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How will we recoup our investment in dodgy logic?

2010-07-09

I apologise for the complete absence for the last month or so. I finally got around to reading Hansard today. I intend to set up a process to automatically download Hansard onto my e-book reader each day so I can read it on the train – about the only place I can find that is properly air-conditioned!

In today’s reports from the Commons, I found this question from the Labour MP Michael McCann at PMQs:

Last Saturday afternoon, I joined the community of Stonehouse in my constituency to welcome home Sergeant Gary Jamieson. Sergeant Jamieson, from the Scots Guards, lost both legs and his left arm in an explosion in Afghanistan. The most humbling aspect of meeting Sergeant Jamieson was his distinct lack of bitterness. He fully supports the mission in Afghanistan, and strongly believes that the British forces there are making a difference. May I ask the Prime Minister to join me in paying tribute to a true British hero, and does he agree that the most fitting way in which to pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and those who have suffered the most terrible injuries, is to stay in Afghanistan until the job is done?

David Cameron, of course, paid tribute to Sgt Jamieson and the serving soldiers. He then responded:

Let me be clear. Do I think that we should be there, in a combat role or in significant numbers, in five years’ time? No, I do not. This is the time to get the job done, and the plan that we have envisages our ensuring that we will not be in Afghanistan in 2015. We have already been in Helmand for four or five years, and, obviously, we have been in Afghanistan since 2001. It is time to maximise the pressure now, and then to bring our forces home as we train the Afghan army and police force to do the job that needs to be done, which is to keep the country secure. That is our goal, that is in our national security interest, and that is what we will do.

That is a perfectly good answer to the question McCann was asking. But McCann’s question needs to be examined a bit.

Rhetorically, both the pro- and anti-war advocates can use the sacrifice of the soldiers as part of their arguments.

  • The war in Afghanistan has cost us so many men, we would do a dishonour to their sacrifice to not finish the job. Do we want our soldiers to have died in vain?
  • The war in Afghanistan has cost us so many men, why carry on? Haven’t we sacrified enough lives in this pointless war?

The former is a clear example of the sunk costs fallacy. The sunk costs fallacy is very easy to exploit: Las Vegas was built on the back of it. Many of the scams played by con-men exploit the sunk costs fallacy – the Razzle Dazzle being a prime example. I remember seeing a video once of a man playing slots in Vegas. He was feeding bills into the machine and consistently losing. He was asked by the cameraman and he justified continuing to play the slots because he had invested such a large amount that it will pay out “soon enough”. Here, he was invoking sunk costs to justify his (obviously erroneous) belief that the results of the slot machines aren’t probabilistically independent. It’s not just gambling: people say that we ought to finish, say, building projects because of prior capital investment. “We’ve already spent a million pounds, we ought to continue!” But, in this case, we ought to judge the completion of the project on the future costs. If it is only going to cost £100 to complete the project, it seems an obvious thing to do. If it is going to cost £10 billion, it might not be worth continuing. In either case, whether one continues is dependent on whether the future cost is justified by the benefit that completing the project will bring.

What about war, then? Obviously, the tragedies of war can justify both a claim that we should end the war and a claim that we should continue it. Saying we should continue the war because of the sunk costs (i.e. the deaths of soldiers so far) is unpersuasive to someone who doesn’t believe in the worthiness of the cause, just as the sunk costs won’t convince the person who isn’t caught up in the slot machines of the Vegas casinos.

It is also a bad idea to use this strategy, because it potentially blinds us to the possibility of us being wrong. The problem is that if you are using the sunk cost fallacy, the facts may change but the sunk cost fallacy continues to exert control over one’s opinions. It may be the case that the situation in Afghanistan changes dramatically and the war becomes unwinnable. Let us imagine an unlikely example: for some reason, the Americans and our other allies pull out of Afghanistan. Our best experts tell us that the war is now completely unwinnable. Sunk costs do not justify military suicide pacts.

The fact is that if the facts change, the soldiers will have died in vain anyway. This is an unfortunate fact of life: in the context of epistemology, you can be an open-minded, careful, rational inquirer who collects his facts and tries to draw the most reasonable and sensible conclusions he can and still be wrong. (And, then, even more annoyingly, the stupid, irrational and irresponsible people can be right!) You can have fought valiantly and bravely in a war, dying a hero for your country, but then due to circumstances outside of your control, you can still die in vain. If the war is unwinnable, then rather than having more soldiers die in vain, one ought to cut one’s losses and get the hell out.

Carrying on with the mission may be a fitting way to honour the sacrifices of the soldiers who have died or been wounded, but what about the interests of the active soldiers? Again, the sunk costs of war ought not to blind us to the possibility that sometimes we do need to pull out. (I’m not saying we do, of course. Personally, I’m very ambiguous about the war: I absolutely hope we can beat the Taliban and bring about a democratic, liberal state, but I’m not at all sure whether the cost of doing so is too high.)

Interestingly, Barry Schwarz uses the Iraq war and George W. Bush’s statements about it to illustrate his article on the sunk costs fallacy.

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