Archive for August, 2012

For more of this series go here for an “excursion”, here for Part 2 and here for Part 3

My doctoral research in the West African nation of Mauritania concerned how people in extremely risky environments (multiple risks with broad covariance) use informal (non-contractual) exchanges as a kind of insurance mechanism.  I spent many months cataloguing how the various “gift giving” and offers of help to others are used to create obligations towards the giver that the giver can call upon in times of need.  Times of need might include health crises, crop losses, loss of houses or cattle and other unexpected, if probable, life outcomes beyond the control of the people involved.  There was no doubt that people use gift giving and other kinds of service provision to obtain these things and that they very much mirror the kinds of things for which people in wealthier nations purchase insurance in formal markets.

What was interesting to me is the role of powerful figures in this entire process and how they use their power to obtain more “premiums”, while dispensing minimal “insurance payouts.”  Their power is derived from many sources: in some cases they are literate while those who seek their support are not. At times there is a racial/ethnic dimension to their power that has historical roots (that in my research I could not fully understand).  In some cases their power was described to me as “spiritual” (this is linked to their education) in that they understand and dispense teaching on religious tenets that support their power.

These “patrons” also need insurance in these environments and thus participate actively in the exchange mechanisms that I was studying.  The main differences between them and their clients is 1) they are in a position to create many more obligations than their clients and at more advantageous terms because they are more sought out and; 2) they are able to leverage the “gifts” they receive to further increase their power, prestige and financial status in the communities. The patrons typically have something of value that no one else in the community has: a car, connections in a local hospital or access to cash. In other words, the things they offer in exchange are unique.  Everyone can offer grain or manual labor but they can offer something else, something only they or a very few others have.

Make no mistake, the clients benefit from the gifts they give to the powerful. In the broader scheme of their lives the fact that they provide grain or manual labor to a person to whom they can turn in a time of crisis is a wise, if inefficient, investment. Though I never analyzed it, the reason I think the whole system hangs together is because, though the transactions are not “balanced”, what the patrons supply represents rare but rarely used services while what the clients offer is in greater abundance and of lower marginal cost to the client.  So, if I am a client I can give a little of something I have a lot of (and I can give it to several people) and, in return I can get help for something I rarely need but is of great value to me when I do.  Sounds like premiums—pay a little each month and get insurance when something happens that would ruin me.

Okay, enough of the background.  What does this have to do with our electoral process?  One thing I noted as I got into this study was how the patron/client exchanges were being transferred into the “new” democratization process sweeping through the country (this was the mid-1990s).  Democratization started at the periphery in municipal and “departmental” elections. In the process of seeking electoral victory, the patrons spared little (relative) expense in using their network of clients to secure victory.  And why wouldn’t they? Victory meant access to a whole new network of resources dispensed via the state or directly from the international community for “development projects” that could line the pockets of the patrons while marginally improving life for the clients who would, in turn, be eternally grateful for the help they received. (more…)

Find the cost of freedom

Buried in the ground

Mother Earth will swallow you

Lay your body down (Stephen Stills)

Does anybody out there disagree that freedom has a cost? The typical American would most likely shake her head–no. We know that Freedom has a cost. I would concur. But, perhaps, not in the way many people might think. I see the cost of freedom at two levels and neither of them is heroic (as in, “he paid the ultimate price to help keep us free” or the patriotic slogan “Freedom isn’t Free”).

At each level we want our freedoms—perhaps more accurately, our autonomy—to be no-cost propositions but they rarely are.

I have nothing against owning a gun. The National Rifle Association certified me as a safe hunter when I was 11 and I appreciate people who can handle a gun safely to the end of supplying themselves with food. I can go even further and say that I am agnostic about what the “framers” meant when they talked about the right to bear arms. Whether they meant we should be formed into gun owning local militia (a la Switzerland) or merely keep a gun handy in case the government (at any level) comes unglued and seeks to oppress us; I can live with the ambiguity and allow people to own arms.

But like too many freedoms these are not enough. We (and I include myself in the broader society that holds to such desires) want the freedom to own semi-automatic guns that hold multi-bullet clips. Further we want the freedom to anonymously purchase large quantities of materiel which we can then squeeze off in a big hurry.

Why do we want these freedoms? Because we do. And affliction be the lot of anyone who tries to take these freedoms away. After all, we argue, it is not my fault that some (other) people misuse this freedom to hurl their projectiles in a hurry to end the lives of many people in short order. In a narrow sense this is undoubtedly true. I am not responsible for you.

But in a society, any society, if a thirst for a certain kind of freedom leads inevitably to death for a known number of people per year, then that society (typically) starts asking how that freedom might need to be limited in order to save lives. We don’t seem to be capable of doing that when it comes to the freedom to own a weapon, the clear purpose of which is to waste lives at an astonishingly fast clip. In this sense we are responsible—seemingly willing to pay the cost to keep this particular freedom intact.

So this is the cost of freedom at this level: 12 lives here, 10 there, 7 there… Every year or a couple of times a year when someone “goes postal” or when the “quiet guy” or “troubled kids” take the freedom into a crowded _____________ (fill in the blank: school, theater, mall…) and use it to terrible ends.

But there is another level at which the cost of freedom is even higher and even more “intentional”—if I dare say it that way. Our participation in this act is at a greater distance but arguably more “direct”. What I mean by this will become clear but here is the point: I if I don’t own a gun and willingly give up my freedom to do so then I am only indirectly involved in extracting the cost of this broader societal “freedom” at the first level.

Not so at the second level.

I am talking here about the “drone war.” This war (wars?) is about freedom too, is it not? I say more direct because I directly “benefit” from this war but rarely raise a voice in protest or consider limiting my freedom in order to see it stopped.

Did you ever ask—I mean really ask—why the US government sends bombs down from unmanned planes, teleguided from thousands of miles away? No you didn’t. You already know why—to kill the bad guys whom, if we do not kill them first will kill us. This is the proximate explanation and it is clean and morally unambiguous.

But frankly, what this is really all about is freedom—the freedom to practice our collective lifestyle without restriction or change. Give it to the Neo-Cons on this one, at least they were honest about the GWOT when they said it was about preserving our way of life.

So, at a larger level this is the cost of freedom: a certain number of dead terrorists and the unfortunate but inevitable collateral damage of their wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers.

The cost of freedom is, indeed, buried in the ground: in the ground of Blacksburg, Aurora, Littleton, Salamat Keley, Mami Rogha, Sararogha, Bangi Dar, al-Wahdah, al-Amodiah, Zinjibar…