Fiasco II

Henry at Crooked Timber challenges me to provide more background on why the fiasco in Iraq is another instance of government failure.  I do so in the comments to his post and expand somewhat here.

Government founders on problems of incentives and information.  On incentives: Should we be surprised that delays, errors and incompetence are more prevalent at the INS than at bureaucracies which must deal with citizens or which face competition from the private sector?

Of course not – but then what incentives does our government have to prevent abuse of foreign
citizens? Democracy in this case provides no checks and balances because of
anti-foreign bias, the ease with which the public can ignore the deaths of
innocents abroad, and the fact that foreigners lack representation in
our legislatures or the courts.  Thus, Abu Ghraib and the routine shooting of innocents is no surprise – this is what happens when government is unconstrained. 

What about the incentives to
start wars? Government is bad enough when we all have access to
information. What are we going to do when the major source of
information is the government itself and they ask us to trust but not verify? 

Is it a surprise that wars
are much more likely to be started when the economy is doing badly and
the President is low in the polls?  Not to me but I am dismayed that people continue to be surprised when Presidents lie to make war, as if this had never happened before.

We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."  Lyndon Baines Johnson, October 1964.)

It’s naive to only blame particular people (Bush, Cheney et al.) and depressing when people at CT claim that if only "our guys" had been in power everything would have been ok.  When you see the same behaviour again and again you ought to look to systematic factors.  And even if you do believe that it is all due to Bush, Cheney et al. it’s not as if these guys came to power randomly, they won twice.  The worst get on top for a reason.  As a result, government ought to be designed (on which see further below) so it works when the knaves are in power and not just when the angels govern.

One response in several comments at CT is that these are arguments against democracy and not against government.  If only we had followed the experts at the Pentagon we would have been ok.  Frankly this response, which is an argument for Fascism, sickens me.   Factually the argument is incorrect, the Pentagon and not just the civilian leaders share much of the blame for our current fiasco.  Moreover, had we listened to the experts in the past, Curtis LeMay and his type would probably have sent us to nuclear hell by now.  I believe in democracy but I believe in it as a constraint on government.

Governments also founder on problems of information.  Whereas the market makes use of highly dispersed information in the minds of millions of individuals thousands of miles apart the government bases its information on curveball and the musings of a cabal of neo-conservatives busy counting the chapters of The Prince for gnosis.  Yes, this case is especially ridiculous but have people not heard of the Gulf of Tonkin?  More generally, an economy cannot be centrally planned and neither can a society (let alone can a society be centrally planned from another country by people who don’t even speak the language).  The idea that our government, however competently run, can export democracy is simply the fatal conceit applied to foreign affairs.

Am I arguing that the market could have done it better?  No, believe it or not, my goal is not to efficiently kick the shit out of foreigners.  If something can’t be done well that’s an argument for not doing it – or at least not doing it often.  I will take the unusual opportunity to agree with John Quiggan who writes at CT that in war "the likelihood of disaster is so great that the bar needs to be set very high."  How high should the bar be set?  Well we could begin by taking the Constitution seriously when it states that Congress alone has the power to declare war.  (I know, the Constitution is a dead letter.)  And, if we really get ambitious, how about making the Department of Defense live up to its name?


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