Sunday, November 12, 2017

What Is A “Failed State?”

     You’ve heard the term applied to Libya, and perhaps one or two other places. But what does it mean?

     Chris Farrell of Judicial Watch has his own interpretation:

     There is a massive “leadership failure” in the United States Congress and in our government agencies according to Judicial Watch’s Chris Farrell. He is worried we are moving towards a “failed state” because of it. No one will step up in the face of unbelievable corruption, he says.

     Please read the whole thing, especially if your blood pressure is dangerously low and could use a jump-start. I shan’t argue against Farrell’s indictments of federal government corruption. The majority of them are plain as day. But does rampant corruption inside a government render the relevant nation a “failed state?”

     It’s worth more than a little thought.

     Corruption is pervasive inside many governments. The majority of Latin American nations, if their officials and lesser functionaries were to be denied the “privilege” of bribery, probably couldn’t function at all. Hernando de Soto could tell you all about it. Indeed, such practices are hardly confined to the Western Hemisphere.

     Yet Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and so forth are never described as failed states. Clearly, the term doesn’t apply to corrupt regimes simply because they’re corrupt. What, then, is the distinguishing characteristic?

     Is it a failure to enforce the law? But most nations have many, many laws that go unenforced. The United States of America is one such. Enforcement power is always insufficient to enforce all the laws on the books, because governments enact laws without regard for that consideration. The firearms laws of the U.S. provide an exceptionally compelling case.

     Is it some characteristic of the law itself – some quality that the laws of a failed state must possess (or lack) that’s not present in (or absent from) the laws of other nations? That’s too nebulous to explain why the term has been applied so sparely. The luxuriant proliferation of law in every nation on Earth would reveal the presence (or absence) of any proposed characteristic in at least some of the laws of each nation.

     Here’s an interesting case: Was South Vietnam, just before its conquest by North Vietnam, a failed state? It lacked the will, the power, or both to defend itself against the invasion, which is an important aspect of sovereignty. But at what point would that begin to matter? A number of smaller nations are probably just as ill-prepared to defend themselves against their neighbors, even if those neighbors haven’t troubled them yet.

     No, there’s something else involved...some other characteristic of a nation that qualifies it as a “failed state.” It’s about the nature of the state itself.

     The defining characteristic of a state is an organization that possesses the pre-immunized privilege of coercion over those within its scope. Note the qualifier pre-immunized. Many non-state organizations can and do use coercive methods to attain their objectives. However, they remain liable to pursuit and penalty under the law, whatever it might be, should the state decide to act against them. Only the agents of the state are granted immunity – i.e., the presumption of lawfulness – for specified uses of coercion.

     Many organizations seek to become immune to punishment for their coercions. That’s one aspect of the dynamic of corruption: such an organization – assuming it can’t or won’t simply overthrow the existing state and take its place – will attempt to acquire such immunity through bribery, blackmail, or exchange of favors.

     A state which can operate under the presumption of immunity for its deeds is a functioning one. Regardless of the laws it promulgates and whether or not it chooses to enforce them, it has not failed. It maintains its defining difference from the other organizations within its jurisdiction. Inversely, a state whose agents and other subunits are routinely punished for their actions by non-state actors is at the very least in danger of failure. A state some of whose subjects have mounted a credible insurrection against it is in the critical stage that precedes failure, though complete failure might yet be averted. Should the insurrection persist despite the state’s attempts to suppress it, the verdict would become definite.

     The failure of a state, like dying, is a process rather than a sharply bounded event. We seldom hear a state called failing, no matter how seriously events have endangered it. Only when the process has run to completion do we speak of that state as having failed.

     Note the difference between a country with a failed state and a country that is itself in a condition of failure. The two conditions are independent of one another. Venezuela, a failed country with an unpleasantly firm state, provides an excellent example.

     Libya is spoken of as a failed state because the government that asserted itself after the execution of Muammar Qaddafi could not maintain itself against the several Islamic insurrections that arose. The Benghazi atrocity was a clear indication that that government had no practical influence over events. Another state that displays clear indications of failure is that of Lebanon, which has been wracked by insurrections for so long that no one can remember when it was otherwise. The government over Syria, by contrast, appears to be winning against the insurrections mounted against it, though remnants of those movements may persist for some time further.

     The federal government of the U.S. is not a failed state by that criterion. At this time there is no force in existence that threatens the immunity of its agents from punishment. Ruby Ridge and Waco provide clear demonstrations, regardless of our opinion of what happened in those two incidents.

     The unwillingness of high federal officials and agencies of justice to act against blatant criminality does provide reason for a judgment of corruption. What’s lacking is any indication that those officials and agencies will suffer for their nonfeasance. Were that the case, the question would then become: Will the rest of the federal government treat the responsible officials and agencies as liable and punishable? An answer of yes would be most gratifying, but even a clear no would not mark the federal government as a failed state. As I noted above, corruption of that sort is known in many other nations, none of whose governments we would call “failed states.”

     Missing from all this logic-chopping and word-mincing is any consideration of whether it’s more desirable to have a failed state or a functioning one. It’s a fascinating subject, as it requires us to weigh the value of legal and governmental stability against the importance of punishment for “official” misdeeds and acts of tyranny. However, I prefer to leave that question to the side of me that writes fiction.

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