Revolution à la Adam Smith

The Burmese protesters in Burma cannot prevail unless they divide their opponents and obtain support from parts of the military and the police. Street protests do not generate enough of an incentive to split the armed forces. Shutting down the economy with concerted strikes would induce serious hardship on the military establishment but I have not seen any indication that the opposition has the capacity for labor actions. George Bush’s threats of sanctions, however well-meaning, are empty because the United States already restricts trade with Burma.

When the wall fell and many Germans were still concerned that the Communist government might lash out violently, economics professor Johannes Welcker had an interesting idea.

May be, it is time to pay military leaders off. Just as golden parachutes persuade managers to surrender to hostile take over bids, spending a couple of hundred million dollars to remove the military from government might be a good investment. It’s certainly cheaper than sanctions or civil war. The investment would eventually be recouped by the benefits of trading with a free country and free people.

Of course, such an arrangement would have to indemnify the military dictators from responsibility for their crimes against humanity. However distasteful amnesty may be, it is worth it if it prevents more inhumanity.

To render any commitment by the military credible, the officers ought to receive monthly rents that will be paid out only as long as the armed forces stay out of politics. It is then up to the Burmese people to re-negotiate and re-design civil-military relations.

When the dictators know that they will be safe, it ought to be possible to buy them off. The costs would be a pittance compared to the benefits of peace, liberty, and democracy.



  1. Hellmut,
    I’m glad you’ve articulated this. I thought all along that the best approach to Saddam Hussein would have been to allow him to go into lavish exile somewhere, with a big stash of cigars, whiskey, and Rolls Royce’s.


  2. Thanks, RJ. Letting one bad guy off the hook would have saved several hundred thousand lives.

    I have to admit though that in reality there are additional obstacles. In Saddam Hussein’s case, for example, there are hundreds of people that he needs to keep safe.


  3. “Letting one bad guy off the hook would have saved several hundred thousand” As a bit of a pacifist I love how that turns on its head the rationale for military action. However, something about paying them off severally upsets my sense of a need for justice.
    It also assumes that those involved are motivated by the cash nexus, whereas I’d imagine hanging on to power comes pretty high as a motivator for their current actions


  4. Me too, Vince. On the other hand, we have to realize that justice that implies coercion and violence. If we want peace then we have to live with scummy people.

    Human beings tend to idolize justice and peace for good reason. Their benefits are tremendous but they do come at steep price. The price for peace may be justice, in the sense that there will be no peace when we insist on retribution.

    The price for justice may be violence, which it too high a price to pay if one cannot prevail in a violent altercation.


  5. I also like your point about power, Vince. People like power because it appears to enhance their security, their possessions, their status, and their sex life. The problem is that human beings cannot remain on top forever. Unless we die first, everyone will eventually become too frail to rule with an iron fist forever.

    One of the great benefits of John Locke’s organization of power is that losers get to walk away. Tyrants do not enjoy that benefit. Therefore they cannot afford to surrender. The stakes are too high.

    The Round Table negotiations between the Communists and the Solidarity trade movement in Poland, for example, was about allowing the rulers to walk away safely. Money played a role because the Communists saw to it that they benefitted from the privatization of state industries.

    For obvious reasons, wealth can be a satisfactory substitute for power. Money can bolster your status and improve your sexual attraction. If tyrants and their families can also feel safe then surrender becomes a viable option.

    Of course, all this assumes that there is a threat to their power in the first place. It seems to me that Burma has crossed that threshold years ago. The military can remain in power but only at the price of high levels of violence. Clearly, the rulers are in a precarious position.


  6. Thanks Hellmut. I certainly don’t hold my conception of pacifism to be passive. I have some hope in the Gandhian practice of Satyagraha, which means that I am not fatalistic nor sensing a lack of control over events. And yes I do agree that peace comes at a price. Of accepting and forgiving, but also hoping and working towards reconciliation. From a religious perspective this means look forward to the perpetrators repenting of their wrong. In your original hut reaction was not that I wanted retribution, but rather that the protagonists would seem to be rewarded for their past. I personally would also want something similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a painful process, but with the potential for healing.

    It’s strange, because I’ve always said that if instead of spending the billions on military action in Iraq, they’d given all that money to the Iraqi populace, they’d of achieved ‘Western Democracy’ as they spent the money on ‘sucked in’ western commodities, media and destabilised the State at the same time. Never thought about buying off the leaders before.


  7. Sorry, Vince. I didn’t mean to attribute anything to you. I was interested in showing some counterintuitive aspects of justice and peace.


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