That’s the question the world has been asking about the authorities in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was living not in a remote cave, but in relative luxury in a suburban neighborhood an hour from the capital and within walking distance of the military academy. Were the government and the military protecting him on purpose, or were they so inept that they honestly didn’t know he was there?
Similar questions come up continually in politics, and also in the corporate world and wherever else humans create institutions that are capable of being corrupted:
- Did the Bush Administration lie to us about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, or were the intelligence reports honestly mistaken?
- Did the SEC know for over a decade that Bernie Madoff was running a massive Ponzi scheme, or were its regulators too blind to notice?
- Ogden’s mayor pulled off an audacious fraud prior to the 2007 election, but no public authority or mainstream journalist will say that it was wrong. Is the old boys’ network that corrupt, or are they all just too stupid or lazy or preoccupied with other duties?
- Tens of thousands of Utahns regularly operate off-road vehicles on public lands where motorized travel is supposed to be illegal, but only a tiny handful are ever charged. Are the Forest Service and BLM rangers willfully looking the other way, or do they just lack the resources needed for enforcement?
- Grade inflation runs rampant at America’s schools and universities, where a large fraction of the graduates lack even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills. Are the teachers and administrators incompetent, or do we maintain the status quo because all we care about is keeping our own jobs?
My answer is that these are false dichotomies.
None of these failures are completely due to corruption, and none are completely due to incompetence. Instead, individuals and institutions are typically afflicted with a mixture of both.
In Abbotabad, I would guess that local law enforcement knew about the suspiciously secretive compound but didn’t know who lived there. National-level officials must have suspected that bin Laden was in the country but they probably didn’t know where. Most information was in the form of unverified rumors, and nobody worked hard enough to sort out truth from fiction. Everyone had legitimate fears that bin Laden’s supporters would punish those who asked too many questions. As one former CIA officer put it, “Willful blindness is a survival mechanism in Pakistan.”
In Ogden, the stakes are lower but the attitudes similar. Local businesses and reporters need to stay on good terms with the mayor, so they don’t ask certain questions. Prosecutors don’t seek out evidence of government corruption, and can always rationalize that the evidence they already have isn’t quite enough to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Everyone has good reasons to choose the status quo over the risk of political turmoil.
In fact, the stability of our institutions requires that they be effectively blind to a wide range of crimes and injustices. Most of the human beings who are part of these institutions gradually learn the “rules” about what questions to ask and not to ask. Those who are too principled and too diligent rarely get promoted to positions of authority, and usually end up leaving to find other work—willingly or unwillingly.
Why, then, does justice sometimes prevail? Simply because the world is full of different institutions with different missions that can check and balance each other—and because all institutions must be somewhat responsive to public opinion. Bin Laden was held accountable because the U.S. military and CIA are more powerful than their counterparts in Pakistan (and because the U.S. ultimately decided that getting bin Laden was more important than working with our Pakistani “allies”). Madoff was held accountable when his scheme finally collapsed and too many other powerful people got hurt, triggering enforcement mechanisms that respond primarily to power. In Utah, the news media have embarrassed public land managers into taking some minor steps toward better enforcement of motorized travel restrictions.
My point is that these success stories are not business as usual. The same institutions—and even the same individual leaders—have spent far more effort maintaining the status quo than fighting it. Call it corruption or incompetence if you like, but it’s really an intricate mixture of both that has naturally evolved in the institutional ecosystem.