The Vexing Libertarian Issue of Transition

I have appointed myself an old sage to the world. When your knees are creaky and every snotty eighteen-year-old treats you patronizingly, the least you can do to compensate is award yourself wisdom. Anyway, long story short, it’s a good excuse to spend much time on Facebook. I feel I am rendering a public service. I am continuing my teaching career there. It’s unpaid but the conditions are much better and all the students actually want to be in class.

Of course, it’s also true that Facebook is addictive. It’s not a bad addiction. For this old guy, it’s almost incredible to have frequent conversations with an MD in Pakistan, my niece in India, an old girlfriend in Panama, a young friend’s wife in Japan, and of course, many different kinds of French people. I even have a Facebook friend who lives in the mountains of Algeria; we have lively talks in French. Recently, a young woman who described herself as a Myanmar village girl reached out. (I know what you are thinking but if she is really one of those internet sex trolls, I salute the originality of her marketing strategy.) At all times a day and night, I have at least one Facebook friend who is not asleep. It’s pleasant in these days of confinement.

The same confinement, perhaps, slows me down and makes me more likely to tally up everything. As a result, a new impression has pierced my consciousness. Expressing contempt for democracy seems to be in vogue among people who identify as libertarians (with a small “l,” big “L” Libertarians have nearly vanished from my world. It could just be me.) This contempt reminds me that I have been asking the same question of libertarianism for now about fifty years, all with not much success.

I refer to the question of transition. I mean, what is it supposed to look like moving from wherever we are, in terms of governance, to a society with a drastically diminished government interference in individual lives? I have been receiving evasive answers, answers that don’t make even superficial sense, and swift escapes effected by changing the subject.

Let me say right away that I am not looking for a crushing reading assignment (a common punitive, passive-aggressive maneuver among intellectuals). Mine is a simple question. One should be able to sketch a rudimentary answer to it. Then, it would be up to me to follow through. Then, no excuse!

To my mind, there are only two extreme transition scenarios. One is the Somali scenario. The state falls apart under its own incapacity to limit internal aggression. It disappears or nearly so. When the point is reached where government authority extends only three blocks from the presidential palace to the north and east, and one block from the south and east, you pretty much have a stateless society. Goal reached!

The second scenario is a gradual change from the current “democratic” arrangements. I mean by this fair and reasonably honest elections followed by a peaceful transfer of power. I mean freedom of expression. And, disturbingly, this also includes courts of law. This is disturbing because courts without enforcement of their decisions are not really courts. This fact implies the threat of coercion, of course.

Now, I can imagine a situation like right now with the Corona Virus epidemic when governments (plural) demonstrate on a large scale their inability to do the obvious. The citizens often react to this sort of demonstration by asking for better and more government. However, it does not have to be that way. The combination of wide communication through the internet and – like now – of enforced leisure – may switch the dial. It’s conceivable that large numbers will get the idea that government that is at once heavy-handed, expensive, and incapable is not a good answer to much of anything. With that scenario one can imagine a collective demand for less government.

Strangely, this sort of scenario may be on display in France now, as I write. Well, this is not so strange after all. A deeply statist society where govt absorbs 55% of GDP and up may be exactly the best place to figure out that more government is not the answer. From this thought to the idea that less government may be the answer there is but one step. My intuition though is that it’s a big step. That’s because few people understand markets. No one but a handful of college professors seems to have read the moral philosopher Adam Smith. (Tell me that I am wrong.)

So, I would like for those who are more advanced than I am on this issue of transition (a low bar) to engage me. I am not interested in the same old ethical demonstrations though. Yes, the state is an instrument of coercion and therefore, evil. I already know this. In the meantime, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States does a fair job of protecting my freedom of speech, my freedom, of thought, my freedom of religion. I am not eager to leave this behind for the complete unknown. Are you? Why? How?

Nightcap

  1. Kurds fed up with Erdogan and the PKK Fazel Hawramy, Al-Monitor
  2. Somalia’s fractious politics Anzalone & Hansen, War on the Rocks
  3. How to make anti-terrorism a misnomer Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  4. Guess the rain’s down on Titan Caleb Scharf, Life, Unbounded

What on earth was the Dervish state?

That’s the topic of my latest column at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

2. Sovereignty and suzerainty are concepts that have little to no bearing on today’s world, but perhaps they should. Prior to the end of World War II, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. became the globe’s alpha powers, suzerainty was often used by imperial powers to manage their colonies. Suzerainty is a formal recognition, by a power, of a minor polity’s independence and autonomy, and a formal recognition by the minor polity of the power’s control over its diplomatic and economic affairs. Suzerainty was used especially often by the British and Dutch (and less so by France and other Latin states, which preferred more direct control over their territorial claims), as well as the Ottoman Empire. The U.S.-led order has focused on sovereign states rather than unofficial spaces, and this has led to many misunderstandings. Somalia, which has long been a region of suzerains, is a basketcase today largely because it is approached by powers as a sovereign state.

Please, read the rest. The Dervish state was an ally of the Ottoman and German empires during World War I.

World War I: a pity

I will be dedicating many, if not most, of my columns at RealClearHistory to World War I over the next few months, mostly because it’s been 100 years since an armistice ended a war that was supposed to end all wars. Some of my thoughts will be heavy, but some, like this week’s, will be playful:

3. The Dervish state. This small state in the Horn of Africa was renowned throughout Europe and the Middle East for ably fending off challenges from Italians, the British, and the Ottomans during the roughly 25 years of its existence. The Dervish state openly resisted attempts at colonization during the Scramble for Africa and was recognized as a major ally by the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Being a small, independent state in the Horn of Africa, Dervish’s leaders played it smart and offered Ottoman and German troops assistance lightly, preferring instead to pay close attention to the realities of its allies’ war situation. When Istanbul and Berlin surrendered in 1918, no tears were shed by the Dervish. The state was conquered by the British Empire two years later, in 1920.

The piece is about some of the countries that played lesser roles in World War I. Please, read the whole thing. Any suggestions for next week’s column? (Bearing in mind that the theme is World War I.)

Should Somaliland be recognized as a state by the international “community”?

I’ve gone on record here at NOL as stating that one of the big problems facing advocates of individual liberty today is the failure of the international system to recognize calls for autonomy from sub-state actors, and that one of the best ways to do this is by counterintuitively incorporating that new autonomy into the international system in some way (you can do this by admitting such regions into the UN and other IGOs, or by admitting such regions into suprastate organizations like the United States or the European Union).

Mary Harper, a journalist writing for the BBC, has a new piece up that suggests I may be entirely wrong in my approach for a more individualistic and peaceful world:

The differences between Somalia and Somaliland raise interesting questions about recognition.

Somalia is a fully recognised country. Billions of dollars have been spent and many lives lost trying to restore a country devastated by more than a quarter of a century of conflict.

There has been some progress but there are no signs of full stability returning any time soon.

Somaliland is not recognised and does not receive much outside help. But it has built itself up from the devastation of civil war.

I first visited the territory in the early 1990s, when the capital Hargeisa had been reduced to rubble. When I returned in 2011, as I stood on a hill above the city, I was astonished is to see a whole new Hargeisa below me.

With the international gaze so firmly fixed on Mogadishu, it is unlikely Somaliland will be recognised in the near future – but that may be a blessing in disguise.

Maybe, but Somaliland’s plight could be a whole lot better, too. Imagine, for example, Somaliland joining the EU…

Calls for harsh criticism: my first (of four) graduate school statement of purpose

Note: this is my statement of purpose (SOP) for a graduate program in anthropology at Emory University. I am also going to apply to Stanford, New Mexico, and Chicago. This is only a rough draft. I have given myself plenty of time to make these perfect, so I am posting this here in order to get harsh feedback and also in case anybody ever finds himself in my position (looking online for examples). The application process consists of five parts: grades, GRE score, Letters of Recommendation, SOP, and resume. My big weaknesses are the SOP and Letters of Recommendation. Any help I could get on my SOP would be great! UPDATE (4/14): Dr Khawaja has kindly provided a forum for my other weakness, the Letters of Recommendation, over at Policy of Truth and I have been learning a lot.

I am interested in land contestations, property rights in stateless regimes, and state formation. There are two main reasons for this. First, I spent three months in the Ghanaian village of Wiamoase, a remote outpost in the Ashanti region, with a medical anthropologist who was then doing graduate work on placebo effects and shamanism at Boston University. Ghana was on the threshold of a third consecutive, coup-free presidential and parliamentary election cycle and I was able to observe how these elections were interpreted by rural Ghanaians. Two major factions figured prominently in the electoral calculations of Ghanaians: the aid-lending Global North and rival, ethnic-based domestic factions. These calculations reminded of the work done by the historian Charles Tilly on the slow rise of democracy in France and the role played in this contestation by the landowning aristocracy. I then decided to conduct an informal survey where I asked villagers whether they had more trust in the politicians of Accra or in the land-holding chiefs who leased out farmland. The unanimous response to my unscientific survey was that the trust of the villagers was in the land-holding chiefs.

Second, at Cabrillo College – a community college in central California – I did Honors research on Javanese political strategies and the Dutch colonial practices that those strategies induced. I was particularly intrigued by the narrative of condescension that dominated Western scholarship up until the 1960s, when the Javanese finally began to be depicted by (some) historians as active, willing participants in the new relationships that were formed by the arrival of European settlers. I presented the results of this research at Stanford University in 2011 as part of a Bay Area Honors consortium, where challenging feedback from professors and participants allowed me to show how this research is relevant to understanding today’s examples of both large-scale organized violence and economic development (or lack thereof).

This research was also featured, in modified form, at RealClearHistory in February of 2014. RealClearHistory is part of the RealClear online series that features work from academics, policymakers, and journalists from around the world on issues ranging from science to history to international relations. RCH also featured my articles on the limits of Japanese imperial ambitions during the Shōwa era and on the European Union’s potential for avoiding the nationalisms of the 20th century by providing inclusive outlets for separatist aspirations. The research done for these features, coupled with my electoral experience in Ghana, produced two notions of democracy in my mind: democracy as a colonial project, and democracy as a power-sharing institution; both of these notions feature prominently in Somalia, my main area of interest, today.

Building upon the work of Peter Little, states are generally taken to be a necessity because of the benefits they provide in regards to public goods. In the postcolonial context, however, states are often wielded as a bludgeon and used as an ATM machine by those who attain its levers of power. When a faction – usually ethnic- or geography-based – wins out in a postcolonial state, the other factions lose power (this is in contrast to long-established, more-or-less democratic states, where “losers” still have institutional representation in a number of ways).

Given this situation, I am interested in both the process of state formation in the postcolonial context, and in the idea of taking seriously notions of informal sovereignty – as exemplified by non-state (indigenous) cooperation at the regional and local levels of borderlands – within current internationally-sanctioned boundaries. In the course of writing my article on nationalisms and the EU, for example, I discovered that three distinct cultural cores of the world – South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka), the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti), and the European Union – have similar geographic spaces, ranging in size from 4.31 million km² to 4.482 million km². Yet within these similar geographies, the comparative number of states is stark: both the Horn of Africa and South Asia are comprised of six states each, while the European Union has nearly five times as many (twenty-eight since 2013). The GDP (PPP) per capita – a leading measurement tool used to gauge the economic health of a country – of these regions (based on 2012 IMF estimates) provides another stark insight: the EU’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at $31,018, whereas South Asia’s stands at $3,805 and the Horn of Africa’s is $1,679. These are simple but profound economic and geographic quantitative rifts that have yet to be fully explained, especially in the context of the contestation over defining democracy. Can these macro-level data, in turn, be complemented by looking at informal, cross-border market cooperation, comparative interethnic & intraethnic trading strategies, and power-sharing political institutions? More theoretically: Do these informal economies form the basis of viable states?

The pastoralists in southern Somalia offer an avenue of exploration into these questions, especially the cross-border trade between pastoralists and cattle traders in Somalia and Kenya. I am unaware of research being done on how property rights are agreed upon by the parties involved in this sector of the economy, but the quasi-corporate organizational structure of the actors in the cattle supply chain identified by Dr. Little have ample potential. While much work has been done on the destination of Somali cattle products, and on the traders who act as intermediaries between herders, sellers, and producers, the perspective of Somali herders on the regional informal economy has not been studied in depth. How does both land – as an economic factor of production – and conceptions of property rights affect pastoralists’ economic decisions and political acumen? Ethnographic accounts of herder perspectives on informal economies in general and on the supply chain of their cattle in particular can also build upon the foundations necessary for understanding larger-scale social phenomena such as state formation and neocolonial institutions.

I spent most of my time at UCLA living in an outdoor track-and-field stadium and hauling around a cardboard box with all of my belongings in it, which taught me to be determined and I only mention this because it’s good evidence that I have the perseverance necessary to pursue a doctoral degree from your program. My experience in homelessness is not limited to my time at UCLA. I was born in the cultural center of the Mormon world and, when I left that world at a relatively young age, was exposed to the sometimes harsh realities of poverty in the United States. I mention this experience because it has taught me who to pay attention to depending on what I need and what I want. The work of Peter Little on the formal and informal economies of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa has, in particular, attracted my attention, and I hope to be able to learn directly from him. David Nugent’s work on comparative state formation methods is also an area of research I would learn much from, as is the work of Michael Peletz on Islamic law and its relationship with state formation in Southeast Asia.

Around the Web

  1. A Republic of Cuckoo Clocks: Switzerland and the History of Liberty (pdf)
  2. Pastoralism in a Stateless Environment: The Case of the Southern Somalia Borderlands (pdf)
  3. The Profits of Power: Land Rights and Agricultural Investment in Ghana (pdf)
  4. Rethinking Postcolonial Democracy: An Examination of the Politics of Lower-Caste Empowerment in North India (pdf)
  5. Working Across Borders: Methodological and Policy Challenges of Cross-Border Livestock Trade in the Horn of Africa (pdf)