“Why We Fight reflects Blattman’s expertise in economics, political science, and history… Blattman is a great storyteller, with important insights for us all.” —Richard H. Thaler, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and coauthor of Nudge
“Engaging and profound, this deeply searching book explains the true origins of warfare, and it illustrates the ways that, despite some contrary appearances, human beings are capable of great goodness.”—Nicholas A. Christakis author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society
Why did Russia attack Ukraine? Will China invade Taiwan and launch WWIII? Why has the number of civil wars reached their highest level in decades? Why are so many cities in the Americas plagued with violence? And finally, what can any of us do about it?
It feels like we’re surrounded by violence. Each conflict seems unique and insoluble. With a reason for every war and a war for every reason, what hope is there for peace? Fortunately, it’s simpler than that. Why We Fight boils down decades of economics, political science, psychology, and real-world interventions, giving us some counterintuitive answers to the question of war.
The first is that most of the time we don’t fight. Around the world, there are millions of hostile rivalries, yet only a fraction erupt into violence. Most enemies loathe one another in peace. The reason is simple: war is too costly to fight. It’s the worst way to settle our differences.
In those rare instances when fighting ensues, that means we have to ask ourselves: What kept rivals from the normal, grudging compromise? The answer is always the same: It’s because a society or its leaders ignored those costs of war, or were willing to pay them.
Why We Fight shows that there are just five ways this happens. From warring states to street gangs, ethnic groups and religious sects to political factions, Christopher Blattman shows that there are five reasons why violent conflict occasionally wins over compromise.
Through Blattman’s time studying Medellín, Chicago, Liberia, Northern Ireland, and more, we learn the common logics driving vainglorious monarchs, dictators, mobs, pilots, football hooligans, ancient peoples, and fanatics. Why We Fight shows that war isn’t a series of errors, accidents, and emotions gone awry. There are underlying strategic, ideological, and institutional forces that are too often overlooked.
So how to get to peace?
Blattman shows that societies are surprisingly good at interrupting and ending violence when they want to—even gangs do it. The best peacemakers tackle the five reasons, shifting incentives away from violence and getting rivals back to dealmaking. And they do so through tinkering, not transformation.
Realistic and optimistic, this is a book that lends new meaning to the adage “Give peace a chance.”
Game theory shows why violent conflicts start and how to forestall them, according to this penetrating treatise. Noting that the high costs of violence almost always make peaceful agreement a better solution to antagonisms than violence, University of Chicago economist Blattman analyzes forces that often counteract that logic, including the self-interest of leaders, ideological passions, miscalculation of an opponent's strength or motives, and mistrust. On the flip side, he contends, considerations of costs and benefits suggest ways to avoid violence through constraints on leaders' power, credible enforcement of rules by the police and other authorities, and interventions that can be as simple as getting people to talk. Blattman explores these dynamics in conflicts ranging from turf battles among Chicago's gangs to WWI and the American Revolution. (He compares White Flower, a Liberian warlord with a financial stake in perpetuating civil war, to George Washington, whose land speculations prospered thanks to the rebellion he led, but whose power was constrained by the Continental Congress and state legislatures.) Blattman uses lucid, easy-to-follow diagrams to explain the game theory underlying his ideas, and from it derives pithy, often counterintuitive insights ("The more destructive our weapons, the easier it should be to find peace"). This stimulating discussion of violence illuminates a fraught subject with sober reason.