01/24/2012 06:05 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

Why PMSC Can't Use Kant

Sometimes, when listening to the arguments of private military and security contractors about how the actions of their industry helps make the world a more stable, and ultimately peaceful world, I almost think that Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, has been reincarnated.

In his 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch," he detailed his proposed peace program. Of course, he was not arguing for an increased role for the private sector. In fact, all the steps he laid out were to be taken by sovereign states, what today we call the private sector.

Still, Private Military Security Contract (PMSC) advocates, in their constant refrain -- or is that repetition? -- that, to paraphrase the old U.S. army recruiting slogan, if only we would let the PMSC sector be all that it can be, the world would be a better place, strikes me as very Kantian.

But is it true? It seems that most of the time people are so busy fighting over the PMSC pro and con trees that they can't see the national interest forest so let's try and look at the big picture for a moment.

For the sake of argument let's imagine a very utopian future year when most of the current arguments about PMSC have been settled. Everyone agrees that PMSC are not mercenaries. Everyone agrees on what the appropriate level of regulation and oversight for the PMSC industry should be. Such issues as possible human rights violations, circumventing legislative constraints on the use of force, and lack of an effective system of international law have all been settled. How? Don't ask me; after all, this is a utopian time we're talking about here.

Still, the question then becomes would increased use of PMSC be a good thing? That brings us to James Pattison, lecturer in politics, at the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. In his article "Deeper Objections to the Privatization of Military Force," published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2010, he considers the moral justifiability of the private military industry more generally, including whether private force should be entrusted to the market.

To cut to the chase, Pattison argues:

Although I reject the claim that the use of PMSCs undermines the social contract, I assert that the use of private force potentially undermines both communal bonds and a state's ability to fight just wars. In the third section, I argue, further, that there is something morally amiss with having military services as a commodity to be traded on the market. Overall, then, I claim that, even if PMSCs were well regulated, there are reasons to eschew the use of private force.

Since I can hear various PMSC firms screaming, how dare you say we undermine an ability to fight a just war, Pattison writes:

First, none of the objections that I make require there to be an absolute prohibition on, or a complete rejection of, the use of PMSCs. Rather, they provide reasons against the use of these firms, to be taken into account in the overall assessment of the justifiability of private force. There may be cases where the hiring of PMSCs would still be morally acceptable, despite the problems that I will highlight, because the potential benefit of their use outweighs the potential drawbacks.

He makes a number of interlocking, reinforcing arguments for not using PMSC. The first of them might be called the illegal alien argument. He argues that individuals do something wrong by being employed as a private contractor. So it follows that those employing private contractors, such as states, are complicit in the individual contractor's wrongdoing, regardless of whether there are any further problems.

So, PMSC workers could sort of be considered like Mexican migrant workers. Yes, some people think they shouldn't be doing the work but the real problem is with the people who hire them. So, in this analogy, the State and Defense Departments are no different than, say, squash, lettuce, and almond farmers. That reminds me; given the way many third country nationals employed by PMSC in Iraq or Afghanistan have been treated I can't wait for the day when PMSC workers get their own César Chávez.

Pattison also argues that there are moral problems with the employment of private force by states. The other agents involved, such as individual contractors and the PMSCs, are also implicated to the extent that their willing participation enables states to employ private force.

But it is his third argument that really interests me. He says that treating military force as a commodity has morally undesirable implications. He writes, "It follows that individuals, states, and other agents commit wrongdoing by using private military force in as far as they are morally required to avoid contributing to the collective action problem of treating military force as a commodity."

Much of what he writes in this part challenges the pro-PMSC dogma one so often reads and hears so let's dwell on this. The essence is though "there may be certain goods and services that can be entrusted to the market, I will argue that military provision is not one of these." Of course, that is not to say the public sector is perfect. One has only to look at almost any GAO report regarding Pentagon procurement programs to see that. But Pattison believes the problems with the private provision of military services do not seem to be innate to public provision.

The consequentialist case for privatizing military force is based on two assumptions. First, military services are a 'good' that should be maximized. Hence, the industry employs the rhetoric of humanitarianism, selling itself as a 'peace and stability industry' vital for the protection of human rights worldwide. It is claimed that PMSCs improve the international community's abilities to undertake humanitarian intervention, can train troops in peacekeeping, and, by providing protection to NGOs, can facilitate humanitarian assistance in danger zones.

The second assumption is that the market is a more efficient provider of military services. It provides states and other agents with a readily available pool of highly-trained, experienced military professionals that can be brought together at short notice. It also allows for a high-level of expertise (for instance, in technical support and training), which allows states and other agents to extend their current capabilities, and which would not otherwise be available without significant expenditure.

By the way, if you think he is writing about trade groups like ISOA you'd be right. So what is the problem with this, ahem, logic?

This consequentialist justification is problematic. To start with, the savings and efficiencies of PMSCs are questionable. There is not adequate competition for contracts, given the specialization in the market, and it is often left up to the PMSC to determine whether (the often vague) contract terms have been met, if their contract should be renewed, and even extended. That said, many of these problems might be contingent - they might be dealt with by stringent regulation and the close monitoring of contracts and performance. But, more fundamentally, it is doubtful whether military services are an unmitigated 'good' that should be maximized, despite the industry's attempts to sell itself as a 'peace and stability' industry vital for humanitarianism. So, even if it were true that the market is a more efficient provider of military services, this is not necessarily a good thing. As Andrew Alexandra points out, "when what is being produced is the capacity to inflict violence... greater productive efficiency is actually undesirable"

Or consider this:

In addition, there is something pervasive about the market providing military force since PMSCs have a vested interest in international instability. International stability is jeopardized further by the fact that the privatization of military force increases the number of agents that can use military force, such as otherwise militarily weak states. PMSCs also make using military force easier for militarily capable states: many of the barriers for using military force, such as the fear of casualties, can be circumvented by the employment of these firms.

Accordingly, these problems for national and international security when military provision is entrusted to the market provide further reason to be concerned with the increased prevalence of the private military industry. It seems that military provision should generally be in public hands.