Monday, July 27, 2015

The Transaction Costs of Oppression

The time for talk had ended. This was war.

The island nation of Mungerica had reneged on her 2011 neuropolyp weapons treaty with Spivonostan as the internationally-approved inspection team had discovered in its mandatory annual sweep. Negotiations stalled. Ambassadors were recalled. Spivonostan instituted a naval picket around the main deepwater harbor of Mungerica. Shots were fired against a light destroyer on the fringes of the fleet. War was declared less than 18 hours later.

Now, over the course of the Pax Mungerica, a number of diasporas flourished on both sides of the political border. Ethnic Mungericans were seafarers by avocation, so when they settled abroad, they tended to take up residence in the coastal towns to fish, stevedore, or what-have-you. Spivonostanis were relatively skilled at agriculture, which meant soybean farming in the lowland plains of Mungerica.

But despite their cosmetic differences, both Mungerica and Spivonostan were of one mind when it came to their shared mistrust of foreigners. On the outbreak of war, each nation instituted its own version of internment. In Mungerica, the chief executive issued Order #1121, named the Foreign National Detention Act of 2015. In Spivonostan, the order had no name, and was barked to underlings in a filthy tongue scarcely fit to reproduce in print. The effect was identical: all ethnic Mungericans were to be rounded up and sent to a detention facility in the hinterlands of chilly Spivonostan until further orders were received.

The non-cosmetic difference between Mungerica and Spivonostan was that Mungerica bore an almost pathological insistence on preserving the right of the people to own firearms. Spivonostan had no such tradition. So when the Spivonostani warchiefs collected the Mungerican immigrants, they faced no real opposition. Cowed and meek, the best the defenseless Mungericans could do to mount a defense was to try to sneak across the border in the dead of the night or to hide in the woods. Not only were they dispossessed of their property, but they were stripped of their dignity. In Mungerica, the ethnic Spivonostanis were at least occasionally armed. And in some of the farming communities, they were armed and organized, so that when Mungerican soldiers arrived to load them onto flat cars and take them away, they met with violent resistance.

Now, as is the case with such things, the Mungerican forces easily emerged victorious against the minor domestic insurrection. No petty militia stands against a secure sovereign. Just ask General Tso and his delicious chicken. But even though the insolent Spivonostani rebels were suppressed, it took the time, treasure, and blood of the nation to do it.

On the margin, the right of the people to bear arms raised the opportunity cost of oppression.

Of course, the distraction may end up costing Mungerica the war. It almost certainly cost them their neuropolyp weapons program, since the rebels were able to sneak in and set ANFO charges around the main refinery. Then again, it's possible that some of the polynucleotide material was released into the environment without being incinerated in the blast. The point is, it's hard to say whether or not a political choice is objectively good or bad in the absence of a convincing counterfactual. This is true for specific policy, but it might also be true for governing institutions, or even for pedestrian constitutional jurisprudence.

But this little story is a flight of fancy anyway. There's no way a liberal democracy like the US could ever run ethnic internment programs, right?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?