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The Menu for Choice. How do States Make Decisions?. I. Descriptive Realism and its Assumptions. RISK Lord Palmerston: “His Majesty’s Government has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.”

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The menu for choice l.jpg

The Menu for Choice

How do States Make Decisions?


I descriptive realism and its assumptions l.jpg
I. Descriptive Realism and its Assumptions

  • RISK

  • Lord Palmerston: “His Majesty’s Government has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.”

  • Winston Churchill: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”


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A. States are the relevant actors in world politics

Evidence: Most wars fought by one or more states

Counter-evidence: Trade is not state-to-state (but reduces interstate conflict), >50% of wars involve non-state actors, and IGO membership reduces interstate conflict


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B. States behave “as if” unitary, rational actors

  • Evidence: Even liberal states often practice “power politics” – i.e. US intervention in Latin America, British colonialism, Chinese hegemony in Vietnam, etc.

  • Counter-evidence: the “democratic peace”


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C. States actually pursue the “national interest”

Evidence: Rational calculation appears to occur (Lord Palmerston quote)

Counter-evidence: Leaders matter, need for foreign policy advice, voluntary losses of sovereignty (EU, Czechoslovakia)


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II. Prescriptive Realism

  • Seek a “Balance of Power”

    • Logic: Since it’s a dog-eat-dog world, bigger states are expected to conquer smaller ones (unless the small one gets allies)

    • Problem: Strong evidence suggests that imbalances of power (disparity) are less war-prone than balances of power (parity)!


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B. Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war)

Logic: Deterrence theory holds that the stronger you are, the less likely peopleare to attack you.

Problem: Power politics increases war risk: signing an outside alliance, building up arms (whether mutual or unilateral). States that prepare for war tend to fight a lot.


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C. “War Is the Health of the State”

  • Logic: War unites nations, expands the successful ones, and generates growth

  • War is sub-optimal

    • Bargaining without war: Side A and Side B are arguing over something. Expressing each side’s share as a percentage, A gets x of the disputed resources or territory and B gets 1-x. So A’s share plus B’s share = 1, or 100%. This is called Pareto Optimality (nothing is left on the table).


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b. Compare to War

  • Each side has a chance of winning and losing. One side’s chance of winning is the other side’s chance of losing.

  • Winner gets everything (100% of disputed resources), loser gets nothing (0%)

  • Both sides suffer costs (economic, social, military, etc.)


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The Math

  • Represent A’s probability of winning as p. Then B’s probability of winning is 1-p.

  • A’s payoff for war = p*1 + (1-p)*0 – CostsA

    • Simplify: p - CostsA

  • B’s payoff for war = (1-p)*1+p*0 – CostsB

    • Simplify: 1- p - CostsB

  • The total return on war is (p-CostsA) + (1-p-CostsB)

    • = p – CostsA + 1 – p – CostsB

    • = 1 – CostsA – Costs B

  • Since bargaining gives a total return of 1 and

    1 > 1 – CostsA – CostsB

    war is inefficient. Not Pareto Optimal.


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D. Don’t be a Sucker

1. Logic

  • Prisoners’ Dilemma: Used to model “Security Dilemmas” -- Efforts to increase own security make others less secure (arms races, etc.)

  • Both players end up worse, even though each plays rationally!


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2. Problems

Repeated play: Axelrod’s “tournament” establishes that “always defect” is suboptimal! Superior: TFT

Not all games are PD. Some have cooperative outcomes.

EARTH simulation: Establishes that best alliance strategy is: never initiate war, never ally with initiator, always ally with target. “Collective security states” do best!


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3. Summary

  • No matter what the outcome is to a war, the two sides could always have found some agreement that BOTH would have preferred to war – IF both of them agreed on how the war was likely to turn out.

  • Example: Both sides in a war would ALWAYS be better off by simply adopting the war’s outcome (other than the actual fighting part) as a pre-war bargain.

  • So why do people fight?


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III. Arrow’s Theorem against the National Interest

  • Focus: How to aggregate individual interests into social or national interest

  • Setting and question

    • Three or more citizens

    • Three or more outcomes or objectives they must rank: Example: economic growth, human rights, and military security.

    • Is there a reasonable way for society as a whole to rank the outcomes? Could be anything – voting, polling, mind-reading, etc. Is there any system at all that would be reasonable?


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C. Notation

  • Choices or outcomes are indicated by capital letters: A, B, C, etc.

  • Preferences indicated by use of letters p, i, or r:

    • Strong preference: If someone prefers one option to another we write: A p B

    • Indifference: If someone thinks A and B are about equal, we write A i B

    • Weak preference: If A p B or A i B then A r B. So A r B means “A is at least as good as B”


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2. A minimal definition of rationality

  • Preferences are connected: Given any pair of options, someone can relate them with p, i, or r.

  • Preferences are transitive: If A r B and B r C then A r C.


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D. Characteristics of a desirable aggregation technique

  • Universality: Our technique should apply to any group of rational people, regardless of their specific preferences about A, B, or C.


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2. Non-Dictatorship

  • If Bob says: A p B

    • But everyone else says B p A

    • then…

  • We should not conclude that for society, A p B


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3. Unanimity

  • If everyone agrees that A p B

    • then…

  • We should conclude that for society, A p B


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4. Collective Rationality

  • If individuals are rational, our technique should create social preferences that are rational

  • Remember what this means: connected and transitive preferences


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5. Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives

  • Suppose I have the options A, B, and C. I can rank these however I want. One example: A p B p C

  • Now suppose a new option is available: D.

    • I must not change the order of A, B, and C relative to each other.

    • Starting with above example:

      • D p A p B p C  OK

      • A p D p B p C  OK

      • A p B p D p C  OK

      • A p B p C p D  OK

      • D p B p A p C  Not OK (B and A swapped places)

  • Restaurant analogy: Waiter offers chicken or fish. I like chicken better. Waiter comes back and explains there is also beef. I now decide I want the fish. (Not OK)


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D. Characteristics of a desirable aggregation technique (revisited)

  • Universality: Applies to people with different values or beliefs

  • Non-Dictatorship: No one person’s preference outweighs everyone else together

  • Unanimity: If everyone prefers one option to another, then so should society as a whole

  • Collective Rationality: Should produce a transitive ranking of options

  • Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives: New options don’t change the relative ranks of earlier options


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E. Conclusion and Implications (revisited)

  • Arrow proved these conditions cannot all be true!

  • Implications

    • There are times when there is no single “national interest,” “general will” or “will of the people”

    • Rational individuals may not make a rational collectivity

    • Preference cycles and the power of agenda-setting

      • Voter 1: A p B p C

      • Voter 2: B p C p A

      • Voter 3: C p A p B

      • SOCIETY:

        • A p B

        • B p C

        • C p A!


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