South Park’s ‘Safe Space’: A Parody On Stepford Students

Do you know what Stepford students are? This article by Brendan O’Neill explains:

They’re everywhere. On campuses across the land. Sitting stony-eyed in lecture halls or surreptitiously policing beer-fuelled banter in the uni bar. They look like students, dress like students, smell like students. But their student brains have been replaced by brains bereft of critical faculties and programmed to conform. To the untrained eye, they seem like your average book-devouring, ideas-discussing, H&M-adorned youth, but anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in their company will know that these students are far more interested in shutting debate down than opening it up.

Stepford students demand the ‘right to feel comfortable’. Their eyes “glazed with moral certainty”, they demand ‘safe spaces’ – spaces where no student would feel threatened or unwelcome. They seek safety from words, ideas, Zionists, ‘blurred lines’, Nietzsche etc. This new generation of students believe that self-esteem is more important than everyone else’s liberty to speak up their mind. At some universities, like Brown University, ‘safe spaces’ have been set up so that students can take refuge from ‘disturbing ideas’.

Now comes the greatest part: the concept of ‘safe spaces’ has been discussed in South Park’s latest episode. It is hilarious!

Hypocrisy!

Yes, I am alive, thank you for asking.

I have been away from this blog for two reasons. First, the little boy who hated the end of summer and going back to school is still alive and well inside the old man. I combat the corresponding end of summer melancholy by trying to cram outdoors activities into my life until the days become too short. Second, my hands hurt enough to keep me away from the keyboard most of the time. I am considering switching to one of the voice recognition softwares such as Dragon. I am not too worried about accuracy. Mostly, I don’t want to have to junk my old Samsung because of space requirements or some other software feature I don’t even know exists. I listen to advice from my betters (practically everybody in this case). Ideally – ideally – I would like a program that does more than one language.

I had much trouble writing the essay below because the topic of mass migrations has so many ramifications and because it touches so many different sensitive subjects. In a way, it’s just too rich a topic. And, the more I waited, the more complicated the situation became on the ground. Please, bear with me.

Like most or many people, I have observed with grief in my heart the fast-rolling disaster of the migrants crisis in Europe. I have several reactions, not all compatible with one another.

As I wrote, on about 9/5/15 Hungary was unaccountably preventing thousands of migrants from leaving its territory. This is strange because most of them don’t want to stay in Hungary; they want to go to Germany and to Sweden. Besides, Hungary, which is relatively poor, has a fairly big anti-immigrant political party, lots of voters who want as few immigrants inside as possible. A major Hungarian politician even declared that Hungary does not want any Muslim refugees because of its history of strife with the Ottoman Empire. Something does not add up: If you don’t want them, let them go elsewhere, even give them a lift! Later (09/14/15) Hungary built a fence to keep migrants out. Smart move!

What is confusing is that the current crisis is only in part new. We have heard for years, we have seen pictures of people drowning trying to reach the Italian island Lampedusa for a long time now. Three hundred and fifty drowned there in one 2103 day alone. This first European Union territory is only day-excursion distance from Tunisia. Several years ago, I saw pictures of hundreds of black Africans acting in concert to swamp the wall of Spanish enclaves in North Africa. The two enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are also, practically, part of the European Union. I could tell from their appearance that the fence climbers were not Syrian families but sub-Saharan Africans. Some were from Senegal, a poor but peaceful and orderly country. So, there have always been illegal emigrants to Europe motivated by the search for better economic opportunity, people who left their countries not out of desperation but drawn by hope. This first category of migrants resembles closely immigrants from Mexico, for example, who daily come into the US illegally.

So, it seems to me that there are right now two main categories of migrants (would-be immigrants) that are intermixed on the ground and on the sea and that the American press is not doing a good job of separating them, conceptually. I am possibly getting a clearer picture by superimposing on one another American and French language reports. The new migrants, a recent category – are going to Europe because they feel that they literally have no place to live. They are properly refugees; they seek refuge in an absolute sense. This is the case, no doubt, with many Syrians. Their area of origin has been destroyed by the Assad government, much of the rest of their country is aflame or under the brutal tyranny of the so-called Islamic Caliphate. The livable areas are shrinking fast. Many belong to the wrong sect and are suspected of being natural enemies irrespective of their actions or inaction. They are not welcome in the shrinking areas of livability within their country or they are unable to reach them. From interviews in both English and French and from the quality of their clothes, I deduce that a large percentage of these new migrants are solidly middle-class, well educated, with defined skills. I mean “middle-class” by my standards, not middle-class by some other, lower exotic standards. The impression is strong and clear with respects to Syrians, less so for Iraqis.

Many Syrian migrants are young men who are simply trying to escape the draft in a murderous on-going war. (The fact that they are young and male has implications for the receiving countries that I hope to consider in a related essay, following.) But migrations are always complicated. Once the path is opened by the desperate refugees just described, once bridges are built, simple economic migrants of the old style who would not have thought of moving will join the exodus. Things will not sort themselves out soon. It will become increasingly difficult to separate real refugees from traditional, conventional economic migrants. Both target principally Western countries.

The new migrants from Syria, but also from Iraq, calculate, probably correctly, that their neighbors have reached the point where they can’t or won’t take them in. Lebanon and Jordan are groaning under a disproportionate demographic burden. Two out of eight residents of Lebanon today are recent Syrian refugees. The situation is more nebulous in Jordan but the figure there appears to be about one in ten. (Think of 32 million recent refugees in the US.) Many citizens of these countries of asylum think without being able to say it aloud that the fragile political ethnic-religious equilibrium of their countries is compromised forever. Turkey says it has taken in two million Syrians. It’s not that impressive given its population of 77 million. There is a possibility it’s not just the total number of refugees that gives Turkey cold feet but the prospect that those refugees will include many Kurds from Syria whose very presence will cause more unrest among the long rebellious Turkish Kurds.

The other neighbors of Syria and Iraq, its Arab neighbors, specifically, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, seem to have given away a lot of money but they show no sign of opening their doors. It’s astonishing when you think of the ease and safety with which refugees could reach there as compared to their perilous journey to Western Europe. It’s even more interesting that there seems (seems) to be no great clamor from refugees to be admitted into these prosperous countries anyway. It appears that there is a consensus among Muslim Arabs: Muslim Arab refugees are not welcome in most Muslim Arab countries and they don’t want to go there anyway. Interesting! The new migrants, the real refugees believe, probably correctly too, that refugee camps in the Middle East lead nowhere, that they are still going to be there in twenty years. And, why not? Some Palestinian refugee camps are now reaching age seventy. Iraqis are in the same situation. Afghans who are the right kind of Muslim (Sunni) but who don’t speak Arabic don’t even try to go there. Instead, like everyone else, like Syrians and Iraqis, they head for Germany and Sweden because most of them are fluent in German or in Swedish or both. (Just a bitter joke.)

It’s not clear what the other neighbor, Iran, is doing. I am guessing it’s taking in Afghans in the east, same as it has done for twenty years. A country with a population size similar to that of Turkey – and of Germany, by the way – 78 million, appears to have opened its doors to no (zero) Syrian refugees. There are Iraqis living there but it’s always been so; it’s not a humanitarian response to the current crisis.

No one is asking why India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, with over 600 million Muslims between them, have not offered asylum to 10,000 Middle East refugees, or even to 5,000. No one even dare think the thought that China, Japan, and, of course Russia, have done nothing. The Pope has drawn attention loudly and clearly to the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. The Vatican is an independent sovereign state with the legal capability to issue visas. I have been there: There are many underused buildings and extensive gardens suitable for a tent city. The Vatican city-state already possesses all the requisite municipal services. Yet, to-date, the Vatican has taken in zero refugees although its head of state, the Pope, has urged Catholic families and parishes everywhere to open their door. Like fish, organizations rot from the head.

Notably, so far, the US has announced that it will take only 10,000 Syrians. (But in the past twenty years, the US absorbed about 70% of all defined as refugees by the UN who did find asylum. We have credibility money in the bank, so to speak.) As I write, no country of Latin America – with its surprisingly large minority of Arab descendants who enjoy much influence – has made any significant offer. Perhaps, the countries of the Western Hemisphere are too far removed from the scene of the main disaster to be prompt. We will find out in the next few days.

It’s now obvious that compassion, simple humanity is disproportionately lodged in the West, that is, in Christian and in formerly Christian societies. Not all such societies are helping but the bulk of those now helping concretely right now, except for Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey (see above) are such countries.

The refugees themselves know this, and are stalwartly heading for Western European countries – that have experienced mediocre economic growth for many years – in preference to non-European countries routinely growing at more than 6% for years. So, China and India are not taking them in which is fine because they don’t want to go there anyway. Japan has not even begun to think about it. The refugees have not asked anything from Japan. It might just as well be on another planet. Again: Refugees are trying desperately to find room in Western societies that are not even doing very well themselves, Greece, of course, but also Italy, and Spain, and France, with its rate of economic growth that may well reach 0.6 % this year, the French hope fervently. (Incidentally, it was a pleasure seeing the French Socialist government, that paragon of solidarité shamed into giving a hand by a German conservative politician. It had not lifed a finger until then. Sorry if you missed it.)

What politically correct opinion in the West does not want to say too loud is also obvious: most, almost all of the migrants are Muslims. To admit this obvious fact forces you to ask what happened. The migrant crisis is a dramatic manifestation of the widespread institutional, economic and moral failure of Muslim societies. In fact, voices of conscience in the Arab world have been more forthcoming in their remarks than have Western commentators. (And no, I am not using “Muslim” and “Arab” interchangeably. Don’t insult me, please. There may also be non-Arab Muslim voices denouncing Muslim passivity toward the crisis that I have missed. I welcome responsible additions to this essay.)

Muslim societies with one big exception (Indonesia) and several small ones (Senegal, Mauritania, etc.) have been generous in their provision of war, massacres, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities. They have mostly failed to provide work for their young. Those that don’t sit on a cushion of hydrocarbons rarely display economic growth surpassing their demographic growth. The resource rich states are well, dependent, on factors which they cannot control, on capricious facts that discourage both collective and individual planning. Only a handful, literally a handful, of Muslim countries has been able to sustain anything resembling a democracy, any form of democracy, even using the term loosely. With the exception of Indonesia again, the most stable, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, but also Algeria, are old fashioned despotic states. When it comes to charity, the care of those more unfortunate, assistance to brethren in distress, the Muslim world is a straightforward disaster although such care and such assistance are explicit moral obligations under Islam. Muslim societies are failures on most counts. Important fractions of their populations are on a perilous march seeking a new life in the Crusaders’ heartland.

The shame, the hypocrisy!

I know, I know, it must all be America’s fault. I will have to write a part two to this essay.

Larry Siedentop’s Straw Dog

I finally had the chance to finish reading Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.

download

It is a great book, and especially informative for those not well-versed in the intellectual history of political ideas within (mainly) Christian thought. The arguments starts with the Ancient traditions, to the early years of Christianity, all the way to the fifteenth century. According to Siedentop (p. 332) the main goal of the book is:

‘to show that in its basic assumptions, liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity. It emerged as the moral intuitions generated by the Christianity were turned against an authoritarian model of the church. The roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of the philosophers and canon lawyers by the 14th and 15th centuries: belief in the fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief in that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defense of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental or ‘natural rights’ and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for  a society resting on the assumption of moral equality’.

Siedentop clearly succeeds in making this point. As said, the book can be warmly recommended. The question is, however, why does he care about this issue? Siedentop (pp. 334-338) clarifies that he wants to fight the dominant idea that liberalism sprang from the Renaissance, and that liberalism almost equates secularism, or is even anti-religion, at least in the public sphere.

You do not need to be a scholar of the liberal history of ideas to raise more than a few eyebrows here. What liberalism is Siedentop taking up for argument? He is unclear about this, as he does not care to define this liberalism, nor does he provide references to liberal thinkers. That is where the trouble starts.

Undoubtedly there are some modern social-liberals who claim that liberalism is secular and that the state and lawmaking should be strictly neutral in religious terms. Arblaster in The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism even explicitly refutes any liberal traces before the Renaissance. Unclear is how dominant these voices are, especially outside academia. One thing is certain, these do not comprise classical liberals.

In the Scottish Enlightenment, in many ways the birth grounds of classical liberalism, the place of religion in life, and religion as a source of morality, was discussed. In contrast to most other thinkers, -Smith included- Hume even criticized religion, albeit most openly  after his death in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Yet to my knowledge, no thinker actually denied the role of Christianity as a source of  important ideas, certainly not the  role of individuality.

Modern writers, who are more aware of classical liberalism as a tradition do not deny this either. Let me give a few examples.

Hayek in an essay on liberalism (in New Studies in Politics, Philosophy Economics and the History of Ideas) writes that it traces back to classical antiquity and certain medieval traditions. He actually attacks ‘some nineteenth century writers’ who denied ‘that the ancient knew individual liberty in the modern sense’. In his general overview entitled Liberalism, John Gray (then still in his liberal days), also neatly points to the pre-modern and early modern times for the development of liberal ideas as we now know them. David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan pay their due respect to these older sources in A Brief History Of Liberty and the same goes for George H. Smith in The System of Liberty, and David Boaz in The Libertarian Mind.

Of course, none of them made detailed studies of these influences because their books had different purposes than Siedentop’s. Yet all deal with it in a few paragraphs or even a separate chapter, making clear to their readers that (classical) liberalism has older roots then the Renaissance, that there are important Medieval and Ancient thinkers who all left their mark on the development of (classical) liberal thought.

Siedentop wrote a great book, that unfortunately is a straw dog as well: his portrayal of ‘liberalism’ is erroneous, either deliberately or not. It denies the views of the founding and one of the main liberal variants. That is sloppy, to say the least, for such a learned and experienced scholar. With the use of these general terms Siendentop’s attack is simply off target. He should have taken far more time to define the ‘liberalism’ and the liberal scholars subjected by his attack.

Look at what just arrived in my hands

Van de Haar's "Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology"
Van de Haar’s “Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology”

It’s Dr van de Haar’s newest book, straight from the Netherlands. You can pick up your own copy here (mine was a gift from Dr V, one of the many perks of being an annoying blog editor!). He’s got more books that you can find either on his ‘About…’ page here at NOL or on the sidebar. Thanks Dr van de Haar!

I know Dr Khawaja (of Policy of Truth infamy) was thinking of getting this book reviewed for Reason Papers, too. I don’t have the training in political philosophy to do the job, but I can say, just by reading through the first couple of pages in his introduction, that I could have benefited immensely from this book if I had been introduced to it in Political Science 101.

Aside from the introduction, I also briefly read through Edwin’s section near the back of the book (pgs. 120-126) titled ‘The Neoliberal Phantom’, and believe that it would be very useful for liberals of all stripes when confronted with poorly constructed anti-liberal arguments (the geographer – NOT anthropologist – David Harvey, for example, gets the full Dutch treatment from Dr van de Haar). It should be noted that this section is probably (again, I don’t have any training in this area) a little less useful for academics confronting more sophisticated attacks against liberalism, but it’s a very good primer for intense undergraduates and graduate students who have to deal with the relentless, poorly reasoned attacks on liberalism in their studies and at seminars.

When I read the whole thing I’ll be sure to post a review here at the blog. If I get word of somebody who wants to review Dr van de Haar’s book for Reason Papers (check out what’s on tap right now, by the way), I’ll try to post the good news here, too.

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, Facts, Ideology, and the Middle East

I recently came across an excellent interview conducted by Evan Goldstein, who is the editor of Arts & Letters Daily and the Chronicle of Higher Education, with Bernard Lewis, who is an eminent historian of the Middle East from Princeton. There were three things that stood out to me in the interview: 1) the potential for ideological rigidity in academia, 2) the importance of history for analysis of recent events, and 3) the astonishing, obstinate ignorance of foreign policy ideologues when it comes to understanding enemies. Three excerpts from Goldstein’s interview with Lewis can best illustrate my points.

On the potential for ideological rigidity, Lewis – who I first came across from reading Edward Said’s infamous postmodern polemic Orientalism – has much to tell us:

Age has not mellowed Lewis, especially on the topic of the late Edward Said, whose 1978 polemic, Orientalism, upended Middle East studies and placed Lewis in the position of having to defend his scholarship against charges of racism and imperialism. Lewis vividly remembers reading Orientalism for the first time. “Apart from Said’s ill will,” he says, “I was appalled by his ignorance.” […] Lewis and Said met only once, in 1986, for a debate at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association. Dubbed the “shoot-out at the MESA corral,” the event drew 3,000 spectators. Whether or not Lewis thinks he won that day’s battle, however, he seems to be under no illusion that he lost the war.

“Middle Eastern studies in this country is dominated by the Saidians,” he says, his voice rising in indignation. “The situation is very bad. Saidianism has become an orthodoxy that is enforced with a rigor unknown in the Western world since the Middle Ages.” This groupthink, he says, taints everything: jobs, promotions, book reviews. “If you buck the Saidian orthodoxy, you’re making life very difficult for yourself.”

In 2007, Lewis and some like-minded scholars, including Fouad Ajami, of the Johns Hopkins University, founded the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. The idea, Lewis says, was to create space for opinions that deviate from the MESA mainstream, “to maintain an independent academic integrity in Middle Eastern studies.”

This is an important argument. I minored in MENAS at UCLA, which has one of the most prestigious MENAS programs in the world, and was never required to read the work of Bernard Lewis. How can this be, especially given Lewis’ towering influence on MENAS in the scholarly world? The answer is, of course, orthodoxy. Dogma. What is most disturbing about orthodoxies that gain a monopoly in a field of study is that truth becomes a political agenda rather than an aim for scholarly research. Those who, as Lewis notes, dedicate their lives to answering questions as best they can are necessarily at odds with the dogmas of the field. Postmodern Saidians have imposed the worst sort of orthodoxy, too: If you are not from the Middle East, or if you are not Muslim, then you are by default an agent – willing or otherwise – of imperial aggression and Western chauvinism. Those who question, or dismiss, Saidian insights into the Middle East and North Africa are “being political” while those who do not question Saidian insights are performing scholarly research. Can anybody else see the fallacy here?

This orthodoxy dominates MENAS scholarship. While interacting with my professors at UCLA I was given plenty of opportunities to subtly acknowledge my adherence to Saidism. I did not. I did not question Saidianism, either. I only expressed an innocent desire to gain insights into the work of the guy called out so often in Orientalism, Bernard Lewis. I was told, on numerous occasions, that Lewis had not been read, though of course it never hurts to gain the other side’s perspective. Could the orthodoxy Lewis identifies and assails be any clearer? (Here is the website to Lewis’ Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, by the way.)

Aside from vehemently disagreeing with the patron saint of MENAS, Lewis has also gained notoriety for his connection to the second Bush administration’s illegal invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. I don’t want to get into the details of his participation here (Goldstein does a good job of that in the interview itself, and I actually lost a little bit of respect for Lewis because of his evasive answers to Goldstein’s questions about his relationship with the Bush administration), but his insights into how the Middle East actually works should be of particular interest to libertarians and especially libertarians who sometimes read me for my quirky (even by libertarian standards) take on American foreign policy. Careful readers can hopefully recognize my overall argument in Lewis’ intricate understanding of the Middle East:

His disagreement with the Bush administration, he explains with a sigh, was not over the goal (regime change), but the tactic (full-scale invasion). Lewis says he argued for recognizing the leadership in northern Iraq as the country’s legitimate government and arming those forces if necessary. In the decade since the first Persian Gulf war, he says, Kurds and Arabs had managed to build a nascent democracy under the protection of the no-fly zone.

“That was the way to do it,” he says. “Simply to invade was the wrong way to do it, and I thought so and said so at the time.” Why didn’t he speak out before the invasion? “I didn’t feel at that crucial moment that it was right to take a public stance against the war.”

Aside from his inability to own up to his mistaken support for the Bush administration (or making his opposition to its policies public), Lewis is spot on. Look at what he is saying, and remember that his analysis is sharpened by a lifetime of prestigious scholarship on the Middle East: the West should have recognized that the illegitimate borders of Iraq had produced differing modes of governance in different regions, and that it would be morally acceptable to recognize the claims of sovereignty then being shouted out by the peoples of northern Iraq.

I am not even in the same ballpark as Lewis when it comes to understanding the Middle East. He is a retired-but-prestigious historian from Princeton; I am a potential graduate student with a B.A. from UCLA; yet he and I have come to the same conclusion, and it’s not hard to see why (it is also worth asking yourself the following question: Is Lewis right?):

  1. The Middle East is a region of the world with lots of different cultures (this is a truth that many foreign policy experts flatly ignore).
  2. The borders drawn up by the victors of World War I do not line up with these cultures anywhere in the Middle East, save perhaps Saudi Arabia.
  3. These artificial borders, and the international governing institutions that sanctify them, make necessary the presence of a strong man to keep these borders from collapsing.
  4. Since strong men are bad, and bottom-up institutions are good, it makes perfect sense – from a realist perspective and from an idealist perspective – for the West to recognize and incorporate the claims of sovereignty made by these bottom-up, nascent states.
  5. Invading and occupying a country, with the goal of molding it into a democracy, is a stupid idea because…
  6. …democracy cannot do for artificial states what strong men can: namely, keep borders in place without affecting the regional balance of power.

Yet the power balancers, and the realists who think that strong men serve Western interests better than democracies do, cannot adequately explain why these same strong men are so hard to control, and indeed often end up as enemies of the West (Saddam Hussein, anyone?). Lewis’ scholarship explains this well. The ideologues – the Western chauvinists and the postmodern Saidians – cannot explain this or, more likely, are unable to explain this because it flatly debunks their dogmas.

Speaking of dogmas, I have given too much attention to the orthodoxy currently strangling MENAS programs around the world, and not enough to those harbored by Western chauvinists. Goldstein reports:

Lewis pulls a Russian book off the shelf and slowly reads his name, in Cyrillic, on the cover. He smiles. His books have been translated into 29 languages. The Middle East and the West, published in 1964, was even translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lewis is particularly fond of that edition’s preface: “I don’t know who this person is,” the translator wrote, “but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy, and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.” Lewis chuckles at that.

There is a common trope in many conservative Western circles that Islamists are so beholden to ideology and hatred of all things Western that they are incapable of understanding other modes of thought. Yet it is very clear from this excerpt that Islamists are interested in understanding other ideologies. Islamists, like socialists in the West, are more interested in molding better human beings than in making us freer. Instead of acknowledging this, many experts in foreign policy circles simply pretend that their opponents are savages and incapable of thinking like a true civilized individual. This mindset, too, contributes to the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

The West has a role to play in the Middle East. If it wants to reduce violence and raise standards of living, then policymakers in Washington and Brussels need to accept the fact that their conceptions of the Middle East have largely been shaped by dogma. Muslims are capable of doing bad things. So are Westerners. The West needs to support bottom-up decentralization in the Middle East until it is no longer possible to distinguish a West from a Middle East or, at least, until the West and the Middle East are as similar as Texas and California (or Germany and France). Until policymakers realize that the Middle East’s autocrats are a direct result of central planning efforts made elsewhere, and until MENAS scholars own up to the fact that their dogmas do more harm than good, peace and prosperity will elude the region.

Around the Web

  1. “It is a Strict Law That Bids Us Dance”: Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch, 1849 to 1922 (pdf)
  2. Prime Factors
  3. Competitive Displays: Negotiating Genealogical Rights to the Potlatch at the American Museum of Natural History (pdf)
  4. Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis (pdf)
  5. Do Muslims Belong in the West?

Barbarian Liberty and Civilisation in Homer

Following from my last two posts, this will explore the sort of ‘barbarian’ liberty that Tacitus recognised in his time, that is of the early Roman empire, and was further explored by Montesquieu and Humboldt in the eighteenth century in relation to the poetry of Homer. ‘Homer’ here refers to two Greek epic poems attributed to him, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which had a very large presence not only in Greek culture, but in Roman culture which produced a kind of sequel in Latin, The Aeneid of Virgil, a very major work in its own right deserving of separate consideration.

As already indicated Homer shows us warriors of extreme destructive ferocity, who consider it normal and admirable to destroy enemy cities, taking slaves, and collecting loot as well as killing without mercy. A reasonable immediate reaction to that from a liberty supporting point of view is that this is the opposite of what liberty is about, that liberty oriented thought treats  unprovoked violence as the prime evil. Without denying any of that, the kind of violence that the Homeric Heroes engage in is part of a social bond within which voluntary co-operation of some sorts. Here I am referring to heroes not just in the sense of the main protagonists of a story, but the semi-divine status they are accorded in Homer, and by implication which is accorded to them in Mycenaean (late Bronze Age) Greece, where these stories originate.

The Homeric world is one in which there is trade and commerce, but it is regarded as less ‘honourable’ than Heroic violence, including piracy and physical destruction of cites. What this refers to, in fictionalised and poetic ways, is a world of weak enforcement of rules about property and individual security from violence outside small compact communities. Trade is clearly hazardous, running risks of the piracy referred to and maybe trading valuables of a kind acquired by violence, including slaves. Wealth is to a very large degree understood to consist of what can be seized or occupied through violence, including land, livestock and metal objects, rather than the less tangible and physically identifiable wealth of commercial life.

The value of ‘Heroic’ violence is then understandable in a world where there is very limited understanding of forms of wealth and security arising from relations of mutual advantage and respect for rules that apply to more than a small community and maybe its intimate contacts in other communities. Individual achievement and excellence is then understood in very large part as striving for excellence in war, and maybe in associated activities such as competitive sports which may suit strong aggressive warriors, and in which valuables looted in war or even originating with the gods (presumably a metaphoric poetic way of referring to the skilled workers in metal, leather, and precious stones that only the ‘Hero’ class could employ) may be awarded as prizes.

What this picture is building up is the importance of excellence and competition in the Homeric warrior society, and which continues into later stages of ancient Greek society, certainly up to the great cultural achievements and experiments with political liberty and democracy in Athens of the fifth century BCE. Of course the Homeric poetry maybe to a large degree reflects the growth of that culture of individual excellence and competition between whatever tales of Bronze Age wars are the starting point of the oral poetic tradition that leads to Homer and the writing down of the poems as we know them.

The Iliad begins with a story of extreme personal anger at an insult to honour in which the greatest Greek hero, Achilles, withdraws from the war. This is one aspect of the individualistic competitive nature of the warrior culture in Homer and while it is a classic case of uncontrolled temper which threatens social bonds, it is  also a classic case of the growth of individuality. Achilles’ rage is the product of self-awareness of individuality and demands for respect of that individuality, which Achilles directs at someone with some claim to authority over him, Agamemnon the most powerful of the many kings ruling different parts of Greece, and the leader of the Greek league against Troy.

Achilles’ rage does not easily decline and is even increased when the Trojan hero Hector kills his best friend Patroclus. Achilles shows ‘barbaric’ cruelty in not only killing Hector himself, an inevitable response in this world, but in denying Hector’s body a funeral, even throwing it in the dust to decay and be eaten by wild animals. The greatest horror of the Homeric Heroes is to suffer such indignities in death, which are also an attack on the honour and welfare of family and of the community of that dead Hero. In the end, however, Hector’s father, King Priam of Troy, is able to persuade Achilles to return Hectors body and reflect on their shared experience of mourning for loved ones.

What we have in The Iliad is a kind of brutal but real individuality, which at least elevates warriors as individuals above a mass of identical individuals in a collective killing machine. The fierce kind of individuality which leads Achilles to rage at insults to his honour and the death of his friend also shows a capacity to judge wisely in disputes as in Achilles’ way of handling the games which are part of the funeral of Patroclus, and a capacity for empathy with the extreme emotions of others. That is Achilles shows a barbaric strength of warrior individualism and a growth of understanding of impartially administered justice and empathy with the sufferings of others, including his enemies. So we see that ‘barbarian liberty’ encompasses justice within the community and respect of some kind for the individual suffering of others, basic prerequisites for the development of a society in which individual liberty can flourish.

Next week the development of heroic individualism in the character of Odysseus and in The Odyssey.

More on Liberty and Homer: Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Humboldt

As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.

The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.

The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and most relevantly in this instance through the continuation of Homer in the greatest latin epic, Aeneid, which links Rome with the Trojan prince Aeneas. As I pointed out before here, Tacitus’ idea of barbarian liberty strongly influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748, a work I will be posting on in future), whose view of liberty in modern Europe, in brutal but meaningful summary, was of a combination of Roman law and Germanic individualism.

Montesquieu was of course a great part of Classical Liberalism and we can follow up his interest in barbaric liberty with reference to other classical liberals. David Hume and Adam Smith, who were writing after Montesquieu, tended to write on ‘barbarism’ and a related idea of ‘savagery’ with some anxiety regarding the possibility that such societies, or societies closer to that stage than those European nations where civil society had advanced the most, might overwhelm commercial legalistic nations with their unrestrained force.

However, some element of respect for liberty in the most simple societies does manifest itself at times, but mostly through an interest in the earliest stages of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity, which in Montesquieu’s thinking come between the Germanic individualism and the late Roman legalism. Tacitus was thinking of the ‘virtue’ (in the sense of patriotic courage and love of law) of the early Romans when addressing the courage, rough individuality, and fierce independence of the Britons and Germans.

The most interesting way of linking back from Enlightenment liberalism of the Eighteenth century, for me at least, is via Wilhelm von Humboldt, a thinker I will address in at least one dedicated post in future. Humboldt’s major contribution to political thought, The Limits of State Action, was written in the 1790s, so another generation on from Montesquieu, just after Smith and Hume.

At this point, we might think of a movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in European thought. While we should be very careful about such general distinctions, and amongst other things not engage in simplistic oppositions, it is appropriate to think of Humboldt as belonging to a phase of interest in the history and current meaning of aesthetics, literature, culture, and language as part of the study of political ideas.

He was in fact a major thinker about language and the infinite capacities inherent in the combinatory nature of language, which was part of his thinking about individual human capacity and the power of voluntary co-operation.

It is the interest in aesthetics, language, culture, historical existence, and the capacity of the inner human which makes him ‘Romantic’ rather than ‘Enlightened’, though again we should avoid stereotype and simple opposition here. Humboldt was very much not against Enlightenment respect for reasons, and some of these ‘Romantic’ themes are in ‘Enlightenment’ texts.

One of the earlier big classics of Enlightenment, The New Science (1725, 1744) by Giambattista Vico, is a good example and that is a book giving great importance to Homer. Vico is someone else who merits at least one dedicated post, so there will be more about him at some point. I am not aware of any evidence that Humboldt read Vico, but he certainly made an impression on German thinkers of the time.

Anyway, Humboldt was a learned classicist from a philological and literary way, which has an impact on his idea of how liberty was strengthened in antiquity, which compensated for the tendency of the ancient state to interfere in the soul, as Humboldt thinks of antique laws and institutions to promote moral and religious traditions.

What compensates for this pressure on liberty is the struggle in the lives of ancient humans, which has two main aspects. First the struggle with nature to have enough food and shelter to preserve life. Second the military struggle with rival states and communities, which was a very frequent experience in antiquity, and was an aspect of the history of the early Greek and Roman republics.

The best place to look for that in antique sources is Homer, because of the breadth of the Homeric world, as well as its poetic qualities, as well as its enormous influence on Greek and Roman culture. I had meant to address how the kind of struggle which can promote some kinds of liberty does appear in Homer, but this post is already long enough, and the best thing is to address Homer directly in the next post.

In the meantime, careful reading of any of the translations in books and post on websites, of The Iliad and The Odyssey (or indeed the original Greek for those fortunate enough to have that linguistic capacity), should I hope provide material to confirm what I’m suggesting.

From the Footnotes: Ignorance of Islam and of the Decentralization of Power

There are widespread calls for an Islamic reformation such as Christianity experienced in the sixteenth century, but the Reformation cleaved Christianity into two major traditions and many splintered sects; each grew independently of the others, eroding any hope of a Christian center that could rein in extremes. After its early division into Sunni and Shi’a, Islam has come to suffer enough from this segmentation without a modern reformation. Indeed, Islam is a democratic religion, so thoroughly decentralized that even muftis are elected. Many Muslims are interested not in further schisms but rather in reconciliation among the competing doctrines and their extremist messengers, ultimately reducing the violence carried out against each other and other civilizations. As Gilles Kepel argues, though the rise of militant Islamism has been spectacular, its hyperviolence has proved to be a liability rather than an asset. (243)

This is from Parag Khanna’s 2008 book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. This footnote is in most respects a microcosm of the book as a whole: it’s on the cusp of providing theoretical insight into how the world works but just can’t seem to shake a certain type of dogma associated with the technocratic Left (I think he has done a better job of shaking this dogma post-2008).

This footnote is also in most respects why I’ll never be a Leftist again, even as a sleek, trade-friendly technocrat.

This footnote says to me that Khanna is arguing for a hands-off approach to Islam on the part of the West. Khanna is saying that Islam does not need a Christianity-style reformation. So far, so good. Khanna and I are in agreement. Then he goes off his rocker, though, by arguing that Christianity (and by implication European society) became a net loser because there was no Christian center to temper extremists.

What?

Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t Christian Europe have higher standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values today than anywhere else in the Old World? And isn’t Christian Europe the one place in the Old World where it is awfully hard to find Christian religious extremists? Wouldn’t you have a better argument if you stated that is was the lack of a Christian center which has been responsible for the dramatic increase in standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values in the West?

Maybe Khanna is thinking of medieval Europe, with its devastating series of religiously-inspired wars, but somehow I don’t think this is the case.

The Muslim world is decentralized culturally (like Europe) and is trying to decentralize politically (again, like Europe). The political decentralization is being hastened by trade liberalization and global economic integration. This same decentralization is being resisted by the international order (including, especially, Russia and China) due to nefarious but understandable interests of state but also to the severe lack of understanding that Western intellectuals like Khanna have of social organization. A center of cultural or political or economic power does not guarantee a waning of extremes. In fact, in some cases (in most?) such a center of power actually contributes to extremes.

Khanna was so blinded (and, again, I think he’s changed his tune post-2008) by technocratic Left-wing theory that he could not see what he was arguing: that a decentralized Christianity gave rise to Europe as we know it, therefore the West should step back so that the Muslim religion can build a monolithic consensus in order to combat “extremes.” Am I mischaracterizing Khanna’s footnote? Am I knocking down a straw man?

Khanna’s latest stuff has been much better than what I found in his 2008 book. He still doesn’t go far enough, though. He needs to undertake Brandon-style libertarianism in order to really be a bad ass: let the process of decentralization happen, but (but) recognize new states where it is smart and safe to do so (Kurdistan? The Islamic State? Baluchistan?) and then integrate them into the imperfect but important international order that the West has slowly been building for the last hundred years or so.

Khanna’s incoherence on geopolitical matters is not limited to interesting footnotes. Check out what he wrote in the introduction (again, this is from 2008):

Many believe that the emerging world order is polycentric: China will remain primarily a regional power, Japan will assert itself more nationalistically, the EU will lack influence beyond its immediate region, India will rise to rival China, Russia will resurge, and an Islamic Caliphate will congeal as a geopolitical force. (xviii)

This is basically what has happened so far, and it largely falls in line of where I would bet my money (but not place my dreams) on future events (the Muslim world excepted; see above). Khanna has none of it though:

All these views ignore a much deeper reality: The United States, the European Union, and China already possess most of the total power in the world. (xviii)

I think this argument, if anything, reveals Khanna’s (and, by implication, the technocratic Left’s) authoritarian impulses and desires. The United States is the world’s sole hegemon, and it will be for a long, long time. The EU is a basketcase and China’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at Intl$ 11,907 in 2013, just below the Dominican Republic, Serbia, the world average, and Iraq. Khanna’s inclusion of the EU – with the social democratic values that technocratic Leftists mistakenly believe Europe harbors – and China – an ode to both the condescending identity politics of the same technocratic Left and its fixation with centrally-planned but privately-run enterprises (“corporatism”) – in the troika of world powers illustrates nicely the weaknesses of the Left.

Khanna’s dogma gets him in more trouble (still on the same introductory page):

Russia, Japan, and India cannot assert themselves globally, militarily or otherwise […] In fact, they are being gradually outmaneuvered by the United States, the EU, and China in their own regions. (xviii)

Don’t cry for Khanna. Last time I checked, he was on the board of several prominent think tanks.

Khanna’s best chapter is on the Middle East (it starts with a useful map on p. 168 and ends on p. 253). His treatment of post-Soviet Europe is laughable (“Ukraine: From Border to Bridge”) and his treatment of China (“Asia”) is overly laudable. India gets just three dismissive pages.

Would I recommend reading it?

Yeah, sure. I like the concept of “second world” that Khanna tries (but fails) to convey. I like the way he thinks and his post-2008 work is especially good. There are a lot of facts that aren’t really facts in the book though, and he applies those facts to theories that I think are weak at explaining how the world works. Then again, when has reading a book ever hurt you?

Mexican Underdevelopment: Pop-Sociology

It’s six a.m., I am sipping my first cup of coffee on the small balcony near the tall coconut tree. It’s still dark but I can see a short stocky woman sweeping the ground of the open space in front of the hotel next door. Right away, I detect that something is wrong in the picture although I am not fully awake. The broom the woman is using is too short, its straw end is frayed. She is bending over more than should be necessary; some of her energy is being misspent because she pushes harder than she would have to with a newer broom. No big deal! Except…

Mexico is the kind of country where the dentist kisses you when you leave. (This particular dentist is a pretty willowy blonde.) Perhaps, Mexico is the only country of its kind. I don’t know; I have not been everywhere. No American dentist has ever attempted this maneuver on me, or on my attractive wife either. I have avoided French dentists since 1960. A dentist in Morocco once gave me a root canal with no anesthesia whatsoever. I forgave him long ago but I wouldn’t let him kiss me if you paid me. The universal amiability of Mexicans might color everything I say below. You are warned.

I just spent three weeks in Mexico, in the pleasant resort city of Puerto Vallarta. With a population of 250,000, it does not feel much larger than Santa Cruz, California with its population 4/5 smaller. Still it’s large enough to be considered a real place, not a boutique resort. I was staying in a small hotel on the beach, of course, which limits observation. But my wife and I did most of our own cooking and therefore, we had to shop often in an ordinary supermarket located in an ordinary commercial center. This is important as a kind of regular and forced immersion into normal local life. We did not have a car so, we took taxis several times a day. This is important too because cab drivers everywhere are a rich fount of information if you manage to steer them from small talk. Yes, I know Spanish, and not only in my imagination as described in my masterful “Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America” (if I say so myself) but for real. I understand everything that is said to me in that language; I am able to eavesdrop on conversations between strangers; I can read the newspaper; I listen to television news without effort.* In brief, I was in a reasonable good position to observe, interpret and ask questions.

This stay in Mexico was like a refresher course on a topic that occupied me professionally for about twenty-five years: Why some countries are poorer than others. (When you begin thinking seriously about this simple question, you quickly discover that the plausible answers are numerous and complex.) I used to do it in a rigorous, quantitatively based manner, estimating statistical models and the like. This time, I am indulging myself frankly in pop-sociology. It does not imply any rejection of my past endeavors.

Comparisons between the way things are done in Mexico and in the US come naturally because the surface similarities between there and here are obvious. Mexicans want what we want and they work openly for it and, in time, they get it. Material progress usually takes a familiar American form, from shopping malls to cineplexes, to the Discovery Channel…, you name it.

Mexico’s GDP per capita is less than one third of the American equivalent (about USD 16,500 vs 52,000, Purchasing Power Parity, a formulation which makes the two figures comparable) Mexico is a poor country but not one of the poorest by a long shot. Why would it be poor?

Mexicans are not a short on entrepreneurial spirit. Every nook and cranny shelters a business of sorts. I enter a tiny corner shop in a non-touristy part of town selling I don’t know what. A toddler sleeps on a blanket on the cold floor. (It’s hot.) Against one wall, three cramped stalls offer Internet access. The owner, the toddler’s father, tells me he is opened from 7 am to 10 pm. He charges me forty cents to recharge my cellphone battery, not an especially low price considering his cost and the little labor involved. There are restaurants everywhere, also far from the tourist tracks. Some have only four tables. Most are still empty at 8 pm. Two social mechanisms seem at work. One is simple mimicry: The guy across the street has one. What does he know about birria that I don’t know? The other is a version of the Chinese eating place economic rationale: If people don’t come to dine here, my family can always eat the food; I have many children anyway. Nothing is going to go to waste. The economic risk is small. It can’t hurt. Perhaps, rents are low because there is not much  alternative use for the relevant spaces.

Food is everywhere anyway. If someone goes hungry in Mexico, it’s somewhere else. Yet, food prices are low but not very low. Rice is cheap, avocados are cheap; apples are the same price as in California perhaps because they come from afar. This is an undeveloped capitalism, with poor infrastructures; moving foodstuff is still expensive. A cup of reasonable good coffee costs USD 1,40; that’s probably more than in an Arkansas diner. That’s what it means to be poor: Your money does not reach very far.

Three facts of possible economic relevance strike you quickly; two are concrete and easy to verify; the third is intangible, or kind of unsubstantial, but that does not make it irrelevant. First, nearly every shop is overstaffed by a significant factor. That’s easy to see when people perform identical jobs with identical technologies as in the US. There are twice or more salesladies in the clothing area of a department store as there would be in KMart, the perennially failing chain. In the butcher section of the supermarket, employees are waiting for you. That’s nice but it’s probably superfluous. I could wait two minutes instead, so could Mexican housewives. In the restaurants that actually have some business, the waitpersons (waiters and waitresses ) seem to be spending most of their time standing still.

The second observation concerns low individual productivity. It’s not that Mexicans don’t work hard. In Mexico as in the US, Mexicans are remarkable for working hard for long hours. They seem to know no coffee breaks and little even by way of lunch breaks. The problem is that you see everywhere people doing work for which they have received little or no training. I watched with increasing fascination, several times a day, a laborer failing to finish a simple brick path. He did not manage to complete in three days what I am ready to bet an American bricklayer would have done in less than a day. (Yes, I know something about bricklaying too.) That’s a big productivity differential. Even the pharmacists filling my prescriptions seemed hesitant. They did not exude the authority of American pharmacists with an advanced education. Since Mexicans in general rarely lack in personal authority and, by elimination, I am forced to hypothesize that my pharmacists where just sort of learning their job as they went along.

Incidentally, I have reasons to believe that this shortage of training does not extend to superior occupations: Mexican doctors and Mexican engineers are not inferior to their American counterparts, I am guessing. (The fast development of medical tourism into Mexico from both the US and Canada testifies to the quality of the former, I think.)

The third observation, which I called intangible is difficult to render, of course. It’s almost only an impression but one that is redundantly encountered. The information dispensed by the conventional Mexican media seems very thin. The nightly news program on major channel serves poor fare as compared to the Spanish language but American Univision. If there are new or substantive programs on radio, I have not discovered them. (I may very well have missed such.) I mean that I almost missed National Public Radio there ( a difficult admission for me, obviously). Whether you read the daily newspaper or not does not make much difference in your level of information. Here is a test case.

On a weekend day, there is a massive protest march in Mexico City. The demonstration is to protest the disappearance of 43 young people from the same teachers school. Everyone except their parents knows they have been murdered. The demonstration is both very large and quite orderly as compared to anything of the same kind in the US. The police uses tear gas but only sixty people are arrested. There is no mention of anyone seriously hurt.

I buy the Sunday version of what has been designated to me as the best national daily newspaper in the country (“El Excelsior“). A description of the demonstrations and photographs cover the front page, as you would expect. The two innermost pages are devoted to the same events. In addition to eyewitness accounts are included serious interviews of government officials, of protest march organizers and of several pundits. I make myself read every word. At the end, I have learned close to nothing and I have no new perspective on the crime, sociologically, politically or otherwise. I just get confirmation of the fact that the mayor of the town where the young men disappeared and his wife have been arrested. I turn to the “global” page and get a reading of events in Iraq and Syria that I would probably not understand absent my previous familiarity based on American media. In three weeks, I see and hear not a single reference to President Obama’s executive order concerning illegal immigrants about half of whom are of Mexican origin.

I think that Mexicans, including well-educated Mexicans, are not well informed unless the Internet makes up for the obvious deficiencies of the conventional press, which is hard to believe. I would be hard put to explain how this affects Mexican economic development except that it may result in a blindness to new economic opportunities. Mexican entrepreneurs dedicate themselves to old pursuits or they imitate the gringo model late and imperfectly, perhaps (perhaps). Even where a Mexican industry has experienced notable global success such as the brewery industry, it did not innovate much, if at all. No innovation, no temporary super-profits, no generous wages (as we see in Silicon Valley, for example). This is all speculation. Others may have written on the relationship between the general level of information of a population and its overall productivity and it may have escaped my attention or, I may have forgotten it. Maybe readers will come to my rescue on this.

So, here you have it: skimpy training of ordinary workers, inferior tools, a poor physical infrastructure, an under-informed populace, together make for much lower gross productivity than what we are used to in the US. But, overall, in a sort of rough way, wages follow productivity. Mexican workers produce little and they get paid accordingly little. Note that the same factors of poverty interact with one another: Low pay encourages the hiring of a surfeit of workers; modestly paid workers may not be perceived as deserving good tools; an underdeveloped infrastructure buffers business decision-makers from all kinds of competition, including competition for workers, thereby keeping wages lower than they need be. Workers may not be well informed enough to struggle for higher wages. And, of course, workers with low pay make poor consumers. Among other things, they fail to fill the restaurants their entrepreneurially inclined neighbors open for them.

By now, you may wonder why something is missing from this story. I mean corruption, small corruption and especially, big corruption. Two reasons for this absence. The first is that, naturally, corrupt behavior is not readily amenable to casual observation. The second reason is that I am not convinced that corruption of any kind goes much way toward explaining Mexican underdevelopment.

Low level corruption first. In Mexico, it’s common to deal with an ordinary traffic transgression by asking the policeman who stopped you to pay the fine on your behalf because “I am too busy, sorry.” I am told that any amount of cash close to half of the amount of the official fine will do the trick. This sort of practice pervades Mexican life, I am still told. (I have not had a personal experience of it for twenty years myself.) It’s not clear to me that it has any relation to underdevelopment. In the above example, what is basically a tax gets diverted from the government to private pockets. Likewise, when building permits are sold by building inspectors rather than earned and deserved, a relaxation of anti-growth regulations takes place, doesn’t it ?

I don’t know, incidentally, that there is much private corruption in Mexico. I must have taken more than sixty taxis while I was in Puerto Vallarta. They have no meters but rates are fixed by zone. Only one tried to take me, for about USD 3. That’s an extremely low hit rate as compared to say, New York City.

Now, on to big-time corruption. By its nature, it’s hard to observe except if you read the paper carefully and with great, diligent constancy. (See above.) Here is one possible case that came to my attention while I was in Mexico. A big house on a golf course comes up for sale for USD 1.5 million. The seller is a police official described to me as not very high on the totem pole. Someone I know makes an offer. The asking price shrinks to USD 750,000 if he will pay cash. How did a police official get his hands on that house? Did he inherit a pile of money from his father, from a rich aunt? By insisting on cash, is he simply trying to avoid taxes or does he have a more sinister reason? I don’t know and here again, I am not sure it matters. Perhaps, it does in relation to the accumulation of capital; I wouldn’t know which way though.

People of libertarian inclination have to choose: If government is inimical to happiness in general and to economic prosperity in particular then, the suspension of government efficacy, as with corrupt government practices, must be for the better. Or, another, more benign theory of government must be developed.

* If you wonder at my linguistic prowess, don’t. First, Spanish is a dialect of Latin, like French, my native language. Second, I have been studying Spanish for a straight sixty years. It stands to reason that I have made some progress.

Why Republican Libertarianism? IV

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

(I took a break from posting this over the holiday period when I presume some people are checking blogs, rss feeds, and the like, less than at other times of the year. Catch up with the three previous posts in the series, if you missed them, via this link.)

The most important advice Machiavelli gives with regard to maintaining the state, is to respect the lives and honour of subjects, refrain from harassing women, avoid bankrupting the state with lavish expenditures, uphold the rule of of law outside the most extreme situations,  and concentrate on military leadership, which is to turn monarchy into a hereditary command of the armies, a republican idea, if the monarch withdraws from other areas of state business and certainly from law making. That is certainly how John Locke, at the beginning of classical liberalism saw the role of kings.

It is true that unlike antique thinkers, Machiavelli does not see human nature as essentially ‘good’, at least when guided by reason and law. What those thinkers meant by good was a life of self-restraint difficult to make compatible with commercial society. Machiavelli understood the benefits of commercial society compared with feudalisms, and though there was an element of antique nostalgia in his thinking, he understood like the political economists of the eighteenth century that public goods come from self-interest, softened but not eliminated, by some sense of our connections and obligations to others.

Machiavelli’s longest book on political thought is The Discourses, a commentary on the Roman historian Livy’s account of the earlier periods of Roman history, covering the early kings and the republic. Here Machiavelli makes clear beyond any doubt that his model state was a republic and though it was Rome rather than Athens, he takes the original step of seeing Rome as great not because of Order, but because of the conflicts between plebeians and patricians (the poor or at least non-noble masses and the aristocracy), which resulted in a democratisation process where the plebeians learned to think about the common good and where everyone shared in a constructive competitiveness which developed individual character through civic conflict under law (well a large part of the time anyway). His view of the republic requires both a sphere of common political identity and action and a competitive non-conformist spirit.

Machaivelli’s republican hopes for Florence, and even the whole of Italy, were dashed by the Medici princes and a period of conservative-religious princely absolutism under foreign tutelage in Italy, but his ideas lived on and not just in the one sided stereotypes. He had an English follower in the seventeenth century, James Harrington, author of Oceana. Harrington hoped for republic in England, though a more aristocratic one that Machiavelli tended to advocate, and was too radical for his time, suffering imprisonment during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of a republican revolution who became a new king in all but name. There was a British republic, or commonwealth, after the Civil War between crown and parliament, lasting from 1649 to 1652, which was then not exactly absolved but became a less pure republic when Cromwell became Lord Protector.

Even so the republican poet, John Milton, served Cromwell as a head of translation of papers from foreign governments. Milton is more famous as a poet than as a political thinker, nevertheless he wrote important essays on liberty, drawing on antique liberty in Greece and Rome, as well his republican interpretation of the ancient Jewish state (important to Milton as a deep religious believer whose most famous poems are on Biblical stories). Milton helped change English literary language, almost overshadowing the ways that he furthered republican political ideas and did so on the basis of an Athenian model of law and free speech. His defence of freedom of printing, Areopagotica is named in honour of the central court of Athenian democracy (though with older roots) and draws on the idea of a republic based on freedom of speech and thought. Both Milton and Harrington were major influence on the Whig aristocratic-parliamentary liberalism of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth and so feed directly into classical liberalism in practice and the defence of liberty of speech and thought to be found in Mill’s On Liberty.

The development of classical liberalism and the libertarian thought of the present come out of the republicanism of antiquity and the early modern period. There is a strand of thought within libertarianism which is anti-politics or only minimally willing to engage with politics as a part of communal human life. However, the parts of the world where liberty is most flourishing, if far short of what we would wish for, are where there ‘republics’ in the original sense, that is political power is shared between all citizens, regardless of the issue of whether a royal family provides a symbolic head of state.

On the whole, historically commerce has been linked with the existence of republics, even within monarchist medieval and early modern England the City of London was a partly autonomous city republic focusing resistance to royal power as it protected its commercial gains from state destruction. Despotism, and the state that plunders civil society, wish for a depoliticised atomised society. Republican politics can go wrong, but the answer is republican reform, republics with less of the aspects of absolutist monarchy and traditionalist power structure, not an idealisation of states which exist to preserve and reinforce forms of authority obnoxious to open markets, individuality, equality before the law, and the growth of tolerance for forms of living not so well recognised by tradition.

Why Republican Libertarianism? III

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

There is a gap between ancient Athens and classical liberalism, and covering that gap will explain more about the development from antique republics to modern liberty. The trio of major antique republican thinkers mentioned above, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, sets up the tradition. They establish the idea of the best state – polity/politea in Greek, republic/res publica in Latin – as one of hearing political power between groups in the context of shared citizenship and decision making.

For Aristotle, that is the sharing of power between oligarchs (the rich, in practice those wealthy through commerce), aristocrats (the virtuous, in practice the educated land owning classes) and the poor majority. Polybius was a later Greek thinker who admired the Roman republic and Cicero was a Roman aristocrat-philosopher from the last years before the republic gave way to the one-man emperor rule system.

Both use arguments from Aristotle but tend to refer to Sparta rather than Athens as the ideal republic, which indicates the difficulties for antique thought in accepting a commercial and free thinking republic as model. Polybius and Cicero both admire the Roman system because they see it as based on law and on sharing power between the people (citizens’ assembly), the aristocracy (senate), and a monarchical function shared between two year-long co-rulers (consuls).

Their arguments also rest on the idea of the state as military camp. It is interesting to note that Pettit the egalitarian liberal prefers this Roman model to Athens and that Arendt prefers the Athenian model. This suggests that Arendt has something to say to classical liberals and libertarians, though she is rarely taken up within that group, and that egalitarian liberalism is rather caught up in strong state ideas, the state strong enough to force redistribution of economic goods rather than impose extreme military spirit on its citizens, but a strong intervening state.

All three of the ancient republican thinkers had difficulty with the idea of a commercially orientated republic and has some idea of virtue in restraining wealth, though Cicero in particular was staggeringly rich suggesting that ancient republican thought had some difficulty in accommodating commercial spirit, more so than some ancient republics in practice.

There is one major step left in ancient republican thinking which is the account the senator-historian Tacitus, of the early Roman Emperor period, gives of liberty in the simple tribal republics of ancient Germans and Britons. He sees them as based on independence of spirit and a willingness to die for that independence, in a way largely lacking amongst the Romans of that time.

The admiration for such ‘barbarian’ liberty also gives some insight into the difficulty of combining commercial spirit with republicanism in ancient thinking. Wealth is seen as something tied to benefits from the state, state patronage, so reduces independence of the state whether the local state or a foreign invading state.

Republicanism takes the next great step forward when some way of thinking of wealth as existing at least partly independently of state patronage appears. This is what happens in northern Italy from about the thirteenth century. To some degree this Italian republicanism has older roots in the maritime republic of Venice, but the trading wealth is still very tied up with aristocratic status and a rigid aristocratic hold on politics.

It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli.

Commentary on Machiavelli is heavily burdened by the image of Evil Machiavel or at least of Machiavelli the cynical advocate of power politics in The Prince. This is just a completely false image of a man whose ideal was the revival of the Roman republic, not the rule of absolute and absolutely immoral princes.

The supposed wickedness and cynicism of The Prince related to comments on how kings seize and maintain power, in which as far as Machiavelli advocates rather than analyses, he advocates minor acts of political violence. The age of Machiavelli is the age of the Catholic Inquisition torturing heretics and passing them to the state to be burned at the stake, the mass persecution and expulsion of Iberian Jews and Muslims, wars of religion and conquest, which involved systematic and mass destruction of property, torture, rape, and murder.

Those who chose to condemn the ‘wickedness’ of Machiavelli at the time were often those engaged in such activities. Machiavelli’s advice to princes does no more than advocate at the most extreme, very limited amounts of violence to institute and maintain rule, certainly very limited by the standards of the time.

Why Republican Libertarianism? II

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

We can confirm Arendt’s sense that ancient Athenian democracy was not concerned with collective confiscation of private economic goods, by looking at the most famous political speech of ancient Greece. That is the funeral oration delivered by Pericles in the midst of the Peloponnesian War between democratic Athens and oligarchic-militaristic Sparta. Pericles states that in Athens there is no shame in poverty, only in not struggling with poverty (clearly referring to an individual struggle), and that poverty is no barrier to a place in political life. Pericles also refers to the greater tolerance of the different characteristics of other citizens in Athens compared with Sparta, and that bravery of the Athenian soldiers he mourns, so though the Athenian society does not put the military life as much at the centre as Sparta, it can show just as much courage in war.

As we can see, republicanism is the most historically situated form of political theory, aiming for continue a way of thinking about political community that goes back to Aristotle in fourth century BCE Athens. It was the tradition that runs through Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero in antiquity which informed the understanding of liberty in the classical liberals, in Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Constant, de Stael, J.S. Mill, and so on.

Their understanding also included the idea that there were differences between ancient and modern societies, particularly the greater emphasis on commerce in modern societies, which modified the understanding of liberty so that the liberty pursed by the moderns would be and should be different from the liberty pursued by the ancients, as summarised by Benjamin Constant in his speech ‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’ (1816).

However, Constant did not argue for a complete opposition between the two. He noted the commercial life of ancient Athens and its greater cultural openness than many ancient states. So that though Athens still shared in the tendency of ancient states to  impose conformity to officially defined religion and manners, it was less extreme than many. The republic of Carthage, defeated by Rome in the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BCE, has also been mentioned by some as an ancient republic in which sea trade was at the centre of life, and since ships were the best means of trade in antiquity, that meant it was one of the commercial republics of antiquity. Montesquieu in particular noted that Carthage shared republican political forms with Rome, in which a citizen assembly governed the city in co-operation with an oligarchic-aristocratic council (the Senate in the case of Rome), but had a different attitude to trade and commercial life.

So though the classical liberals emphasised the differences between ancient and modern liberty, they did not simply reject ancient liberty, and did not reject the republican tradition. They found the centrality of war to ancient life, the relatively static political economy and commercial life, and the attempts of the state to enforce virtue to be different from what they hoped for from modern liberty.  The classical liberals also saw liberty growing in ancient republics and thought there was some link between the conditions of liberty and a public culture of shared concerns between citizens.

The laws and institutions necessary to liberty require some support from a feeling of citizenship and joint political enterprise. The need to replicate the solidarity of ancient societies based on preparedness for war is one of the reasons that Smith gives for advocating some public role in promoting education, though with a preference for most education to be provided by private institutions rather than the state.

It is useful to look at the views of the apparent greatest classical liberal defender of monarchy, Montesquieu, to see the importance of the ancient republican tradition for modern liberalism. Montesquieu suggests that a monarchy of the kind that existed in France in the eighteenth century is good for commerce and liberty where it rests on institutions that have some independence of the monarchy such as law courts and a land owning aristocracy.

However, the legal tradition he though guaranteed such liberty in France, is something he traced back to the German invaders of ancient Gaul during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. They brought the customary laws of tribes in the German forests which where essentially republics as kings existed to lead in war and relied on popular support. Montesquieu is a bit more ambiguous than this in his description of the ancient Germans, as he is generally an ambiguous thinker with regard to his views on monarchies and republics, and which are the best for liberty.

He recognised both a law governed ‘moderate’ forms of government opposed to despotism. He recognises the commercial capacities of the Athenian and Carthaginian republics. For his own time, he recognises England as a disguised republic (in the eighteenth century, Great Britain was essentially an oligarchic-aristocratic republic with a very constrained monarchy) which has a leading role in the era with regard to liberty and commerce. Montesquieu’s main criticisms of England relate to missing some aspects of a culture or honour and aristocratic courtesy, rather than any criticism of substance.

Why Republican Libertarianism? I

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

Republicanism has been on the rise as a term in political theory debates since the late 1990s, where it has joined egalitarian liberalism (that is a version of liberalism in which the state decides on income and wealth distribution, markedly more flat than the distribution achieved by the market, at least in intention), communitarianism, and libertarianism in the main recognised streams of political theory along with radical democracy, deliberative democracy, and Marxism.

The egalitarian liberal position emphasis rights, justice, and rational political procedures claiming that constituently employed they lead to a morally based economic pattern of distribution distinct from the relatively spontaneous activities of the market and civil society. Libertarianism (covering anything that might be regarded as classical liberal or libertarian) tends to have the same basis and argue that correct understanding leads to a more market based individualistic view of how economic goods should be distributed.

Communitarianism is most economically egalitarian but includes social conservatives as well as social liberals. It argues that views about justice have proper foundation in the rules according to which humans live in, form, and maintain communities, rather than individual rights. It tends to be anti-libertarian but a communitarianism based on voluntary communities below the level of the state, or independent of the state, can converge with form of libertarianism emphasising the freedom to create voluntary communities of those with shared visions of the good life, socialist, capitalist or anything else.

Marxism is, I presume, well known enough to need no introduction and radical democracy is the attempt to make Marxism, or something like it, compatible with liberalism in democracy and rights, and maybe even compatible with libertarianism in some social and moral issues. Deliberative democracy is the view that political institutions and laws should rest on a constant process of public discussion and negotiation, presumed to engage most of the population.

Simply explained, republicanism is the view that political institutions and laws rest on the tendency for human communities to have a political aspect, and liberty to have some aspect of rights of political participation, where there is some life is devoted to discussion of the best institutions, laws, and policies for maintaining liberty. If all this sounds rather libertarian, it has to be said that republican political theory in its current manifestation, which goes back to the late 90s, has used there same arguments as egalitarianism, but taking the understanding of liberty in a different direction.

In the egalitarian liberal understanding, liberty is just as much to do with state designed economic equality, or limitations on inequality, as individual rights to life, property, and freely chosen version of the individual good life. From the egalitarian liberal perspective, which theorises the views of new liberals, constructive liberals, social liberals, and progressives since the late nineteenth century, ‘liberty’ must include the idea of some equality in the distribution of economic goods as part of the fairness or equality of respect, which is part of those aspects of liberty concerned with individual rights under law.

The idea of republicanism as now discussed in academic circles, at least those largely concerned with a ‘normative theory’ approach to political theory emphasising conceptual analysis  was developed by the Irish philosopher Philip Pettit (long based between the US and Australia). Pettit rests his arguments on a mixture of a historical republican tradition going back to antiquity, and arguments about the meaning of liberty and what kinds of liberty there are. The arguments in Pettit, like many other discussions of liberty, refer back to a famous paper by the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958), which rest on a view of the history of political ideas, so again we come back to a historical argument.

Republicanism in recent political thought has another inspiration, (at least for those concerned with the more cultural, literary, historical, and interpretative aspects of political theory) from an a mid twentieth century writer on politics and philosophy, Hannah Arendt. Arendt is hard to situate politically, and has been taken up both by radical democrats and conservatives. She was rather evasive on the subject of socialism versus capitalism, however the basis in her thought for this was that political issues should be distinguished from social welfare issues, which certainly seems to exclude the possibility of socialist or even egalitarian liberal ideas entering into her basic political assumptions.

Arendt looked back to ancient Athens, in contrast with Pettit who takes Rome as his starting point, and to a culture of competition to prove excellence, which was aristocratic in origin. Athens at the the time it was home to Aristotle, as well as many other notable cultural and philosophical figures, was a democracy based on citizens meeting in the centre of the city to make laws and make the major decisions about state actions.

For Arendt, the political culture of the democracy took up the aristocratic tradition of competitiveness to produce a political life that itself cultivated excellence through contests, and a concern with the public good, at the same time as it was producing great culture, as part of the same pattern. She points to the largely political decision making of the assembly, which was not engaged in attempts to change shares of economic goods.

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 a 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 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 alterations of a 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 Iliad and the Odyssey, and the writing down of the oral tradition in the eighth century BCE.

The comparison with Homer is worth making, because the Sagas present warrior-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 they 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 were 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. The 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 towards 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 least some of the time, combat might lead to the loser ceding some land rather than having to fight to the death.

Presumably, in some cases, the warrior honour culture led to anyone challenged to combat being forced by custom to agree to do so, which gave particularly effective warriors 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.

Judgments 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 maybe 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 toward 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.

Medieval Iceland was a society in which violence was not always punished and where those inclined to use violence for self-enrichment could 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 Saga 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.