The most astonishing surge in outsourcing has come in the realm of military power, with the partial displacement of standing national armies by corporate armed forces. The monopolization of military power by the central government was one of the signal characteristics of the emerging nation-state. Before that medieval rulers depended on armies raised privately, by their vassals. During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, warfare in Italy was largely in the hands of mercenary armies whose fighting men were known as condottieri, from the Italian condotta, or "contract." Throughout Europe private entrepreneurs formed what were known as "companies," available to fight on a freelance basis, and demanded not only a fee for service but also a share of the spoils. "Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry": Milo Minderbinder's remark in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was meant to be absurd, but it actually describes the military system that existed through much of history.
And more and more it obtains once again. The examples above are drawn from a new book, Corporate Warriors, by the Brookings analyst P. W. Singer, which provides a sweeping survey of the work of MPRI, Airscan, Dyncorp, Brown & Root, and scores of other firms that can variously put troops in the field, build and run military bases, train guerrilla forces, conduct air surveillance, mount coups, stave off coups, and put back together the countries that wars have just destroyed. Those medieval "companies," like the famous White Company of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, are the lineal ancestors of ArmorGroup and Halliburton, Saladin Security and Sandline. The finances of these entities often lack transparency, to put it mildly, but Corporate Warriors estimates that $100 billion is spent on private military forces every year, and that the amount will double by 2010. In his classic study The Soldier and the State, written nearly half a century ago, the political scientist Samuel Huntington observed, "While all professions are to some extent regulated by the state, the military profession is monopolized by the state." He could not write that sentence today.
"I am unabashedly an admirer of outsourcing," General Barry McCaffrey, the nation's former drug czar, once stated when asked about the American use of private military forces in Colombia. "There's very few things in life you can't outsource." By now there seem to be none that we don't. Well, wait, there's one: tax collection by the Internal Revenue Service. This is still a government monopoly, though precedent exists for a vastly different regime. Under the system known as "tax farming," a monarch sold to entrepreneurs the right to collect the crown's taxes; the entrepreneurs contracted to pay the king a certain sum, but could keep anything raised in excess of that sum. How commoners loved this system! A modern version would turn tax collection over to, say, credit-card companies and trial lawyers. It wouldn't be long, I suspect, before we saw some heads on spikes in the town square.