The Sway of Interests


States as gangs

The state is an organization, a national version of one’s city government so to speak; but to convey the concept more richly and concretely, think of it as a gang. A correspondent took me to task for disrespectfully referring to states as gangs. Another observed that I had impugned gangs. Actually, the similarity to gangs is useful, since most of us have seen gangs in gangster movies.

In old gangster movies, we see the gang members meeting to plan their holdups. That’s like political leaders meeting in capitols to pass laws. The gangs decide to make bartenders buy their barrels of beer or introduce slot machines. That’s like lawmakers introducing programs, taxes, tribute, and regulations. We see scenes of the tough guys intimidating and threatening the saloon owners, who give in and pay. That’s like us paying our taxes to avoid being carted away. The gang always is expanding into the territory of some other gang, causing a gang war. That’s like one nation attacking another and provoking war. Gangsters speed along city streets while throwing bombs or machine-gunning opposition gang leaders. They conduct massacres and executions. That’s the nation’s military going about its deadly business.

The U.N. is kind of a loose gang syndicate. Terrorists are independent gangs with aspirations to join the syndicate. To acquire recognition, terrorists need only be strong enough to seize a state. Sooner or later, the other states accept its credentials; at which point they forget all about its terrorist origins.

The inner circle of a gang consists of the gang’s boss and his right-hand man. That’s like a president and his closest advisors. The circle of gangsters widens to include the most experienced henchmen. That’s like key officials and legislators. Then there are underbosses, gunmen, tipsters, flunkies, and lawyers. The state has bureaucracies, military leaders, and judges.

In short, the state is like a gang; the biggest difference being that the state is far worse than any gang because it is far more powerful. Political theorists make a big deal out of the fact that the state allows us to punch a ballot every so often. This means we get to choose between the north side gang and the south side gang, or between the red gang and the blue gang. Since the gangs are in cahoots, this choice makes little difference. Despite some fresh gang members in Washington, our leaders are still considering an increase of 20,000—30,000 troops in Iraq. So much for the November election and the voter rejection of administration policies.

State and leader values

How do states behave? For example, why do South Korea and Japan dispute a few bits of rock in the ocean? We cannot understand how states behave without thinking about how the leaders of states behave, since they make the decisions for the organization. The first step is to link the two.

By the actions of states, we mean the actions of the gang bosses, whom the nation commonly refers to as its leaders. These actions hinge on what the bosses conceive to be the interests of the states, those matters that are of concern and importance because they affect the state. President Putin conceives it in Russia’s interest to retain Chechnya as a federal subject. This is a longstanding Russian interest due to the fact that Chechnya borders on both the Black and Caspian seas and the fact that important oil and gas pipelines cross its boundaries. In all likelihood, he would not last long as president if he did not maintain this interest; nor would he have been chosen as president if he had not committed himself to maintaining this interest.

The usual way of thinking about the choices of leaders begins with the truism that his choices are his. Economic analysis rightly focuses on the individual’s choices; it cannot be denied that all choices are made by individuals. It follows that leaders act upon their personal concerns, but the extent to which these concerns are idiosyncratic or coincident with larger concerns is left an open issue. It is a matter of both economic theory and common observation that leaders, whom many expect to act in the public interest insofar as it can be identified, fail to do so. There is abundant evidence that leaders do not act out of a single concern as humanitarians for the well-being of the general citizenry whose lives they affect. Instead they act on behalf of themselves and interest groups to whom they are beholden.

We might stop here and conclude, for example, that President Putin is beholden to oil and gas interests and to commercial and military interests that require access to warm waters. Nevertheless, we would be missing an important aspect of human psychology if we overlooked the evident fact that human beings who place themselves into institutions adopt goals that go beyond their own personal, petty, or parochial concerns.

Just as church and business leaders simultaneously act in their own interests while identifying with, shaping, and advancing what they conceive to be their organization’s interests, so do political leaders. The organization man is a man whose personal aspirations do not disappear but are merged with the greater goals of an organization. Few men escape having their values determined in some part, often to an important extent, by a variety of social structures that they are immersed in. Most men are organization men to a greater or lesser extent.

The concerns or interests of an organization are reflected in its values. A leader’s values link to those of his organization. They affect his actions. He takes these actions in order to achieve favorable outcomes with regard to the organization’s interests.

State interests

A gang leader has the main say over the gang’s interests, until he is bumped off and replaced by an underling who disagrees with him. States change hands by violent means as well; they also hold elections. What are a gang’s interests? Typically the movieland gang boss is out to make money. Expansion of territory, controlling his underlings, and retaining his number one position as boss are means to that end. Other interesting motivations enter in at times, but the gang interests chosen by the boss usually focus on maintaining and expanding the gang’s enterprises.

States, like gangs, also have interests. What are they? That is the subject of much study, because when we know a state’s interests, we know what it is up to. Outsiders often have difficulty knowing what a state’s interests are. There are reasons for this murkiness. (1) At times, the state’s leaders conceal their interests, because they don’t want those affected to know their goals. If Iran’s leader wants a nuclear weapon, he cannot come right out and say so. If the U.S. wants to subvert the government of Sudan, it cannot announce this policy; it goes at it deviously. (2) The state’s interests are not as clear-cut as making money. (3) Interests change as situations and leaders change. (4) The priorities of interests change. (5) Leaders are sometimes unclear what they’re after. If they are not always sure what they want the state to aim for, how can we be? (6) Political situations involve many uncertainties.

Despite all this, we know a good deal about what the interests of states are. The U.S. has an interest in controlling its oil supply in the Middle East. Russia has an interest in controlling Chechnya. The U.S. has an interest in Ethiopia because of its location adjacent to Somalia, which is near Yemen and Saudi Arabia. China has an interest in Taiwan.

Where do interests come from? Are they always sensible? Under what conditions might they be more or less sensible? To what extent are they the pet concerns of the leaders? Are the actions taken congruent with the concerns? For example, whence came the U.S. interest in Middle Eastern oil? Did it make sense? Was the U.S. influenced in this interest by oil companies? Or by concerns about war-making potential and threats? Or both? Or was the concern an idiosyncrasy of a leader? Did the acts of state in, for example, Saudi Arabia, advance U.S. interests as they were designed to do?

These are the kinds of questions we are all the time discussing. The earliest U.S. leaders thought that the state should minimize its overseas interests so as not to become entangled in foreign disputes. Although they did not adhere completely to this doctrine, the idea of it was that individuals should bear the risk and rewards of foreign ventures. They knew best what they valued in such contacts and could better assess the outcomes.

Later leaders have gone very far in the opposite direction, under a variety of implausible and mistaken theories. They have suggested that almost any foreign relation affects all Americans and is important enough for the state to be managing. They have suggested that Americans cannot advance without a large amount of control over foreign outposts and peoples. Much of this has been under the prodding of private interests, however. The results have been a series of terrible wars and/or other ventures and interferences that have seriously retarded the progress of Americans in general.

Our Constitution designated the U.S. state as a permanent coordinating body with plenary powers in selected (and now all-encompassing) areas that affect the interests of many Americans. Indeed there are matters that occasionally arise in which many Americans may wish to coordinate and act as a body, matters that cut across local, state, and regional boundaries. The national government has proven to be a dangerous way to handle these problems. It has developed its own interests, and these supersede all other interests. Its powers have been expanded so greatly that when it acts upon its own concerns, it imposes great costs on Americans at large. We are evidently tied into a malfunctioning organizational setup.

Humanitarian non-interests

Things that do not concern the U.S. shed light on what the U.S. state is concerned with. In case after case after case, U.S. leaders display a marked callousness and indifference to human life, even when the costs of taking an action are very low. For example, the U.S. supported Pol Pot, bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein. The U.S. supported death squads in Central America and supports death squads in Iraq today. U.S. sanctions on Iraq killed 500,000 Arab children. President Clinton stood in the way of even small steps to shut down the Rwandan genocide. What U.S. leaders conceive to be or advertise as U.S. interests takes precedence over virtually any amount of collateral damage, that is, slaughter of innocents.

It appears that humanitarian interest groups have almost no influence in shaping U.S. interests, while the most brutal and violent groups intent on butchery do. It appears that U.S. leaders readily adopt the values and concerns of groups whose ideas invariably lead to widespread killing and destruction.

Defenders of U.S. murder cannot claim that the U.S. is acting as a "good" guy who is defending the weak and defenseless. This does not wash. In the Rwandan genocide, the U.S. avoided using the term "genocide" so as to avoid having to act under U.N. agreements. Instead, it mis-characterized the slaughter as chaos, anarchy, and tribal conflict. The U.N., French, and Belgian governments did no better. Mitterrand suggested that brutal slaughter was a common practice among Africans. The World Bank failed to use its financial muscle to influence the perpetrators. The U.S. and others failed to jam radio broadcasts within Rwanda that stimulated the massacres. Even international condemnation was lacking. When it finally occurred, it did have a beneficial effect.

The U.S. is all too ready to fund the CIA in all sorts of covert death-dealing and now torture, but to fund even a tiny force that can quell genocide is not on its agenda. The U.S. does not have an interest in genocide. Rwanda was not and is not a U.S. interest. Uganda, on the other hand, is a U.S. interest because of its bearing on Sudan and the U.S. concern over the Sudanese regime and terrorism. When the U.S. showers a nation with humanitarian aid, it is merely an expression of a more fundamental concern such as Communism or terrorism.

Anti-Communism was the foundational concern of the U.S. for decades, influencing and shaping all its foreign interests. This has now been replaced by terrorism as a pervasive umbrella or vehicle for molding U.S. interests. In both cases, the U.S. has found a convenient and plausible enemy. In both cases, it is easy to whip up fears and to stimulate a domestic chorus of warmongers calling for blood and ever more blood. In both cases, it becomes easy for people to react and not think. In both cases, war-makers and war-supporters combine to influence U.S. actions. The general population is left in the dust to have their ideas and thoughts manipulated by the latest propaganda.

They do not hate us

President Bush speaks: "Americans are asking, why do they hate us?" He precedes his demagoguery by mentioning al Qaeda and then "every terrorist group of global reach." But he frames what are political issues in terms of very personal matters. They hate "our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote…"

Americans soon forget the qualifications. They remember only "they hate us." Who? They, the Muslims, the Arabs, the foreigners, the strange ones with strange customs, strange religions, strange clothes, and strange languages. It is easy to stir up generalized hatreds.

They, the generalized they, whoever they are, do not hate us. They respect us. They adopt our institutions. There are stock markets in Dubai, Turkey, Malaysia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Iran, and Lebanon. There is trade with all of these countries. It would be even greater if the U.S. permitted it to be. The number of Muslims worldwide is about 1 billion people. Do they hate us? Ridiculous. How many jihadists are in al Qaeda? No one knows, but estimates rarely exceed 20,000. This is two-thousandths of one percent of the Muslim population.

Saddam Hussein’s lawyer relates this anecdote:

“One time, I conveyed a conversation with the president, Saddam Hussein, that we had with the president about the Americans. One of the lawyers was saying, ‘The Americans, the Americans.’ The president stopped him and told him, ‘You should not say the Americans because the American people are different from the American administration. Even some people in the administration are good people. They can not judge all Americans are bad.'”

But will they come to hate us? Will the U.S. make the President’s words come true? Will we give them just cause to hate us? Will we stir up resentment and hostility by our own deeds? Will Arabs approve of the U.S. allowing the destruction of Iraqi museums and libraries? Will Arabs approve of U.S. occupation of Iraq? Will Muslims worldwide look with equanimity at Abu Ghraib? Will they be drawn over to the U.S. side by its leveling of Fallujah? Place yourself in their shoes. Do Americans react with calm neutrality when terrorists butcher someone and release a videotape of it?

It is not in the interests of Americans to have a billion Muslims hate us, or to encourage even a small fraction of that mass of humanity to become terrorists willing and able to attack Americans domestically and worldwide. These are the effects of the U.S. state. Through both design and ineptitude, the U.S. state is acting against American interests.

The generalized war on terrorism is in the interest of the U.S. state. It suits the state by giving it an endless and vague enemy located anywhere and everywhere and at all times now and in the future. This war it then can use as a club over Americans to retain and augment its power and ability to act in an unconstrained fashion.

The ill-chosen and ill-executed war in Iraq is a Frankenstein sewn together by the convergence of several misconstrued U.S. interests (oil, terrorism, Israel, security) and the personal interests and war-making blunders of powerful figures of state.

The sway of U.S. interests is a sway over us.