Friday, September 6, 2013

Monopoly of Force


By Ajit Chaudhuri – September 2013

Some years ago, I was involved in supplying rice to villages along the Manipur-Mizoram border during a famine. The cheapest way was to lift rice in Imphal and transport it by truck along National Highway 150 to Tipaimukh – but from Churachandpur onwards there were ten roadblocks on the way, where different insurgent groups would stop the trucks and demand bags for themselves. Our protestations, that this was a relief effort and being done via the church, were to no avail – the rice is lifted from a government warehouse, we were told (the buggers actually checked the papers), and the levy had to be paid. Our attempts to organize ‘safe passage’ with the insurgents’ bosses were futile as well, there was no common high command and we would have had to hold ten parallel sets of negotiations – well beyond our ability to coordinate. We ended up using the more expensive option of supplying by boat along the Barak River from Silchar and Lakhipur – only two insurgents’ check posts on the river, both removable for the day if we informed the local Assam Rifles battalion of impending movements beforehand. “Bloody hell,” I remember thinking, “where the #@%%#@ is the #@%%#@ government?”

I am sometimes asked ‘what is India like?’ by someone from the twitter generation (they expect deep insights and sage advice in one sentence). I usually say that India is a country where, if you figure out that something applies, you soon also figure out that the opposite too applies just as much.

One of the many things this applies to is in our attitudes to government. We abuse the thieves and criminals masquerading as lawmakers in parliament and state legislative assemblies (to those who don’t like the tone of this sentence – 1,448 of India’s 4,835 MPs and State legislators have declared criminal cases against them, of which 641 of them face serious charges like murder, rape and kidnapping, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms and quoted from an article entitled ‘The Political Overlords of a Violent Underclass’ by Rajrishi Singhal in The Hindu of 3rd September 2013) and their lackeys sitting in the administration. We also expect the government to do something about anything and everything that happens to us – and if the price of onions rises, or a river bursts its banks and sweeps away a bunch of illegally and badly built hotels, or the Taliban kill an Indian writer in some god-forsaken corner of Afghanistan, it is somehow the government’s fault. And this schizophrenia lies within all of us – we hate it, we demand it, we circumvent it, we look up to it, we moan and groan about it, and we depend upon it.

What is this beast called government, which the philosopher Thomas Hobbes likened to a twisted sea monster and a gatekeeper of hell in his book ‘Leviathan’ in 1651? Why do we need it? What would happen if it didn’t exist? And why does it bring about such a range of emotions within the citizenry? The simplest and most potent explanation of government comes from the essay ‘The Logic of Power’ by Mancur Olsen in his book ‘Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships’ in 2000, and this is the topic of this note. I propose to outline his key arguments here.

Societies, he says, are most likely to prosper when there are clear incentives to produce, and to reap gains from social cooperation through specialization and trade. They are least likely to prosper when there are stronger incentives to ‘take’ than to ‘make’, when there are more gains from predation than production. In anarchies, where life is famously ‘nasty, brutal and short’ (according to Hobbes in ‘Leviathan’), and kleptocracies where those in power seize most assets for themselves, there is little production and few gains from social cooperation through specialization and trade. Olsen suggests that, to determine where a society would fall between these two extremes, one must understand the logic of power. Power, and especially government power, is the capacity to bring about compulsory compliance (whether you agree with a law is irrelevant to the fact that you have to obey it, and the less said about paying taxes the better), and this is best understood via the logic of force.

He uses the metaphor of the stationary bandit. Theft makes society worse off – it produces nothing, reduces rewards from production and investment, and induces a diversion of resources towards locks, police, judges and prisons. But the overall loss to society from his theft is not a deterrent to the individual criminal or the roving bandit – he bears a small proportion of it, compared with all the loss for opportunities to steal that he forgoes. He has a ‘narrow stake’ in the society he is stealing from, and it is rational for him to ignore the damage he does to it. Anarchy is a situation wherein there are many such roving bandits in society, and therefore few incentives to produce and trade.

Now imagine a situation where a roving bandit becomes strong enough to monopolize theft, i.e. to take hold of a given territory, and to keep other bandits out. The power to monopolize theft, and the related ability to monopolize force in a given area, changes incentives dramatically – the roving bandit becomes a stationary bandit. He acquires an ‘encompassing interest’ in his domain – it is now rational for him to reduce the percentage he takes from each victim of theft, so that the victims retain incentives to produce and trade. He even has an incentive to spend some of his takings from theft, which he now calls tax, on public goods that benefit his victims (education, health, infrastructure, etc.) and make them more productive, at least up to the point the last dollar spent equals his share of the resultant increase in output.

Governments, therefore, arise because of the rational self-interest of those who can organize the greatest capacity for violence. The acquisition of monopoly of force, and the resultant move from a roving to a stationary bandit and change in nomenclature of theft to tax, is key to this process. Everything else – administration, justice, representation, issues of legitimacy, caring for the old and sick, poverty alleviation, etc. – comes much later. This is why PM Manmohan Singh rates naxalism as the greatest threat to India, greater than China, terrorism and corruption – it challenges the government’s monopoly of force. And this is what then-PM Vajpayee was referring to in 2002 when he reminded a certain current prime ministerial hopeful to observe raj-dharma.

To conclude, Olsen’s analysis is suspected to be tongue-in-cheek and has elements of irony to it. And yet, seeing the government as a stationary bandit explains much of its actions – and also many of our attitudes to it.


Anirban Mukerji said...

provides a great perspective

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Thank you, as always, Anirban.

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Very nice. Though the comparison could have been a bit more fleshed out.

Do one on the Right to Food Bill. Normal people have many questions.

Sriparna Ganguly

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Thanks Chau. Good one, liked the metaphor of stationary bandit. The concept of Raj Dharma is the need of the day.

By the by, unfortunatly lodging FIR and followed by police arrests are bloody simple in India. I know dozens of activists facing serious charges like trespassing, dacoity, rioting, half murder, disturbing peace, even creating tensions between communities, even when they are actually innocent and are fighting for something else.

When we were in college arresting students under serious charges of carring narcotics was regularly used by police. ADR's campaign to say because somebody is accused is equal to being guilty or criminal is incorrect. It actually shows how weak systems are.

SC's disqualification ruling is most welcome and needed for disciplining representatives, infact this should be true for all other professions too. Why a criminal industrilist be tolerated by the society? Nevertheless, the 'judiciousness' of such ruling is doubtful.

More later.

Pravin Mahajan

Ajit Chaudhuri said...


I stand enlightened by this piece. Scary, but brilliant.

S. Vasudevan

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

What annoys me about your writing is the compulsion to bolster your theme with references to some obscure fart who no one gives a shit about.

Why don't you just state your point and back it with your own experiences and/or research.

Another piece that began so promisingly with your experiences and then lost its way in the sandy mediocrity of pseudo intellectual references.

R. Vijaynidhi

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Brilliant. Liked the way you brought it back to why the Naxals are seen as our biggest threat!

Amir Khan

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Do you think Panchayati raj also fits the government mode of operation? What would Olsen make of tiers of government?

Questions in thinking aloud mode rather than looking for answers.

Joseph Kalassery