Nuclear policy is evil not irrational

Hey we’re all gonna die one day but did you know the US government has a plan for how we can all die together? Literally everyone should read Daniel Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine. He’s the Pantagon Papers dude but the book is about his time as a US nuclear war planner in the 1960s.

Here are two dinner party questions that arise from the book.

First “hypothetical”: Would you kill 380 million people (half of them in a country who doesn’t even have nukes) if it would prevent a future war that you might not win?

General Curtis LeMay — head of Strategic Air Command in the late ’50s and all-round war criminal kind of guy — certainly wanted to. His plan for nuclear war included every major Russian city and, rather satanically, every major Chinese city as well, just for good measure. For a while he, not the president, was the person who would make the decision as to whether that war would happen. LeMay was a heavily decorated and respected general: a rational man.

Second “hypothetical”: Would you risk a 1/10 chance of killing one billion people to win an election?

JFK answered yes! As the Cuban Missile Crisis worsened, Kennedy and Bob McNamara (Secretary for Defence) began to adjust their odds of a nuclear exchange between the major powers, settling on about 1/10. For them, this meant approximately one billion deaths worldwide. Because of the danger to their domestic election chances of appearing weak on the Soviets, they were happy to run that risk.

(Castro evidently answered yes to a different hypothetical: Would you sacrifice your whole country — kill every citizen including yourself — to inflict an ideological black eye on an enemy? Fucking hell.)

And yet analysts of this scenario assumed that people in a crisis would behave “rationally”. In a sense, they did. But why do we accept that? Why are we so loath to consider leaders who blithely put our lives at risk as being anything other than psychopathically evil? And why are we repeatedly convinced that no one really unstable and self-possessed could ever be elected to the highest office? “Trump must actually be pretty sane if he made it to the Whitehouse.” Cold War history suggests that even saner men were insane.

This comes down to a definition of rationality. Can you rationally pursue a strategy whose goals others think are unthinkable? Kennedy was rationally trying to maintain his domestic reputation and avoid a nuclear exchange, so he acted in the crisis according to his own sober assessment of the different odds and payoffs. I say “sober” but he was famously hopped up on speed and all sorts. Hey, why not? Anyway, I can’t say he didn’t properly weigh the payoffs. He knew the world population, the nuclear war plan  (although this was before anyone knew of the effects of Nuclear Winter) and the chances of war, assuming 1/10 was roughly accurate. He simply had very different preferences and a different risk profile to me.

Yet it would seem to be somewhat tone deaf to merely acknowledge that Kennedy had different preferences: different strokes for different folks, takes all kinds to nuke a world, and so on. Surely his (and Castro’s) preferences were deranged. Can one be wrong about one’s own preferences? Economists would say that provided he had all the relevant information and acted accordingly to find the maximum of his own utility function, then he can’t be irrational. I think we’re mature enough as a civilisation — despite the fact that we have nukes — to say that people can be plain wrong about preferences and evaluations too. If someone honestly weighs up the relevant evidence and declares that they just want to kill everyone, I think we can call them out for being mistaken. We don’t need to show both sides of the story and the truth probably doesn’t lie somewhere in between either. But rather than calling them irrational, I think it’s much more efficient to call them evil.

But… when it comes down to it I also think it’s totally irrational. Kennedy had the probability of nuclear war but he hadn’t priced it correctly. There was a broader context in which it was irrational even if his re-election was super-important, because under repeated games the strategy he played is self-annihilating, not just for him as a player but for the game as a whole.

Maybe that’s the best way of thinking about public choice, morality and political philosophy. At a minimum, your preferences have to be ones that, if realised, lead to the continuation of the overall game in which preferences can be had. If your preferences lead very obviously to omnicide, then they are irrational and evil  — for what else would we reserve that term?

Nowadays, there’s a different nuclear landscape. But there are still corporations, workers’ unions, and hawkish politicians who fight to maintain the status quo. They work ceaselessly to make sure mutually assured destruction continues, that nuclear stockpiles are maintained, and that weapons systems remain on hair-trigger alert. In other words, it is their heart’s desire and their livelihood that the rest of us be fitted with a loaded gun pointed at our temple that could go off at any time, based on a decision by Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, a submarine commander having a bad day, or simply a technical malfunction. We should be stopping each other in the streets — or barricading them — every single day about this.