On democracy and the margins of government

Among the things I remember from my history lessons in Fall River is that the British forces employed Hessian mercenaries against the American patriots. Both "mercenary" and "Hessian" had a nasty tone in the textbooks and class discussions.
I wonder if those lessons remain in place, and if they are coupled with reports that the US military has employed more contract employees than its own soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more contract employees than soldiers killed in those wars. American and well as foreign national contract employees are prominent in logistics, transportation, and translation, and have been involved in guard duties and actual combat.
Since leaving Fall River I have also learned that Americans fighting for independence were just as likely to be the village riffraff with nothing better to do than dedicated patriots, but that is another story. (Those surprised or offended might begin with Fred Anderson''s A People''s Army, and Gary Nash''s The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America )
Back to those contractors.
The purpose of this note is to raise some questions about the nature of government, and the capacity of elections and other tools of democracy to control things.
The topic has attracted my attention for a long time. Thirty some years ago I published Wither the State? It dealt with companies and other bodies owned by governments and ostensibly responsible to them, but largely independent. I employed the concept of the margins of the state to denote activities financed in part or whole by governments, and meant to be governed by them, but mostly beyond the reach of elected officials and those directly responsible to them. I began the research in East Africa, and then moved to the experiences of Australia, Israel, and the United States. Since then, the phenomenon has grown considerably. Contractors of various types provide all kinds of social services as well as foreign relations and military activities. I know of no major country that has maintained public services solely within the framework of departments under the direct control of national, regional, or local governments.
Prominent among the reasons for increased reliance on contractors are:
  • Populations demand more services than politicians, or senior administrators in charge of established departments are able, or willing to control closely
  • Governments can maintain or expand services without expanding the official civil service, thus saving on salaries and benefits, and avoiding unions
A common pattern is for an established charity, perhaps associated with a religious group, to expand its services from purely voluntary work funded by contributions to become a government contractor. It may still pose as a charity with some of its funds donated by individuals or corporations, but often the larger portion of its money comes from a local or national government.
There are also incentives for governments to "hive off" to others dirty tasks that laws within their own country would constrain or forbid. Thus the US government''s practice of outsourcing torture, under the euphemism of "extraordinary rendition." to countries of Eastern Europe or the Middle East for individuals swept up in anti-terror operations.
Also in this murky realm on the margins of governmental activities are the rentable soldiers who learned their trades in the IDF or the armies of South Africa, France, the United States, Britain or elsewhere, and become trainers, arms dealers, combat officers or grunt fighters for a Third World country''s official army or one of the movements doing combat with a government''s army.
Somewhat more praiseworthy have been ex-IDF soldiers hired as guards on ships sailing off the coast of Somalia, who have managed to repel pirates with less concern for the niceties that limit the official naval ships of various countries assigned to that task.
Less praiseworthy are Israelis who have parleyed their experience and connections with defense industries to sell expertise and equipment to some dicey customers. Also prominent is a Russian who gained wealth during the sell-off of assets by the Soviet Union, linked himself to Israel and sought a role in politics via high profile donations to worthy causes, perhaps to gain refuge from criminal prosecutions in Israel and elsewhere.
The upside of contracting is the flexibility provided to governments to provide more services than they can--or want to--manage directly.
The downsides include:
  • What activists term the "exploitation" of workers in these organizations, who lack the benefits and protections associated with the civil service
  • What activists term the "exploitation" of clients, who suffer when contractors skimp on their obligations, and provide sub-standard services to needy individuals who lack obvious routes of appeal to government officials who are formally charged with overseeing the contractors.
  • Contractors in military settings who are less assiduous than official soldiers in avoiding the collateral damage to innocent civilians, and who provide less care to their personnel who suffer injuries.
Currently on the agenda of the United States, depending on the Supreme Court, is the extension of health care via profit-making insurance companies, already known for problems in delivering the coverage expected. Americans who are proud of their free enterprise traditions may be less proud of profitable insurance companies that seek to protect their bottom lines by skimping on treatments, overly scrupulous controls of physicians'' recommendations, complex paperwork demanded of claimants, and life-threatening delays in the approval of procedures.
There is no summary assessment possible about the overall benefits or problems due to contracting and other activities on the margins of government. The problems are no so much those of democracy, as of government administration that has grown as a result of public demands beyond the capacity of elected officials or their professional subordinates to manage what they provide to citizens. The problems appear in activities directly administered by government departments, and even more so those indirectly administered. The field is murky, some of it intentionally so, as in the case of arms dealing, extraordinary renditions, and other activities that may be justified for one or another reason, but are also embarrassing with respect to one or another moral virtue.
Among the issues on Israel''s agenda this week are several hundred organizations providing the ingredients of a Passover Seder and other foods to needy families. Critics charge that the organizations are filming their distribution points, to the embarrassment of clients, for the sake of increasing contributions. Unknown, and perhaps unknowable, is the portion of their funds received indirectly from the government budget, via funds originally allotted to religious academies, municipalities, or a social service contractor from one government ministry or another.
Such are the mysteries of governmental financing. But they will not keep me from wishing you all an appropriate Passover, with the rituals and degree of kashrut suitable to your traditions and tastes.
And to make it easier for us all, the Hebrew University has just announced a generous offer for staff members to sell their chametz to a Gentile for the period of the holiday via the university''s Internet site.
I am pleased to conclude this note with the observation that not all quasi-governmental, quasi-private organizations warrant criticism.