For about the last 15 years, I’ve been an on-again, off-again member of Amnesty International (AI) mainly on. When I’ve let my membership lapse, it’s been due to my financial circumstances. But a letter I received from AI last month has persuaded me not to rejoin. What is happening at AI is a tragic sea change. Amnesty International has shifted from solely a watchdog of oppressive governments to a lobby for more government. I won’t join again until AI decides not to lobby for more government intervention, and I fear that that will be a long time.
My first contact with AI was in 1980 in the San Francisco kitchen of the late short-story writer Kay Boyle. She, my friend Victoria Varga, and Joan Baez Sr. (the mother of the folk singer) were getting together to write letters to persuade a particular oppressive government to release or quit torturing (I’ve forgotten which) a prisoner. Inquiring further, I learned that this kind of individual-letter-writing campaign was typical of AI’s activities. Speaking truth to power is often effective, and that’s what AI did.
In recent years, I’ve become less enthusiastic about AI, mainly because they put far too much attention, in my view, on ending the death penalty in the United States. I’m less of a believer in the death penalty than I used to be, mainly because of what I’ve learned from economist David Friedman and law professor John Hasnas (his speech to APEE in April 2006) about relatively successful societies that lacked death penalties. But even when I strongly believed in the death penalty, AI’s opposition to it didn’t dissuade me from renewing my membership.
What caused me to switch is a special fundraising letter last month from AI’s executive director Larry Cox. The letter focused on the situation in Darfur. Had Mr. Cox asked his members to write letters to various oppressive governments, or even to give money to a private militia to go over and go after bad guys in Darfur, I would have had no trouble and might have even sent a check. But that’s not what Cox suggested. Here’s the relevant passage:
"All across the globe, Amnesty International is pressing governments to take immediate, concerted action before the pain, suffering, and abuses spin even further out of control. As part of this effort, we are strongly urging the U.S. Administration, which has recently helped to broker an important peace agreement between one major rebel faction and the Government of Sudan, to exert even greater global leadership in Darfur.
"The U.S. Administration must now follow through on its commitment to provide the funding and political support necessary to support the African Union Mission (AMIS) and its transition to a wider, fully mandated peacekeeping mission, and to monitor adherence to the Darfur Peace Agreement, most particularly those provisions that protect human rights."
What’s wrong with that? Two main things. First, where would the U.S. government get the funds to do what AI wants? Government can’t give money without first forcibly taking it from someone. The government can increase taxes. The government can go into further debt, sell the debt to people, and tax people in the future to pay the interest and principle. Or the government can go into debt, print bonds, and sell them to the Federal Reserve Board, causing inflation which, in reality, is a tax, because it depends on the government’s legal monopoly in printing money. With any of these three methods, the government increases taxes, now or in the future. That’s why economist Milton Friedman has argued that the best measure of taxation is not the explicit level of taxes but the amount of government spending. Of course, the government could finance the spending AI wants by cutting other spending. But if government cuts other spending, it ought to give us our money back.
The second problem with the intervention that AI favors is that it’s government intervention. Whenever government intervenes in our affairs or in the affairs of people in other countries, it creates unintended consequences, many of which are bad. This is true for two main reasons, the same two reasons that caused the spectacular failure of socialism: incentives and information. When government intervenes, the particular government officials making the decisions have very little of their own wealth on the line. They don’t get spectacularly rich if they make a good decision or spectacularly poor if they make a bad one. Therefore, they have little incentive to make good decisions.
In fact, perversely, they may get even wealthier by making bad decisions. What if the U.S. government intervened in Darfur and tried to set up a government there? In my book, that’s failure. Then the U.S. government would need some Americans to help staff or monitor the government. Such jobs could pay well, give media visibility, and lead to future consulting and speaking opportunities.
The other reason government tends to fail when it intervenes is the problem of information. As Friedrich Hayek, co-winner of the 1974 Nobel prize in economics, pointed out in a classic article, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," most of the information that is useful in planning our economic lives is information of time and place, information that only we, not central planners, have. Hayek used this fact to argue that even if incentives under socialism were not a problem, socialism would not work because of the problem of decentralized information. Although, in all my reading of Hayek, I have never seen him apply this reasoning to foreign policy, the application is straightforward. For government to intervene successfully in another country’s affairs, it must have information about the local details in that country. The probability that it will have this information is low.
None of this is to say that the intentions of the people at AI are not good. I’m sure that they are. But as someone once said, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." The fact that we may agree with the goals has no bearing on whether government is competent or caring at achieving them.
I wish that AI would stick to advocating peaceful rather than coercive solutions. If it does, I commit that I will rejoin and pay my annual dues for as long as I am alive.
© Copyright 2006 by David R. Henderson. For permission to reprint, please contact Antiwar.com.
Read more by David R. Henderson
- Rex Tillerson at Hoover – January 21st, 2018
- Robert Gates, Pro and Con – January 9th, 2017
- Questioning the Powerful – December 15th, 2014
- Richard Epstein’s Faulty Case for Intervention – September 17th, 2014
- An Economist’s Case for a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy – April 27th, 2014