September 16, 2003
the Wool: Governments Are Mafias, War Is Their Racket
by Alan Bock
is unlikely that the veil will be parted long enough for the great
casserole of prejudice, misinformation, partial information and
(occasionally) accurate perception that pollsters and political
scientists are pleased to call "public opinion" to process
and absorb the perception completely. But the vaguely worded Israeli
Cabinet decision that the time might have come to "remove"
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the region, or perhaps from
the earth – followed Sunday by an "unofficial" trial-balloon-type
statement from Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that "Expulsion
is certainly one of the options; killing is also one of the options"
– offered an important insight into the essential character of government.
legislator Saeb Erekat got it only partially right in criticizing
Ehud Olmert's statement, calling it "the behavior and actions
of a mafia and not a government."
quite right, Mr. Erekat. It was definitely a mafia-like comment.
But it was also a quintessentially government-like sentiment – although
government leaders are seldom so open and frank about it, which
is one of the reasons most people don't catch on.
I should make the same distinction between government and the state
that the distinguished American author and essayist Albert J. Nock
did. Government he viewed as a rough agreement, rooted in tradition
and custom, about how people in a given geographical region will
get along together – what rules they will obey (most of the time)
and how they will treat their fellows.
defined the State as the organization of the political means, as
distinguished from the economic means, of dividing up the fruits
of the productive capacity of the people. Nock argued that there
are basically two ways people interact – through voluntary agreement
or through the use of force. What he called the economic means were
voluntary and consensual – trade, mutual agreements (some explicit
and some implicit) – and the sum of the agreements, transactions
and decisions to tolerate others made up what Nock called society
and what some have called civil society. The political means involve
the use of force or threats of force.
those who are willing and able to use them, the political means
are usually a much more efficient method of acquiring wealth or
control over the means of production than honest labor, pleasing
customers and confining oneself to mutually voluntary transactions.
So they have been used by sophisticated thugs and bandits throughout
what we know of human history.
Nock's definition, of course, almost every institution we call a
government in the modern world is actually a state – an institution
built around the use of force to ensure compliance. And his definition
is hardly as off-the-wall as it might seem. Most political theory
classes or political science texts will define government as the
institution in a given geographic region with a monopoly on the
legitimate use of force. Government, in other words, is the institution
that gets to define its own use of force as legitimate and everybody
else's use of force as illegitimate.
political scientists almost all agree that some use of force in
society is unavoidable, and that the least harmful way to deal with
its inevitability is for one institution to be able to use force
legitimately, so it can protect decent folks from the freelance
perpetrators of force and violence. The belief (highly dubious in
my view) is that this arrangement is the best way to limit the amount
of force and violence people are subjected to, and with any luck
to tame the use of force with a web of rules and regulations.
it comes down to, then, is that the essence of government is force.
Without the capacity to coerce citizens into paying taxes and obeying
edicts, government is impossible. It is hardly a stretch, however,
to note that such an institution is morally virtually indistinguishable
from a criminal gang. Indeed, a criminal gang generally finds it
more efficient to limit the use of force to those who resist too
actively or to teach a lesson. The profits are greater when the
merchants simply give in at once to the guys in bulky suits who
come around saying, "Nice store you have here. Be a shame if
anything happened to it. We can provide protection." But the
racket works best, of course, if the merchants know the thugs will
follow through on the implied threat, so once in a while an example
has to be made.
decent argument can be made, then, that a government is a mafia
that's a little more sophisticated and successful than most outright
criminal gangs are – or, as my Sicilian wife once put it, "government
is just another gang." But the essence of what defines both
is the willingness to use force when persuasion fails. The mafia,
if the lore is accurate, even copies government by calling its enforcers
the brutal truth is that while consent is preferred as the more
cost-efficient option, government authority rests on the willingness
to use force when it deems force to be necessary. Governments like
to sell themselves as the only protection against the uncontrolled
and unbridled use of force that would characterize society without
such a wielder of "legitimate" force. But their essence
is force. The ultimate expression of the essential character of
the state, of course, is war, which not only involves killing foreigners
who may or may not be a real threat directly, but provides multiple
justifications for stepping up the use of force against inconvenient
or obstreperous members of the society it rules directly.
is in the interest of governments that these truths not be widely
known, or at least not widely acknowledged, which is one reason
governments want to control the education of children, preferably
as directly as possible. So government spokespeople often get upset
when one of their confreres slips and pulls back the veil to reveal
that the wizard is really a thug. Consequently plenty of people
in governments around the world were shocked – deeply shocked –
that a member of the government clan would speak so openly about
intentionally killing somebody without the attention to judicial
details that accompanies the execution of convicted criminals.
the Bush administration, through Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell,
was quick to advise Israel not to do anything so open and blatant
as expulsion or assassination. Such a step would be – well, of course
they couldn't quite say it was outright wrong – unwise, and counterproductive.
It might turn Arafat into a martyr. So Colin Powell advised the
Israelis to "consider the long-term consequences of such actions
– and are you creating more Hamas killers in the future by actions
such as this which injure innocent people."
is difficult to square this excruciating delicacy about long-term
consequences with the way the United States began the war in Iraq
– a war not even remotely "forced" upon the United States
by anything remotely resembling an imminent threat to the United
States or even to any of Iraq's neighbors. The war began, of course,
with bunker-buster bombs specifically aimed at a place where the
closest thing the U.S. had to reliable intelligence speculated that
Saddam Hussein might be.
was no pretense that Saddam might have been killed in the course
of carrying out a strike against a strictly military target (if
there is such a thing). Our leaders congratulated themselves on
their shrewdness and perspicacity in trying to take out Saddam personally,
and hoped without apology that they had been successful. The U.S.
war – one of the first though not the only one in recent times to
be a war of aggression against a chosen enemy who had not invaded
his neighbors – began with an outright assassination attempt.
people were shocked, and only a few of those protested openly. Like
Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein is a thoroughly detestable and nasty
person whose personal qualities are magnified by the brutal way
he has ruled Iraq. Few decent people would spend much time mourning
the death of either.
the Israeli Cabinet and Ehud Olmert broke the unwritten rule that
you don't announce in advance that you plan to murder an opponent.
Too much of that and too many people would understand quite clearly
the essential similarities between governments and criminal gangs.
So the Israelis had to be reprimanded, though it is also possible
that the reprimand was accompanied by winks and nods, as so many
is highly likely, of course, that just by talking about eliminating
Arafat – even through the relatively benign method of exile – the
Israeli government has strengthened his support among some Palestinians
who were starting to grow weary of him (he is, after all, an object
lesson in the wisdom that revolutionaries should not become rulers).
Just by talking about it, they may have made it impossible to do
it without creating an explosion of unrest and violence, making
him more powerful in death than in life. Even as the United States,
by committing an act of aggression and occupation in Iraq, may have
unleashed forces that are, at the very least, proving most difficult
and troublesome to deal with.
what other world leaders really objected to when the Israelis spoke
of eliminating Arafat, was not the idea of elimination – all government
eliminate inconvenient people routinely – but being so open and
blatant in discussing it. For a moment or two – and for longer if
people reflect and learn the right lessons – the Israelis came perilously
close to giving away the whole game.
520 South Murphy Avenue #202 Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server Credit Card Donation Form
contributions are tax-deductible