PUNISHMENTS ONLY WORK IF THE COST OF INCURING THE PUNISHMENT IS GREATER THAN THE COST OF NOT TAKING THE OFFENDING ACTION

PUNISHMENTS ONLY WORK IF THE COST OF INCURING THE PUNISHMENT IS GREATER THAN THE COST OF NOT TAKING THE OFFENDING ACTION

Matt HealeyMonday,2 September 2013

The Snap:

We are now debating the merits of a strike on Syria for using chemical weapons. From my reading of the news it is pretty clear that Assad did use chemical weapons. Maybe he did not give the order directly, but someone in his organization did. Now we have to decide if we need to strike back to maintain the international norm of not using these types of weapons.

The Download:

I want to get this out of the way up front. Chemical weapons are really, really bad. So are biological and nuclear. They should never be used or manufactured. Ever. The problem is that manufacturing them apparently is easy. I did a quick Google search on “How to make Sarin Gas.” Turns out it is not really that hard and I am expecting a visit from the ATF/FBI/CIA/NSA soon. So eliminating them from the planet is not feasible. We must expect that unstable nations will have chemical weapons.

If we accept that unstable nations will have these weapons then next question is should we expect them to use them? I believe that it is naive to assume they will not use them. Assume you are in Assad’s shoes. He is having trouble winning his civil war. He has these weapons that the international community has banned. Now he has 2 choices, use them or don’t use them. If he doesn’t use them and loses his war, then he will die. All you have to do is look at what happened to Saddam after he lost the Iraq war. If he uses them, he stands a greater chance of winning his war and not dying. Clearly the not dying option is better, so we can expect unstable nations to use these weapons in desperate times.

Which leads us to the final question: “Should we strike to punish him for using chemical weapons, and if we do, what do we hope to accomplish?” If we decide the answer is yes, that we need to send a message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, then let’s send a message. A real message by a devastating strike. Not a limited “lob a few cruise missiles” at them kind of strike. A full blow — a “bomb them back into the stone age” kind of strike. My reasoning is that if the goal is to prevent an unstable nation from using banned weapons, the punishment for using them must be worse than death. If it is not worse than death, then any reasonable dictator will make the rational choice that using the weapons and having a better chance of winning their war — and thus not dying — is a better choice than not using them, losing the war and dying.

Personally, I think we should not strike, because I think that any dictator will manufacture chemical weapons and use them if they need to. So sending a message, even a real message, is not likely to stop the next dictator from doing the same thing.

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