This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) introducing the second big puzzle of the course: why states sometimes burn what they want in order to get more of it—that is, why wars occur despite the inefficiency their costly nature implies.


Over the course of the next few lectures, I’ll be taking them through the main arguments of Fearon 1995 (see also this blog post) step by step. But before we turn to the explanations for war, we first need to understand the inefficiency argument so as to fully appreciate why common explanations fail.

Today’s activity was simpler than many of the previous ones, consisting of a single decision that should have been pretty straightforward for those who actually understood the lecture (of which, it appears, there were only so many).

The correct answer is 75%, as a handful (but, sadly, only a handful) of students determined. The reason is that D has no incentive to start a war unless doing so leaves them feeling as though they held onto more territory than if they allowed C to get away with their fait accompli, and since D will feel as though they have held onto a mere 25% of the territory if they resist (despite retaining control of 40%), C can safely take 75% without provoking a war. Should C take less than this amount, C will avoid a war, but will fail to achieve the best outcome possible. To take less than 75% of the territory in this case would be the equivalent of insisting on paying more than amount due at the grocery store. Sure, you can. I think. I mean, I’m certainly not aware of any law against that. But why would you? (Of course, there’s a very important moral difference between countries taking less land than they could have gotten away with and individual consumers overpaying at the grocery store, but they weren’t asked what % of territory C could morally justify taking, nor do I think they understood it as such. If they had, I’d have expected a lot more answers of “0%” or “none” and a lot fewer of “100%” or “everything.”) On the other hand, taking more than 75% provokes a war, which leaves C feeling as they’ve only acquired 50% of the territory. So that can’t be optimal.

The most common answer was 100%. Every number on the slide made a pretty strong showing, particularly 60% and 50%, leaving me with the impression that a good number of students were guessing randomly. Some did, however, offer explanations for their answers that indicated they were thinking along the right lines but just didn’t quite connect all the dots. At any rate, after I explained the optimal strategy, they seemed to get it right away, which was encouraging.