Contesting Criminal Governments

A source of money is criminal enterprise; drugs, arms, sex trafficking, counterfeits, money laundering, etc.

In my understanding, there are countries where the government is almost completely involved in running and/or promoting these sorts of activities (e.g. North Korea) as a means of making a living, and others where the connections are a little more vague (e.g., Russia). Maybe not, but it seems plausible, and certainly there’s nothing to stop it from becoming reality so, even if you doubt the current reality, it might still be worth thinking about such a thing if it were ever to come to pass.

This sort of arrangement is a difficult one to deal with - if you’re interested in fighting crime - for two main reasons:

  1. Practical and legal considerations when it comes to national sovereignty.
  2. The capabilities of a government versus a private enterprise.

To explain those in more depth…

National Sovereignty
On the whole, the current setup of international law is that countries are able to do most of anything they want in their own borders, and that’s fine. If they allow children to start working in factories at the age of 10, that’s their freedom. And if some other country attacks them, then that the aggressor is the bad guy, and they deserve protection, even though we don’t like that they allow kids to work in factories from age 10.

To be sure, this is all a bit vague and messy, and only given light consideration in a whole host of situations, but it is the general situation that you either need a really good excuse to go in somewhere, or to do it hush-hush.

But where it starts to become more real is when the country that you’re thinking about interfering with has nukes or, like North Korea’s traditional missile artillery, has enough weapons and sufficient plausible animosity pointed in one direction, that they’re basically holding some other country hostage. In those situations, the “national sovereignty” rule has a lot of heft. You can’t just go in there and do what you want.

Government Capabilities
The basic defense for something like counterfeit prevention, on our money, is the idea that it’s just too complicated and expensive for someone to build a printing press of the same complexity as the one that creates the real bills.

If you want to defend the border from drug mules, you’ll think that you should have a pretty good strategy by running sniffer dogs up and down the rows of a container ship.

But, consider that the US government put people on the moon 50 years ago and yet our corporations are only just barely getting into outer space.

Your average criminal group only really has access to criminals, when it comes to their workforce. Criminals tend not to be the most enterprising of individuals. They’re worse off than even a corporation, since they have a much larger and better hiring pool to choose from.

A criminal government has access to both. They can tell the companies to build anything they want them to build, and it will be all honest, college educated people doing the work - for the good of the nation. If they want a printing press that can completely replicate American money, they can have that built. Sure, it might be a billion dollars to pull off, but if they want to do it, they probably can. And if they want to ship drugs into the United States, they can build their very own submarine. They can forge passports, so their people look like they’re Tibetan, and fly straight into the US without a raised eyebrow. Their operatives may well be professional, trained spies using all the same James Bond magic as we would expect of a spy, not just some Jesse Pinkman style dumbass.

The ability to defend against and defeat a criminal government’s criminal activities is far more difficult than a simple mafia organization. Their abilities are simply head and shoulders above what traditional law enforcement can deal with. But at the same time largely impenetrable to military, short of going to full-scale war.

A (Theoretical) Strategy
My proposal for a solution, should anyone in government happen to be among the readers here, is to “keep the ball moving”.

Let’s say that the Taliban owns opium production, worldwide.

Now, if you leave that there with them, then they’ll grow in power and sophistication. They’ll move their drug profits over into military spending, and in a few decades you have a new nuclear power looking back at you.

But what if there are some opium fields in Uganda, that aren’t doing much? They add to the global supply, but it’s not a big part of the problem.

It’s probably possible to boost the flow of opium from Uganda to the US and stifle the flow from Afghanistan.

Obviously, it would be nice to stop the flow of drugs entirely but, more likely, all you’re ever really going to be able to do is maintain it at a certain level. (And, of course, drugs are just being used as an example. By equal token, I could have used illegal armaments.) The best way to make sure that it stays maintainable is by making sure that no one entity has a sufficient monopoly that they can use the funds to become more organized and capable than you can deal with. You want to keep all of the vendors small, scattered, and disorganized.

So, keep the ball moving. Encourage market competition and make sure that no one has a monopoly. Don’t let it stay in one place. If it’s centralizing, and you can’t get in to that place and cut off the head, then use other means to prevent the centralization. Other people want to be earning that money and will compete for it. Help them to do so.

It’s a really weird strategy. But, so is legalization of drugs. In the case of drugs, maybe that’s the right answer. But in the case of arms, I’d rather have a hoard of different people selling handguns than one or two guys selling nukes.

One thing you’re neglecting is that criminal governments do a shitty job at actually maintaining high technology bases or running complex manufacturing and supply chains. All the dishonesty of being a bunch of criminals, as well as international sanctions, prevent such sophisticated efforts.

The reason North Korea has atomic bombs is because China and Russia were stupid enough to sell them thousands of tons of advanced equipment, from electronics to instruments to nuclear fuel, in order for North Korea to be able to build one.