Blackwater and the Debate over Privatization:

Recent revelations that private military contractors employed by Blackwater may have committed atrocities and other abuses in Iraq have led many to call for an end to the use of private military contractors and their replacement with government personnel. Unfortunately, many of the anti-Blackwater/anti-privatization arguments are beset with typical fallacies that bedevil the debate over the role of government in society. To be clear, I don’t know whether the use of private contractors should be abolished or not. I lack the expertise to say. Perhaps Blackwater should be fired; perhaps all private military contractors should be. Blackwater and its rivals do not actually represent full privatization (complete replacement of the government by the private sector). They represent a form of contracting out – the government hiring private contractors to do work it mandates. Nonetheless, several of the standard arguments against the use of private contractors contain major fallacies that often recur in debates over the role of government.

I. Failure to Apply the Same Standards to Both Alternatives.

Let’s assume that private military contractors really do commit atrocities (I certainly don’t doubt that it happens). That is not enough to prove that privatization is undesirable. After all, government military forces – including, sad to say, American ones – also commit atrocities. Yet, when US military personnel engage in such misconduct, no one seriously claims that that fact “proves” that they should all be replaced with private contractors.

Whenever we wage a large-scale war, especially one fought in a setting where it is sometimes difficult to tell civilians from enemy combatants, it’s inevitable that some atrocities will be committed by our forces. The key question is: what institutional arrangements will minimize their occurrence? Privatization critics must do more than prove that Blackwater or other firms commit atrocities or engage in coverups. They must show that they are systematically more likely to do so than government employees would be in their place. Unfortunately, this comparative aspect of the question is usually neglected. Too often, privatization critics implicitly compare hypothetical perfect government employees with real-world, imperfect private contractors.

II. Double Standards in Assessing Motives.

Similar double standards apply to the way that privatization critics analyze motives. For example, private military contractors are often attacked as “mercenaries” interested only in profit. The problem here is that government personnel may also be motivated solely or primarily by self-interest. There is a reason why the Pentagon offers a wide variety of material incentives (e.g. – free college tuition, health and welfare benefits, etc.) for volunteers to enlist in the army and for key personnel to stay in. This is not to say that government military personnel are motivated solely by personal gain. Far from it. In reality, they surely have a wide range of motivations, including in many cases a sense of patriotic duty.

But the same is true of private military contractors. After all, most of the security personnel employed by Blackwater and its competitors are in fact former government soldiers, often ex-special forces. It would be surprising if such individuals were completely selfless patriots during their days in the military and then suddenly became self-seekers motivated solely by money once they sign on with Blackwater. In reality, they are probably more or less the same kinds of people in both phases of their careers. Just as military personnel may be motivated by a combination of patriotism and self-interest, so too may private contractors. Putting on a government uniform doesn’t make selfishness disappear, and taking it off doesn’t make it magically come back.

A closely related fallacy is the implicit assumption that warriors motivated by personal gain will necessarily commit more atrocities and abuses than those motivated by patriotism or other selfless considerations. This is far from obvious. Self-interested “mercenaries” may choose to refrain from atrocities precisely because they hurt the bottom line: by generating negative publicity for the firm and giving the local population incentives to target its personnel. Selfless motives, by contrast may in some cases increase the risk of atrocities (e.g. – if soldiers feel that atrocities will help them win, or if a strong sense of solidarity amongst themselves leads them to “dehumanize” the enemy). Whether self-interested soldiers will commit more abuses than selfless ones is an empirical question, not one that can be settled by a priori assumptions.

Thus, we have two unsupported assumptions about motives and privatization: assuming that the private sector is necessarily driven by self-interest alone, while government officials care only about the public interest; and assuming that selfless motives necessarily lead to better results. Either or both claims may actually be true in a particular instance. But they need to proven, not just asserted.

III. Ignoring the Potential Benefits of Competition.

If Blackwater or some other private contractor performs badly, it can be fired and replaced with one of its competitors. This is an important incentive for contractors to do a good job. By contrast, it is extremely difficult to abolish a failing government bureaucracy or – in many cases – even to reduce its funding.

The advantages of competition are important benefits of contracting out that have mostly been ignored in the Blackwater debate. They don’t necessarily outweigh all other considerations, but they should certainly be a much bigger part of the discussion.

IV. Appeals to Mythical Tradition.

Finally, some privatization critics claim that the use of “mercenaries” violates a supposedly longstanding American tradition of hostility to military privatization, one that allegedly goes back to the Founding Fathers. They conveniently ignore the fact that the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War relied heavily on European mercenary officers, many of whom were motivated by profit more than principle. Without them, we might not have won our independence. For example, the German mercenary Baron von Steuben was the officer in charge of training the Continental Army, and credited by George Washington with playing a decisive role in the war. The United States also relied heavily on privateers to raid British seaborne commerce in both the Revolution and the War of 1812

The fact that the Founders made extensive use of mercenaries and privateers doesn’t prove that we should permit military privatization today. Maybe the Founders were wrong, or maybe the utility of privatization has declined since the 1780s. It does, however, show that military privatization doesn’t go against tradition in the way critics allege.

UPDATE: There is a common myth that military contractors in Iraq are exempt from liability for crimes they commit. This fallacy is refuted in this post by Laura Dickinson at Balkinization (a blog that, to understate the point, is not especially sympathetic to either privatization and Blackwater or the Bush Administration).
In any event, exemption from liability is surely not an inherent attribute of contracting out. Congress can adopt laws imposing whatever liability rules it wants on military contractors. Alternatively, the government can insist on including liability standards in the terms of the contracts themselves.

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