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British naval commanders were somewhat rational in avoiding battles

Summary:
Mutual optimism theory holds that mutually optimistic beliefs about outcomes cause international conflict. Because beliefs are unobservable, this theory is difficult to test systematically. Here, I present a clean test of theory that relies exclusively on observable variables by exploiting novel features of naval battles in the age of sail, most notably an admiral’s ability to avoid battle by simply sailing away. Using a formal model, I show that the outcome of mutual naval battles, where either side could avoid battle by sailing away, should not be predictable from observable capability indicators. The outcome of unilateral battles, where only one side could sail away to avoid fighting, should be predictable from these same indicators. I test these predictions against all squadron-level

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Mutual optimism theory holds that mutually optimistic beliefs about outcomes cause international conflict. Because beliefs are unobservable, this theory is difficult to test systematically. Here, I present a clean test of theory that relies exclusively on observable variables by exploiting novel features of naval battles in the age of sail, most notably an admiral’s ability to avoid battle by simply sailing away. Using a formal model, I show that the outcome of mutual naval battles, where either side could avoid battle by sailing away, should not be predictable from observable capability indicators. The outcome of unilateral battles, where only one side could sail away to avoid fighting, should be predictable from these same indicators. I test these predictions against all squadron-level British naval battles from 1650 to 1833. I show that observable strength indicators are substantially less predictive in mutual battles, confirming the core key theoretical prediction.

That is from David Lindsey, via the excellent Kevin LewisAumann theorem for them!

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Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen is an American economist, academic, and writer. He occupies the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author, with Alex Tabarrok, of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. Cowen and Tabarrok have also ventured into online education by starting Marginal Revolution University. He currently writes the "Economic Scene" column for the New York Times, and he also writes for such publications as The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Newsweek, and the Wilson Quarterly.

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