“credibility” = “investment in reputation as an idiot” meme

Crooked Timber explains why acting like a bitter dead-enders is not a worthwhile policy for democracies.

The point here is that it’s one of the more important things in game theory that a signal has to be a costly signal to be credible; like membership of the Modern Languages Association, a reputation in deterrence theory is something that is worth having, but not worth getting. People who use the word “signal” in this context (usually on the basis of a poorly understood or second-hand reading of Schelling) don’t always seem to realise that they are explicitly admitting that the costs of being in Iraq are greater than the benefits.

Because of this, in my opinion it is very difficult for a democracy to establish this kind of credibility. The reason is that although leaders are often idiots, democratic polities rarely are. It is very hard for a democratically elected leader to credibly commit to a policy of stupidity, because everyone else knows that it is highly likely that the electorate will not support it. I hasten to add that to take this obvious fact and turn it into a Dolchstosslegende, or to bemoan the lack of national vigour in the manner of Victor Davis Hanson is to get the analysis back to front. It is a good thing about democracies that they don’t in general do stupid things, and the fact that an argument from “credibility” and “deterrence” can be constructed to make the case that it is a weakness (even “a fatal weakness”) of democracies that they are insufficiently inclined to pointless military dead-endism is just another example of the Davies-Folk Theorem.

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