Reagan and consequences

In posting on utilitarianism and consequentialism a while back, I meant to get on to some relevant implications, but got sidetracked into some interesting disputes with political and legal philosophers. There’s a lot I need to do to shore up my position on the issues raised, but blogging is nonlinear, so I’m going to jump straight to some conclusions, with the plan of filling in the gaps later.

My first observation is that sensible use of consequentialist reasoning requires that we evaluate decisions in terms of the outcomes that could be seen as possible when the decision was made (preferably with probabilities attached, but that’s not always feasible) rather than on the basis of the outcome that actually took place.

To give an example, let’s suppose, as is commonly claimed, that Reagan’s military buildup was designed to force the Soviet rulers to undertake a matching buildup, wrecking their economy and thereby hastening the downfall of Communism. Such a policy obviously entailed a somewhat higher risk that the arms race would lead to nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. I’ll be conservative and make the increase in risk one percentage point over the decade or so of the buildup. And I’ll suppose that the arms race brought forward the collapse of Communism by a full decade.

Considered in advance, and with these assumptions, Reagan’s policy was clearly a bad one. A nuclear war would have killed hundreds of millions of people and even a one per cent chance of such a disaster was too terrible a price to pay for the near-certain benefit of an early end to Communism.

Note that, if you focus on actual consequences, you’ll almost always support gambles of this kind. On the assumptions above, there’s a 99 per cent chance that the policy will pay off, as it did.

15 thoughts on “Reagan and consequences

  1. *let’s suppose, as is commonly claimed, that Reagan’s military build up was designed to force the Soviet rulers to undertake a matching buildup, wrecking their economy and thereby hastening the downfall of capitalism*

    Reagan was a weird guy, but I think we can assume his military buildup wasn’t designed to hasten the downfall of capitalism.

  2. This is “commonly claimed”, and may very well have been the Regan administration’s reasoning, but does anyone have any evidence that it was the actual reason for the USSR’s fall? Stephen Kotkin explicitly rejects this claim in “Armageddon Averted”, and I haven’t seen a good argument in favor of it. I’d be interested.

  3. Ronny won the Arms Race, it was Gorby that caused the collapse of the USSR and the end of the cold war.
    Ronny did not increase the risk of nuclear war during the eighties, he forced the USSR to back off from plans to put intermediate length nuclear missiles in Europe.
    Gorby mis-engineered the collapse of the USSR which forced the retrenchment of the Red Army and decommissioning of many of it’s nukes.
    This has reduced the threat of nuclear war, much more than Pr Q’s decade long 1% increase.
    Fuzzy math Prof!

    And if Ronny’s policy was so risky, how come those most at risk, the Poles and Czechs, really dig him?

    ADDENDA FOR msw & Dave Ricardo

    Stephen Kotkin is correct that Ronny did not cause the USSR to fall, he was just the guy on the scene to kick the rotten door in.
    Trouble was, no one in the West was prepared to have a go.
    Soviet state political legitimacy (& hence communist party power) depended on the Russian peoples need for high military security.
    The importance of the military was paramount in the USSR, hence all the military parades instead of workers marching on May Day.
    Reagans military buildup might have actually reduced the risk of nuclear war by making it clear that the USSR could not compete as a parity nuclear superpower, because their economy could not make the transition to information technology.
    Socialist economies, even with large oil reserves, can support a large welfare state or a large warfare state, but not both.

    The Soviets knew they could not compete with the US in advanced tech as early as the late sixties when they pulled out of the Space Race.
    That was also the reason behind Soviet support for Detente – to save the Soviets some money.
    Soviet weaponry was found to be a generation behind the times in 1983 during the air battles between the Israelis & Syrians in the Bekka valley. The Israelis used F15’s and kicked the Syrian MIGs butt 90-0.
    Rejavanik represented Soviet capitulation in the forty years arms race.
    They knew they were beat, and they also knew that it was safe to concede as by that time Ronny had allayed their fears.
    The final straw was the US’s complete demolition of the Soviet style tank formations used by the Iraqis during GW I.
    Reagan won the Arms Race, not because he wanted to destroy communism, but because he wanted the US to be secure as number 1.
    Gorby deserves the credit for ending the Russian Empire and dissolving the Communist one party state.
    Boris deserves the blame for bringing on capitalism too fast and loose.

  4. Yes, yes, the US had a significant military advantage over the USSR. You forgot to throw in Afganistan, btw – another favorite “factor” in the collapse of the USSR.

    But surely you’re not arguing that Gorbachev realized his military weakness and decided, “well, that’s it for that, let’s shut this place down”. The “Reagan did it” argument seems to be to list the various american-sponsored ills of the USSR (afganistan, star wars, client state failures, etc), do a little hand waving and then say “therefore, the collapse of the USSR”.

    But what kicked off this process was Glasnost/Perestroika – not a military strategy, but an economic one. The only economic reasoning I’ve heard that supports the “Reagan did it hypothesis” goes:
    1. Reagan institutes massive military increases
    2. The USSR responds in kind
    3. This breaks the USSR’s budget, necessitating economic reforms which spiral into political reforms and end with the breakup of the USSR.

    The problem with this theory is that #2 never happened. Kotkin claims that there is no evidence that USSR military budgets increased in response to US increases.

    Now, Kotkin may be wrong. But I haven’t seen any serious claims to that effect – the above theory is often asserted, but I’ve never seen it actually *supported*.

    As for the relative safety of pursuing an arms race with the USSR, who knows. Something to keep in mind, though – the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union is one of history’s wonders. I think that if one were to guess how the USSR would react to a political crisis, you would think Yugoslavia, not Czechoslovakia (hence, “Armageddon Averted”). But with nukes. Didn’t anyone read Red Storm Rising?


  5. Hey! Isn’t that “fixed now” thing just precisely what was complained of when some other fellow adjusted his site in the light of later feedback? The intellectually honest thing is to acknowledge the fix on the face of it, even if the details are spelled out somewhere else – people may not come via that somewhere else.

  6. My response to the claim that ‘Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War’ is to say that NANCY Reagan ended the Cold War! It was she who prompted her husband to accept Gorbachev’s overtures at face value rather than listen to his Hawkish advisors Richard Perle et al. The Reagan arms build-up in the early 1980s was predicated on the idea that the USSR was NOT about to collapse – but would be around well into the 21st century (otherwise why bother with the build-up?) Of course Nancy took the advice of her Astrologer – so maybe Nancy Reagan’s astrologer ended the Cold War!

  7. TO msm & Tim Dymond

    The Arms Race bw US & USSR was not so much won by the US as lost by the USSR. But the AR was the key aspect of the multi-faceted COld War as Soviet state legitimacy depended on the ability of the Communist party to deliver military security parity to Russian people., esp since the Great Patriotic War.
    It was the multi-generation US policy of political containment and military competition caused the USSR to capitulate.
    Ronny deserves some credit for being the guy to pick up the pol. containment/mil. competition ball after it has been dropped by Ford/Carter I.
    But Kennedy deserves most of the credit for winning the Arms Race, his firm handling of the Cuban crisis forced the USSR into a ruinous arms race in sea & space: Blue Water navy, Space Race and ICBM’s which the Soviet economy could not sustain, as it could not make the transition to a post-industrial knowledge economy.

    The field test of Soviet military inadequacy have been in the middle east, where US military technology is demonstrably a generation ahead eg Bekka valley in 1982, Kuwait in 1990.

    So the Red Army just gave up the ghost and it’e leaders turned their heads to finance.
    The US hopes that the PLA will do the same thing.

    The Cold War was an epic four aspect struggle, the resolution of which was not down to one man, comprising:
    Arms Race between Pentagon & Red Army
    Russian state imperial colonisation of E & S Eurasia “captive peoples”
    Communist One party state control of the E. Russian Polities
    Soviet state collectivist control of the Economy
    Ronny’s Pentagon won the Arms Race against the Red Army.
    Gorby’s glasnostiks defeated the Communist party dictatorship.
    The captive people’s of S & E Eurasia (Solidarity, Mujhadeen) resisted & defeated Russian attempts at colonisation.
    Borries perestroikniks – the oligarchs, Russian mafia, ex-party apparatchiks & nomenklatura staged a hostile takeover (LBO) of the Soviet economy.

  8. “My first observation is that sensible use of consequentialist reasoning requires that we evaluate decisions in terms of the outcomes that could be seen as possible when the decision was made”

    I’m not clear on how this works.

    Could have been forseen by whom? An actual person or a hypothetical person (eg a ‘reasonable person’). I presume you want to avoid objections like “Ronald Reagan couldn’t have forseen the risk of war because he wasn’t smart enough. Therefore his actions were justified.”

  9. I’m not sure if Raegan’s actions necessarily increased the likelihood of the collapse of the USSR. But one question that should be thrown into the mix is whether the early collapse of the USSR was good for the US? Was Raegan spending taxpayers money on his own people or on (attempted) foreign aid?

  10. Don, as I mentioned before, I’m thinking about consequentialism/utilitarianism as a public philosophy, rather than as a theory of individual ethics. So the relevant implication is “stupid people should not be put in positions where they have to make complex judgements about the consequences of important decisions”.

    There seems to be some controversy about whether the US Presidency is such a position or whether a President just needs to pick the right experts, but that’s for another day.

  11. And the Russian economy is now smaller than Australia’s, according to the last Economist magazine yearbook. We really did stick it to those Soviets, didn’t we.

  12. 24601 asks whether “Raegan’s actions necessarily increased the likelihood of the collapse of the USSR”
    The PRC’s Maoist political economy collapsed in the late seventies, following a Deng-led coup against the “gang of four” Maoists.
    This collapse occurred without a Reagan style arms race, in fact the US was in the middle of it’s pro-China tilt when the PRC imploded.
    Military defeat in the field exposed the “internal contradictions” of PRC communist poltical economy. The Vietnamese militia defeated a communist punitive expedition in 1979 which convince the PRC’s rulers that Maoism was not the way to enhance the Party’s power.
    Just as military defeat of Syria’s (1983) & Iraq’s (1990) soviet-style militaries convinced the rulers of Russia that soviet-style political economy was not the best way to maximise their power.

  13. John, I think (in hindsight, of course) that you should have picked a less controversial example to make your point.

    This actual philosphical point that you seem to be trying to make actually comes up in politics. I seem to remember a ‘Yes PM’ episode where we have the scenario that some Minister makes a cock-up, the opposition demand said Minister’s resignation, and Hacker refused to demand it, saying that the cockup wasn’t forseeable at the time said Minister made the decision.

    Is that (roughly) the point you were trying to make?

  14. Risk and Reagan
    Since the obituaries and eulogies for Ronald Reagan have now been read, I think it’s reasonable to take a critical look at his historical contribution. It’s often argued that Reagan accelerated the end of the Cold War by raising US…

Comments are closed.