President Condemns Price Gougers, Dealers Raided

On one sunny August 16, at a time of high price inflation, government operatives announced the seizure of millions of eggs and 200,000 pounds of sugar. Raids on the larders of other suspected profiteers continued for weeks thereafter … The government was prepared to return these items to their owners once the chastened profiteers agreed to sell them at a “reasonable” price and under the watchful eye of a government officer.

The official in charge of the raids explained thusly: “I am one of those who believe that a large part of the high cost of living is due to the fact that a number of unconscionable men in the ranks of the dealers have taken advantage … If we can make a few conspicuous examples of gougers and give the widest sort of publicity to the fact that such gougers have been and will be punished, in the future there will be little inclination to profiteer in this country.”

Earlier, the President of the Republic had laid the blame for a lesser bout of price inflation squarely at the feet of gouging businessmen: “The high cost of living is arranged by private understanding” is how he put it.

By now you may have guessed that I am talking about present-day Venezuela, its Presidente, and his henchmen. You would have guessed wrong. The year was 1919, Woodrow Wilson was president, and his henchman, quoted above, was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The high cost of living was a result of Mr. Wilson’s war, which was financed partly by money printing, as well as the absorption of vast quantities of real goods and services by the government for use in fighting the war. The obvious effect of more money chasing a reduced supply of goods and services was price inflation, and that same phenomenon happened in all the warring countries, most notably France.

This episode provides one of many reasons, too numerous to elaborate here, why Woodrow Wilson is properly called a proto-fascist and why he is a serious contender for the dubious honor of worst-ever U.S. president. For more, see Jim Powell’s, “Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II.

The first three paragraphs above are paraphrased from p. 24 of James Grant’s new book, “The Forgotten Depression.” Though I have not finished the book, I couldn’t resist sharing this tidbit. The gist of Grant’s thesis can be seen in its subtitle, “1921: the Crash that Cured Itself.” Highly recommended, so far.

A Matter of Expectancies

We agree with the opinion that radical social discontent is strongly related to a disappointment of expectancies. The relation emerges from the observation that the most extremist activists are not the most disadvantageous people in society but persons who have a relative wealthy social background and a high level of education. People often believe that radical ideals must be addressed to the poor, because they have “nothing to loose but their chains”, and then get astonished when they find out that most revolutionaries come from the elites. The answer to this puzzle is that political conservatism and radicalism mostly depend on the degree of fulfillment of previous expectancies –or, better, the current expectancy of fulfillment of previous expectancies.

I consider that this contention allows us to translate the Egalitarian claims for a more fair society into the language of the Classical Liberalism. A Classical Liberal view may agree on that every individual deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect, if this means that the most quantity of expectancies are to be fulfilled only when citizens are equal before the law and the restrictions on individual plans are the minimal necessary for them to coexist. This is all the Egalitarianism that Classical Liberalism can provide.

Notwithstanding, there is an enormous advantage of Classical Liberalism on Egalitarianism about this issue: Classical Liberalism judges every individual plan of life only at a very general and abstract degree (do not kill anyone but in self defense; do not coerce liberty of locomotion of anyone, and so on). On the other hand, Egalitarianism needs to qualify the legitimacy of every individual plan of life in accordance to a particular scale of merit on which there is no guaranteed consensus.

But let us suppose that, due to “the veil of ignorance” which we were behind, we might reasonably agree on a particular scale of merit in order to judge the legitimate limits between each personal plan. We reasonably accepted some particular restrictions in our property and liberty in order to proceed to the redistribution of wealth regulated by the system we agreed on when we were “behind the veil of ignorance”. The problem is that we had accepted an Egalitarian system behind the veil of ignorance, but we formed our personal plans and expectancies when later unveiled.

If this is so, we may expect of every Egalitarian system to be unstable. We are in serious trouble when this instability is attributed not to a lack of freedom, but to an absence of regulation –and that is how markets become both accused of being the oppressing iron cage of liberty and the chaos. The other way is to regard each plan of life as intrinsic valuable as far as it does not interfere with basic aspects of other’s. It is true that expectancies are made from perceptions and that sometimes the system works as the tale of the fox and the grapes. But, at least, every individual will be full responsible not of his chance but of what he does with it. That is a right to fight for: not equality, not even prosperity, but the right to be responsible for one’s own days.

Florentine Liberty II: Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) was born and died in Florence which already had a long history as a literary and cultural centre, and as a centre of commercial life. Guicciardini came from an aristocratic family which provided an outstanding education that included study with the great Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Guicciardini had a life of state service, which took him to Spain as an ambassador as well as working within Florence and the dependent city of Bologna. He also worked for the Papacy in a political and military capacity at a time when the Vatican was the centre of one of the major Italian states, which was also at a time of political fragmentation in Italy and of foreign interventions from France, Germany, and Spain. The Papal States centred on Rome and Florence were therefore major states within Italian politics, not just cities. In the end Spanish domination overwhelmed them all, but Guicciardini seems more concerned with the danger of French domination.

The Florentine politics of the time goes through a series of shifts between secular republic, religious republic, and Medici dominated principality, which Machiavelli also participated in and commented on in writing. Indeed Guicciaridini and Machiavelli were friends, but their versions of republicanism were not identical. Machiavelli placed Rome first among the great republics of antiquity, with particular reference to the benefits of political competition, particularly between aristocracy and common people, for liberty and patriotic spirit.

Guicciardini also refers to Rome, but with less enthusiasm for the role of the common people and political conflict. He denies that the existence of two consuls sharing the supreme leadership role was evidence of a wish to stimulate political competition, but instead argues that it was a practical adoption to war time so that one consul could direct armies in the field while the other directed government business back in Rome. It was a not a scheme to limit individual power and any political competition between the two consuls was an unexpected and undesirable outcome, weakening rather than strengthening the republic. He applied a similar analysis to the double kings of ancient Sparta, who had a largely military role.

Guicciardini refers briefly but significantly to Plato indicating his preference for an ideal of order over an ideal of competition, for rational hierarchy over plebeian street politics. He does not follow anything like the strict enforcement of virtue and rule of the ‘wise’ advocated by Plato, but evidently finds that a preferable orientation to the liberty to challenge existing order. The detail Guicciardini provides of Florentine political history shows a drama of constant change and challenge, disorder and revolution, which might confirm Plato’s fears of democratic liberty, but also suggest the difficulties of applying Plato’s ideals to reality, particularly in a commercial world with a growing civil society.

Accordingly Guicciarini’s main source of inspiration was the Republic of Venice, which already had a history stretching back to the eighth century, and with claims to have its origins in Roman antiquity, in rather legendary stories of refugees from barbarian invasion seeking sanctuary in the marshes of that area. Venice was to survive as a  republic until 1797, when it was abolished by Napoleon. At its peak its territory stretched well down the Balkan coast of the Adriatic and was a major, if not the major naval and trading power in the eastern Mediterranean, so it did serve as a modern example of a powerful republic and the possibility of republican government in a largely monarchical world.

Another advantage of Venice from Guicciardini’s point of view was that it was a definitely aristocratic rather than democratic republic. There was an elective prince for life, the Doge, appointed by the aristocratic citizens of the city and ruling in cooperation with aristocratic councils. Fifteenth century scholars in Italy suggested that the constitution of Venice corresponded with Plato’s vision of a republic in the Laws, largely based on Sparta (where power was focused on the thirty man gerousia and five ephors rather than the citizens’ assembly itself based on a very restrictive definition of citizenship. This is Plato’s vision of a state that might exist in reality as opposed to the philosophical ideal proposed in the Republic. The great merchant and commercial wealth of Venice would have been disturbing for the Spartans and for Plato though, providing another example of the limits as well as real relevance of ancient republics for the modern world.

So Guicciardini is less ‘Florentine-Roman’ (democratic) and more Venetian-Spartan (aristocratic) than Machiavelli, but nevertheless he accepts that the poor have to be given some role in politics and that even if the poor are outside political citizenship at times, once a crisis brings them into politics it is very difficult to reverse that situation. The solution for Guicciardini is to allow the poor citizenship and some rights, in city assemblies, while excluding them from the highest offices of state. The high offices should be reserved to the aristocracy, with the highest offices to be held on a long-term, possibly even lifetime basis. The concern is to provide more stability and civic strength than Guicciardini believes is possible from the political activities of the poorly educated and unpropertied masses.

Guicciardini’s belief in liberty through the dominance of a responsible republic elite anticipates later ideas of thinking about liberty on the basis of conservative institutions for preserving order and property as preferable to democratic institutions and political contestation. Any thought about liberty is likely to have some element of this, some ideas about institutionalising property rights and legal stability, against the dangers of irresponsible temporary majorities. Whether a complete dominance of such institutions, with the risk of undermining them through overburdening them, is desirable or practicable is a matter of debate. Machiavelli and Guicciardini present a compelling classic Florentine compare and contrast on such issues.

Florentine Liberty I: Machiavelli, The Prince (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

I have already addressed Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy here and I may well come back to them later. However, in the present post I will discuss the famous Machiavelli text, which is concerned with states headed by princes rather than republics, the subject matter of the Discourses. This will itself be the the first half of a two part discussion of liberty in Florence, with a second half on Guicciardini.

The city state of Florence had a history self-government, often republican rather than princely, going back to the eleventh century, when it broke away from the control of German emperors. Its role in republican political thought goes back to the thirteenth century as does its role as an early centre of capitalism, suggesting a connection between the economic development and the movement of political thought.

The first notable republican writer was Dante’s guardian Brunetto Latini (1210-1294). That is Dante Alighieri, the author of the great epic poem The Divine Comedy, one of the very great figures in the history of European literature. So not only was Florence the focus of late Medieval republicanism and capitalism, it was a focus of the development of literature in modern European languages, and of literary Italian in general. Dante created a modern language text on a level with Homer and Virgil, so putting Italian on a level with Latin and Ancient Greek, and confirming the development of modern languages, other than the Latin of church scholars, as instruments of thought and artistic creation. Indeed Latini even has a small role in the Divine Comedy, though rather ungratefully he is placed in Hell. This seems to be based purely on his same sex activities rather than any bad character beyond breaking church positions on sexual conduct. After the secular scholar Latini, the next Florentine given a place in the history of republican political thought is Remigio dei Girolami (1235-1319), a Dominican scholar whose philosophy was influenced by Thomas Aquinas. After that the scholar and city Chancellor Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) keeps the republican tradition renewed. Detailed examination of these figures is perhaps a bit out of the scope of a historical survey series, but they certainly provide a rich tradition for Machiavelli and Guicciardini to examine and employ.

I have referred to this period in the history of Florence as late Medieval, but it can just as much be described as Renaissance. The great growth of classical learning and artistic creativity associated with the European fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had its beginnings in thirteenth century Florence and northern Italy, due to the commercial city states where there was patronage of the arts and there was contact with the Greek learning of the now highly weakened Byzantine Empire, which stemmed from Greek and Roman antiquity. Averroism, as in the legacy of the twelfth century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, Ibn Rushd known in the Latinate world as Averroes. A period of Muslim influence, or sometimes dominance in Sicily from the ninth to the thirteenth century meant that Muslim thought was part of the general Italian heritage.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a product of Florentine republican tradition and the general Italian Renaissance. He lived through periods of secular republican, religious republican, and secular princely rule in Florence. The religious period should be given some attention, as though Machiavelli himself was highly secular (possibly a non-believer, but a variety of views exist on that issue), the events of the religious republican period made a deep impression on him. From 1494 to 1498, the politics of Florence were dominated by the Dominican friar (like Girolami mentioned above), Girolamo Savonarola, who pushed Florence towards religious purification in anticipation of apocalyptic events. The apparent craziness was accompanied by some intellectual and literary sophistication, and was not just a pure descent into fanaticism. In the end the Pope found Savonarola too troubling too ignore so that he took action that ended with the execution of Savonarola as a heretic. Despite his lack of religious enthusiasm, Machiavelli shared a belief in the special role of Florence, though his vision of the city was as the descendent and repetition of the Roman republic rather than as the starting point of a Christian apocalypse. He wanted purification of a kind, if through the placing of laws above individuals, rather than religious observance, and an end to a corrupt aristocratic domination.

The Prince both pays tribute of a kind to Savonarola as a prophet without arms and sets Machiavelli on a path of hoped for cooperation with the dominant family, the Medici who had replaced republican with princely rule, arresting and torturing Machiavelli in the process, as he was a civil servant and diplomat in the former republic. The part admiration for Savonarola comes from an antique tradition of revering founders of republics and great law givers to states of any kind. This reaches a peak in Cicero who described founders of republic as god like. However secular Machiavelli was, he was aware of ancient Jewish history as recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the law giving role of Moses, which is one model of state foundation for Machiavelli and therefore of possible conditions for liberty, since liberty requires law rather than personalised rule.

The Prince is the product of a man who though very talented at the life of a private scholar which he pursued after his political fall, wanted to be working on public affairs even under a prince rather than a republic. It is a lengthy job application to Lorenzo Piero de ‘Medici (not to be confused with his grandfather Lorenzo the Magnificent) and despite composing the longest and best covering letter in all history, Machiavelli did not become a counsellor to a prince. So, we should not regard Machiavelli as a successful ‘Machiavellian’ and perhaps think again about any preconception that The Prince is some key to all knowledge in the dark arts of power and a place of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the inner workings of the state.

Machiavelli does offer his potential employer (who may never have read this extraordinary application material) some ruthless sounding advice on how a prince should gain and maintain power, including the execution of those who create the most obstacles to power. This is not exactly shocking advice for the time. The death penalty was widely used and extra-legal killings for political reasons were normal if not in line with the sort of moral standards rulers publicly proclaimed. The whole outrage of the church and others at the suppose shocking immorality of The Prince is one rather absurd and lengthy exercise in hypocrisy. There was certainly little Machiavelli could have taught Popes of the time in the darkest arts of power. Condemnation of Machiavelli was due to his making public unpleasant realities so that anyone who could read would now be aware of how kings used their power. The book was not published in Machiavelli’s time, so the torrent of vilification came after his death.

The more brutal aspects of The Prince do not even begin to match the horrors of dynastic wars and religious persecution at the time, particularly if we take into account the behaviour of colonists of the time. Machiavelli recommends none of these things which political and religious leaders of the time were willing to have on their conscience. Some passages recommend complete colonisation of newly acquired territories as one means of maintain control, in preference to partial colonisation which is as close as Machiavelli gets to advocating generalised suffering for civilians. In any case he does not recommend the kind of massacre and rapine normal at the time, and the main thrust of the argument is not towards conquest, but a state which has some community with its citizens.

Machiavelli was sceptical of the military value of walls and fortresses compared with a citizen army willing to defend its own land. Opposition to royal fortresses was opposition to one of the main forms of state control at the time. The prince is expected to dispose of individuals dangerous to assuming power, but this is advice to princes who newly have power and need to consolidate it, not advice on long term methods of government. The long term approach is to respect law, respect the property of citizens, and leave women free from forced advances. The prince is advised to hunt a lot as a means to improved military abilities, in knowing the terrain of his own land in detail so knowing how to defend it. The martial interests are presented as the prince’s main area of interest, so that the prince is more of a commander in chief of the military than a man of political power. The idea of a monarch who is mostly a chief of the military was a republican idea at the time and anticipates liberal ideas about the limited scope of any state apparatus.

The relationship between morality and political principles is where Machiavelli departs from antique republican thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero who present politics as the extension of virtue and moral principles. Machiavelli even overturns some of their ethical limits on power. He does so through a sophisticated dialogue with Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, which largely does not mention them by name but is very recognisable to those who have studied them, which was a high proportion of likely readers of Machiavelli in his own time. Both Aristotle and Cicero refer to the tyrannical ruler as a wild beast or worse. This itself refers to an antique way of thinking about ethics as self-control, which puts us above the supposed level of animals. Machiavelli challenges this by advising the prince to be a mixture of human and beast, and as beast to combine the cunning of a fox with the fierceness of a lion. None of this is Machiavelli advocating tyranny, it is an appreciation of power and desire which ancient thought was not good at accommodating. The good ruler rules from a desire to pursue the good life and be a friend of citizens in ancient thinking. They could not think of power and self-referring desire except as negatives, even if their own actions went against their words. Cicero’s political career included a willingness to go to the limits of law and beyond where he saw it as necessary to defend the republic, he simply had no language to explain this in the moral terms he used. His main political work, The Republic includes the positive contribution of Scipio Africanus the Younger, the Roman general who physically destroyed the city of Cartage and slaughtered every last inhabitant.

Cicero, like other ancients, had difficulty in discussing politics as power and civilised individual action as based on desire, rather than a morality of self control, so they had little way of accommodating theories of power and desire. This is why there are no ancient writers praising commerce except maybe within very limited and constrained circumstances and then only in a very minimal way, even Seneca who was a major money lender of the whole empire. Machiavelli did have  vocabulary and understanding of power in politics and desire in human action. He was convinced that general application of moral principles about always being truthful, merciful, generous, and so on, were not adequate to understanding the possibilities of human creation in politics and in commerce. Moral outcomes mattered to him, and he is clear in The Prince that some acts are too immoral to accept for any reason, but he thought moral outcomes come from skill in political arts and in trade offs between different moral demands. If one can sincerely claim to be always purely moral and never accept a lesser evil for a greater good, then one maybe has the right to be shocked by Machiavelli, but who can claim such a thing?

The Prince conforms to the wish of a prince to have power and glory and use violence to seize power where the chance arises. However, as far as possible, it always pushes the prince to do so through through respecting the rights of citizens, working to gain their consent, respect peace and stability, and the regular application of law. The prince is urged to avoid the virtue of generosity, because the ‘generosity’ of princes comes from taxations and is therefor a burden on citizens undermining their economic welfare. So that is the wickedness of Machiavelli! Avoid so called virtues which harm those they are supposed to benefit. It is advice to the prince to work so much through law, public good, and concentrating on his military duties, that a republic is bound to emerge under the nominal rule of a prince. That is the goal of all the wickedness in service of dark power.

Why I prefer Jon Stewart

I recently learned that Jon Stewart may be leaving the Daily Show next year. I worry that we will be losing something very specific in Stewart as the host. What he brings to the table is a higher intellectual standard. It’s clear to me that he holds everyone to a higher standard, including his audience.

I stopped watching Colbert early on. I think Colbert is funny (maybe even funnier) but Stewart goes for jokes that require the audience to see the absurdity in politics in a way that points toward the truth. I’ve only seen a few segments of John Oliver’s show (I’d love to pay HBO for access but I’m not willing to pay a cable company for that access!). I remember when Oliver was hosting the Daily Show and I felt like he was mostly pandering to the audience. I don’t like to feel patronized like that. But the few segments I’ve seen on his own show are mostly thoughtful. So there’s reason to hold out hope.

I don’t know what we can expect from Stewart in 2016 but I’m looking forward to it. Here’s to you Jon Stewart! May you keep raising the bar!

Update: if that (first) link still isn’t working, try cutting and pasting this: nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/10/jon-stewart-rosewater-in-conversation.html

Cat-calling, free speech, and the continued cannibalization of the Left

The National Review has an excellent piece out by Charles Cooke on that video about catcalls that recently went viral (if you haven’t seen it yet, or don’t know what it is, here, and get out from under that rock). The article highlights well the continued crisis that Leftist circles have been in since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Aside from continuing to defend the likes of Fidel Castro at the superficial, political level, the intellectual depravity of the Left is on full display thanks to the work of the people who made the video. Here is Cooke, for instance, on one of the more popular versions of the Left’s criticism of the video; the one arguing that most of the men - who were largely black or Latino – catcalling the girl were forced into doing so simply because of the white power structure in place (no seriously):

To contend that the minorities depicted in the video are mere victims of circumstance and that they have been forced by their conditions into badgering innocent women on the street is to contend that those minorities lack agency, intelligence, sensitivity, and the capacity to reason — that they are child-like figures who act on their base instincts and who need excusing and explaining by their betters. Oddly enough, it is also to contend that the victim was either a “white gentrifier” herself, or a proxy for white gentrifiers, and that she therefore deserved the treatment she received. This presumption, it should go without saying, is typically anathema to the arbiters of feminist thought. One cannot help but wonder whether, weighed down by their own contradictions, the champions of “empowerment” have at last become what they despise themselves?

Eastern Europe knows these contradictions well. It’s a damn shame more Westerners don’t. Here is Cooke again, on the attempt by the organization (“Hollaback”) to defend free speech by advocating legislation that would ban catcalling:

The case for a robust — almost impregnable — protection of freedom of speech stands on its own and applies to all people. It is as tyrannical an act to prosecute a rich man for his utterances as it is to target a poor one. Nevertheless, should Hollaback get its way and provoke the passage of an anti-cat-calling law, it would likely be the poor who would bear the brunt of its force. Such rules would be enforced capriciously, and those without power would find themselves hauled into court more than those with connections. As has been demonstrated by the new anti–“rape culture” rules that are sweeping the nation’s college campuses, there is always a price to illiberalism, and that price is often paid by a downtrodden and less powerful group. As kindly as possible, I would recommend that if anybody believes that the problem of unwanted male attention warrants the infringement of the First Amendment, they should re-examine their priorities.

Again, the entire piece is well worth the read. I’ve only highlighted the general issues Cooke takes up with the video controversy, but his work pointing out how the Left is essentially eating itself is quite lucid.

In some ways, the post-socialist Left has remained relevant since the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the growing-in-number anti-”rape culture” rules highlighted above attest, but in the most general, important way, the Left continues to become more and more irrelevant as its ethnic and gender elements contextualize and re-contextualize themselves into irrelevancy. At the end of the day, we’re all just a bunch of individuals and nobody should get special treatment because of the color of their skin or the thing between their legs. The fact that humanity has a long history of doing just this – awarding special privileges to some at the expense of the many – is both a) a testament to the radicalism and the simple brilliance of libertarianism, and b) a really, really good reason not to continue to pursue policies that do just that (even if such policies are meant to correct past injustices).*

It’s also nice to see that the Right-wing National Review is becoming more libertarian when it comes to issues of race and gender. I also see the Clintonian Left becoming slightly more libertarian (thanks in large part, I think, to the realization of what Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid have been doing to our purchasing power parity).

* I support some kind of reparations system, here in the US, for stolen land and stolen labor but this has nothing to do with skin color or gender when you think about it.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Icelandic Sagas of the Middle Ages

A first in this series, a discussion of literary texts rather than a text covering political ideas through philosophical, historical, legal, or social science writing. One good reason for the new departure is simply that the sagas of Iceland have become a focus of debate about the possibility of a society with effective laws and courts, but no state. It has become  celebrated case in some pro-liberty circles largely because of an article by the anarchy-capitalist/individualist anarchist libertarian thinker David Friedman (son of Milton) in ‘Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case’, though it has also been widely studied and sometimes at full book length by scholars not known for pro-liberty leanings. I somewhat doubt that Iceland of that era could be said to have purely private law, but I will let the reader judge from the descriptions that follow.

Other important things also come up in discussing the sagas. There is the issue of how much political ideas, political theory, or political philosophy, just reside in written texts devoted to the theories, institutions, and history, and how much they may reside in everyday culture, collective memory, and the literature of oral tradition. This becomes a particularly important issue when considering cultures lacking in written texts, but nevertheless has ethics, law, and juridical practice of some kind. The modern discipline of anthropology has provided ways of thinking about this, but rooted in older commentaries on non-literate societies, as in the Histories of Herodotus (484-425 BCE) and indeed the texts by Tacitus, considered here last week, on ancient Britons and Germans.

The Icelandic sagas present the ‘barbarians’ in their own words, though with the qualification that the sagas were largely from Pagan era Iceland and then were written down in Christian era Iceland. You would expect some changes of some kind in the sagas as they are transferred from memory and speech to writing, and the religious transformation may have led to some element of condemnation of the old Pagan world colouring the transcription. Nevertheless we have tales of Pagan warrior heroes in a society with very little in the way of a state, written down only a few centuries later (maybe three centuries), which is a lot closer in time than the absolute minimum of seven centuries between whatever events inspired the Homeric epics, the Illiad and the Odyssey, and the writing down of the oral tradition in the eight century BCE.

The comparison with Homer is worth making, because the Sagas present warriors heroes whose extreme commitment to the use of individual violence to maintain and increase status echoes that of the heroes in Homer. The all round enthusiasm for inflicting death and injury as a way of life, and a basis of status, may of course lead us to regard these as more action heroes than moral heroes. In the Homeric context, and discussions of other pre-urban societies dominated by a warrior aristocracy, the word ‘hero’ often has a descriptive political and social aspect, which is more relevant than any sense of moral approbation in the term hero. The classic discussions of warrior ‘hero’ societies since Homer and Tacitus are Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1744) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and these should be seen in the context of Enlightenment writing on ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ stages of history. Nietzsche’s contribution comes from the time in which anthropology is beginning to emerge as a distinct academic discipline, tending at that time anyway to concentrate on ‘primitive’ peoples.

The Sagas give a literary impression  of a society in which the state has not developed as an institution, which could be regarded as evidence of ‘primitiveness’. However, the Icelanders had originally left the monarchical state of Norway, which features heavily in the Sagas and were in touch with the monarchical state of England, in a sense which could include Viking raids, as well as warrior service to Anglo-Saxon kings. So it would not be correct to say that the Icelanders were at some early, simple stage where they did not know anything different, as they had chosen to reject monarchical institutions, or at least had never found it worth the trouble to go about creating a monarchy with a palace, an army, great lords, taxes, and law courts appointed from above.

What the Icelander had was a dispersed set of rural communities, in which there no towns. The centre of the ‘nation’ was not a capital city, but an assembly known as ‘althing’, which combined representative, law making, and judicial functions, with the judicial function predominating. There was not much in the way of political decision making since there was no state, and the laws were those that existed  by custom, not through deliberate law making. The judicial function was exercised through judgements, which were essentially mediations on disputes that could also be brought before lower level assemblies-courts. Th right to participate in the assembly with a vote was restricted to a class of local notables, though not a hereditary aristocratic class. Judging by the Sagas, the judgments of the Althing may have been influenced by the numbers present on either side, particularly if they were armed. Only one person was employed by the Althing, a ‘law speaker’, whose compensation was taken from a marriage fee. At least in the earlier years of the Icelandic community, from 870 to 1000 there seems to have been nothing else in the way of a state. Conversion to Christianity in about 1000 led to tithes (church taxes) and a good deal more institutional interest in what religion Icelanders might be practising. In the thirteenth century the tendency to more, if still very little, state was completed by incorporation into the domains of the King of Norway.

The Sagas do not give a complete institutional description, but are a large part of the evidence for what is known about pre-Christian Iceland. The stories of warrior-heroes and families often takes us into the judicial life of the community, as violent disputes arise. There is no police force of any kind, so disputes initially dealt with by force, including killing. Sagas which concentrate on warrior heroes suggest that considerable property and local influence could be built up through individual combats in which the winner kept the property of the loser, that is the person who died in the combat. The more family based sagas suggest that at last some of the time, combat might lead to the loser ceding some land rather than fight to the death. Presumably in some cases the warrior honour culture led to anyone challenged to combat agreeing to do so that particularly a-effective warriors had a chance to become major land owners through willingness to issue challenges. The warrior oriented sagas really suggest a society in which some part of the population were constantly using deadly violence to protect and advance their status, or simply in reaction to minor slights on honour, and the use of such violence could lead to the killing of a defenceless child.

The use of murderous violence against those unwilling, or unable, to fight back was deterred and punished to some degree by a system of justice which was in large part voluntary. There was no compulsion to attend the Althing, or lower assemblies, and no means to enforce attendance except the violence of those wishing to make a legal complaint, should they wish the accused to be present. The punishments, even for the most extreme violence, were never those of physical punishment, prison, or execution. Judgements required economic compensation, or at the most extreme outlawed the guilty party, who appears to have been largely given the time and opportunity to leave Iceland unmolested before the most severe consequences out outlaw status could be applied. Outlawing of course removes legal protection from the person punished who can therefore be murdered, or s subject to some other harm, without a right to legal complaint. Outlawing often seems to have been the result of non-payment of compensation demanded by the court.

The judicial system was essentially voluntary, and judging from the sagas a lot of disputes were settled by private violence, which could include murder of supposed witches and torture of prisoners. Victims of violence, or other harms, were only protected by law as far as they or their friends, neighbours, or families, were willing and able to go to court, demand an official judgement authorising punishment, and enforce it. Slavery was normal, but there was some legal protection of slaves, in so far as anyone in their community was interested in ensuring enforcement. Jealousy and competition between neighbouring families may have helped produce legal protectors for the socially weak, but this is may not the most reassuring form of protection.

For liberty community fans of the example of Iceland from 870-1000, it is a example of how anarchism can work, that is it is an example of how there can be law and a judicial system without a state beyond judicial assemblies and the one employee of the most important assembly. Medieval Iceland was a functioning society, which was perhaps not as sophisticated as England, France, the German Empire (Holy Roman Empire), the Byzantine Empire (which appears in the Sagas as the Greek Empire), or caliphate of Cordoba, just to name the most powerful European states of the time, but did leave a significant literary legacy in the Sagas, as even the most violent warrior-heroes wrote poetry some times. It was a rural seagoing trading community, in which violence was no more prevalent than other parts of Medieval Europe, and a tolerable existence was maintained in the face of a very harsh nature.

The arguments for a less enthused attitude to Iceland as a liberty loving model include the very simple nature of the society with no towns, the existence of slavery, and the lack of comprehensive enforcement of law. In general there is the oddity of taking as model of anything a situation in which there was no protection from violence, and no other harms, unless someone or some group with some capacity to exert force, brought a case to the attention of the court and was able to enforce any decision. It was a society in which violence was not always punished and where those inclined to use violence for self-enrichment could be live without consequences either through ignoring laws, or making use of laws and customs, which created opportunities to take property on an issue of ‘honour’. The courts and laws of Medieval Iceland were maybe adequate for creating some restraint on a community containing a significant proportion of Viking raiders regarding murderous violence on a systematic scale as legitimate and even as an honourable way to increase wealth.

On the whole I lean more in the second direction, I certainly see no reason to see near anarchist Iceland as better for liberty in its time than the self-governing merchant towns of the Baltic, the low countries and northern Italy. There is no evidence that Medieval Europeans were ever inspired to take Iceland as a great example of anything. The intermittently contained violence of slave owning landholders is not a great justification for the semi voluntary legal system, and near non-state. Having said that, the emphasis on justice as mediation, and on punishments limited to exile and compensatory payments, does have something to say to those who prefer to limit the power of the state over individuals, who wish to prevent the punishment of crime become the reason for an incarcerating state, trying to extend that model of power into every aspect of social life. The system of law without state compulsion did not succeed in sustaining itself beyond a few centuries, but that is enough to suggest that there are some possibilities of viable modern national communities existing with less of a centralised state and coercive judicial-penal-police apparatus than is now normal. The limitations of Sage Icelandic liberty apply to the antique slaveholding republics, and in some part to European states and the USA when some forms of liberty were increasing while plantation slavery was expanding. The Icelandic Medieval example is at the very least worth contemplation with regard to the possibilities of limiting the coercive state.

Note on texts. As with other classics, many editions are available and I usually leave readers of these posts to find one in the way that is most convenient for them. In this case though, I would like to point out the following extensive and scholarly edition, which includes some useful historical background as well as literary discussion.

The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection,  Viking [hah Viking!]-Penguin, New York NY, 2000.