Did Iran Really Execute Mohsen Shekari?
The title of a Financial Times story looks nakedly clear: “Iran Executes 23-Year-Old Protester” (December 8, 2022). It was referring to Mohsen Shekari, condemned and hanged for allegedly wounding a praetorian and “fighting with God” during recent protests. Did Iran really do that? Is it only able to? This is far from certain.
As a citizen or subject, Mr. Shekari was officially part of Iran, a set of people in a circumscribed geographic space. Does this mean that he is the artisan of his own execution, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau might have claimed? Difficult to believe. He was also part of a part of Iran made up of people who obviously disagreed with another part, the latter disagreeing so strongly that it executed Shekari. “Iran” is only the part that executes others. It only represents certain Iranians, minority or majority. What “Iran” means in the Financial Times title is the state or government of Iran or, in practice, those individuals who actually run it. To speak meaningfully and not confusedly, it is the latter—a certain part of Iran, not Iran—that executed Mr. Shekari.
Adding “The state of” to the story title would have been useful, as it is analytically useful to look at the social-political world in the perspective of methodological individualism as opposed to holism, organicism, or collectivism. Of course, the Financial Times is far from the only one unaware of, or insensitive to, these distinctions.
One objection is that the way of speaking I criticize is not to be taken literally. It is just a figure of speech, like there are so many in ordinary language. Only mathematics and pure logic avoid them. What we are discussing is related to the “synecdoche,” a figure of speech that consists in substituting the part for the whole—a part of Iran for Iran. Interestingly, this sort of political example of a synecdoche is seldom if ever given, probably because because most people intuitively believe that, in this case, the part is the whole. The political rulers, their agents, their accomplices, and their supporters are deemed to be Iran. Note also that the synecdoche is an especially tortured figure of speech as it can also substitute the whole for the part.
Certainly, it is sometimes difficult to avoid popular ways of speaking. The common jargon helps being understood and “to belong.” But the problem is that the synecdoche we are talking about can reinforce a confusion about reality. Economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek complained about “our poisoned language.” It is difficult to speak of individual liberty in Newspeak (see the Appendix on “The Principles of Newspeak” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).
A more tricky issue is the following. To return to Rousseau, aren’t all Iranians, including Mr. Shekari, obligated by their “social contract” to support their government? Classical liberal contractarianism, as opposed to the Rousseauist brand, answers negatively. The basic idea is that a (implicit) social contract needs to be made of rules that can be unanimously consented to by rational individuals, which is not what characterizes Iran and people living under other tyrannies. (See James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent; James Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty; and Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan, The Reason of Rules, of which a review of mine is forthcoming at Econlib. An easy but incomplete book is Buchanan’s Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative. These arguments raise many questions worth pursuing. Reading my essays on these books is better as a complement or an introduction than as a substitute.)
In any liberal or libertarian perspective, the punishment of Mr. Shekari and other resistance heroes by a tyrannical government is a crime. It is not “Iran” that should be punished, but the individuals—including the political bosses at the first rank—who committed the crime. Confusing Iranians with “their” government is an unfortunate linguistic habit that blurs this normative judgment besides making positive analysis difficult.