Should the US Try the “Theory of Second Best?”

Yes, we should. And it should be done immediately. Quick withdrawal from Afghanistan would force Karzai and his opium dealing warlords to govern their country by themselves. This would likely result in the collapse of the corrupt government that calls Kabul its home. Sounds vicious, doesn’t it? It would paint a far rosier picture than would staying our current course. Peter Leeson and Claudia Williamson argue in a paper that

Many predatory governments do more to damage their citizens’ welfare than to enhance it. In light of this, we show that conditional on failure to satisfy a key institutional condition required for ideal political governance—constrained politics—citizens’ welfare is maximized by departing from the other conditions required for this form of governance: state-supplied law and courts, state-supplied police, and state-supplied public goods. Since departing from these conditions produces anarchy and fulfilling them when government is unconstrained producers predatory political governance, anarchy is a second best.

This isn’t just another fairyland dream spouted by academics, either. Practicing the “theory of second best” has produced tangible and puzzling results. The paper uses Somalia as proof that this theory works. Using 18 development indicators (GDP, life expectancy, extreme poverty), when 2000-2005 (no central government/anarchy) is compared to 1985-1990 (central government), Somalia did better in 14 out of 18 indicators with no central government. 

The case to end all US-assisted nation building is made even stronger when Somalia is compared to Sierra Leone, a country that “receives nearly five times the amount of foreign aid that Somalia does and has a smaller population.” Somalia fared better in 16 out of 28 indicators when matched up against Sierra Leone.

What is the point of continuing to waste American money, blood, and sweat, if Karzai doesn’t clean up his “predatory political governance”? Quite frankly, there is no point because the Afghan people would do better without it. 

The Taliban, however, make this issue a bit more tricky. While they are grudgingly preferred by the population to Karzai and company, they could in fact revert to the “predatory political governance” that was and is detested in Afghanistan. 

Coming from an American taxpayer, I would much rather stop sending my money to a place I will never even step foot near than to continue a Sierra Leone-style black hole of money that produces horrible results. I want to see the Afghan people prosper, and live longer and healthier lives. I do not want to see them suffer and live terribly impoverished. The former is free and the latter is very, very expensive. Take your pick.

Published in

Post a comment