Peace through Political Assassination?

Bryan Caplan writes three compelling posts on the common-sense case for pacifism. The short version of his argument is that it’s wrong to kill innocent foreigners (“collateral damage”), especially when the gain in doing so is not clearly large, as it is not in many wars.

This seems like as good a prompt as any to write about an idea I have toyed with and failed to dismiss over the past few years. Instead of going to war against a country, why do we not simply put a price on the heads of the leaders of enemy governments?

Depending on whom you ask, this is currently illegal by executive order. Ford, Carter, and Reagan all ordered that, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” This seems to have been relaxed if not officially rescinded by the Bush and Obama administrations. In any case, assassinations are plainly constitutional, since the US Constitution explicitly authorizes Congress to issue “Letters of Marque and Reprisal,” and it seems implausible that an executive order can overrule an explicit power of Congress.

A small bounty, I believe it was $25 million, was offered by the US for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden and other high-level Al Qaeda officials. The problem with such small amounts is that they do not induce entry into the intelligence-gathering industry. It may cause a marginal defector to turn up information, but it does not entice new firms to form in pursuit of the bounty. Something on the order of a billion dollars would probably have done the trick; note that this is still a much smaller amount than the US government has actually spent in the hunt for bin Laden.

On humanitarian grounds, a bounty system seems like it would result in fewer innocent civilian deaths than the kinds of warfare nation-states have recently been conducting. But even if you do not have this intuition, never fear, we can insert into the bounty announcement a requirement that bounty hunters abide by the strictest standards of conduct or risk disqualification.

Would bounties be effective? There’s no way to know for certain unless they are tried, but my intuition is yes. Here is Helland and Tabarrok on bounty hunters in the criminal context. I certainly would not sleep easily if there were a large bounty on my head. And while I can imagine a hypothetical army without political leadership, this would plainly not result in the kind of warfare that modern states engage in.

So it’s possible that bounties on enemy political leadership would be cheaper, more humane, and more effective than going to war. Why don’t governments use this tactic? I have two public choice explanations.

First: rent-seeking by the professional standing military. In the US, Letters of Marque and Reprisal were used relatively often (to deal with piracy) until after the War of 1812, which resulted in a standing navy. If bounties are used extensively, what justification is there for a standing military? Very little. Therefore, the professional military has an incentive to discourage the use of bounties in order to capture a larger portion of the government’s budget.

Second: collusive rent-seeking by the international political class. If one government began to make extensive use of markets in political assassination, other governments would likely do the same. This makes all politicians worse off. International belligerence would result in the death of politicians, not in the death of grunts and civilians, which they regard as expendable. Looking out for #1 means upholding the tacit agreement not to take aim at political leaders, just as in previous centuries armies used to agree not to target officers. I prefer the tighter link between “live by the sword, die by the sword.”

My guess is that if a bounty system were widely adopted, military budgets would plunge and politicians would be less belligerent. If you have additional arguments for or against this proposal, I would love to hear them. And to the Nobel Peace Prize committee, you may use the “contact” link at the top of the page to get in touch with me.

19 replies to “Peace through Political Assassination?

  1. Master of None

    Brilliant. Now that you have identified the problem, the next task is how to convince politicians to adopt the bounty system. First mover advantage, perhaps?

    Also, I think? I might have heard similar arguments before. Have you researched the preexisting poltical-science/economics literature on this topic?

  2. Pietro Poggi-Corradini

    What would happen if a foreign govt put a price on the POTUS? I think it would escalate quickly to all-out-war. It’s quite possible that all-out-war is in a sense protecting heads of states for exactly such dangers (not that it justifies it).

  3. Eli Post author

    Master of None, Helland and Tabarrok is the best piece on bounty hunters. The law literature also has some stuff on Letters of Marque and Reprisal. Supernor (2001), DeWitte (2007), and Young (2009) are some examples. It came up a little after the September 11 attacks. In terms of convincing politicians, I believe that if you ever convince the median voter that it’s a good idea, they will do it.

    Pietro, fair point, but there’s the issue of credibility in paying out, and also of having a bounty reciprocated. So if someone put a bounty on Obama, they would have to identify themselves well enough to be credible in paying out, which facilitates a reciprocal bounty. No need to go to war.

  4. Stewart

    When an entrepreneur enters the market, the profit an loss system ensures that at a minimum, bad ideas are weeded out. The profit also incentivizes people to obtain information and explore the relevant opportunity costs. What is your mechanism for selecting a new regime that is better than the old? By the time a new leader does enough to warrant a bounty tremendous damage has been done. Is it enough to say we are drawing from a random selection of dictators and that the errors cancel out? Or is the mere institution of your system enough to ensure that only paranoid bloodthirsty monsters achieve power? Killing someone that deserves to be killed is not a sufficient condition.

  5. Eli Post author

    My immediate reaction is that having a bounty system in place would select for relatively unobjectionable successors. If a dictator is belligerent and killed via bounty, belligerent types will be less likely to try to succeed him, although I suppose you could tell an alternative story in which only super-bloodthirsty types are willing to take the risk. It probably depends on the comparative statics and the reasonableness of the powers using the bounty system.

  6. Eli Post author

    I agree that if assassinations lead to more war then it’s not a good system. But it seems like in the cases you cite countries went to war because it was felt that retaliatory assassinations were not appropriate. It would have been better if they had instead assassinated the appropriate people, no?

  7. Pietro Poggi-Corradini

    Yes, but as you say in your second to last paragraph, war is waged instead to make it extremely costly for anybody to even think about assassinating the leaders. I have to think about this. A couple more observations. In Xenophon’s Anabasis the Greek army remains without a leader when Cyrus is killed. I guess in the old days the kings actually took part in the battles. Also, I was lead to think about mafia wars: assassination seems more common there. Thirdly, the point that with modern technology the war on terrorism does resemble a man-hunt at times.

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  9. Eli Post author

    Do note that compared with wars between nation-states, wars between mafia families result in *far* fewer civilian casualties.

  10. stickman

    So it’s possible that bounties on enemy political leadership would be cheaper, more humane, and more effective than going to war. Why don’t governments use this tactic?

    No mention of power vacuums? Many of these terrorist organisations (and here I include certain governments) are the incarnation of the Hydra. Cut off the head and two more spring out to attack you.

  11. Eli Post author

    Even if you have to run through a few iterations of billion dollar bounties, it would still be cheaper than war. And after these, I imagine that there would be some hesitance to step forward as the new leader or to follow the same objectionable program.

  12. stickman

    Sorry, I forgot to check your reply until this Osama Bin Laden news…

    Just to say then — as we may yet see in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s death — my point was also to remind you that power vacuums create volatile environments that are particularly dangerous to “innocent foreigners”. Leaders, abhorrent or otherwise, provide some form of stability. Political assassinations will create conditions ripe for civil war, retribution, or even more terrorist activity. I believe that it is a mistake to believe that you can separate PAs from the collateral damage of war.

    There are many examples in Africa and South America, while it could well be argued that the current situation in (e.g.) Pakistan also bears testament to this.

  13. Eli Post author

    I agree that political assassinations do not eliminate collateral damage. I’m just hoping in this instance to minimize collateral damage.

  14. Jeremy

    They use a similar system in many other countries, paying small but significant amounts of money to the relatives of suicide bombers.

    Also, imagine a terrorist organization funding its operations through the killing of its own token leadership.

  15. Eli Post author

    In general, I think that funding operations through killing token leadership would be difficult, if only because no one is interested in assassinating token leaders. However, it’s possible that the bounties would end up funding terrorism as a result of a schism within the terrorist group. For instance, if some part of a group becomes upset with its leadership, it would kill the leaders, take the money, and start its own spin-off group.

    Obviously, we don’t want prize money to end up funding terrorism. However, I’m not sure this is a major concern. Through backwards induction, if terrorists are worried about being betrayed by schismatics, they will be significantly hampered in their ability to run the organization. It’s another level of debilitation, and in equilibrium, there are fewer and smaller terrorist organizations as well as few betrayals.

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