The Self-Hating State

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles, Uncategorized

The state, according to classical liberals, is a problem. It meddles in the economy. It over-regulates. Through the tax system, it robs Peter to pay Paul. If only the state would get out of the way, these purists argue, then the invisible hand of the market would magically set things right. Equilibrium would reign, and the gross national happiness of the country would rise like the temperature on a warm, summer day.

The Bush administration presides over a state. It negotiates with other states on an hourly basis. But the current administration harbors a deep streak of perversity: it is a self-hating state.

The Bush crowd has spent the last six years undermining virtually all state functions with the possible exception of government surveillance and, of course, the Pentagon budget. It has weakened regulatory agencies, cut back social programs, slashed taxes for the wealthy, blurred the division between church and state, and opened up natural preserves to corporate exploitation. This campaign has been nothing less than an attempt to unravel the Great Society programs of the 1960s, rewind the New Deal legislation of the 1940s, and “roll back the 20th century,” as William Greider wrote in a powerful piece in The Nation in 2003.

This hatred of state spills across borders. The Bush administration aspires to erode state power globally. This peculiar aspect of the self-hating state, alas, has won bipartisan consensus. For the last two decades, the United States has supported programs of economic reform that have significantly reduced state power throughout the world. Whether bilaterally or through international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, Washington has pushed other states to privatize their assets, reduce barriers to the flow of capital, and cut back on social expenditures. This “Washington consensus” predates the Bush administration by many years and threatens to outlive its tenure as well.

Self-hating states face a major problem. Take away the state and you are very likely to end up not with the magical equilibrium of the free market but with the disequilibrium of the state of nature. “State of nature” might conjure up images of a green commune in the backwoods of Virginia. As the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued, however, the state of nature is where a “war of all against all” takes place. Forget about a rising rate of gross national happiness. Life in the state of nature, as Hobbes memorably described it, is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

This week at FPIF, Adam Elkus sends a dispatch from one front of this war of all against all. Many Latin American states have ceded power to a diverse group of gangs, terrorists, and narco-traffickers. Did Adam Smith and Milton Friedman envision rational economic actors like MS-13 in Central America, First Capital Command in Brazil, and drug cartels in Mexico?

“These anti-state formations have successfully created power networks of their own, overwhelming security forces and creating rudimentary fiefdoms in areas where state control is weak,” Elkus writes in Gangs, Terrorists, and Trade. “These actors have thrived in an environment where neoliberal economic policies have exacerbated traditional inequalities. They have profited from the legacy of civil wars and U.S.-backed dictators.

It is not a new trend but the latest twist in a century of violent upheaval and inequality. Although these actors are not representative of a decline in state power in general, their success at eluding and challenging the state and forming autonomous zones indicates that they have decisively broken the state’s monopoly of violence.”

In Iraq

For those who like their wars to resemble a game of checkers—two clear sides, easy-to-read terrain, relatively simple moves—the Iraq War is a puzzlement. It’s not checkers. It’s more like Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” And I’m not even talking about the situation on the ground. I’m talking about the situation inside Congress.

As FPIF’s policy outreach coordinator Erik Leaver describes in his essay Shock but No Awe, the Democrats have not translated their victory in the November mid-term elections into a strong legislative call for troop withdrawals. The compromise bill on emergency spending, which squeaked by the House and Senate, has been a disappointment for many in the peace movement. “To be sure,” Leaver writes, “there is some good language on regional diplomacy, veterans’ health care, and active duty health care, but overall these measures are a weak band-aid for a bill that will continue the U.S. military presence and occupation, and generate the same problems for years to come.”

Leaver goes on to provide the likely options should President Bush veto the legislation, which he has announced he will do. Congress might fall back on weaker options. Or, it might aim higher: for a stronger bill. To get the stronger bill, which would provide funds for withdrawal rather than continued military activity, the peace movement has to make itself heard. “The anti-war movement must realize that Congress is not comprised of peaceniks, but also that political compromises will be made along the way,” Leaver writes. “Constant pressure from both sides will be needed. In the long process to end the Vietnam War, over 30 votes were taken on various pieces of legislation. Public pressure was the key to moving legislation and changing lawmakers’ positions. That same pressure is needed now.”

IMF, U.S.-Mexico Border, Bishkek

It’s no surprise that military contractors love war. The Iraq War has been like manna from heaven. But it’s always a good idea to diversify, especially when those pesky legislators are contemplating future troop withdrawals. And so, the military-industrial complex is eyeing the U.S.-Mexico border.

As FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan writes in Militarizing the Border, Bush’s Secure Border Initiative is just another growth area for military contractors like Boeing. “SBI is the plan of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to erect a “virtual fence” of monitors, sensors, unmanned planes, and communications to help border agents catch illegal immigrants crossing the southern border,” writes Berrigan. It’s not just that the military contractors are prone to mysterious cost overruns. “The issue of militarizing the border goes beyond questions of accountability,” she adds. Bush “has to learn that the border is not a war zone, Mexicans are not combatants, and military contractors are not the solution.” For another look at the border security question, check out this op-ed in the San Diego Tribune by FPIF’s Miriam Pemberton.

On the topic of corruption, media attention has been focused recently on the World Bank and a scandal that’s embroiled its president, Paul Wolfowitz, and his companion. But the real heat is being applied to the International Monetary Fund. And the criticism comes from within.

As FPIF contributor Soren Ambrose explains in IMF Confidence Crisis, two reports have come out recently that have slammed the IMF for its practices, particularly toward low-income countries. The report from the IMF’s own Independent Evaluation Office has been the more devastating, charging that the IMF has “done little to address poverty reduction and income distributional issues, despite institutional rhetoric to the contrary.” These critiques are rocking the foundations of the institution. “The survival of the IMF, a 3,000-strong international bureaucracy which just opened a gigantic addition to its headquarters building in Washington, is at stake,” Ambrose writes. “Unless someone can find a role the IMF can be trusted with soon, a glut of economists, and some prime Washington real estate, may soon flood the markets.”

In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, the opposition is squaring off against the government, with protests entering their sixth day. In 2005, the “Tulip Revolution” forced strongman Askar Akayev from office. Civil society protestors haven’t liked how Akayev’s successor has maintained authoritarian privileges. FPIF contributor Michael Coffey sends us a postcard from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.

“At the top of the opposition’s complaints is the rewriting of the constitutional compromise that served to head off violence last November,” Coffey writes. “Pro-government deputies managed to undo the rebalancing of powers between the executive and legislative branches just days later. Other issues—such as the U.S. military base at Manas and possible accession to the International Monetary Fund/World Bank’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries program—have also served to unite various opposition elements around a more nationalist platform. In both cases, critics of the government have blasted what they consider an over-reliance on foreign organizations and institutions.”

Step It Up

On Saturday, in 1,400 locations throughout the United States, protestors gathered to send Congress a simple message: pass legislation to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. With Thomas Friedman writing about global warming in The New York Times magazine section and huge Live Earth concerts planned for this summer, concern over climate change has indeed been stepped up a notch.

Down on the Mall in Washington, it was a sturdy group who showed up to spell out a human postcard with the U.S. Capitol in the background. I enjoyed the camaraderie of sitting on the ground as part of the postcard “frame.” But the event’s sound system was rather low energy. I was about 50 feet from the stage and couldn’t hear any of the speeches. I trust, however, that Congress got the message.

One Congressman who has already gotten the message is Wayne Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican. FPIF contributor Michael Shank interviewed Gilchrest on the subject of climate change. “We can’t wait for the president to take bold initiative with climate change,” Gilchrest said. “It has to happen now. There’s no real tipping point here. It’s just rough, face-to-face, gravel politics.”

FPIF, April 16, 2003

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