Saturday, July 15, 2006

A-A on anti-terrorism strategy

The A-A-A brothers do not always agree on all past injustices, perceived and real, in Desh’s history. But whatever those disagreements are, we condemn the recent terrorist acts in Mumbai.

The attacks did, however, spark a discussion between Amar and me that we feel should be posted. We are no experts, and undoubtedly much of what we say may be wrong, but here are our thoughts on how to combat terrorism.


Terrorism is a sort of free enterprise, while government intelligence agencies are public sector bureaucracies. My experience, in almost all countries where I have been, has been that public sector bureaucracies are incompetent to various degrees. In spite of disproportionate budgets, I would expect free enterprise to defeat public sector bureaucracy. This means that I am sceptical about the bureaucracy’s ability to defeat terrorists.

The real weapon against terrorists is support of people, not government bureaucracies. People are free agents whose interest is to defeat terrorism. Cutting of civil liberties, terror raids, new legislation etc reduce support of people, but increase public sector capacity. But what we need is support of people, not govt bureaucracy.

From this, it follows that current strategies of western governments, which alienate people and strengthen bureaucracy, are not the way to defeat terrorism.


There is a political dimension to terrorism in some circumstances, and as the cliché goes: one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. My argument is only valid when most of us agree that the enemies are terrorists. When this is the case, I am inclined to view terrorism as a law enforcement issue.

Government bureaucracy is usually inefficient compared with private sector because the latter has a profit motive and price signals. But this is not the case with law enforcement. Law enforcement is a public good: it is non-excludable — if provided, people who don’t pay for it cannot be denied its benefit; it is non-rival — more than one person can benefit from it simultaneously. Public goods cannot be left to the market because of the free rider problem. So law enforcement has to be done by government bureaucracy.

Now law enforcement agencies usually fight criminals. If criminals follow some sort of profit motive, then it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to beat them. This is why prohibitions typically fail.

Do terrorists have a profit motive? I don’t think they do. I don’t think those people who attacked the trains in Mumbai or Madrid are similar to drug runners. I think terrorists are more like psychopaths. And on average law enforcement agencies work pretty well in stopping/catching psychos. So there is no reason why, on average, law enforcement agencies will not be better at catching terrorists than terrorists are at blowing themselves up.