Government subcontractors

by Henry on July 10, 2007

After a quasi-hiatus, Cosma Shalizi is back blogging regularly again. This post

But I don’t know how else to feel, when dubiously legal and definitely undemocratic programs of spying on domestic political dissenters get shopped to private companies through a profoundly corrupt contracting process, and records conveniently disappear without causing any official comment. (Via Laura Rozen, who has been following this story from the beginning.) — The really depressing thing is that even if, inshallah, the GOP loses the House, the Senate and the White House in 2008, it’s not clear how much of this will change. If the last sixty years of the military-industrial complex is anything to go by, the rapidly-growing espionage-industrial complex of spooks and contractors will be very hard indeed to uproot. Wasting money on jets and battle-ships for never-going-to-happen wars is one thing, and might even be excused as Keynesianism-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, but making money out of classifying peaceful political opponents of the current administration as enemies of the state seems, not put too fine a point on it, like a danger to the republic.

seems to me to dovetail with Debbi Avant’s arguments1 about the risks of contracting out military services to private agencies (gated version here).

Have private tools allowed American leaders to take action when they otherwise might not have? A firm conclusion on this question is premature, but there is some evidence that supports a positive answer. To begin, there are indications that leaders within the Clinton administration thought of PSCs as allowing easier action. For instance, when Croatia and MPRI signed a contract in September of 1994 and the State Department licensed the project, there are clear indications that the U.S. wanted to change the Balkan game. … By licensing MPRI, the U.S. government was able to retain its official neutral status internationally and avoid the mobilization that would have been required to send troops to train the Croatians at home but still change events on the ground in the direction it favored. … PSCs also played a large role in the U.S. intervention in Somalia, Haiti, and Columbia. … Common to all of these interventions was questionable levels of public support and congressional disagreement over their importance to U.S. security. In the wake of low levels of public support and civilian disagreement, it should be hard for the U.S. to move forward on policy, particularly policy that requires the deployment of forces. It is possible that private options have eased some of these difficulties. …

In Operation Iraqi Freedom … I am not arguing that these numbers were kept deliberately low in order to sneak in a larger force using the private sector. There is good evidence that civilian decision makers believed a small force would be sufficient … were heated disputes over these numbers, though … Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed that the stabilization could be done with many fewer troops.It is also the case that these higher estimates were viewed by the administration as politically unacceptable. As the war ended, stabilization proved to be more difficult than Rumsfeld had anticipated, and international support for the United States not immediately forthcoming, Rumsfeld did decide to rely on PSCs to provide security in the country instead of sending in extra troops.This is not to suggest that private options for force caused adventurous policies. The causal arrow may go the other way. Interest in policies without widespread support may lead governments to seek out private actors to implement their policies. The availability of private options, though, may affect the perception of threats by reducing the costs associated with using force and the depth of the market for force make the use of private options easier

This is a point that I’d like libertarians who are concerned about state power (i.e., actual libertarians) to pay more attention to. Getting the government to contract out chunks of its security apparatus to private actors may sound fine and dandy in principle, but it may not be a good idea for civil liberties or for restraining the state from getting involved in unpopular wars. It can make the state more powerful in democratic countries, not less. Lines of responsibility get blurry, allowing the state (bluntly put) to get away with a lot of shit that it couldn’t get away with if it had to do so directly.

1 Deborah Avant (2006), “The Implications of Marketized Security for IR Theory: The Democratic Peace, Late State Building, and the Nature and Frequency of Conflict,” Perspectives on Politics 4: 507-528.

{ 31 comments }

1

JW 07.10.07 at 7:49 pm

I think your challenge to libertarians can be modeled as a general challenge to anyone with somewhat principled political views. The challenge is to figure out what one should think about how, given that some agent A is going to engage in some behavior B contrary one’s view, A should go about B-ing. I find challenges like this very difficult.

It is hard to see libertarians supporting the privatization of spying on domestic political dissenters because libertarians don’t support spying on domestic political dissenters period. However, if we assume that such spying is going to happen no matter what, then we can ask whether libertarians should support its privatization. I think the answer would depend on empirical arguments on the likelihood of privatization leading to more spying. If it turns out that privatization of domestic spying leads to more domestic spying or makes it more difficult to cease the spying, other things equal, libertarians should oppose that privatization. I don’t think there is anything inconsistent about that.

2

blog 07.10.07 at 8:30 pm

Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in using public funds for private contractors? It seems it is just a way for narrow interests to use public funds for adventures that are not in the public interest.

3

Steve LaBonne 07.10.07 at 8:31 pm

Never thought I’d find myself defending libertarians, but: in my experience, a principled libertarian of a relatively realistic minarchist stripe will readily identify things like defense (and law enforcement) as core government functions, and such a person need not (and probably will not and also should not) claim that support for privatization of such services follows from his libertarian stance. We’re more likely to get that sort of thing from Republican shills pretending to be libertarians.

4

Slocum 07.10.07 at 9:25 pm

This is a point that I’d like libertarians who are concerned about state power (i.e., actual libertarians) to pay more attention to.

And I’d like those on the left who claim to share libertarian fears of abuse of state power to pay more attention to things like this:

http://www.reason.com/news/show/121169.html

Which strikes me as a more serious, widespread and deep rooted problem affecting more citizens (and powerless ones in particular) than the sub-contracting of intelligence.

5

lemuel pitkin 07.10.07 at 9:55 pm

Slocum, my impression is that leftists are aghast at militarized police departments, and that you’re far more likely to find them criticized in the pages of, say, The Nation than the Standard or National Review. Christian parenti has a blistering chapter on them in Lockdown America, and he’s a rising star on the left.

6

Michael B Sullivan 07.10.07 at 10:20 pm

JW says, “However, if we assume that such spying is going to happen no matter what, then we can ask whether libertarians should support its privatization.”

My glib answer is:

The standard libertarian line is that the free market can do things more quickly, more cheaply, and more effectively than can an inefficient government bureaucracy. Thus, it is easy to see that if the government is doing something that we don’t want it to do in the first place, it should do that thing in-house, so as to make its efforts as ineffective as possible.

More seriously, I think that there is a concern her for libertarians, sure. While the issue of “should the State contract out spying on its citizens” is easy (Answer: “No.”), there are a lot of cases where the government does contract out a service which has a legitimate or arguably legitimate function in a free society. Such contracting may reduce the transparency of government actions, and certainly does create a constituency that has an economic interest in expanding that area of government expenditure. Which is obviously problematic, libertarianly-speaking.

I’ll take a pass at actually answering those concerns in a moment.

7

Michael B Sullivan 07.10.07 at 10:31 pm

Okay, so: Does government use of private contracting allow it to do an end-run around the kind of democratic transparency and accountability that we treasure?

Answer: Yes, possibly, but first of all that presupposes that the government is interested in avoiding accountability. Which, sure, it is. But if you regard that as a systematic failing of government, rather than a flaw inherent in this particular administration, then you’re already a big step of the way towards a libertarian viewpoint as it is. Libertarianism has a lot of broad remedies for governments that are acting in unsocially good ways, and public/private partnerships are a pretty small piece of the whole.

Otherwise, on the transparency issue, just demand that the government write transparency into the contracts of any partnership that it enters into. There’s nothing wrong with that from a libertarian perspective, and while it’s not foolproof, I don’t see a strong reason to believe that it’s any worse than whatever is deep in the bowels of the government to begin with.

The other issue is a more difficult one: Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, basically. Once you start using public funds to pay private companies to do things, you create constituencies and lobbying groups for increasing the sizes of those paychecks. Worse, you can circumvent the advantages of a free market this way — if it’s more cost-effective for the companies to lobby the government for more money than for them to produce a better product, they will do that instead.

I don’t know that anyone has a good answer for this. Marxists have a bad answer (no market for anything), but everyone else presupposes that the government is going to interact economically with private actors all the time, and this will be a constant problem.

The libertarian line here is to just reduce the arenas in which the government buys things from the market as much as possible, and use democratic safeguards on other areas, plus codify a lot of strong protections for the individual in places where it’s difficult for even a powerful agent lobbying the government to change them. That’s not a perfect answer, but I don’t see any sign that it’s much worse than anyone else’s answer.

8

engels 07.10.07 at 10:31 pm

Eh? The American Left is guilty of condoning the proliferation of SWAT teams? That’s one I wasn’t expecting. Also, these guys, among others, would probably be quite surprised.

9

sara 07.10.07 at 11:02 pm

Reminds me of the “Libertarian Militarists” who are among the clichés, as many as the stars in the universe, that await the newbie SF writer in the Tough Guide to the Galaxy.

IBERTARIAN MILITARISTS. A society that is frequently met with, at least among EARTH HUMANS. These people believe in minimal government and maximum personal autonomy, yet they have a large military establishment with very well-disciplined troops. This raises some interesting questions. How minimal can a government be if it collects enough taxes to support that enormous military?….And how does a society so devoutly individualistic provide sufficient recruits to an organization as essentially and necessarily group-oriented and authoritarian as a military force?

…how does this odd combination arise in the first place? If these people are libertarians, they’re unlikely to be EMPIRE builders, so they don’t need a big military for conquest. And if they are so threatened from all sides as to need it for defense, how have they avoided a garrison-state culture in which (necessarily authoritian) military values become generally dominant in the society? Political scientists and sociologists have yet to provide a satisfactory answer to these questions. They need to work harder….

Unfortunately, it’s answered relatively easily: Private military contractors! Of course, then the problem is how are soldiers for hire expected to spend the money they earn in country, without violating traditional standards of discipline.

10

sara 07.10.07 at 11:03 pm

Sorry, “LIBERTARIAN” (not to conjure unknown nation of Ibertaria)

11

Drew 07.10.07 at 11:32 pm

“…dubiously legal and definitely undemocratic programs of spying on domestic political dissenters…”

Exactly what evidence exists in concrete form that such activities have occurred? Is there really any such evidence or is this just a paranoid’s fantasy?

12

Slocum 07.10.07 at 11:45 pm

Eh? The American Left is guilty of condoning the proliferation of SWAT teams? That’s one I wasn’t expecting.

No, not condoning it — I wasn’t suggesting that. Just much less worked up about it than they would be if could be laid at the feet of the Bush administration or Republicans generally (that’s my sense, anyway — YMMV).

Are those on the left, for example, as exercised about the massive expansion of surveillance in the U.K. under Labor governments as they are about U.S. domestic spying? Again, it doesn’t seem that way to me.

Clinton was a good president overall (at least given the competition), and I voted for him twice, but he was really pretty bad on civil liberties (Barry McCaffrey, the encryption key escrow proposal…and Janet Reno who is practically the poster girl for the militarization of the police force). How many on the left went after Clinton on these issues?

No, I don’t like warrantless domestic surveillance (contracted out or not), but it strikes me that even with the problems, it is under much better legal control than local SWAT teams. Not to mention that terrorism is a genuine problem, whereas the government has no business telling people they can’t have a baggie of pot in their dresser in the first place, and it sure as hell has no business kicking down doors in the middle of the night wearing ski masks and night vision goggles and brandishing automatic weapons to find a baggie of pot.

13

John Emerson 07.10.07 at 11:45 pm

Count on Slocum to change the subject. And he’s one of the best those guys have to offer.

14

Shelby 07.10.07 at 11:53 pm

Michael B Sullivan, JW, and Steve Labonne have addressed the specific question Henry aims at libertarians. Privatization is sometimes appropriate for some government functions; spying on its own citizenry is not a legitimate government function.

“[C]ontract[ing] out chunks of its security apparatus to private actors” is unlikely to have much effect on “restraining the state from getting involved in unpopular wars.” As Avantis notes, “The availability of private options … may affect the perception of threats by reducing the costs associated with using force.”

It’s not clear as a general matter of principle (outside a relatively strict libertarian framework) that “reducing the costs associated with using force” is a bad thing. Sometimes the use of force is appropriate, and a reduced cost should be welcome. Had the cost of responding been lower, France and England might have intervened earlier to Germany’s aggression in the 1930s, with (I would argue) beneficial effect.

There are certainly sound arguments to be made against governments using non-government employees to apply force. Many “contractors” in Iraq and elsewhere are of course not combatants, but rather, e.g., cooks. Others (such as truck-drivers) have roles that expose them to potential attack even if that is not expected as a matter of course. Clarification of the scope of “security apparatus” in Henry’s question might improve the dialogue.

Incidentally, Shalizi’s apparent ignorance of the Democrats’ control of both houses of Congress does not instill confidence regarding her other claims.

15

Daniel Nexon 07.11.07 at 12:15 am

Alex Cooley, In Logics of Hierarchy, makes a fairly compelling case that the extensive use of contractors, combined with the oversight structure of the US, was one of a number of sufficient causes for the massive failures in the Iraq occupation. And this is not simply a matter of force-wielding mercenaries.

16

Josh in Philly 07.11.07 at 4:08 am

If Drew’s question is in good faith, I’d suggest googling FBI spying Quakers for a start. Found this that way, among other things.

17

cosma 07.11.07 at 6:15 am

Gah — for “loses the House, the Senate and the White House”, read “loses the White House, and does not gain either the House or the Senate (or both)”. This was genuinely sloppy, and I regret the imprecision.
As for the scope of “security contractors”, do follow the links; we’re talking about people who not only get in shooting fights for us, but do actual intelligence work, at the “pretty soon you’re talking real money” level, and, apparently, torture enhanced interrogations. (I hope I’m not the only one who remembers when “outsourcing torture” was a Fafblog punchline…)

18

Katherine 07.11.07 at 9:54 am

Are those on the left, for example, as exercised about the massive expansion of surveillance in the U.K. under Labor governments as they are about U.S. domestic spying

Speaking as someone on the UK left, then I’d say, yes, many of us are extremely concerned about the rise of the surveillance society. Some of us were even raising concerns about the proliferation of CCTV (which started under the Tories, not Labour, but no matter) before recent events led to Control Orders, ASBOS and ID Cards. You might, for example, want to take a look at the No 2 ID campaign.

The fact that it is an onstensibly left-wing party doing much of the damage to civil liberties in this country hasn’t stopped people getting pissed off about it.

19

Hidari 07.11.07 at 1:01 pm

‘Are those on the left, for example, as exercised about the massive expansion of surveillance in the U.K. under Labor governments as they are about U.S. domestic spying? Again, it doesn’t seem that way to me.’

If by the ‘left’ you mean the crypto-neoconservatives of Harry’s Place then of course you are correct. As the vast majority of the posters there are part of the NuLabour Borg Collective they (implicitly) approve of the growth of the Secret State, as well as other related phenomena, such as the politicisation of the civil service, and the way in which once proud ‘liberal’ sections of the media (The Guardian, the BBC) have been brought into the NuLab orbit (and, hence, under NuLab control).

However, if by the ‘left’ you mean the anti-Blairite sections of the Labour Party (what’s left of it) the Global Justice movement (often wrongly termed ‘anti-globalisation’), and others in the ‘radical’, ‘anarchist’, ‘anti-corporate’ (or whatever you want to call it) tradition, then you are wrong: these people (and me) are deeply deeply concerned by the unprecedented assault on civil liberties that has taken place under Labour.

20

engels 07.11.07 at 2:08 pm

Marxists have a bad answer (no market for anything), but everyone else

Michael, could you at least try to hide your ignorance of what Marxists think before spouting off about them? Cheers.

21

Michael Sullivan 07.11.07 at 3:17 pm

Engels: I didn’t say, “modern socialists have a bad answer (no market for anything),” nor did I suggest that it was true of everyone who’s been at all inspired by Marx. Marx straightforwardly believed that the ultimate evolution of society would eliminate both money and markets in every aspect of life.

To the extent that you do not share that belief, you are not a Marxist, however much you may draw inspiration from him in other areas. I am careful with my terminology — I do not use the term “Marxist” as a catch-all for every socialist/communitarian/whatever out there.

Cheers.

22

engels 07.11.07 at 4:30 pm

Michael – I don’t want to drag this too far off-topic but you didn’t say Marx, but Marxists. Your claim is incorrect as there is in fact a vigorous debate among Marxists (not just socialists) about the role of the market in a socialist economy. (Contrary to what you imply, one does not have to agree with everything Marx ever said in order to be a Marxist.) Finally, the claim that Marx himself saw no role for the market is also arguable.

23

Shelby 07.11.07 at 4:37 pm

Cosma,

Thanks for the reply and correction. And I mistyped “Avantis” for “Avant”; my apologies to her.

It seems to me that the concern about “allowing the state … to get away with a lot of shit that it couldn’t get away with if it had to do so directly” can in part be addressed by clearer lines restricting state authority, whether exercised directly or through proxies, and possibly by stricter penalties for crossing those lines. In practice this is of course quite difficult. To the extent libertarian theory has a unique solution, it’s in broadly reducing the scope of legitimate government activity. That makes it easier for outsiders to monitor the remaining legitimate activities, and makes it harder for the government to pretend one sort of activity (say, spying on political opponents) is really another (monitoring for drug trafficking).

24

engels 07.11.07 at 4:39 pm

Michael – You didn’t say “Marx”, but “Marxists”. Your claim is incorrect as there is in fact a vigorous debate among Marxists (not just socialists) about the role of the market in a socialist economy. (Contrary to what you imply, one does not have to agree with everything Marx ever said in order to be a Marxist.) Finally, the claim that Marx himself saw no role for the market is also arguable.

25

Michael B Sullivan 07.11.07 at 4:51 pm

Engels: Come on, man. I made a throw-away comment, tangential to my main point, about the only people who have an complete answer to the kind of incentives made by public/private partnerships being people who don’t want any private anything, and that that’s a bad answer. You don’t seem to disagree with that — you aren’t, as far as I can tell, arguing that “no markets” is a good answer. For whatever reason, you seemed to take offense at the notion that I was somehow saying that you particularly don’t want markets in anything. You proceeded to conflate socialism with Marxism, and then flatly told me that I was ignorant.

Now your fall back position is that there is “vigorous debate” among Marxists-who-differ-from-what-Marx-thought about whether markets ought to exist, and that it’s “arguable” whether Marx thought that markets shouldn’t. This is completely beside the point. I didn’t run over your dog, and I didn’t accuse you of running over anyone’s dog. What do you say we drop it?

26

c.l. ball 07.11.07 at 6:25 pm

The contracting of government functions also creates bizarre secrecy problems. In a lawsuit of US-sponsored anti-drug defoliant spraying in Colombia, the type of defoliant being used was considered a trade secret by the contractor. In the case of MPRI in Croatia, it is not clear that MPRI has any obligation to archive its role (it is unclear how much Peter Galbraith and other embassy officials knew — the then #3 in Zagreb literally refused to talk about it; he just shook his head ‘no’ and pursed his lips when I broached the subject of the US/MPRI role in the Croat offensive in a private conversation). The contracts are often kept secret even when no real national security role is involved. Often pricing is considered by the contractors to be proprietary information.

27

engels 07.11.07 at 6:34 pm

Now your fall back position is that there is “vigorous debate” among Marxists-who-differ-from-what-Marx-thought about whether markets ought to exist, and that it’s “arguable” whether Marx thought that markets shouldn’t. This is completely beside the point.

No, it’s not a “fall back position”, it’s the point I made to begin with. And no it’s not beside the point: it shows that your original, poorly informed generalisation about Marxism is untrue. I agree that none of this is earth-shatteringly important but if you really want to “drop it” why don’t you just admit you made a mistake, rather than trying to fudge the issue by blathering on at me for “conflating” things I haven’t? Anyway, I shall leave the matter there.

28

engels 07.11.07 at 8:11 pm

I ought to just add that my initial comment may have been unduly snarky. I didn’t say “flatly” that you were ignorant, though, only that you were ignorant of Marxists think about these things.

29

Michael B Sullivan 07.11.07 at 9:08 pm

So much for “I shall leave the matter there.”

Look, I said, and this is a direct quote: “Marxists have a bad answer (no market for anything).” You seem to have conceded that, in fact, there are plenty of Marxists who don’t want markets in anything (otherwise, who’s conducting this “vigorous debate” with anyone?). You seem to have conceded that, in fact, a perfectly reasonable reading of Marx is that he was against all markets (otherwise, why is it “arguable”?). You also, despite your later protestations that you aren’t conflating Marxists with socialists, used, as your sole point of evidence for how ignorant I was, a paper that positions itself firmly as “socialist.”

I don’t think that I said “everybody who has ever self-identified as a Marxist, even if they’re kind of not really the classical definition of the term, without fail, thinks that there should never be a market in anything.” I said that Marxists have an answer to the problem: no markets in anything. Are you denying that such an answer exists? Are you denying that in as much as anyone advances that answer, Marxists advance it? If not, what, precisely, is your point?

And my tone has been far less confrontational and snarky than yours has. I can’t believe that somebody who led off with name-calling, and has continued it since, is complaining about my use of the term “flatly.”

30

Michael B Sullivan 07.11.07 at 9:09 pm

Jeez, I’m a moron. I misread Engel’s latest post, and got annoyed by my misreading. Apologies! I would redact the above if I could.

31

engels 07.11.07 at 10:24 pm

Michael – No problem. I want to point out, though, that many of the authors in the books I linked to are Marxists and not just socialists (although admittedly that’s not obvious) so I think my point stands. (It’s true that taken literally your remark only implies that “no market socialism” is one possible Marxist programme but I don’t think that is really what you meant…?) Anyway, my initial remark was a rather irritable response to a throwaway remark so apologies for that and for dragging out this tempest in a teacup.

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