Wednesday, May 03, 2006

For Profit Armed Humanitarian Intervention

by Joe Miller

It's not uncommon in the philosophical literature to find at least a few snarky comments about the tensions inherent in the notion of armed humanitarian intervention. The comments are even snarkier (is that a word?) in some of the referee's comments that I've received from various journals. (Interesting aside: the snarkiest of these comments came from journals that accepted my articles. Go figure.) And all of the above sorts of comments pale in comparison to the comments that I've received at various conferences at which I've presented papers defending a (limited) return to something like colonialism. For the record, presenting a paper defending colonialism in the spring of 2003 at a conference in Europe while employed by the United States Military Academy is not the best way to win friends and influence people.

At any rate, I must confess that even I did something of a doubletake when I read Matt Yglesias' recent defense of the use of private military contractors to combat genocide in various regions of Africa. Armed humanitarian intervention I can live with. For-profit AHI? How many contradictions can we cram into a single phrase?

Okay, I know the arguments. The market. Competition. Matt lays several of these arguments out quite nicely (he got the idea at a CATO seminar, you you'd expect the marketist arguments to be fully on display). I'm sure that my ancap readers (you know who you are) will find Matt's suggestion to be a rare display of good sense.

I have little to add that isn't already stated in the comments on Matt's article. Two points in particular strike me as relevant. First, does anyone really think that the problems in Africa stem from having too few mercenaries running around? Yes, I know, most of those mercenaries are not accountable to anyone at all, or where they are accountable, their paymasters are themselves really bad people. Mercenaries that get their pay from, I don't know, the Red Cross or Amnesty International or some such group are likely to have a lot more incentive to behave themselves. Besides, private military contractors (or PMCs) are usually staffed with former American soldiers who are, by and large, well-trained and well-disciplined. Highly trained, disciplined troops are not usually the type who run around committing atrocities.

The more serious objection, as I see it, is cost. One of Matt's readers points out that the Defense Department has a budget of about $400B and employs about 4 million folks. That means that it costs about $100,000 per employee. Yes, this includes all sorts of exotica--few PMCs will need or want a stealth bomber and I'm sure that no PMC would ever need an aircraft carrier. Still, part of the reason that the Pentagon can get away with such a low number is that national militaries do not pay soldiers their market value. The Army, for instance, makes a big deal of the fact that soldiers are not paid according to their value, claiming that soldiers who are paid what they are worth are mercenaries (and thereby implying that being a mercenary is somehow bad). Rather, soldiers are supposed to fight for duty, honor and country...or something like that. That allows the Army to get away with paying a married E1 a wage that would qualify him for food stamps. Entry-level positions with PMCs, however, reportedly start at $100,000 per year. That's just pay. You'd still have to equip, feed, and transport said soldier and then continue to provide him support in the field.

So we're looking at a pretty substantial chunk of change to put a single soldier on the ground. Then consider that the United Nations Protection Force deployed in Bosnia consisted of 39,000 soldiers. And that Bosnia is about 20K sq. miles. Darfur, to take one random example, is about 197K sq. miles. I suspect that 39,000 soldiers would be hard-pressed to bring any sort of serious order to a region that large, particularly when those same soldiers--as members of a PMC--are unsupported by a navy or an air force or armor or artillery. Even if they could manage to secure all of Darfur, however, we are looking at a price tag of at least $3.9B just for salaries for a single year. For the record, the U.S. still has soldiers deployed in Bosnia...14 years later.

The point here is that we're talking a pretty hefty price tag. That leaves us with three options, as far as I can tell.
  1. Hope that private individuals will kick in enough to make this option work.
  2. Keep AHI the province of nation-states.
  3. Tell all the poor buggers that they'll just have to go it alone.
Personally, I think that (1) is pretty unlikely. That's hardly surprising, I suppose, since that's the same answer I give to my libertarian friends who claim that private charity will be sufficient to alleviate poverty. Option (3) strikes me as pretty much immoral. I have difficulty seeing why it is that the mere fact that I happen to live in this country while you happen to live in another is at all morally relevant. So that leaves us with (2). Unless someone else can think of a (4).


Anonymous Brian Doss said...

From what I understand, Executive Outcomes from South Africa had APVs and other heavy weapons and support vehicles (helicopters, too), and they were a PMC. They also ended the civil war in, where was it, Senegal? I forget exactly, but they seemed to do a pretty good job all things considered.

I think you're not taking into account the HUGE markup that the US military and every other military pays for materiel. Along the lines of the universal health care argument, there's plenty of funny money to be had (in theory) in reducing the bureaucratic premium on materiel cost. Yes, you're going to pay the humans more, but that's right and good. You don't have to buy a $400 toilet seat (and won't) if you're a PMC, for example. As well as not needing a nuclear powered aircraft carrier...

THe other thing, too, is that a lot of PMCs will be, ala Senegal(?), hired by countries who have more resources than the typical NGO. Granted this sets up the same sorts of public choice problems we get with regular militaries, but I'd imagine that in any case they'd be less simply because of the extra layers of competition/market exposure the PMCs would have (competing for clients as well as for employees), which would tend to lower the inevitable increase in cost when working for countries with tax authority.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Point taken about all the fat in the military budget. Doesn't that, however, cut against the claim that PMCs can do the job of national militaries? After all, if the U.S. can put soldiers in the field for $100,000 each after all of those markups, then the real non-bloated cost to equip soldiers must be far, far lower than $100K. Subtract all the $400 toilet seats and the nuclear carriers and the stealth bombers and the U.S. puts soldiers in the field for a song.

So again, given that PMCs are going to start just salaries at $100K and then pay for equipment on top of that, then aren't they going to be prohibitively expensive options? The more heavy weapons and helicopters a PMC acquires, the less economically viable it will be.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

If I can comment on the soldiers likely to be involved in this effort.

2/3 (a round number but a good guess) of the guys deployed to Bosnia were not infantry or special forces guys, but logistic and support troops. The mercenaries hired are likely to be highly trained Rangers/Marines/Green Berets (they have been in the past) - you're not paying 100k for an ordinary trooper but a highly effective soldier.

9:12 PM  

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