Eli Harman · Uncategorized · Violence

The Information Content of Violence

by Eli Harman

It’s an article of faith among many libertarians that violence, and particularly aggressive violence, is necessarily negative sum.

Prices contain information and markets broker them (in a subjective utility maximising way.) Violence only short circuits that, disrupts markets, destroy price signals, and makes everyone worse off.

But this is not correct.

In the first place, market transactions aren’t necessarily positive sum. If they are fraudulent or create negative externalities for those not party, they can be negative sum.
And in the second place, violence is itself a signal, and transmits information. A threat expresses a subjective evaluation just as an offer does in the marketplace. “Hey, don’t do that or we’re going to fight.”

And the initiation of hostilities demonstrates the authenticity of that information just as a payment does in the marketplace. One undertakes real cost, and real risk, in resorting to violence.

(In contrast, whining, and playing the victim DO NOT demonstrate the authenticity of grievances in the way that resorting to violence does, and so are liable and likely to prove negative sum, if indulged, just as theft is liable and likely to prove negative sum, in the marketplace, because it does not make a sufficient demonstration and exchange of value.)

Markets and prices on the one hand, and violence and threats on the other, are both necessary components to a stable, functional, and efficient society and economy. To suppress either wholly in favor of the other, would be to forego the benefits they offer, and to pervert incentives towards destructive outcomes.

No society which does either will be able to compete, long term, against one which makes a more sensible tradeoff between them, making best use of information supplied by both exchange and conflict.

Violence is the means of expressing the subjective evaluations not captured by price signals, which are as vast and varied as those which are.

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