The changes in the political scene since 9/11 have been vast. I would argue that the realignment of interests, and the changed meanings of political labels, signify the largest change since FDR altered our understanding of "liberalism." That the Democrats have become popular while not adapting to these changes is not a counterargument. It always takes politicians longer than us regular folks to understand the significant of changes, and popular support for the Democrats has grown out of a, perhaps misguided, hope that they would reverse Bush’s actions, if only for political reasons.
These changes have been uncomfortable for many. As has been noted here, James Baker-type conservatives are uncomfortable that our new political discussions center around warfare and taking away civil liberties. They prefer the older way of doing things, where wars, murder, and torture were carried out quietly, secretly, while public discussions centered around the welfare state, a topic on which they appeared moderately better than their colleagues on the left. Having to publicly justify these things makes them squeamish.
Lesser remarked, but also dramatic, is the challenge this new tone of discussion poses to libertarians. We see ourselves now aligned increasingly with the political left, as mass murder and domestic spying present more immediate and serious threats than entitlement programs. This is alright as far as it goes, but the real danger comes when we become aligned with those who actually differ from us on the very topics of warfare and civil liberties.
An example of this is the discussion of creepy, faceless, scary semi-private companies, such as Blackwater, Halliburton, and Bechtel. The rise of these oddly all-encompassing companies, which always describe their business model in euphemisms, is something the hard left has long warned about. The corporation which rules the world is a popular concept in movies; we are all familiar with this “doomsday scenario.” It was, in my view, handled in the most mature and sensible way by Stephen King in the Dark Tower series, but it is by no means the sole, or primary, purview of horror fiction. It is an omnipresent theme. The trouble is, it is really happening now, and this has brought us into a position of sounding similar to anti-private property left-wingers, who believed such a tendency was present in the free market. This claim, by the way, was easily demolished by Murray Rothbard, who asked how a company that runs “everything” could possibly continue to be profitable, since the pricing mechanism would cease to provide meaningful information. Nonetheless, the position of these companies is entirely indistinguishable from that presented in fiction.
To illustrate the point, I’ll tell a brief story. In order to do my clinical training for my paramedic class, I had to submit a full FBI background check. I was pressed for time, and the fastest way to do that is to use a computerized request, rather than the older method of having a police officer fingerprint you on a card, which is then mailed to the FBI. In Texas, a company known as Identix has the contract to provide this service, namely a monopoly. I made my appointment with Identix, and was provided with an address and directions. Since I was given a suite number, I expected to find an office building. I was understandably concerned, then, when I found instead a shady, room-by-the-hour hotel at that location. Assuming I must have been misinformed, I figured I had come that far, and might as well try. I walked up to the desk clerk and asked if a company in the hotel did fingerprints. I was surprised when, instead of a blank look, she said “oh, yes” and gave me the room number — the same, I noticed as the suite number I had been presented.
Walking into the hotel room, I found a regular room, bed and such intact, but all visible surfaces covered with computer equipment, file folders, and other such items. There was a computer in the sink in the bathroom! The room was hard to walk into, so full of equipment and people was it. There was one employee working there, who appeared to also live there. She hardly greeted me, seemingly oblivious to the principle of not being rude to customers. I was taken aback by the people in the room — with only one exception, all the customers were very beefy, tall men, with crew-cuts. Many wore t-shirt or polo shirts bearing the name of a police department or contractor firm. All glared at this newcomer as I sat down to wait my turn. The employee herself looked more capable of handling an M16 than a wineglass. Shockingly, I saw that, behind her Identix nametag, she wore a Halliburton nametag! That’s what I’m talking about when I say these companies are everywhere, doing everything.
The problem is that the nature of the criticism of these companies too often misses, or even completely reverses, the problem. Typical is the following from Jeremy Scahill, who has written extensively on this topic:
Right now in this country there are more private law enforcement agents than there are official law enforcement agents. That’s incredible! That should disturb people. Because it’s not just about “is the private sector more efficient than the government?” It’s about accountability and oversight. Where are the laws that govern these privatized forces? We’ve seen that in Iraq there’s no laws that govern them, and in a way it’s the same at home here. If your kid gets killed by a private security guard outside of a Best Buy, what happens? How do you get justice for your son? I mean, I have a friend whose son was killed by a security guard. He’s gotten nowhere with it. What laws govern these people?
Ah, so the problem with Blackwater is that it’s making a profit, like those other murdering companies, Microsoft and Whole Foods. It is dangerous because it is not the government. It follows, then, that if the government were to simply do these awful things themselves, it would be perfectly fine and sensible. Indeed, many critics seem to glorify "serving your country" and contrast it with working for a private firm concerned only with money. This is very weak as anti-war arguments go. As an aside, what happens if your kid gets killed by a cop outside of a Best Buy? How do you get justice for your son? I mean, I drove through a town today where dozens of people were killed by cops. Their families have gotten nowhere with it. What laws govern these people? (This is true, by the way; I drove through Waco this morning.) Scahill really should know better, having been one of the people to point out that, in the aftermath of Katrina, Blackwater employees patrolled the streets of Louisiana wearing badges issued by the state to serve as state law enforcement officers. This is a firm that is entirely a part of the private sector?
In this way, the left and right close ranks, aligning Bush with privatization, as if a company that has only one customer, the government, were some scary part of the free market. Yes, Blackwater fits the old nightmare scenario equation, but how can everyone be so willfully ignorant of the fact that Blackwater exists only to do things the government needs done? That Blackwater’s only income is paid from taxes, not voluntary exchange? This is fascism, in the old sense, not privatization. Yet the politicians and media agree to speak of it as if it were a free-market move, as if libertarians were whispering into Bush’s ear and encouraging this sort of thing. Then criticism of the war can become criticism of the contractors, which becomes criticism of libertarians. Is torture going on? Then it must be overzealous contractors responding to profit signals! Hideous free marketers! Damn you libertarians, supporters of poverty, haters of the poor, and now friends of torture and massacres!
So we see that these mercenaries are not the free market outdoing and taking over a formerly government-controlled business, Blackwater is not an exemplar of the security firms Rothbard spoke of when describing anarchy. What is Blackwater? It is an arm of the state, and is paid out of the executive, making it essentially a private army for Bush.
Let’s be clear here. In a state of anarchy, could there be a company like Blackwater? Sure. Could someone purchase all the services Bush has purchased, and do great destruction, as Bush has done? Yes, but this is not a criticism of anarchy, since it is happening now. More importantly, how many people could afford it? Do we honestly think Bush could ever have earned enough money to buy all this? Of course not, he finances it out of taxes. Not even Bill Gates could long afford to behave this way — the entire population of the United States is now straining under the bill! You would have to be insane to try to open a private army to take over the world on behalf of a private individual — this model is only profitable when you have a guarantee of a client with unlimited ability to take other people’s money. So, far from a part of the free market, Blackwater exists because a demand exists in government for its services, a demand that could not exist without government.
Katrina provided a taste of what is to come, unfortunately. The state uses disasters as testing grounds for what will later be adopted as policy. This is similar to testing policies in the TSA before adopting them for general police use. It is not unique in history to have a separate, special military force be created for use by a tyrant. As most readers of LRC will know, a revolt of the generals has been going on. Highly-placed military officers are speaking out against Bush and his misdeeds. This might be creating a desire for a special Republican Guard, answerable only to Bush, without the protections of Congressional and Supreme Court oversight. The generals speak out knowing that Bush cannot fire or kill them without Congress getting all huffy about it, but Blackwater’s executives answer only to Bush — who would object if he fired the firm and hired a new one? The CEO knows that the only way he can keep from going bankrupt is to please Bush.
Back up a bit to 2000. Right-wing commentators are screaming about another doomsday scenario — an administration so hell-bent on power that it refuses to leave the Presidency. In this case, Gore was seen as a proxy for a continued Clinton administration, and the situation was his challenge of election results. It is both difficult and scary to back up your mind and remember how you viewed Clinton in those days, when you consider how far we’ve come. A libertarian can now look at a cold-hearted killer like Clinton as relatively likeable and wish for the carefree days of Clinton, with his Oval Office blowjobs, renting out the Lincoln Bedroom, playing the saxophone… It isn’t that Clinton has gotten better, of course, but that Bush has moved to a whole new plane. In any case, that doomsday scenario can now be played out again, only for real. Last time the only threat Gore presented was a court challenge — Bush has purchased a private army, and has already used it on American citizens once. Might it be used in keeping Bush in office, or installing a like-minded individual who has not won the election? Will Blackwater patrol the polling booths, or make appearances at opposition campaign events to provide “security”? I propose that there is a scarier scenario than even that — that they won’t be needed, that a disaster or terror attack of some sort, perhaps a black-flag operation — will lead to a public outcry for keeping Bush in office or installing a like-minded individual without honoring election results. Stay awake, and look out.
Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is Chief of EMS at the Town of Hempstead Department of Parks and Recreation. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He presentlyworks in EMS atLegacy EMS and Harris County Emergency Services. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie, but has discontinued this practice on a regular basis, due to the sugar content of the port.