“Waynieh El Dawle?” and other harmful memes
On the necessity of “Strong States”
I felt somewhat compelled to write this article after a few discussions with friends who thought my views were borderline insane. The strong negative emotions reminded me a lot of the criticism I faced when I suggested that homeschooling would be superior to the traditional schooling system. What was inconceivable pre-COVID suddenly became commonplace post-COVID. The primary purpose of the schooling system as a babysitting institution became clear and the benefits of the internet as a homeschooling tool became even clearer.
I’d like to make another radical hypothesis that states aren’t as useful as people think they are. In the particular case of Lebanon, instead of waiting a corrupt state to become a benevolent strong state, we are better off getting rid of this notion that a strong state is necessary for prosperity to see the hints of what an actual solution may look like.
Beirut Blast and other failures
The beginning of August 2020 was marked by 3rd largest explosion in history. 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the heart of the Beirut port taking half the city with it. Hundred dead, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands homeless.
However, the Lebanese experience with criminal incompetence doesn’t begin with the blast. It included:
A complete inability to manage waste.
A complete inability to manage a power distribution network.
And a theft of people’s bank deposits
In their despair, people cry out “Waynieh El Dawle?” which translates into “Where is the government?”. It’s easy to cry out in despair when all is lost, when you’ve lost your dignity, savings and life — what choice do you have besides praying and waiting for a savior.
However, I’d like to make the thesis that it’s precisely a strong central government which has led to this series of disastrous outcomes and how we can free ourselves from this harmful meme “Waynieh el Dawle?”
Eat the rich
As wealth inequality continues to soar in Lebanon, I’ve noticed a growing trend to blame the rich for this trend and this hatred has translated into populist rhetoric which would like to see Lebanon become a strong socialist state.
I would like to point out to my socialist leaning readers is that there’s probably not all that much you need to do to turn Lebanon into a socialist state. The Lebanese government today owns Electricity, contracts for waste management, the airport, the port etc..
All Lebanese public utilities have been mismanaged for decades yet continue to exist, how?
If a private company fails to deliver a good service for its customers it fails, the owners declare bankruptcy and are forced to sell their company to someone who is hoping to manage it better.
A public utility can continue to exist for decades if it happily subsidizes itself with public debt.
Ongoing debates in Lebanon warn that we shouldn’t sell public utilities to preserve our children's future. However, when a company is sold it doesn’t mean it ceases to exist, it means it can now be managed by someone who is hoping to provide a superior service. This is the exact same trick failed banks used to get bailed out in the US in 2008.
Bailing out a business == Bailing out the failed owners
In other countries besides Lebanon the central bank is responsible for setting interest rates which helps determine the rate of growth or contraction of an economy and while it debatable whether central banks in a wider sense have some utility it’s very clear that in Lebanon the central bank has had a purely negative role.
The Lebanese central bank is responsible for largest Ponzi scheme in history. In a misguided attempt to maintain a peg to the US dollar, the central bank started hoarding dollars by Lebanese depositors and promising “risk-free” yet exorbitant interest rates all the while it was also lending money to the government who either outright stole the deposits or invested in failed projects.
The central bank was failing invisibly for 30 years
If a rich businessperson engages in poor business they will cease to be rich but a politician can engineer society in such a way where it is impossible for them to personally fail, instead they translate their failures to the lower castes of society.
Politicians often overload the term “us”, “the state” when what they actually mean is “me”, “my cronies”.
In 2019, the Lebanese became famous across the world for being the only protesters that would turn something like an anti corruption protest into a party. The reasoning was if you make the protest fun, more people would show up.
This strategy was widely mocked on national television as “un-serious”. There was no charismatic leader of the revolution to be seen. As Macron said, the potential energy of the protests didn’t translate into political appointments.
Fast forward a year later, record high unemployment, vanishing purchasing power further exacerbated by COVID, we had the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate blow up in the middle of Beirut and it was at this point that the friendly air of the protests turned into something more violent.
The Lebanese government broke the Lebanese spirit.
After the Beirut Blast, you’d imagine massive cleaning and reconstruction efforts would take massive central planning and funding to execute in a timely manner. However, the government seems more interested in deploying the Lebanese army as its own private security as opposed to aiding in any sort of effort.
Even though the Beirut blast was directly caused by the incompetence of the Lebanese government, a solution came in a bottom up grassroots manner where people just picked up a broom and started cleaning up.
Wealthy diaspora members sent funds, carpenters rebuilt doors, everyone used their collective expertise to rebuild their city.
This response, came with no government, no central planning and it worked.
This response didn’t just work for cleaning up the aftermath of the Beirut Blast.
Instead of relying on an electricity infrastructure, many Lebanese homes come equipped with their own generators.
Instead of relying on the central bank to release capital controls, many Lebanese are finding alternate sources of fresh income.
Instead of relying on the government to clean up the debris, the Lebanese just did it themselves.
Even our education sector will be forcibly decentralized into homeschooling since many schools are now demanding “fresh dollars” since the “non fresh dollars” were confiscated by the central bank.
The Lebanese government today does more harm than good, Lebanese people have figured out how to circumvent them for the most part. Instead of waiting for a benevolent dictator to save us (hint: benevolent dictators aren’t benevolent for long). We’ve already acknowledged that we ourselves are responsible for our own personal future, we don’t need anyone to come save us.
The last frontier is to stop saying Waynieh El Dawle? (And not pay taxes)
Instead of accountability all we’ve gotten is theft and conspiracy theories.
Save yourself, save your family, save your friends, save your village and beware of criminals that tell you to sacrifice any of the above for a “greater good”.
Isn’t this anarchy?
No it’s about decentralization and diffusion of responsibility. Empower leaders locally to make decisions instead of relying on Beirut for everything. If a local leader is corrupt you can kick him out much more easily than a member of parliament since a local leader can’t have an army protecting him.
But what about roads?
I’m pretty sure consenting adults that want to travel from point A to point B can figure out how to build a road between them without needing a government.
The only time I’ve ever seen roads fixed in my hometown of Hazmieh was when it was election season. All of a sudden politicians would install pristine asphalt with nicely demarcated lines, for a few months it felt like living in Europe.
If anything modern technology has made it trivial to manage private roads without requiring a government authority. Whenever you drive by a road, a picture gets taken of your license plate and you get charged some minuscule amount to use the road automatically. Much cheaper than taxes and road owners are incentivized to maintain their roads so their customers keep using them
How would you protect your borders without an army?
My grandfather used to say our best neighbor is the Mediterranean sea and that’s because Lebanon has a bloody history with its Syrian and Israeli neighbors. Wouldn’t we need an army to protect ourselves against a foreign invasion?
The mistake here is assuming that the Lebanese army is actually able to repel an attack by Israel or Syria. What protects us from our neighbors is not our army but how politically palatable it is for Syrians or Israelis to invade us.
No monopoly on violence is actually needed for a society to function. This is again a deceptive meme dictators like to promulgate the prevent any hope of a grass-root movement attaining political influence.
Lebanese people get a lot of flack for calling themselves Phoenician because our official languages are Arabic and French.
Being Phoenician is about recognizing that as a small state you can only survive by making trade agreements with your neighbors. It’s about having the humility to recognize that you can’t solve the worlds problems and that no-one will solve yours.
This article was drastically improved by various discussions with Stephane Mourani.