Lifting the Wool: Governments Are Mafias, War Is Their Racket

It 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.

Palestinian 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.”

Not 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.


Perhaps 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.

Nock 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.

For 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.

By 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.

Standard-issue 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.


What 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.

A 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 “soldiers.”

So 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.


It 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.

Thus 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.”

It 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.

There 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.

Few 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.

But 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 are.

It 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.

But 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.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).