War Is a Racket, but
Blackwater Didn’t Start It

Ring the alarm bells: apparently the Iraq war and occupation are being "privatized" with the introduction of private security contractors such as Blackwater USA. Much has been written on the crimes and abuses of power that have been committed by these "private" mercenary armies in government service, as well as the global collusion between defense contractors and government officials. And rightfully so. But instead of attacking the evil and the corruption at its source – state power and privilege – some on the Left attack the free market and private enterprise. This succeeds only in muddling the larger issue, the war itself.

Now, it’s true that the use of these firms has helped create an environment in which the Bush administration (and future administrations) can act with impunity, sending mercenaries, consultants, and paramilitary personnel in situations where their hands might otherwise be tied by red tape, inasmuch as they even bother to follow the Constitution anymore. After all, contractors are not officially government employees, so they fall within a legal limbo. Thanks to countless loopholes, they may or may not face official justice in Iraqi or American courts for whatever crimes they commit. The main objection, then, seems to center on accountability, or the lack thereof, for the egregious abuses committed by firms such as Blackwater. But these objections, while reasonable, assume as a given that governments are accountable for the things they do and the harm they create.

Clearly, this is not so.

By its nature, as we know, the state is a monopoly on the legal use of coercive force. Therefore it can be accountable only to itself, except in rare cases where the people overthrow it or another government captures its leaders (think Nuremberg). But it’s not as if the currently dominant "opposition" Democratic Party is rushing to hold the rogue Bush administration accountable for its crimes and abuses of power – no impeachment proceedings, no war crimes tribunals, no acts of censure, not even a solidly antiwar presidential candidate among their lot. Nor are law enforcement agencies rushing to enforce a bevy of laws and regulations upon the contractors who do so much of the government’s dirty work for it in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? Politicians rather like the campaign contributions they receive from the defense contractors’ coffers. Don’t like it? Well, go write "your" congressman – I’m sure he’ll lend you a sympathetic ear…

Bottom line: if Blackwater acts with impunity, it’s only because it’s doing the government’s bidding.

Another objection to Blackwater is that it is an example of how warmaking is being "privatized," handed off piece by piece so that friends of the administration may profit from it. Of course, the assumption here is that privatization (meaning shifting certain functions from the public sector to private enterprise) is inherently corrupting. But let’s be clear: political cronyism is not privatization. While there is indeed a market need for security forces, firms such as Blackwater get their sustenance from suckling at the teat of the imperial state on funds stolen through compulsive taxation, and thus they cannot be considered part of the free market.

In fact, the notion that you can "privatize" war is ludicrous. Only states have the economic wherewithal, the rallying force, the compulsive power, the legal immunity, and, of course, the incentive to wage wars. You don’t see Microsoft and Apple, or Nintendo and Sony, or AT&T and Sprint, or universities or bakeries or gas stations or whatever, waging wars on each other in the streets of the nation. War is inefficient, destroys value, causes intolerable instability, and has no natural place in a society characterized by free exchange and a respect for life, liberty, and property. History shows that free enterprise is by necessity creative and productive – it has to be or else it wouldn’t work. There’d be no point to it continuing one more minute; everything would have fallen into an orgy of ruin against people’s self-interest long ago. What does history reveal about states? Think gulags, war, and economic ruin.

(Now, some would cite the violent feuds and corrupt underground activity of drug kingpins and the Mafia as an objection to free enterprise uncontrolled by a monopolistic government body, but they’d be wrong. They exist here and now [in a not-so-free system] because of black markets created by the state.)

Are Blackwater-type firms inherently corrupt? Is the very idea of a privately owned and operated defense/protection agency such a bad notion? Well, first you should ask yourself if security guards, insurance companies, and arbitration firms pose fundamental threats to social order and justice. Yet these critical discussions of Blackwater and other such private mercenaries do pose a challenge for anti-statists.

One possible scenario in the absence or reduction of the central state, as Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and Hans Hoppe [.pdf], among others, have written, is the emergence of private defense agencies – a combination of security guards, crime insurers, and policemen all in one – to deal with the real demand for security, contract enforcement, and criminal prosecution in a more libertarian society. In terms of organizational structure and operations, these agencies would likely resemble the present object of our scorn: Blackwater USA. Even in our hypothetical scenario we would still face problems of accountability and possible abuses of power and influence, in addition to judicial stalemates occurring when two agencies could settle disputes, the dilemma of developing objective and workable standards of law and its enforcement, the remote possibility of a new hegemon developing out of multiple private defense agencies, and so on. Simply repeating "the market will inevitably provide" won’t convince the general public, and Jonathan C. Bond has summarized some critiques of such a system in his 2004 paper "The Price of Private Law" [.pdf]. In short, Blackwater’s critics aren’t ringing the alarm bells in vain when they cite abuses and a lack of accountability. These are valid concerns that market-defending libertarians ought to consider carefully.

Unfortunately, though, many attacks on Blackwater are motivated more by an anti-business, anti-market mentality than by a clear understanding of politics and economics. I don’t doubt the critics’ sincerity in wanting to end the Iraq war and occupation, but some of their arguments only feed into the debilitating notion that inherently peaceful and productive free enterprise is suspect, while inherently violent and destructive states are sacrosanct.

The problem isn’t Blackwater per se, but the U.S. government’s war. The war is what has bankrupted our country morally and financially, the war is what has decimated Iraq’s infrastructure, the war is what is causing the chaos. Blackwater’s abuses and cronyism wouldn’t be an issue if the government’s damned war hadn’t occurred in the first place.