Failed States

Posted: March 11, 2009 in Culture, Economics, Ethics, Politics

Following up on the previous post, crooks and law-abiding citizens have a mutual interest in society being bounded by rules, regulations, and laws. The basic reasons are the same: a nation of laws give them operating room for their various endeavors and a certain degree of protection from depredations by others. Anarchy is much harder to manage. Crooks, whether the garden variety criminal or the professional bureaucrat found with annoying regularity in government service, fare particularly well because they are willing to use illegitimate, criminal force or the state’s monopoly on legitimate force to achieve their ends. When the citizenry has been muzzled by criminal intimidation or state-sponsored learned helplessness, the forceful can, by and large, act with impunity.

The way I heard this put in a movie recently was that “winners make the rules, losers follow them.” The obvious strategic implication, quite apart from any moral question, is that you’re a chump to follow the rules. The example was set by the executive branch and the agencies it controls: Bush stole two elections, no one did anything; he and his minions lied about Iraq and Afghanistan in the run-up to war, no one did anything; civil rights laws were contravened, no one did anything; Bush enriched himself and his cronies instead of doing his job, no one did anything; the federal government failed to act after Katrina, no one did anything; and finally, Bush bankrupted the nation the same way he bankrupted baseball teams and oil companies before following the Peter Principle into government, and again, nothing happened. That model was crystal clear to the financial sector in the most recent phase of laissez faire deregulation, so they went about looting everyone and everything, damn the consequences. And it’s not over yet. It’s said that the last act of a failed state is to loot the nation. Anything look familiar? Bailout, anyone?

The monopoly on legitimate use of force is the definition of the state given by Max Weber in Politics as a Vocation. The loss of that monopoly is one of several criteria or indicators used by the Fund for Peace in its Failed State Index. Here’s the full list:

  1. mounting demographic pressures
  2. massive movement of refugees and internally displaced people
  3. legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance
  4. chronic and sustained human flight
  5. uneven economic development along group lines
  6. sharp and/or severe economic decline
  7. criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state
  8. progressive deterioration of public services
  9. suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights
  10. security apparatus as “state within a state”
  11. rise of factionalized elites
  12. intervention of other states or external factors

There is even a nifty world map in color to show the various levels of vulnerability to collapse. The index is no doubt a complicated and costly undertaking, including disclaimers that the combination of twelve indicators may not yield a fully accurate assessment.


Misassessment is clearly the case with Iceland, which ranked near the bottom of the list (meaning least vulnerable) in the “sustainable” category of the most recent revision. I’m uncertain whether Iceland’s economic collapse (I’ve heard Iceland called “a hedge fund with a flag”) has led to anarchy and lawlessness, but it’s clearly now a failed state as the result of only one leading indicator.

The term failed state is being applied quite a lot these days to various countries teetering on the brink. The two most prominent ones for North Americans are — duh — Mexico and the U.S.A., which may only reveal how obsessed we are with ourselves. In fact, the Failed State Index is stacked heavily at the top (most vulnerable) by African countries. We care less about them, obviously, despite their famines and genocides. That’s partly normal, as our immediate environment is always our greatest cause for concern, even in a global marketplace. It’s also the case that because many African countries have lower population density and have not progressed very far in terms of market economies or industrialization, they have less far to fall (back to subsistence and agricultural economies) than fully modernized countries such at the U.S.A. So our own collapse, prophesied by many, is of paramount concern. And as human nature would have us, we’re barrelling at it as fast as possible, aided in no small measure by the behaviors of crooks.

  1. Hashim says:

    This is what they call truth and writers like you make me think that all Americans are not like Bush, and some of them; like Carter; ” sorry; don’t know how to write his name” trust in freedom and justice.

  2. Brutus says:

    I appreciate your comment, Hashim. You’re correct that Americans are not a monolithic group of warmongering fools. I wish the same could be said for our elected leaders.

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