Peace through political assassination?
Apr 25, 2011
4 minute read

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 This seems to have been relaxed if not officially rescinded by the Bush and Obama administrations.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.