at buying the coins directly from the poor for later resale — thus later as they become scarce, they would be able to sell them for more and thus have more to give.

  13. Deiseach says:

    Or at least better than giving money to Egypt to buy weapons to point at Israel to counteract the money we gave to Israel to buy weapons to point at Egypt – which, let’s face it, is a much more realistic description of where the typical foreign aid dollar goes than Against Malaria Foundation is.

    So far as I can make out, the point of giving money to foreign nations to buy arms with is not for the benefit of those nations, it’s to benefit your own aerospace/arms manufacturing industries and to maintain influence in the region.

    Huge bungs to Saudi Arabian ministers so that they sign contracts with British arms companies? Surely not!

    Allegations of corruption were made within weeks of the signing of the memorandum of understanding. The Guardian published a leading article under the headline “Bribes of £600m in jets deal” on the 21st October. The previous day, Labour’s front bench defence spokesman, Mr Denzil Davies, had called on the government to confirm or deny reports that it was to pay secret commissions of between £300-600m to secure the deal with Saudi Arabia. The MoD “refused to comment, although officials said negotiations were still going on” (Guardian, 21.10.85). The Guardian cited Arab sources, who alleged that the commission would be shared between two or three leading members of the royal family, two relatives by marriage of King Fahd and a business agent.

    …This briefing, having examined the evidence available and consulted the work of respected academics and economists, concludes that it is clear no one has profited by the UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia except the middlemen. Lavishing such huge amounts of weaponry on the kingdom has returned no significant economic profit – it has weakened the security of both countries and undermined our government’s integrity. The campaign for the publication of the NAO report into Al Yamamah continues, and perhaps as the deals wind down this may be forthcoming, though as yet there is no sign of such a move. More importantly, it is to be hoped that more responsible decision-making will end arms sales in general, but more specifically to a kingdom “not yet in crisis but facing serious economic and social problems” (The Economist, ‘World in 2000’, 1999).

  14. Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

    The specifics of the calculation can be questioned but your conclusion is not as crazy as it seems. The US, being the only country in the world with both a military force to speak of and the willingness to even consider using it to do good, has no competition in this game, which means there’s a lot of low hanging fruit.

  15. Aris Katsaris says:

    What I mean by “wrong in design” is that saying “this is less effective than GiveWell’s number one top rated efficient charity” is damning by really really faint praise.

    I think “praising by really really faint damnation” would be a better description here.

  16. Deiseach says:

    Hmmm – let’s see: the U.S. (and the U.K.) are currently bogged down in Afghanistan, just like over one hundred years ago (the BBC modernisation of the Sherlock Holmes stories were able to have Dr. John Watson still be a military doctor home from Afghanistan), the situation in Iraq post-coalition withdrawal is so stable, the Middle East at the moment (particularly Egypt, which back in the 70s was talked up as the best chance for a democratic secular modern Muslim state, the mantle of which has now been taken up by Turkey, which has its own problems – my father was part of the Irish contingent of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Cyprus after the Turkish invasion) is not looking particularly good, so yeah – let the U.S. and U.K. do a little military intervention in Syria (but not too much of one: just a rap on the knuckles!)

    I mean, what could go wrong? How would that make the situation worse, not make President Bashar al-Assad decide he needed to show he wouldn’t be pushed around by cracking down even more forcefully, not inflame passions and draw other states in the region in… I certainly can’t see why military intervention wouldn’t be a great idea!

  17. Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

    I will remark that there just is no realistic way to help a lot of countries, such as North Korea, except by invading, conquering, and rebuilding them. But this does not address cost-effectiveness and it’s not a foreign policy option on the table right now.

    • Anonymous says:

      Depends on what you mean by “realistic”.

      If another power somehow developed superwealth and superlongevity technology not easily stolen or emulated, they could potentially buy out enough defectors for a peaceful takeover.

      Loyalty and fear go a long way, but so does greed.

      • Multiheaded says:

        “Superwealth?” Certainly the U.S. already has “superwealth” when compared to (at least) North Korea; Kim Jong Un might be able to buy gadgets and such – but without being accepted into a modern capitalist society there’s just no way for him or his underlings to live as luxiriously as e.g. a Saudi prince.

        Personally, I suspect that many of the people holding key positions – not all of them in openly dictatorial regimes – just value dominance and being on the very top of a (small, ugly) heap over basically any bribe they might be offered, as long as fear and credible threats aren’t also on the table. Wouldn’t be too surprised to see a dictator like that turning down a longevity treatment in exchange for surrender… at least not unless he’s literally on his deathbed.

        • Max says:

          I wouldn’t label what the US has as “superwealth” in the sense that I’d read into the above comment. For the U.S. to, for instance, pay for infrastructure improvements which would bring everyone in North Korea to a first world standard of living would be very expensive by the standards of the United States’ purchasing power. I would start using the term “superwealth” around the point when that sort of intervention becomes cheap. Let’s say, for instance, a society that has solar satellite energy production which allows it to produce many times more energy than the current energy consumption of the world, driving energy prices down and making cost effective procedures which are currently cost prohibitive.

    • Deiseach says:

      “Invading, conquering and rebuilding them”

      I’ll quote the Eight Hundred Years back at you – the British were constantly trying to make us civilised, and it didn’t take – we kept being resentful of, and ungrateful for, all their selfless efforts to make us good subjects of Empire and insisted on going our own way.

      I’ve been of the opinion that Iraq was going to be, not America’s New Vietnam, but America’s Ulster, and I see nothing (even after the Coalition Forces withdrawal) to make me think that’s changed. When you go into a country in such a manner, you commit to the long haul – and that can be twenty-five years, or five hundred. That’s expensive in terms of manpower, matériel and mere psychic attrition on the part of the public at home.

      The English were full of sympathy for the misfortunate Irish in 1845; by 1846/47 they had lost patience and were complaining about having to pay for the lazy, ungrateful, rebellious Irish, and by 1848 they wanted to get shot of the problem by sending us to Canada and Australia.

      • Damien says:

        I don’t think the British in Ireland were selfless!

        If your point is that there’s no such thing as a true civilizing invasion, that does seem true in practice, but it’s not obvious that there couldn’t be one in some ideal case. It does seem prone to cognitive bias risk, though.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Your point seems kind of lost by the fact that right now Ireland is civilized, English-speaking, operates on a British-style parliamentary democracy, used the pound as its currency up until the Euro came along, and drinks excessive amounts of tea. Are you sure you don’t want to try a different example?

        • Damien says:

          Are you saying Ireland is civilized and democratic only because it was exploited by England/Britain for 800 years? Cuz you know, Sweden. Or Switzerland.

        • Ben says:

          Are you saying that Ireland is civilized?!

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Damien: No, I agree correlation isn’t always causation. But Deiseach seems to be saying “Invading countries doesn’t cause them to become civilized” and then giving an example of a country that was invaded and became civilized – which, while it doesn’t *prove* my point, doesn’t even *support* hers.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Deciding about military interventions based on superficial QALY calculations seems like a really bad idea. The indirect political consequences are almost certainly more important in the long run, though maybe not easily calculable.

    we said 25 before, but let’s be generous since most deaths from malaria are children and so will have more lifespan left to save
    This is almost certainly the wrong consideration. Those lifespans don’t come for free, and all else is not equal (birth rate, probability of future wars, selection for immunities…)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Okay, but if you’re going to do it (like Slate) you can at least try to do it right.

  19. Supposedly, the paper cited in this follow up article to the one you criticise shows that intervening on the side of the rebels does more harm than good. The original is behind a paywall but the graph extracted from it looks pretty dodgy. Would be interested to know your thoughts.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I can’t read the paper, but things I would look out for:
      – If a decisive intervention ends a conflict, is the escalation in violence during the declining phase compensated for by the shorter time the violence is happening overall?
      – Did they control for the fact that people are more likely to intervene in conflicts as they are becoming more violent?

  20. Any thoughts about military strikes (which have a noticeable chance of making things worse) compared to spending the same money on re-settling refugees?

  21. Paul Torek says:

    I’d say the jury’s still out on Libya. However, one effect the military intervention there had was to encourage other Arab Springers (especially Syrian) to pursue military methods. That seems likely to end badly.

  22. Douglas Knight says:

    The involvement of the US in Libya did not buy the involvement of France; quite the opposite.

    I don’t think the new government of Libya will be better than Gaddafi, but I’m pretty sure that by the time the US got involved he was already toast, if only because of France. The argument goes through if you can choose the right rebel faction to win. But that’s a harder problem than choosing between Gaddafi and the rebels, which I think you got wrong. Also, playing kingmaker is more difficult than playing regicide.

  23. Carl Shulman says:

    “The US spent about $1 billion on military intervention in Libya (our allies contributed some more, but we can assume that US participation “bought” allied participation)”

    “I didn’t have anything that exactly corresponded to Libya, but it seems reasonable to say it was better than North Korea but worse than China, so maybe around 0.6? And that though post-Gaddafi Libya is still poor and conflict-ridden, it’s just a little bit better, so perhaps 0.7?”

    That’s a big difference. I don’t believe the estimate of Westerners on this very much.