The Pope, the Mafia and the Government

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Pope Francis, the poverty-obsessed pontiff who seems to be unable to do anything other than advocate measures that will increase it, recently turned his attention towards mafia violence. In doing so he does not seem to have become aware of the fact that replacing the word “mafia” with “government” would turn reports of his recent outcry into what reads like a piece of libertarian literature. Indeed had he just changed this one, tiny word and shifted his entire focus to the real root cause of evil in the world today the present author would be embracing the Pope as his new libertarian hero and be preparing for his conversion to Catholicism.

In the following extract from BBC News, let us try this very thing – substituting the word “government” for the word “mafia” and the word “politician” for the word “gangster” – and see what we get.

Pope Francis has launched a stinging attack on the government, warning politicians that they will go to hell unless they repent and stop doing evil.

“Blood-stained money, blood-stained power, you can’t bring it with you to your next life. Repent,” he said.

He was speaking at a prayer vigil for relatives of those killed by the government.

The Pope has spoken out frequently about the evils of corruption and wrote a booklet on the subject in 2005 when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The meeting near Rome on Friday – organised by a citizens’ group called Libera – was aimed at demonstrating the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to organised crime, rejecting historic ties with government bosses claiming to be good Catholics.

The Pope told told Italy’s mobsters to relinquish their ‘blood-stained money’ which ‘cannot be taken into paradise’.

The meeting was an attempt to draw a line under the church’s historic ties with government dons claiming to be God-fearing Roman Catholics

The vigil was filled with those who have suffered at the hands of the government, including people whose family members and loved ones had been killed.

As the names of those murdered were read out, the Pope listened, deep in sombre thought, says the BBC’s Alan Johnston in Rome.

After expressing solidarity with the 842 people at the vigil, he said that he could not leave the service without addressing those not present: The “protagonists” of government violence.

“This life that you live now won’t give you pleasure. It won’t give you joy or happiness,” he said.

“There’s still time to not end up in hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path.”

Our correspondent says there is a long list of brave priests in Italy who have stood up to the government, and some have paid with lives.

But he says that the wider Church has been accused of not doing enough to confront the politicians.

Anti-government activists hope that the Pope’s words are a signal that he is on their side.

Is it nothing short of astonishing that, to libertarians at least, this report should be so easily fitted to suit government? According to Rudolph Rummel’s research, government has killed an estimated 170 million people during peace time. Isn’t government the true evil hierarchy of organised crime, the institution that kills, maims, steals, on such a colossal scale that it might be perhaps a bit more worthy of the Pope’s attention than the mafia? Isn’t government the ultimate protection racket, demanding tribute from its victims in order to provide them with security, while half of the time encouraging the very acts (terrorism, political violence) against which we need defending? And as awful as mafia violence is, most of the activities in which crime families are involved are simply serving the public goods and services that the government outlaws – namely, gambling, drugs and prostitution. As they cannot compete openly and legitimately in order to supply these provisions they have to settle their disputes by turf wars and violence, as well as greasing the wheels with corruption by bringing public officials onto their payrolls. None of this would exist were it not for government.

We can, of course, never expect an arch-statist such as the Pope – who seemed content to serve as Archbishop of the capital of his country while it was systematically laid to waste by its government – to turn his attention to government in this way unless he has a very sharp and potent but unlikely “Saul on the road to Damascus” experience. Indeed, the very week after he attended the vigil for relatives of those killed by mafia violence, he received the arch crime boss of them all – President of the United States, Barack Obama – at the Vatican. Let’s end with the Guardian’s description of Obama’s arrival in Rome – readers can decide for themselves whether this sounds more like a bringer of peace and harmony; or like a crime lord terrified of assassination:

Obama had arrived at the Vatican in a cavalcade of more than 50 vehicles. Several were packed with men dressed in black and, disconcertingly, wearing masks. It was not immediately clear if they were Italian special forces attempting to confuse potential terrorists or American secret service agents trying to hide the effects of a more than usually gruesome hangover.

A White House correspondent who was travelling with Obama tweeted that the huge, bulletproof presidential limousine – which is nicknamed The Beast – was too big to get through the gates of the Vatican.

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Spying and Security

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The US government’s recent embarrassment over revelations of its surveillance program by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor/CIA employee, and their subsequent frustration in trying to apprehend him, has led to all of the usual outcry from libertarians about government spying, invasion of privacy and so on. However, a further interesting question is whether such acts are a necessary part of the deliverance of security. Would, for example, private security agencies have the need to spy on people’s private communications and, if so, how would this be regulated in a free society?

Security, like any other good, is an end that consumes scarce resources and its provision must therefore be valued like any other. Because a state is as an institution that enforces a territorial monopoly of the provision of law, order and defence funded by compulsory levies (taxes), it needs to provide a blanket security service and need never worry about “customers” leaving it for a competing service. As a result it is cut off from any communication, through the profit and loss system, of whether it has correctly allocated resources efficiently to provide for security needs and so it, alone, needs to judge the urgency of a particular security threat. This would not be the case on the free market, however, as private, competing, security agencies would not be able to apportion more resources towards the production of security than its customers were willing to pay for. In times, therefore, of relatively light or transient threats and normal, one-off acts of crime by individuals then security will not be a high priority and intelligence, which is linked almost wholly to such crime would have little purpose as there would simply be no data to gather. Indeed this would normally be the case in a free society. Most “organised” crime consists of the underground provision of peaceful and voluntary services that the government has outlawed and “terrorist” threats are political backlashes against the government. Even if there was the threat of invasion of a free society by, say, a neighbouring state, this would be much harder for that state to accomplish when defence provision is scattered and heterogeneous rather than concentrated and homogenous in the form of the government’s army, navy and air force. The closest you might get to any kind of organisation in crime in a free society is various forms of human trafficking, such as paedophile rings and kidnap for forced labour. It is therefore very unlikely that there would be the need for systematic intelligence gathering in a world free of the state. However, for arguments sake, let’s say that there is a genuinely serious and imminent threat of organised crime which commands a pressing need for intelligence of this threat by a private security agency in order to defend its customers. What could it do?

A security agency could certainly not invade the servers and networks of private providers of communication services. It could, however, negotiate contracts to monitor information that passes over these networks, with the specific nature of such monitoring subject to the corresponding nature of the threat. But the major difference between this and between government intelligence gathering is that it could never be secret and, if it was, it would be unlikely to last for long. From the point of view of the security providers’ customers, in an environment where there is a genuine threat then such monitoring is likely to be a selling point; while it may not be advertised quite as explicitly as “we will read other people’s emails to keep you safe”, if people, on balance, estimate any threat as being worth the while of this kind of action then they will be eager to provide custom to those security services that can offer it. On the other hand, if a threat is deemed not to be quite so serious to the extent that customers either do not care if other people’s communications are monitored or they would actively leave for an alternative provider to avoid it, could a security firm carry on the practice in secret? The answer is almost certainly no because this would cause the firm to incur costs that customers are not willing to pay for. Hence it would have to raise its prices. Such a firm would therefore see its customer base shrink to the advantage of suppliers who do not incur these deadweight costs. The practice would therefore be self-liquidating at the point when threats are no longer deemed to be worthy of the expense of intelligence gathering.

Furthermore, the monitoring of communications would need to have the consent of the customers of telecoms and internet providers. Again, the permissibility of this would be judged by these customers in the light the urgency of a threat. In the absence of such threats providers that do not invade the privacy of communications would receive custom and those that do would not. Moreover, in this environment, people themselves may be unwilling to deal with parties whose communications were not filtered through a monitored channel. But these services would also be tailored to specific regions that may be under threat or levels of monitoring could be targeted at specific groups based on their vulnerability or their propensity to commit an atrocity. There would not be the blanket monitoring of absolutely everybody and the provision of the same service to everybody regardless of who they are and where they are.

Would consent make intelligence gathering useless? Not necessarily. Between themselves, of course, criminals can use channels that are not subject to monitoring. But when the fear of a threat is perceived to be high channels offering absolute privacy would be difficult to come by and it is arguably the case that government is much easier to circumvent than private agencies. However, all criminal organisations must at some point communicate with the outside world (for purposes of supply, for example) and these latter communications would be subject to monitoring. While not perfect, therefore, it would not be impossible to piece together the movements and intentions of organised criminals.

The above is just a basic outline of what might happen in a free society and no doubt many more considerations could be added. But it is worth emphasising again the main point – that most of the need for intelligence gathering is generated by the government’s own avoidable acts and so, why it could conceivably be accomplished in a free society, it would almost certainly be unnecessary. The proper way forward, then, to end the world of spying, surveillance and secrets is to decriminalise victimless crimes and to stop the government from invading and bombing other countries and nurturing blowback. And we have of course assumed above that government is genuinely trying to protect its citizens; of great import also is the very convincing argument that government merely invents and exaggerates bogeymen for the very purpose of intruding into people’s lives and we need to consider the extent to which surveillance is the end rather than the means.

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