The incipit of an article by Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute on the Afghan debacle (“Having Won, We Chose to Lose” (Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2021) reads:

We Americans like to deceive ourselves.

The meaning of this is obscure. Does it mean that we lie to ourselves and we believe it? But what would be the lesson? That we should not believe ourselves when we lie to ourselves?

The article conclusion repeats:

… once we won, we chose to lose.

Many economists and political scientists must wonder who is that “we” (and what he or she eats in the winter).

It is true that in a state built on a social contract à la James Buchanan, the government is both “us” and “non-us,” which can easily muddle the water. In a deep sense, the state is us only at an abstract “contractual stage,” where general (constitutional) rules are established; while the current government is non-us with hopefully 50%+1 of us. In a shallow sense, it is the opposite: the state is non-us as it enforces, even against temporary majorities, the general constitutional rules unanimously agreed to; while the current government is us because we elected it in the forms prescribed by the constitution. This tension, if not the contradiction, between us and non-us may be inherent in Buchanan’s contractarian view of the classical-liberal state. (In Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s totalitarian view of contractarianism, the state is always us when each of us ignores his own personal interest in favor of the “general will.”)

Under a state à la David Hume, which is not conceived as the result of a unanimous social contract but instead as a product of history and conventions, neither the state nor the current government is conceived as us. They are always “they.” Going a bit farther than Hume, they are just another organization, sometimes useful, often dangerous. One might think that this approach is more conducive to controlling Leviathan through denying it collective legitimacy, but European history (and a fortiori non-European history) does not seem to concur: Leviathans have generally been worse in Europe than in America, if that is a relevant comparison.

In any event, it is methodologically and politically prudent, when speaking about the US government, to say “the U.S. government,” not “the US” or “we.” And in the case under discussion, here is a minimum conclusion: “we” did not wage and lose the war in Afghanistan because it is not clear who is we.