The news that Roger Miranda Bengoechea is to get $800,000 from the American taxpayers raises all sorts of interesting questions. Miranda is the Nicaraguan defector the Reagan administration has been parading around Washington for the past couple months with dark tales of Sandinista malefactions. Who sets these rates? Was Miranda paid by the word, like a free-lance writer? Is the offer available to any Nicaraguan, or must one be a proven enemy of freedom to qualify?
This free-market approach has great promise. The next step, clearly, is to take that $36 million we're not sending to the contras and offer it to the Sandinistas instead -- provided they adjourn en masse to Miami. This would be a foreign policy initiative in keeping with the philosophy of the 1980s: "Make money, not war."
The State Department may have been influenced by "The Book of Questions," last year's best-selling compendium of puzzlers for arm-chair moralists. Page 17: "Would you accept $1,000,000 to leave the country and never set foot in it again?" Gramm-Rudmanize a million and you get $800,000.
Or maybe our boys took a hint from Yosef Shapira. Shapira, a minor Israeli cabinet minister, created a stir in October by proposing that Israeli Arabs be offered $20,000 each to leave the country. This set the stage for a bidding war. Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian moderate, replied indignantly, "If he's offering $20,000 to every Arab to leave, I'm sure the Arab countries will offer $40,000 for every Jew to leave." Many Israeli Jews would gladly offer more than that for Shapira himself to leave, rightly regarding his proposal as vulgar and provocative.
Nevertheless, one West Bank Palestinian showed up at Shapira's office and said he'd be happy to leave the country for $20,000. Shapira wouldn't fork out. But who can blame this would-be expatriate? If the Jews of the Bible spent 40 years wandering in the desert, waiting to enter the promised land, the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have now spent 40 years in suspended animation -- half that time under Arab rule, half under Jewish -- waiting for something similar.
Maybe the problem is that Shapira's offer wasn't generous enough. Could we settle this thing for a million bucks apiece? There are 1.35 million Arabs in the occupied territories. Figuring that not all would take up the offer, the whole package might cost a trillion dollars. Call it $50 billion a year for 20 years. If the Israeli-Arab conflict isn't already costing the world $50 billion a year, it's close.
Is bribing people to give up their national dreams immoral? Two moral visions conflict here. One vision was described by political philosopher Michael Walzer in his 1983 book "Spheres of Justice": justice requires that we keep money in its own sphere and not permit it to dominate all aspects of life. You can't sell yourself into slavery, for example, no matter what the price.
The other vision is the basic moral logic of capitalism: if an exchange is truly voluntary, by definition it leaves the parties better off, at least by their own lights. Money is the universal solvent. Convert anything into money and then convert your money into anything else, however seemingly incompatible. At some price, perhaps, money can even turn swords into plowshares.
The Israelis argue, with much justice, that the nations of the world absorbed millions of refugees in the aftermath of World War II (including half a million Jews expelled by Arab nations and taken in by Israel). Only the Palestinians have held out -- or been left to rot in a cynical ploy by their Arab brothers to undermine the Jewish state.
After 40 years, Palestinian nationalism has become genuine. But if there is a price at which an economic solution can salve a spiritual complaint, who is to say it shouldn't be paid? Or, to rephrase "The Book of Questions": Would you let your children grow up in squalor rather than leave your country? Few Americans would be here today if their ancestors felt that way.
There may be things money can't buy, but money in sufficient quantities can buy quite a bit. Right now, no one wants the Palestinians, including their fellow Arabs. A million-dollar dowry might change some minds. Indeed, a million dollars will get you past the immigration restrictions of many countries.
In the vast desert expanses of the Middle East, the Palestinians could even build themselves a state. Not a squalid enclave cheek-by-jowl with the hated Jews, but an oasis of highways and air-conditioning. The Saudis are building just such a modern complex from scratch -- industry, housing, airport, everything -- for 380,000 people at a cost of about $45 billion, or only $118,000 apiece. Donald Trump would love the assignment.
Am I serious? Oh, no. Practical problems aside, the whole idea is rationalism carried to irrational lengths. This isn't how the world works. But given how the world does work, it hardly seems right to call this free-market fantasy immoral. Bribing people certainly seems preferable to beating them.