Montreal, October 11, 2003  /  No 130
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Pierre Lemieux is an economist and an author.
by Pierre Lemieux
          I am sure that Saddam Hussein and his praetorians tried to develop WMDs. I would not be surprised if they succeeded, even if they were third-world, third-rate tyrants. I am sure that George Bush, his father and their praetorians tried to develop WMDs, and I know that they succeeded.
          How do I know all this? Because I have a theory of the state that predicts that this will happen, and because this theory has not been not falsified by the available evidence. The American state did, in fact, develop WMDs, and still has mountains of them. We apparently have evidence that the former Iraqi regime did try to develop WMDs. It probably did not succeed, but this did not prevent our own rulers from claiming the contrary. Any realistic theory of the state also has to explain why states often lie – and why one should not be surprised by that. 
          Why do we need a theory of the state? A theory of the state is a set of interrelated and consistent propositions, or theorems, that explains how the state works, i.e., why it does what it does. We need a theory of the state to make sense of the state actions we observe, to help us understand the state, and to predict how the state is likely to act in different circumstances. Any discourse about the state is based on a theory, whether explicit or implicit. 
A theory of the state 
          People who don't have an explicit theory of the state necessarily have an implicit one. The most common implicit theory of the state is a naïve theory. Assume that political actors are moved by an altruistic love for their fellow men, and that they know what the latter need. The state will then respond to popular demands or needs, and acts for the people's good. In this view, the state is an organization that serves people's needs. Mistakes can be made, but one expects the state to be generally focused on maximizing what neo-classical economists called social welfare. 
          There are other naïve theories of the state. The Hegelian theory, which sees the state as the incarnation of right, is one of them. The Rousseauvian theory, which defines an abstract "general will" over and above self-interested individual preferences, is another one. 
          Contrast these theories with the Public Choice theory of the state. The Public Choice school of economics has developed since the mid-20th century under the impulsion of Jim Buchanan, the 1986 economics Nobel Prize winner. The theory is based on the assumption that the state is manned by ordinary individuals, who have the same self-interest motivations in the political sphere as in the economic sphere. The existence of the state thus creates a political market, i.e., a market for political favors. The state will redistribute in favor of the interest groups whose support the rulers need most to remain in power and increase their perks. 
          The state exists because rulers want to redistribute in their own favor, i.e., to steal. In order to remain in power, the rulers also have to redistribute to their supporting clienteles. This redistribution requires large increases in state power, which in turn requires more redistribution. Redistribution and state power feed on each other. The state will thus aim at increasing its power to keep its subjects quiet, and to increase its general capacity to intervene in their affairs. 
          It may be objected that a theory of the state is not useful, or even possible, because the state is not an individual, and does not act like an individual. It is true that the state is not a single actor animated by an individual mind, but this does not mean that its actions cannot be explained. We need a theory to explain what the state does just as we need a theory to explain what any other organization – say, General Motors – does. 
     « We need a theory to explain what the state does just as we need a theory to explain what any other organization – say, General Motors – does. »
          Now, it is true that we lovers of liberty have reasons to prefer, for now, living under American types of tyranny than under Iraqi types of oppression. As we continue granting more legitimacy and more power to our own tyrants, the question is, For how long? Some regimes are not as bad as others, they don't use all the exploitative powers of the state as efficiently as others, but this is not a reason to grant them more power. 
          A theory of the state must explain why, when, and how the state lies. The state lies for a very simple reason: it is often in the interest of the rulers to lie. The state is made of rulers, who of course are the ones who actually lie. Lying is in their interest for the same reason that it is often in an ordinary individual's interest to lie: to bring other people – the subjects, in the case of the state – to serve their own interests. Moreover, the complex nature of public policy measures and the impossibility of forecasting their consequences create fuzzy borders between truth and falsehood. Because of this, and because the customers cannot easily go shop elsewhere (the state is a monopoly), statocrats risk less from lying, and have more incentives to lie, than private producers. 
          The state, therefore, will lie whenever it is in the self-interests of those who control it to lie. There may be some political and bureaucratic saints who will not lie, but we should not bet our liberty and our children's future on sainthood. It is safer to assume that the state will lie whenever a given lie carries greater benefits than costs (including risks of disclosure) to the statocrats involved. 
How does the state lie? 
          In more open societies, with a freer press and easier access to information, state lies will be subtler than the former Iraqi Minister of Information's performance. The justifications put forward will be those that are more appealing to the clienteles whose support the state needs. Evidence gathered by different government bureaus will be put together in a way more favorable to the rulers' wishes. We have seen much of this in the pronouncements of our own tyrants about the war in Iraq. 
          How does the state lie? Unless we believe that He talks through our collective mouth, we must ask by which process the complex apparatus of the state utters false statements. The state lies through its bureaus, agencies and spokesmen. These agents naturally put before the populace the facts, or the interpretations of the facts, that are the most likely to further the rulers' interest. Whether this process leads to statements that are demonstrably false or to selective disclosures depends on what the rulers can get away with (and, admittedly, on built-in devices for public disclosure). 
          Now, I want to be read correctly. There could be justifications for a war like that waged in Iraq. Suppose, for example, that 9/11 criminals were protected by the Iraqi tyrant. Or suppose that the Iraqi tyrant was openly, and credibly, threatening a group of us, and that this group of "us" was ruled by a state whose monopolistic function it was to protect its members. It is important that the threat be open, credible (hence the importance of the WMD issue), and immediate. Then, of course, we (or some of us) might want some action from the organization which is supposed to protect us, assuming that it does not in the process become a worse threat than what it is suppose to protect us against. The problem with the war in Iraq is that there was no real threat to this group of us from any credible foreign tyrant. 
          The war was waged because it was in the interest of the state – i.e., of some of its agents and supporters – to wage it. The state lied about it, because of its motives, in order to obtain its subjects' support. The war was in the interest of the state in two ways. First, many state rulers (i.e., politicians and bureaucrats) realized that the war furthered their own careers. When this was not the case, like in France or Canada, the statocrats stayed clear of the battlefield. Second, the state needs legitimacy to rule. The whole system is designed to generate legitimacy, with built-in devices (state education, national anthems, state protocol, etc.) to this effect. War, especially war against a weak third-world tyrant, boosts state legitimacy. 
          We can only hope that, as the political and the bureaucratic mess become known (but much time will be needed for everything to become known), state legitimacy will be in fact undermined by the war in Iraq. 
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