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Private Pursuits

At a time when the state is in retreat, men with money and an inclination to act are stepping into the breach. But whom do they represent?

September 28, 1997|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

NEW YORK — A Miami bingo entrepreneur, Dr. Irving I. Moskowitz, disrupts what remains of the Middle East peace process by moving a handful of Jewish settlers into an Arab neighborhood on the Mount of Olives. The prime minister of Malaysia charges that financier George Soros destabilized his country's stock and currency markets. Television entrepreneur Ted Turner pledges $1 billion, $100 million a year for 10 years, to the hard-pressed United Nations, a donation that will add measurably to the status and power of the global organization.

None of these men are new to international politics and controversy. Moskowitz has long played an important role in financing Jewish settlements. Soros' Open Society projects have attracted controversy for high-profile political philanthropy ranging from support for democracy in Eastern Europe to support of last year's medical marijuana referendum in California. As the architect of Cable News Network, Turner has already done more to shape international politics than most U.S. presidents.

The importance of these three individuals dramatizes one of the major trends of our time: the retreat of the state. A generation ago, governments everywhere were far more powerful than today. Economic activity was tightly regulated at both the national and international levels. Everything from airlines to savings-bank interest to phone rates was controlled by government bureaucrats.

Now governments are on the run. Even the U.S. Postal Service has lost its monopoly to technological agents like the Internet and to private competitors like United Parcel Service and Federal Express. Outside the United States, government-owned airlines, telecommunications companies and enterprises of every kind are being either privatized, subjected to new competition or both.

This isn't just about delivering the mail. Core government activities, like the administration of justice and the provision of order, are increasingly moving into private hands. Gated enclaves with private security police are increasingly common; so are private, for-profit prisons. Abroad, for-profit mercenaries fight wars, foil (or foster) coups and maintain order for foreign investors in turbulent countries. In parts of Africa, government has broken down completely, and private mercenary police provide the only security that exists. When the feeble Zairean government was overwhelmed by refugees from Rwanda, private, humanitarian NGO's took responsibility for basic refugee assistance.

As the activities of private free-lancers like Soros, Turner and Moskowitz show, even the world's most powerful governments are losing their monopoly on the conduct of foreign affairs.

The power shift away from government is both good and bad news. For Americans, who generally believe that government power is a threat to individual freedom, the retreat of the state is, to some degree, welcome. Governments acquired unprecedented power in the 20th century, largely as a result of the terrible wars it brought. The two world wars gave governments broad authority over every area of national life, as even government-allergic countries like the United States and Britain submitted to national economic planning for the sake of the war effort.

In the aftermath of the two wars, the world economy was so disrupted that extensive government control and intervention was necessary to prevent mass starvation. After World War I, business never got back to normal until the Depression; after World War II, it was 20 years before countries like Germany and Japan lifted currency and capital controls. Even today, the world economy is, by some measures, less free than it was before 1914. From this point of view, the retreat of government is a good thing. War strengthens government power; peace undermines it. We should all thank God the scars of the 20th century are finally beginning to heal.

Yet, the retreat of the state also raises troubling questions. For all their flaws, government institutions are at least partly controlled by democratically elected representatives. If power leaks away from these institutions to unaccountable private individuals, or to an even less accountable global economy, then important decisions--including decisions for peace or war--might escape public control altogether. If globalization means no country can set standards for minimum wages and environmental protection, where does that leave democracy?

Moreover, foreign policy is dangerous stuff. It is bad enough when politicians posture and meddle, but even a Jesse Helms is accountable to voters. Rich kooks with big egos and no constituency can cause major-league trouble when they butt into matters they don't understand.

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