Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Making Blackwater accountable

The Register site seems to be functioning fairly well now, so here's the Register's editorial, which ran Sunday, on the Blackwater imbroglio. The editorial didn't say so, but I think it's just possible that the Iraqi government's demand that Blackwater be kicked out of the country could be the beginning of an Iraqi government that can start with things all agree on and maybe get in the habit of agreeing to the point of maybe eventually agreeing or compromising on some divisive things and become a real government. Probably wishful thinking. But an Iraqi government asserting independence from the U.S. can't be all bad.

I'm just about done with the "Blackwater" book, and it does look as if the company has a fair amount to answer for, though it may not be the complete villain some would have it be. And I'm not sure the idea of outsourcing some military-type activity to the private sector is inherently a bad idea.

However, Justin Raimondo using quote marks around the word "private" in his piece on Blackwater reminded me of a factor I haven't yet written about. Government contractors can often do work better than government bureaucracies at a lower cost. But most of them are not truly private in character in that their only customers are governments.

Governments may have spending limits based on political machinations and the amount of taxes they can extract from people without causing a massive tax revolt. But they don't face the ultimate test private companies face -- the necessity to make a profit or, eventually, if the condition persists, go out of business. Since almost no government program ever dies or is eliminated without a titanic struggle, no matter how irrelevant, anachronistic or insignificant it is, there's going to be money floating around, if not as much as some special interests would prefer. The "market" for government contractors is hardly consumer-choice-driven.

Outsourcing some of those functions to "private" contractors might reduce inefficiency, but if it's something the government shouldn't be doing -- like fighting the misbegotten war in Iraq -- that's being outsourced, then we're just getting slightly less waste of tax money. And in the case of contractors in Iraq, since outsourcing military and military-related endeavors on the current scale is a recent phenomenon and so many of the contracts are no-bid contracts, it's certain that acceptable contracting standards that involve a modicum of real accountability, which almost invariably evolve by trial-and-error, have not yet been developed. So it's by no means certain that we're saving money by outsourcing so much to "private" contractors.

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