The Quickest Route to Defense Privatization

I really enjoyed Lew's great article on LRC on our so-called defense in the United States. After literally trillions of dollars dumped into the maw of the Department of Defense and all its corollaries in the executive, we still discover we can't defend ourselves adequately. This vast testament to Mussolini-style state corporatism fails to address the only primary role of a Federal government in the pre-1860 republic — defense of the nation. The Founders, of course, gave us an avenue to pursue in the Constitution that could open the door to privatizing the heretofore unfathomable — the removal of the government monopoly on violence. Many of the writers in British America commented on the fact that militias, unlike professional armies, have a natural aversion to imperialism and extraterritorial adventures. While the militia solution has been widely discussed, letters of marque have not. Read Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution and you find a curious and seemingly anachronistic passage that appears as dormant as the Third Amendment. To wit:

Clause 11: To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

The problems of piracy and inadequate naval power plagued the young Republic and letters of marque were an ingenious early adoption of outsourcing. Most of the literature demonstrates a very fine line between privateering as a legal arm of the state and piracy as the converse image of a thriving underground economy. The dearth of naval strength led lawmakers to adopt more expedient means to combat both unsanctioned piracy and to prevent the British and French from dragooning US maritime manpower on the high seas. From its birth to the 1850's, letters of marque remained in effect. Wendy McElroy writes:

On April 16, 1856, most of the major maritime powers signed an international agreement called the Declaration Respecting Maritime Law – more popularly known as the Declaration of Paris – which abolished privateering. The United States declined to sign on the grounds that its navy was so small that letters of marque were required to bolster it during war. Without the letters the United States would be at a disadvantage versus European nations with large standing navies.

During the Spanish-American War (1898), Spain and America – neither of which was a party to the Declaration of Paris – agreed to eschew privateering. It was not until the Hague Conferences at the dawn of the twentieth century, however, that the United States officially renounced the use of letters of marque and reprisal. Thus, the term is antiquated in that it no longer applies to an activity in practice.

Our Confederate brethren during the War of Northern Aggression adopted this strategy to limited effect. At the turn of the twentieth century, the practice disappeared. Ron Paul recently introduced a bill to revive the practice in our current War Against a Tactic. A number of LRC columnists have commented on this idea if you search the archive. The importance of a renewal of this constitutional prerogative by the US speaks not only to its efficacy but its value as model for the eventual destruction of the government military monopoly in America. Just as the separation of school and state causes most American minds to short-circuit, so, too, the eventual dissolution of the state's stranglehold on defense/protection functions is a hard pill for most to swallow.

Let's conduct a quick thought experiment. Suppose that Roosevelt nationalized the production and delivery of all foodstuffs in the US during the 1930's. He collectivized farms and everyone went to Uncle Sam's instead of Safeway or Sam's Club. The lines were long, the food was rarely of the quality it used to be and the Foodworkers Union was the most powerful labor entity in the federal leviathan. Fast forward to 2003 and picture a few timid souls politely suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the free market could deliver more food of higher quality at lower prices. All hell would break loose as the paid mouthpieces of the Foodworkers Union, their lobbyists, the Congress, the beltway media and the other usual suspects brayed on about imminent starvation, market failure and the inability of business to ensure the efficient production and delivery of food. Polls would be taken and Americans would hold the majority opinion that government is the only way to equitably distribute food. This illuminates the difficulty of reacquainting Americans with the very foundations that made the early republic so distinctly different from the other statist enterprises around the globe.

This illustration is amusing but it certainly would pale in comparison to selling the American public the idea that we could eventually privatize national defense. The cracks are appearing:

  1. About 35 corporations like Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) are currently conducting outsourced functions for DoD and clients around the world. MPRI likes to boast it has more generals per square foot than the Pentagon. Unfortunately, the government-private sector alliance has tended to be a case study for Lord Acton's axioms. Von Mises' observations on bureaucratic expansion have also been validated when the Pentagon gets about a 35% increase in its budget ($400,000,000,000+) with active duty uniformed endstrengths remaining static and Brown & Root, et al., reaping the rewards.
  2. David Hackworth has claimed there are 29,000 trigger-pullers in the US Army with a total of approximately 495,000 active-duty. This number is almost impossible to pin down because of the number of combat arms soldiers who are not in combat-related jobs. This translates to a tooth-to-tail ratio of about 17:1 of support jobs to actual combatant duty. When you combine this with our present neo-imperialist commitments around the planet, the Victorian legions in the 19th century look positively flush with manpower. Something will have to give if Bush the Younger's ambitions extend beyond the present borders of Iraq. He doesn't have the uniformed manpower. While I would hope the dearth of manpower would put the brakes to his excellent adventures, Rummy's desperation may lead him to find more market-oriented solutions.
  3. Despite multi-million dollar bounties being posted, both Saddam and Bin Laden have yet to be captured, dead or alive. One of the reasons for the inability to even capitalize on this has been the bureaucratic morass and regulatory web that surrounds the issue of the bounty. No individual in other countries trust the United States government enough to think they can collect the bounty and keep their heads. Couple letters of marque with the power of the market and the chances are much better of capture dead or alive. The market will create the escrow accounts, contracting services and other tools needed to ensure an effective bounty system can work from start to finish.

The time is fast approaching when the choice won't be a luxury but a necessity. The potential blowback to our current adventures overseas will arrive at our shores sooner than later and the entire military organization we currently employ is an offensive weapon with limited defensive capability to defend continental America. The Cold War is over but you wouldn't know it if you spent a day in the Pentagon. Current fiscal policies of infinite debt restructuring, double-digit increases in discretionary spending and the huge inevitable waste of government programs will culminate in a day of reckoning after which the duty of national defense will have to be privatized to a growing extent.

November 10, 2003