Reconstruction Mess

Adventures in nation building


Could anyone have predicted the failures of reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan? According to a new working paper, the public choice theorist Gordon Tullock did just that—in 1965.

Chris Coyne, an economist at West Virginia University and a research fellow at the Mercatus Center, argues that Tullock's The Politics of Bureaucracy is a field guide to America's failed adventures in nation building. Published at a time when bureaucrats were widely perceived as selfless stewards of the public good, Tullock's book presents bureaucracies as hierarchies with complex, conflicted incentive structures. Like a child's game of telephone, these hierarchies create a communication chain in which information becomes increasingly distorted as it's passed along.

Information deficiencies, Tullock argues, can render even the most basic tasks difficult to coordinate. Coyne points to the jaw-dropping incompetence of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan. Schools and clinics built by American contractors collapsed, and according to The Washington Post, the agency could not even locate some of its reconstruction sites in 2005.

Hierarchies can impede information flow, but decentralization spawns its own set of problems. The Department of Defense and the Department of State, notably, had disparate visions of a politically functional Iraq, which led to infighting. This, too, Tullock predicted. He introduced the concept of "organizational patriotism," where officials in overlapping bureaucracies each consider his own agency to be superior. They fail to cooperate even when their stated goals are identical.

These insights are important, says Coyne, because the failures of reconstruction have little to do with partisanship and everything to do with incentives. Much of what the American government has attempted, he writes, "requires a level of coordination well beyond what bureaucracies can achieve."