Editor’s Note: Leif Wenar holds the Chair of Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. His new book is Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Think of the last time you filled your car with petrol. Where did your money go?
To buy a glass of champagne for the dictator of a country whose children die at the highest rate in the world?
To Vladimir Putin?
In 2014, for example, the average American household sent around $250 to authoritarians, just by filling up. That’s a lot of money that Americans gave to autocrats to help them violate basic human rights and spread religious intolerance around the planet.
This may seem to be just the way the world works. But it doesn’t have to. We can change the rules. If you think about the rule we use today to decide who to buy oil from, it makes no sense.
To see why, imagine that an armed gang takes over your local petrol station. Should that give them the legal right to sell the petrol and keep the money? Should our law at home say that “might” makes “right” for oil?
No. A law like that at home would cause complete chaos. We’d see ever-more powerful gangs, turf wars, kingpins…
But “might makes right” is the law that we actually do use for the oil of foreign countries. When Saddam’s gang took over Iraq in a violent coup, our law gave us the right to buy Iraq’s oil from them.
And then in mid-2014, ISIS took over some of those same Iraqi wells – and their oil sales helped the extremist group to become “the world’s richest terror army.”
Anyone outside of Iraq who bought gasoline made from ISIS oil would have owned that gas free and clear under the laws of their own country.
The default law of every country for the oil of other countries is literally the ancient rule of “might makes right.” Every country’s law is: whoever can control oil by force - we’ll buy it from them.
This is why oil-rich countries are much more likely to suffer civil wars and political repression. Because our law rewards successful violence with big money, the most violent men rise to the top. And when those men get to the top, they can use our money to buy penthouses and superyachts – or to spread an extreme, intolerant version of Islam around the world by funding schools and mosques like the Saudis have.
‘Might makes right’
We take the law of “might makes right” for granted because it’s been around for so long. The law is a relic of centuries past – from the days when the European empires were blasting each other’s wooden ships with cannons. Back then, “might makes right” even made the slave trade legal. Back then, the world’s law even for human beings was “whoever can control them by force can sell them to us.”
That’s the law that made it legal for 12 million captured Africans to be forced through the horrific Middle Passage, where the survivors were legally bought in the Americas.
In one of humanity’s great steps forward for freedom, we abolished “might makes right” for human beings. It’s now illegal to sell captured people. But, for captured oil, “might makes right” zombies on, because we’ve never had the courage to change it.
We can change it now. The west now has enough energy of its own – we don’t need to send our cash to despots and fanatics any more. To make the change, our governments only need to pass new laws making it illegal to buy oil from such men. Our laws are up to us – and changing our laws now would get us out of business with today’s men of blood.
Of course, other countries might still buy oil from them. But we would no longer be complicit with torturers and terrorists whenever we purchase petrol. And if the West took the lead in abolishing this archaic, destructive law of “might makes right” for oil, we might just inspire the rest of the world to join us in taking humanity’s next big step toward freedom and peace.
Something to think about the next time you fill up.
Leif Wenar holds the Chair of Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. His new book is Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.