What Really Makes “Postcards from Hell”

Foreign Policy just ran another “Postcards from Hell” feature detailing the worst of the worst from their “Failed States Index.” It’s worth a look. Sixty images depict the consequences of corruption, endemic violence, totalitarianism, and central planning. Unfortunately, FP doesn’t seem to recognize the connections between these problems. The “failed state” is one of too little power, except sometimes when it has power and it still fails; but then we can blame things like wars, mineral wealth, or climatological factors, right?

Immediately, they blame the problems of the Somali people on their lack of a clear, central authority (no mention, of course, of government-perpetrated oppression in Somalia, or the dubious humanitarian credentials of the U.N.’s blue-helmets). If only Somalia had a strong, central government like Eritrea! Then we wouldn’t have to worry about those pesky pirates! But wait, Eritrea makes it on FP’s list too. At least an oppressive state can qualify as a failed state.

North Korea shows up a bit later, which inspires one to ask why this state, the model of centralization, failed. It surely can’t be because the state has too little power. Instead, the obvious answer must be that Pyongyang’s policy of collectivization and top-down economic planning produces massive poverty. But does FP draw this conclusion? No. Apparently, the DPRK’s economic woes are the product of a “bad harvest.” A bad harvest that has been recurring for 50 years, presumably. How strange that the south, with its similar weather and geography, has not been devastated by climatic caprice. Forget the knowledge and calculation problems associated with the lack of a price system, collectivized capital, and no markets — in the 21st century, we’re still at the mercy of the rains.

North Korea’s large number of “civil servants” doesn’t seem to help much with its problems, either. But one of the biggest problems with post-quake Haiti was the destruction of its bureaucracy, according to Foreign Policy. Haiti’s loss of 20 percent of its civil servants has allegedly crippled the country’s ability to rebuild. Never mind that the same civil servants weren’t doing much to benefit Haiti before the quake. Given more bureaucrats and a stronger military, maybe Haiti’s new singer-president, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, can croon the stones of Port-au-Prince back together like Amphion at Thebes.

The confusion about failed states in FP’s list comes from its imprecise name. The state didn’t fail in many cases. Most states learn quickly how to extract money from their people, how to use it to finance everything from wars to junkets to  bottles of rare cognac (if you happen to be a certain short, round North Korean madman), and how to suppress dissent and discontent. When a state achieves great efficiency at these things, as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia did, is it fair to say the state failed? I don’t think FP would call the Third Reich a failed state. However, it’s unlikely they would be comfortable calling Stalin’s regime a success, even considering his industrialization of the USSR. So what, beyond blood and dying,  makes all these countries similar?

A general disrespect for the individual links each “failed state.” Economically, property rights are rarely enforced, often with the government perpetrating the most flagrant offenses. Increased state power isn’t the obvious or immediate solution — usually it’s the problem.