Minarchism, Anarchism, and Democracy: A Shared Challenge

Minarchism–basically as small a government as we can get away with–is probably the most economically efficient possible way to organize society. A night watchman state providing courts of last resort and just enough military to keep someone worse from taking over.

The trouble (argues my inner anarchist) is that if we’ve got a government–an organization allowed to force/forbid behaviors–we’re already on the slippery slope to abuse of powers through political trading. Without an entrenched culture that takes minarchism seriously it’s only a matter of time before a) the state grows out of control and you’re no longer in a minarchist Utopia, or b) a populace unwilling to do their part allows violent gangs to fill the power vacuum.

Having a government at all is a risky proposition from the perspective of someone worried about the abuse of that power. Better not to risk it at all.

Anarchism relies on the right culture in a similar way. This is clear to critics of anarchism (basically it’s just the minarchists who are willing to take anarchists seriously at all) and is the crux of an important argument against anarchism. Without the right culture, what’s to stop people from just creating some new government? Nothing at all.

In fact, we face the same problem in the military-industrial-nanny-state complex of our imperfect real world. For any government–or lack of government–to work, the ideological framework of the people living in that society has to line up properly. To the extent people are ignorant, distracted, short-sighted, biased, or mean-spirited, we get governance that reflects those flaws.

If we want to live in a better world, we can argue all day about what sort of government we do or don’t want. But ultimately we have to work on improving the culture, because the median voter is still in charge.


Why Don’t Tribes Transition to Market Defense?

Ongka, a “big man” of the Kawelka tribe. Image from http://www.stewartstrathern.pitt.edu/

Watch almost any anthropological film about a newly discovered “isolated tribe,” and you’re likely to see at least one “tribesman” wearing a t-shirt.

People in bands and tribes and chiefdoms — who have since time immemorial handled most of their economic transactions for food, clothing, and shelter through traditional economies of gift exchange and family sharing — eagerly become buyers and sellers for products on the global market as soon as they get the chance.

They grow coffee beans or trap furs, and they use the money to buy firearms, machetes, cell phones, and jean shorts. In other words, they jump right in to the market. And usually, the tendrils of global trade have arrived way before the anthropologists and their film crews.

But people in the same bands, tribes, or chiefdoms seem to hang on to their family and gift-based economies for political, military, and legal services.

They do not jump to create or hire market solutions (mercenaries, defense corporations), and they instead eventually transform — by hook or by crook — into a state or into a people subjugated by a state.

Why does this happen? Why do we get states for defense and markets for everything else?

Let me back up and explain my terms:

In the examples I’m familiar with, humans use one of four main methods to organize law enforcement and military protection:

1. Kin-based. Your extended family (a “band,” “clan,” or a “lineage”) and maybe an alliance of intermarried and neighbouring extended families (a “tribe” or a “village”), protects you. You are technically free to leave the family or the village, but that could leave you without protection unless you are marrying into a new one.

Examples: Cree, Tahltan, Ju/‘hoansi

2. Prestige-based. A famous leader (a “big man” or “chief”) and his warriors protect you in return for material gifts and social deference. You can pull your support from the leader — more easily if he’s just an informal “big man” and less easily if he’s a formal “chief.” And there are usually other nearby leaders or aspiring leaders who would happily accept your patronage.

Examples: Yanomamo, Kawelka, Trobriander

Systems #1 and #2 are often blended together, as in the Trobriander case, where each man’s connections to the chief are determined partly by family relatedness and partly by gift exchange.

3. State-based. A compulsory ruler (a “king” or “president”) and his warriors protect you in return for taxes and/or labor. You are never free to pull your support, although you are sometimes free to leave through emigration.

Examples: Aztec Empire, Canada, People’s Republic of China

4. Market-based. A private enterprise (a “defense contractor”) protects you in return for money. You are free to pull your support and choose another contractor, or go without.

Example: Detroit’s Threat Management Center

Now, we could also sketch out the same 4 methods for the basic kinds of economic exchange people do for food, shelter, and all the other goods and services in life besides defense. People can give and receive the things they want and need through #1 family networks, #2 prestige-oriented gift exchange, #3 state redistribution, and #4 markets.

What I see throughout the world in the last 500 years is that as globalisation advances, people in all or almost all cultures eagerly take their systems of food, shelter, etc. out of systems #1 and #2 and go into system #4. In other words, people in bands, tribes, and chiefdoms all over the world desperately want the metal tools, firearms, t-shirts, cell-phones, and everything else that the market offers, and so they find ways to sell goods or services and thus money that lets them buy that stuff.

For instance, hunter-gatherers who once collected food to share with their family now collect furs to sell internationally, or instead serve as bush guides to wealthy tourists from foreign cultures.

But people almost never eagerly or rapidly take their law and defense systems out of kin and prestige and into markets.

Instead, they tend to hang on to kin or prestige-based methods of law enforcement and warfare until they (a) get conquered by a state or (b) organize themselves as a state (whether to fend off would-be conquerors or to become conquerors themselves).

So in highland Papua New Guinea for instance, the Dani and the Kawelka were happy to grow coffee beans and other crops to put on the market by the 1970s. But they didn’t start hiring mercenaries for defense. Instead, they stuck to their big men and their tribes until their military organizations were absorbed into state militaries or turned into paramilitary movements aiming to create or seize control of a state.

Markets became the center of food production. States became the center of defense production.

Later on, after states have arrived as military organizations, sometimes they start expanding and controlling parts of the economics of food, shelter, education, etc., through compulsory redistribution.

Conversely, shifts to market-based defense seem to occur after a society has already had state-based defense — like in Moresnet or Kowloon (PDF). And the market organizations arise when, for some reason, the state-based defense system relaxes or collapses.

Why does this bifurcated trend keep happening?

Why do people in these societies transition into markets for most goods and services but states for law and war?

Do state-based militaries and police forces simply outcompete (or outfight) market ones?

Am I missing major counterexamples, or even misunderstanding my own examples?

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.

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Homicide and the State

I am one of the hundreds of thousands, possibly of millions of conservatives with strong libertarian leanings. Incidentally, I am not just talking, I showed it in several things I wrote and published. (Please, ask me.) There are several things however that prevent me from stating unambiguously that I am a libertarian, and much less, a Libertarian.

Of the two main philosophical obstacles the first is the mainstream libertarians’ barely concealed pacifism. I deal with this issue in several postings in factsmatter.wordpress.com that include the name “Paul” in their title (I also have objections to Ron Paul, the politician, another topic treated in some of the same postings.) My second problem is that it seems to me that serious libertarians have not dealt adequately with the central issue of the state as peacemaker.

Let me say before I proceed that it may well be the case that I am simply exposing my ignorance, that the subject has been examined by many good minds and that I have simply not come across their efforts. There might even be forums where the issue is discussed frequently and about which I am ignorant because of my bad habit of spending a lot of time watching French television series. And by the way, I propose (forcefully) the following rule: No one must give anyone a reading assignment if he/she has not even done the assignment. Don’t tell me to read what you have not read thoroughly yourself!

Now back to the state as peacemaker. Continue reading