RE: POL: Extropianism and Politics

Billy Brown (
Tue, 23 Mar 1999 08:46:30 -0600

Randall Randall wrote:
> Note that the high cost of these weapons is purely a function of limited
> supply. I think it would be fairly easy to design such a man-carried
> missile to be mass manufactured for less than a thousand; no government
> would be pleased with this operation, though...
> In a free society, such things could be as common as .380 autos are
> now.

The high cost of military hardware is due to two factors: intrinsic complexity and small manufacturing runs. An anti-tank missile is a more complicated machine than a rifle, so it will naturally be more expensive. Tanks, aircraft and other very high-cost items are also produced in relatively small numbers, which drives up costs by making manufacturing inefficient.

A free market in weapons would probably result in lower prices, just like it does with anything else. However, it isn't going to make everything cheap.

> Eh? No one needs this to defend his house. If it were apparent that
> a standing force of some sort was necessary, people would pay for
> a private company to train one. I'm not trained to be a
> police detective,
> either, but I don't need to be one to defend my home individually, and
> if I do need one for something, I can call my crime insurance company
> (police force). It may be more efficient, in general, for a
> police company
> to also be a mass defense company, but probably not, IMHO..

Depends on what the threat is. My point is that a force of 1,000 men with combined-arms equipment can easily defeat 50,000 individuals armed with rifles. Unless civilian morale is very high, they can also terrorize several hundred thousand people into submission (we have to remember, most people are *not* willing to die for their freedom). This is an important point to remember when you start looking at what a State or a rogue PPA could do.

> >Today it is virtually impossible to defeat a modern army in
> conventional
> >warfare unless you have one yourself.
> Not so. The Somalis effectively defeated the force sent there in the
> early 1990s...the trick is to cause losses while making it clear that
> it will go on indefinitely.

??? The Somalis killed a few soldiers, and the Clinton administration decided it didn't want bad press on the issue and pulled out. There was never any attempt to attack the warlords responsible, so it hardly counts as a war.

> I disagree that this is so. Iraq had the fourth largest army in the
> world in 1990. We sent a trivial force, in comparison, and it was
> higher technology, not numbers, that made the difference..

The important measure of size is money, not people. In the modern world you will run out of money long before you run out of people.

An organization with more money to spend can afford more R&D, more specialized equipment and better training. With modern technology the number of things you could productively spend money on is far larger than anyone's pocket book, so money tends to be the limiting factor.

Now, in a conflict between a big, low-tech country and a small, high-tech country I'd probably bet on the high-tech side. However, high technology tends to produce so much wealth that it is hard to find examples like that. The usual case is for one side to have better technology and a bigger economy.

> >In the future, we should reasonably expect these trends to continue.
> >are far more things a military might want to buy than they are ever
> >to be able to afford. The near future will see the introduction of
> >autonomous recon drones, robotic weapons, cheap precision munitions,
> >automated surveillance systems, and many other expensive, specialized
> >of hardware.
> Hah! Gotcha. All of this stuff is predicated on computational power.
> Computers are so cheap (and falling) that this sort of equipment is
> expensive only due to scarcity. The cost of manufacture is low,
> compared to many electronic gadgets that people routinely buy..

No, its based on the arms race problem.

Simply put, there is never a point at which military technology is 'good enough'. You want your equipment to be better than what your opponent has, and vice versa. Civilian buyers want to buy hardware in the 'sweet spot' where cost efficiency is maximized. Military buyers want hardware just shy of the bleeding edge, so they will have an advantage over anyone who doesn't choose the same option.

And BTW, the kind of systems I mentioned are not just computers. Military-grade sensors are better than anything in the civilian sector (except for scientific instruments, of course), and robotics are expensive anywhere. Also, the military version has to keep working after being shot, dropped, run over, rained on, and used as a hammer - all of which drives up costs considerably.

Now, once again, I expect that a privatized system could produce better arms for less money than a government. However, that doesn't mean that arms would be cheap. Costs of some items might drop, but an intelligent military will opt for improved performance over reduced cost in almost all cases.

> There is another point, here, too. Any population that is slated for
> conquering is likely to have deeper pockets than the conqueror, for
> two reasons: one, the conquerer must feel that he will get his money
> back, or it wouldn't be worth it to try (no one can lose money
> indefinitely, after all), and two, while the conquerer is willing to spend
> some portion of his own wealth to get the conquered area, he cannot
> be willing to spend as much as the area in question will be willing to
> spend to keep him out. That is, I would be willing to use up all my
> wealth to keep someone from stealing my wealth. This is the rationale
> behind many wealthy people's actions of giving away more than they
> would have to pay in taxes, to reduce the amount paid in taxes..

This is true as far as it goes, but it ignores some crucial factors:

  1. In peacetime, an organization that does not plan to start a war has strong incentives to invest in productive resources instead of weapons. This tends to create divergent strategies, where peaceful groups maximize economic growth and warlike groups maximize military power.
  2. It takes time to convert economic power into military power. Raising an army takes years. Building a navy takes decades. Figuring out how to make your troops into a first-rate fighting force is along and uncertain process.
  3. Warlike groups practice divide-and-conquer strategies. You don't attack the whole world at once. You pick some unpopular little group, and conquer them. Then you find another, and another, and another. If you're good at the game, you eventually pick off enough smaller groups to make the operation worthwhile. If not, your peaceful neighbors wise up and organize to oppose you.
  4. Losses in wartime are not symmetrical. If my military is twice as good as yours, and I invade your country, I can defeat 100% of your troops without loosing anywhere near 50% of mine (10% would be a more likely figure). If my advantage is even larger, my losses rapidly become trivial.
  5. Warlike groups don't have to show a profit. Market institutions must deliver a positive return on investment on a fairly consistent basis. Coercive institutions can show a net loss for years, and their only penalty is a lower rate of economic growth. In the long run this can be a fatal problem (witness the Soviet Union), but that is beyond the planning horizon of most despots. So, coercive institutions tend not to care if their operations are actually profitable.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I