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The Irrationality of 'Rational Actors'
[October 19, 2002]

By John Bragg

This essay is occasioned by the "discovery" that North Korea has been violating the Agreed Framework and working on nuclear weapons. However, it could just as easily have been written after the collapse of the Oslo Accords, after the discovery of Saddam Hussein's subversion of the oil-for-food program, or any other broken promise from a dictator. The pattern endures, the repeated error of treating dictators as "rational actors" and predicting their actions based on that assumption that dictators will choose a course of action that benefits their countries and their citizens.

In 1994, the Agreed Framework was hailed by liberals as a triumph. They believed that this Agreed Framework removed the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons. The liberals believed that North Korea, despite its brutal oppression of its people and constant threats against its neighbors, would honor the Agreed Framework. Why?

In North Korea's place, American liberals would have followed the Agreed Framework.  Therefore, the liberals reasoned, Kim Il Jong would follow the Framework. Liberals believe that, fundamentally, brutal dictators are "rational actors." No matter how bloodstained and brutal, liberals believe that dictators can be reasoned with, and are interested in the welfare of their countries. To many liberals and other foreign policy commentators, being a brutal bloodstained thug is not a barrier to being a negotiating partner. Violating the rights of citizens is not a crime: for liberals, it is a sometimes practical policy of government. Liberals believe that governments must violate some rights for the good of the people.  Dictators might make mistakes, and follow policies that are against the welfare of their people, but the liberals believe that the mistakes are well-intentioned. They do not recognize foreign thugs as criminals, because they do not recognize their crimes as really being crimes--they are legitimate, if unwise, governmental policies. The liberals see the crimes of foreign leaders as simply misguided attempts to help their people.

This is the link that explains how civilized, educated, well-meaning American liberals consistently predict that brutal, dictatorial thugs will act in a rational, civilized manner to further the welfare of their people. The liberals believe that dictators oppress their countries because they know no better way, and that if they were shown a better way, they would take the path of peace, prosperity and capitalism. This is the premise of every one of Tom Friedman's insufferable letters to foreign despots. Why, though, do the liberals have this blind spot? They cannot recognize the thugs as criminals because they cannot recognize the violation of rights as a crime rather than as a legitimate instrument of government.  This evasion allows them to believe that vicious dictators are interested in the welfare of their people, and only lack the sophistication to use successful methods. To acknowledge that the violation of rights is a crime, whether by individual criminals or by the state, would call into question the liberal's entire worldview.

To properly deal with foreign thugs and criminals, we must first recognize that they are criminals. And to do so, we must recognize their primary crime--violating the rights of the individuals in their countries. Once this is realized, then we will remember that these thugs will violate their agreements at the first opportunity.

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