by Cheryl Rofer and Molly Cernicek
For a year or so, we have been collecting material and looking at a number of issues on how the market affects nuclear proliferation. Almost every day we see more examples of privatization’s impact on weapons manufacturing and nonproliferation.
For a while, we thought we’d write a book out of all the material and ideas we had collected, but that’s just not happening. Part of the problem seems to be that there’s just too much to pull it together coherently in the time we’ve allowed ourselves.
So we thought that if we blogged it, we could work it a bit at a time. Plus we would get feedback from Phronauts.
We are looking at the proliferation of nuclear weapons through an economic lens. For the past thirty years or so, the United States and Britain have led a push to privatize government functions. On the other side of the spectrum Pakistani citizen Abdul Qadeer Khan developed a privatized network of suppliers of nuclear weapons parts illustrating how the internet and the movement of scientists and engineers from one country to another have made nuclear know-how more available to more people than ever before.
Typically, proliferation of nuclear weapons has been regarded as an international governmental problem, with the economic interests of players involved largely ignored. This may be due to the victory of free-market economics over the past thirty years or so. David Kaiser provides some historical background. The assumption that the market knows best implies that private firms must do a much better job at anything than government and has been the primary justification for that push to privatization. This mindset, as Kaiser notes, is thoroughly ingrained in many people’s thinking, particularly those who came to adulthood within the last thirty years.
That strain of economic thinking has also affected decisions on nuclear weapons. That is why we think that looking at nuclear proliferation through an economic lens may be useful. We are trying to get beyond that pervasive mindset that the market knows all, which limits the kinds of questions that might be asked.
For example, we might ask whether there are functions that should be reserved to government. Or we might ask whether the profit motive encourages corruption in the arena of weapons despite the substantial risks of getting caught. And what those risks are. Or we might look at the government-private alliance in manufacturing conventional arms and ask whether it could be a model for nuclear weapons, now that the design labs are under private contract. We’ll explore other countries’ public-private models such as Britain’s nuclear weapons program, now largely outsourced to American firms, and Russia’s privatization model that encompasses just about every governmental sector with the exception of their nuclear weapons laboratories.
We’ll touch on those and many other issues in this series. We hope to write at least one post a week.