Acton Institute Powerblog

What’s behind the Beirut explosion? Corruption ‘greater than the state’

On Monday, the Lebanese government resigned. Public pressure on the government had been relentless in the wake of two devastating explosions on the afternoon of August 4 at the port in the nation’s capital city, Beirut. The explosions caused at least 220 deaths, 7,000 injuries, billions in property damage, and have left hundreds of thousands homeless. These explosions were caused by the ignition of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in an unsecured warehouse at Beirut’s cargo port. The ammonium nitrate had been confiscated by the government six years ago, and its original owners remain a mystery.

Everything the state was supposed to do, it tragically failed to do.

What is most remarkable, perhaps, is that the government of Lebanon has admitted as much:

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history and which compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralysed the banking system and forced up prices.

“I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms.

What former Prime Minister Diab has conceded was something the 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat noticed long ago: “The state is the great, fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”

This is an empirical observation of the temptation and tendency of every state unconstrained by limits, the rule of law, and subsidiarity. These principles make space for the social institutions and individual rights that make human flourishing possible. Bastiat believed that a state so constrained could serve a salutary function but that its realization was difficult. In this way, he is different from those “men of speculative or imaginative genius” who “attempt to admonish or reform mankind by devising an imaginary state.” They, Lord Acton reminds us:

remained without influence, and have never passed from literary into political history, because something more than discontent and speculative ingenuity is needed in order to invest a political idea with power over the masses of man­kind. The scheme of a philosopher can command the practical allegiance of fanatics only, not of nations; and though oppres­sion may give rise to violent and repeated outbreaks, like the convulsions of a man in pain, it cannot mature a settled purpose and plan of regeneration, unless a new notion of happiness is joined to the sense of present evil.

It is precisely the need for a “new notion of happiness” that makes a robust society of free individuals, diverse institutions, and a vibrant free economy necessary. It is this “society beyond the state” in civic, religious, and commercial life from which Lebanon must choose new leadership and, following the example of Moses in the desert, “select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” (Exodus 18:21). Efficacious political reform can only originate in a society which is beyond the state and beyond corrupt elites.

(Photo credit: Ali Chehade / Shutterstock.com. Editorial use only.)

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.