“The Law” Is Just A Bunch Of Words On A Page

Shut Down Government

Most people don’t directly interact with the letter (as opposed to the spirit) of government laws. Sure, people will come face to face with the law – as in, deal with law enforcement officers. But very few people actually read the text of the laws that they are required to abide by.

This is completely understandable, and even more so after reading through the bureaucratic legalese that I need to understand for my job. I truly have a new appreciation for the absurdity of forcing people to comply with all the of the diktats of the US government. I strongly suggest, as a simple exercise, to go pick a random section in the Federal Register and read just 20-30 pages. You will immediately see that it would be nearly impossible for these laws to be enforced in any non-arbitrary manner.

It’s all the more ridiculous when you realize that there are over 80,000 pages in the Federal Register, as of 2013. Luckily, I only need to read about 400 pages of it, or a mere half a percent. But there are so many little rules and regulations in those 400 pages that it would be nearly impossible to actually comply with them, or even for the bureaucrats to adequately ensure that their rules are being followed.

There are a lot of things I could say about regulations, including their crippling effects on the economy, how they lead to monopoly privilege and hurt the poor, how they don’t make us any safer, and so on. These are all important topics, and I intend to cover them in the future.

But for right now, I just want to point out the odd realization I had as I was reading through this document from hell: what we call “the law” is just a set of commands made by one arbitrary group directed at another. People tend to have a superhuman view of the law, and give it an almost mythological significance.

But there is nothing special about the law (legislation, more accurately). The only difference between what is in the Federal Register and my writing on this blog is that there are a set of people who, for some odd reason, are willing to commit acts of violence on behalf of the former and not for the latter (but just in case I’m wrong: “Everyone must pay the owner of Government Denies Knowledge 30% of their salary.”).

The government isn’t a mythical beast. It’s just a group of people. How come one group of people gets to make demands on the rest of the population? What gave them that right? And please don’t tell me that “we ARE the government” or any of that clap trap. This is just me ranting, so I won’t go into detail about why the “social contract” is bogus, we aren’t obligated to obey the government out of gratitude, or why perhaps a liberal democracy isn’t what people would choose from the “original position”. Those are subjects for yet another time. For right now, it suffices to say that there is no possible moral justification for some people to rule over others besides might makes right.

But this group does have the “might” part, at least. And with that might, they’ve created all these laws. Laws that the rest of us are obliged to follow. But these laws aren’t like physical laws, which are immutable and don’t require any type of enforcement. You can’t just “disobey” gravity. In contrast, there is a human element to the creation, enforcement, and obeying of government decree.

And many of us, even the most radical libertarians, will often forget that the government’s decrees are just a bunch of words on a page, arbitrarily put together by some other group of people. And people make mistakes, and these mistakes make it into the law. For instance:

With respect to when the quality measures data must be publicly reported, we propose that the QCDR must have the quality measures data by April 31 of the year following the applicable reporting period (that is, April 31, 2016, for reporting periods occurring in 2015). The proposed deadline of April 31 will provide QCDRs with one month to post quality measures data and information following the March 31 deadline for the QCDRs to transmit quality measures data for purposes of the PQRS payment adjustments. We also propose that this data be available on a continuous basis and be continuously updated as the measures undergo changes in measure title and description, as well as when new performance results are calculated.

Even if you had a complete understanding of everything in that paragraph, I suspect you’d have to struggle very hard to make a deadline of “April 31”. In all fairness, this was merely the proposed rule, and someone caught the error for them before making it into the official final rule. But even in the final rule, I’ve caught multiple typos. And this is the law.

We’re all just humans. Every day, each of us engages in dozens or hundreds of consensual, nonviolent actions with those around us. I was in an office for most of the day, and not once did my office mate or myself murder each other, steal from each other, etc. Not once! And you know what? We didn’t do that because the law told us not to. We did it because most people just aren’t assholes.

Yes, there are bad apples, but there are ways of dealing with them that don’t require a state apparatus. Anything a government has ever done has been done through the efforts of private individuals, and has been done better. Civilization existed long before the state. How can it be called the “rule of law” when one group arbitrarily wields power over another, and “chaos and disorder” when the world is based on a framework of purely voluntary interaction?

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The “Anarchist” Experience In Somalia – What Libertarians Need To Know

One of the most fascinating places on Earth right now, particularly to libertarians, is Somalia. For much of the past 23 years, Somalia has been living under relative statelessness, and thus functions as an interesting case study for some anarchist concepts.

What has been widely conceived of as a failure in Somalia is actually far more complex than the mainstream view would suggest. However, the dominance of this view, that Somalia is a chaotic den of warlords and pirates, and where civilians live under constant fear of being killed, remains somewhat unchallenged in the public’s mind.

Because of this view, a common retort to libertarians/anarchists during any political discussion is: “Why don’t you go move to Somalia, then?” The absurdity of this comment will be briefly addressed towards the end of this post, but basically amounts to the silliness of “America: Love it or leave it” arguments.

And the libertarian response is usually one of two things. Usually, I’ve heard “Somalia is not anarchist/libertarian”, but sometimes I’ll hear “Somalia has improved drastically over the past twenty years”. On the surface, it appears that these ideas would be mutually exclusive (from the libertarian standpoint) and that we can’t have it both ways.

In this post, however, I intend to argue that Somalia at times has been largely (but not completely) anarchist, that the anarchist aspects are responsible for the vast improvements in Somalia that have been documented since 1991, and that it is the non-anarchist aspects that have led to the modern violence that sticks out in peoples’ minds.


Brief History of Somalia

Somalia has a long and storied history. My intention here is to provide a brief overview of this history in order to help understand what has been happening in modern day Somalia since the government collapsed in 1991. Note that my description is far from complete, but I believe captures all the necessary details.

In the early days of Islam, many Muslims fled persecution to the Horn of Africa. Islam quickly became a dominant religion in the Somali peninsula during the 7th and 8th centuries. At first, Christians and Muslims in the area got along, but soon things devolved. Several centuries of warfare between various Christian and Muslim kingdoms in what is currently Ethiopia and Somalia ensued.

In the 16th century, foreign powers began to intervene. The Ottoman Empire allied with the Somali Muslims against the Portuguese and Ethiopian Christians. The history of foreign intervention in Somalia and the Horn of Africa began a long time ago.

It was in the late 19th century, however, when the foreign influences began to accelerate. During the Scramble for Africa, the British took control over northern Somalia, and Italy took over the south. Through the early 1900s, Somalis resisted both the British and Italian governments, and areas within Somalia were in a state of rebellion for decades.

In 1941, the British took control over nearly all of Somalia, forcing the Italians out (except for the small trusteeship of Italian Somaliland). In 1960, Somalia won its independence. The new government didn’t last long – in 1969, a (nearly) bloodless military coup put Mohamed Siad Barre in power. He immediately dissolved the parliament as well as the Supreme Court, and suspended the constitution.

In 1976, Barre began to implement “scientific socialism” – communism. Unsurprisingly, this proved to be a disaster for the Somali economy. At the same time, Somalia went to war with Ethiopia to take the Ogaden region and incorporate it into “Greater Somalia”. The Soviet Union intervened in order to save the Ethiopian communist regime, so Barre shifted his alliance towards the United States.

In the 1980’s, many Somalis became disenchanted with the totalitarian Barre regime. Resistance movements, encouraged by Ethiopia, began to spring up around the country. In the late 80’s, this led to a revolution and a Somali civil war, culminating in Barre’s ouster in 1991.

A coalition of UN peacekeepers, led by the United States, landed in Somalia in 1993 for a two year operation. Many clan leaders saw the UN and US as a threat, and fought back. After some embarrassing defeats, the peacekeepers left Somalia in 1995. From then until 2006, Somalia was in a state of “anarchy”, and is the period we will be delving into in this post. During this time, a system of customary law called Xeer, which developed in the Horn of Africa around the 7th century, was practiced. I will discuss Xeer in more detail in the next section.

During this period of “anarchy”, outside forces tried to impose a government on the people of Somalia more than a dozen times. These transitional governments repeatedly failed to garner public support or be recognized by local Somalis. As attempts to establish a government in Somalia intensified, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) assumed control over much of the southern part of the country in 2006. The Transitional Federal Government, with the help of the Ethiopian army, African Union peacekeepers, and US air support, fought back against the ICU and took over most of the country.

Since then, an Islamic insurgency has been waged against the government and Ethiopian troops. The fighting has gone on back and forth, and has continued to this day. While the government is still very weak, it is vastly stronger now than it had been before 2006. More permanent political institutions are beginning to entrench themselves.

Predictably, the new Somali government is quite corrupt, with 70-80% of the weapons that are sent as part of foreign aid are getting diverted and sold elsewhere. Additionally, the new government (as well as the Islamic militants they are fighting with) are continually engaging in human rights abuses.

It will be interesting to see how events in Somalia play out over the coming years, but it is worth noting that it would be wholly inappropriate to consider modern Somalia to be anarchist in any form. Perhaps if the new federal government fails to establish complete control of the territory, an approximate “anarchy” will be reestablished. More likely, however, is that we will see a continued civil war, with the Somali government slowly taking over.


Deeper Dive Into the Xeer Legal System

Incredibly, states have not usurped the traditional role of clans in Somali society, despite this happening in most parts of the world as states grew more centralized. The Xeer legal system which I mentioned briefly in the last section has remained an incredibly strong force in Somali society since it was established well over a thousand years ago.

In this section, I will go into some detail outlining major facets of the Xeer legal system. Keep in mind that this description does not constitute advocacy for all parts of it. Much of it is good, but certainly not all of it is ideal. That being said, there is much that we can learn from it.

Much of what we know about the operation of this system comes from the scholarship of Michael van Notten, who married into a Somali clan and got to witness and study the Xeer system firsthand. His book, The Law of the Somalis, is the ultimate source of most of the information in this section.

This clan-based legal system is based primarily on property rights, and is compensatory rather than punitive. That means no jails, and the victims of crime are made whole again through some form of compensation from the perpetrator whenever possible.

“The Xeer outlaws homicide, assault, torture, battery, rape, accidental wounding, kidnapping, abduction, robbery, burglary, theft, arson, extortion, fraud, and property damage (Van Notten 2005:49). The legal system focuses on the restitution of victims, not the punishment of criminals. For violations of the law, maximum payments to compensate victims are specified in camels (payment can be made in equivalent monetary value). Typical compensation to the family of a murder victim is 100 camels for a man and 50 for a woman; an animal thief usually must return two animals for every one he stole.”

Contrast those aims with those of the current reigning paradigm in theories of justice. In most of the world today, if you commit a crime, you get punished. This means going to jail, or paying monetary fines to the state. The victim of these crimes, of course, gets nothing (although they do get to pay for the criminal’s incarceration through their taxes…yay). And, in most of the world today, victimless “crimes” such as drug use, prostitution, and so on, are routinely prosecuted. Since the Xeer is based on property rights, any activity considered criminal must have a victim who has been violated in some way.

When presented with the guiding philosophy of a polycentric legal system like the Xeer, many people appreciate the sentiment but question how it can work in practice. Most people simply cannot visualize how a non-monopoly justice system could possibly function. They assume that it would collapse as nobody respected the dictates of a given judge. More fundamentally, most people can’t comprehend a legal system that isn’t based on legislation; without a specifically designated body to craft laws, where would laws even come from?

The answer to this question will differ depending on the polycentric legal order in question (common law, the law merchant, ancient Icelandic law, etc.). In the case of Somalia, the law is based on customs and precedents, as interpreted by the clan elders.

“As Ahmed Dualeh of Hargeysa University explains, a Xeer (law) is a law arrived at by agreement, usually originating from an event, such as a killing of another clan’s member. If, instead of retribution, the injured clan agrees to accept monetary compensation instead, then this sets a precedent which, if reinforced by a large number of verdicts in similar cases, matures into a principle and eventually a law, or Xeer. In the words of Hanad Sahardeed, a Diaspora-Somali from Canada, these Xeer are passed down from generation to generation, simply by oral communication.” -Gladitz

“To become a judge in Somalia, one first has to become the head of an extended family. Family heads are usually chosen for their wisdom and knowledge of law. Yet no formal legal training is required of a judge and a judge is free to develop his own doctrines and legal principles. If a judge’s verdicts do not resonate with the feelings of fairness within the community, that judge will simply not be asked to preside again.” – Gladitz

The typical response, at this point, is that the clans are de facto governments. But it only seems that way because people are so conditioned to believe that only governments can provide justice. If the clans are providing justice, then they must be governments.

However, this is not true. Governments will monopolize the provision of justice in a given area, and force people to use their services. Clans do not. There is no monopoly on police or judicial functions within Somalia or Somali clans. Anyone can serve in these capacities except for prominent figures like religious leaders and heads of clans. As an aside, these sorts of prominent figures are held to a higher standard than the rest of society, and are required to pay double what other clan members are required if found guilty.

“Although the interpretation of the law stems from clan elders, the clans are not de facto governments. Upon becoming an adult, individuals are free to choose new insurance groups and elders. In addition, individual clans are not geographic monopolies. As Little (2003: 48) notes, ‘In no way does the geographic distribution of clans and sub-clans correlate with neatly defined territorial boundaries…drought and migration blur the relationship between clan and space.’”

“Throughout all of Somalia upon becoming an adult, individuals are free to choose new insurance groups and elders. They are allowed to either form a new insurance group with themselves as head or they may join an already established group provided it will accept the person. Movement between clans is particularly widespread in southern Somalia. Some clans have more members who were adopted than who were born into it.” –Powell

“The individual clans and insurance groups are not geographic monopolies. Geographic distribution of clans does not match territorial boundaries. As pastoral Somali move throughout their country their legal system moves with them. So in any given area multiple clan governance systems can exist.” – Powell

In the preceding quotes, we saw reference to insurance groups a couple of times. This social insurance plays a critical role in the Xeer system. Everyone must be fully insured against any legal liabilities. If someone can’t pay, their kin becomes responsible. If someone has been habitually causing trouble, the family can disown the criminal, who then becomes an outlaw.

“A person who violates someone’s rights and is unable to pay the compensation himself notifies his family, who then pays on his behalf. From an emotional point of view, this notification is a painful procedure, since no family member will miss the opportunity to tell the wrongdoer how vicious or stupid he was. Also, they will ask assurances that he will be more careful in the future. Indeed, all those who must pay for the wrongdoings of a family member will thereafter keep an eye on him and try to intervene before he incurs another liability. They will no longer, for example, allow him to keep or bear a weapon. While on other continents the re-education of criminals is typically a task of the government, in Somalia it is the responsibility of the family.” – van Notten

So that’s all well and good, but what happens when disputes arise between members of two different clans? In this case, the elders of the two clans must come to an agreement. If they can’t, they appoint an elder from a different clan to settle the dispute. This process is very similar to modern arbitration, which is incredibly common in America.

Xeer tree

Traditionally, judges arbitrate a dispute under an acacia tree until both parties are satisfied.

There is, of course, much more to the Xeer system than what I’ve presented above. Many people who read this will think: “But what about ___?” and be unsatisfied with what I’ve provided here. There are many complexities to any legal system, the Xeer being no exception. There’s no shortage of material online regarding the workings of polycentric legal systems in general, and I would consult van Notten’s book for more details on the Xeer itself.

Considering how the Xeer has survived since the 7th century, has operated under colonial rule, and made it through many years of Barre’s government trying to destroy it, it’s safe to say that it is a robust system. Even in Somaliland, a northern region that broke off and formed its own “government”, the Xeer is still practiced to this day.

“In today’s Somaliland the parties and their respective elders will seek leave from an official court to agree and be bound by the traditional procedure and verdict, which is later submitted to the court. The court’s officer then formally signs the verdict and adopts the decision.” – Gladitz

The Xeer is a truly amazing system, and it is at least in part responsible for the benefits that Somalia has seen from its period of “anarchy”. Benefits – say what?

Note: The sources in this section were Powell and Gladitz.


How Has Somalia Changed Since 1991?

After the collapse of Siad Barre’s government in 1991, Somalia fell into what popular opinion and the international community has dubbed “anarchy”. The reality, of course, is far more complex.

Somalia is one of, if not the most, anarchic regions in the world. Personally, I would argue that there are certain regions in South America, where the weak central government doesn’t hold much sway, that are more anarchic. There are similar regions in Southeast Asia and several other parts of the world. That being said, Somalia is considered the most prominent example.

Massive amounts of foreign intervention, as well as the ever looming “threat” of a government forming are primary reasons why Somalia cannot be considered truly anarchic. There have been more than a dozen “transitional” governments that have attempted to take control since 1991, but until recently, all had failed spectacularly. All the same, various clans would compete to take the reins of any potential new government. This was the main cause of the warfare and violence that plagued Somalia after the government’s collapse through the mid-90’s.

But at a certain point, it became clear that, at least for the time being, there would be no central government. And as the 90’s progressed, Somalia became fairly peaceful. This lasted until 2006, when attempts to impose further government led to chaos and warfare.

But what happened to the people of Somalia during this time? Did the lack of government cause everyone to become bloodthirsty homicidal maniacs? Could an economy survive at all without the guidance of a central planner?

The Mainstream View

Actually, conditions in Somalia improved considerably since the fall of the government, both in an absolute sense and relative to other African countries. No, this is not me living in some crazed libertarian fantasy world – Somalia is generally recognized to be in much better shape now than public perception would suggest. Consider this very reserved assessment from the CIA World Fact Book:

“Telecommunication firms provide wireless services in most major cities and offer the lowest international call rates on the continent. Mogadishu’s main market offers a variety of goods from food to electronic gadgets. Hotels continue to operate and are supported with private-security militias. Somalia’s government lacks the ability to collect domestic revenue, and arrears to the IMF have continued to grow. Somalia’s capital city – Mogadishu – has witnessed the development of the city’s first gas stations, supermarkets, and flights between Europe (Istanbul-Mogadishu) since the collapse of central authority in 1991. This economic growth has yet to expand outside of Mogadishu, and within the city, security concerns dominate business. In the absence of a formal banking sector, money transfer/remittance services have sprouted throughout the country, handling up to $1.6 billion in remittances annually, although international concerns over the money transfers into Somalia currently threatens these services.”

The “surprising” success (surprising to non-anarchists) of Somalia has been noted in other mainstream publications. The World Bank claims that Somalia is doing better than they would have expected, and better than other African nations (note that the link to the actual World Bank report has been removed):

“Somalia has lacked a recognized government since 1991—an unusually long time. In extremely difficult conditions the private sector has demonstrated its much-vaunted capability to make do. To cope with the absence of the rule of law, private enterprises have been using foreign jurisdictions or institutions to help with some tasks, operating within networks of trust to strengthen property rights, and simplifying transactions until they require neither. Somalia’s private sector experience suggests that it may be easier than is commonly thought for basic systems of finance and some infrastructure services to function where government is extremely weak or absent.”

Again, phrased very conservatively. An organization such as the World Bank would never admit that anarchic institutions are highly beneficial, but we’ll get into that more below.

In 2011, the BBC had a special report about Somalia, twenty years after “anarchy” was established. In these articles, they acknowledge that Somalia has done “remarkably” well, but talk out the other side of their mouth and repeatedly claim that things would be better with government.

“Since 26 January 1991…the economy has not only been resilient, some sectors have shown remarkable growth.

But investment is very risky and long-term strategic planning is impossible given the political situation.”

“Remarkably for a country which has suffered two decades of conflict, living standards have slowly improved.

Somalia remains poor in relation to most African countries, but its economy and its people have found ways to get by without a government.

Somalia’s GDP has risen steadily throughout the last two decades, as has its life expectancy. And while neighbouring countries have been hit hard by the HIV/Aids epidemic, Somalia has largely escaped.

Although health facilities remain poor in most regions, the chances of a newborn child surviving to its first birthday have actually increased slightly since 1991.”

These mainstream acknowledgments point out that Somalia hasn’t completely collapsed, although the security situation isn’t exactly rosy, either. This is a fair assessment, but not a complete picture. I’ll go into more detail on the security issue towards the end of this section.

What Does The Data Say?

In the meantime, here is a table (note the source) depicting some important development indicators and how Somalia has fared since the government collapsed.

Somalia – how has life changed?
Index 1991 2011 (or latest)
Life expectancy 46 years 50 years
Birth rate 46 44
Death rate 19 16
GDP per capita $210 $600
Infant mortality 116 deaths <1yr, per thousand births 109 deaths <1yr, per thousand births
Access to safe water 35% 29%
Adult literacy 24% 38%


You’ll notice that on nearly every measure (the exception being access to safe water), there has been a substantial improvement during the twenty years of “chaos” and the horrors of “anarchy”. It is of course possible that some or all of this benefit has been due in part to the international aid agencies that have been active in Somalia during this time. While possible, this seems unlikely, considering how Somalia’s best years were those with the least international intervention.

One could claim that these improvements simply reflect expected improvements over time, given a twenty year period. However, according to the Independent Institute:

“During the last five years of government rule, life expectancy fell by two years but since state collapse, it actually has increased by five years. Only three African countries, Guinea, Gambia, and Rwanda, can claim a bigger improvement.”

In fact, Somalia has done quite well relative to other African countries. You can see from this table that Somalia has generally improved since statelessness in both absolute and relative terms, compared to other Sub-Saharan African countries.

Somalia Indicators Table

Source: Powell. Click to enlarge

To summarize:

“Although all data from Somalia must be treated with some caution, when looking at these 13 measures of living standards, the overall picture seems clear. Somalia may be very poor, but the loss of its government does not appear to have harmed standards of living. On many measures Somalia compares favorably with the other 42 Sub-Saharan countries. Since losing its central government, we find that Somalia improved measures of well being both in absolute terms and relative to other African states.” – Powell

One specific area that stands out is the telecom industry. Telecoms are thriving in “lawless” Somalia, and are even considered the best in Africa, according to the BBC. How can this be?

“In many African countries state monopolies and licensing restrictions raise prices and slow the spread of telecommunications. In Somalia it takes just three days for a land-line to be installed; in neighboring Kenya waiting lists are many years long (Winter 2004). Once lines are installed, prices are relatively low. With a $10 monthly fee, local calls are free, and international calls are only 50 cents per minute on land-lines; web access costs only 50 cents an hour (Winter 2004). According to the Economist, using a mobile phone in Somalia is “generally cheaper and clearer than a call from anywhere else in Africa” (2005: 89).” – Powell

Did you catch that? The lack of government interference in the market has allowed this sector to thrive. Without the stifling effects of regulations or the forceful imposition of a monopoly, service has improved and prices have dropped.

Other areas have seen considerable improvement as well, even relative to other African countries. For instance, Somali exports have vastly increased since the government collapsed. In fact, the herding economy in Somalia is stronger than even its (state-possessing) neighbors, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Somalia’s experience defies conventional wisdom in regards to several economic indicators, and not just specific industries. Consider the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality. According to Nenova and Harford (2004), Somalia has outperformed its neighbors. Stateless Somalia is a more equal society than statist Kenya, Ethiopia, or Djibouti. Are you listening, liberal readers?

Not only that, but the Somali schilling has stabilized in world currency markets. In other words, we don’t need a government to create and regulate the issuance of money.

“…prior to the large monetary injections in Somalia in March of 1999 and then in 2000, the SoSh showed greater stability than the national currencies of both Ethiopia and Kenya. From 1996 to February 1999 the SoSh depreciated against the US$ only 12.14 percent. Between 1996 and 1999 the Kenyan shilling lost 32.55 percent against the US$ and the Ethiopian birr depreciated against the dollar 26.58 percent.” – Leeson

Having a central bank control your currency leads to inflation? It couldn’t possibly!

Summarizing some of the main statistics from Leeson’s work, Spencer Heath MacCallum has this to say (and that link has some good info on the Xeer as well):

“Comparing the last five years under the central government (1985–1990) with the most recent five years of anarchy (2000–2005), Leeson finds these welfare changes:

  • Life expectancy increased from 46 to 48.5 years. This is a poor expectancy as compared with developed countries. But in any measurement of welfare, what is important to observe is not where a population stands at a given time, but what is the trend. Is the trend positive, or is it the reverse?
  • Number of one-year-olds fully immunized against measles rose from 30 to 40 percent.
  • Number of physicians per 100,000 population rose from 3.4 to 4.
  • Number of infants with low birth weight fell from 16 per thousand to 0.3 — almost none.
  • Infant mortality per 1,000 births fell from 152 to 114.9.
  • Maternal mortality per 100,000 births fell from 1,600 to 1,100.
  • Percent of population with access to sanitation rose from 18 to 26.
  • Percent of population with access to at least one health facility rose from 28 to 54.8.
  • Percent of population in extreme poverty (i.e., less than $1 per day) fell from 60 to 43.2.
  • Radios per thousand population rose from 4 to 98.5.
  • Telephones per thousand population rose from 1.9 to 14.9.
  • TVs per 1,000 population rose from 1.2 to 3.7.
  • Fatalities due to measles fell from 8,000 to 5,600.”

There were only two metrics that Leeson found worsened: adult literacy and school enrollment. But this can be explained given that foreign aid made up nearly 60% of pre-anarchic GNP and was the main source of funds for Somali schools under the Barre regime.

But What About The Security Situation?

When most people think of Somalia, they think of violence. And mainstream coverage of Somalia harps on the fact that Somali businesses must pay private security firms to protect their goods. While that is certainly true, that ignores the fact that national police don’t work for free, either. No matter what, security must be paid for somehow.

The real question is: How does the security situation in Somalia shape up compared to its neighbors and across time? It turns out that violence is nowhere near as bad as people assume a stateless society would be. In fact, according to Leeson, violence went down in the late 90s:

“Most depictions of Somalia leading up to the 2006 period grossly exaggerate the extent of Somali violence. In reality, fewer people died from armed conflict in some parts of Somalia than did in neighboring countries that have governments. In these areas security was better than it was under government (UNDP, 2001). About the same number of annual deaths in Somalia during this period were due to childbirth as were attributable to war—roughly four percent of the total (World Bank/UNDP, 2003, p. 16). And these deaths were combatants, not civilians. “Atrocities against civilians … [were] almost of unheard of” (Menkhaus, 2004, p. 30). This is still too high, but far from cataclysmic. In fact, it’s not far from the percentage of deaths due to homicide in middle-income countries such as Mexico, which in 2001 was 3.6 (WHO, 2006).”

Crime likely went down as well, as evidenced by insurance prices for Kenyan cross-border cattle trade not increasing between 1989 and 1998. In fact, fees on the Kenyan side were more expensive than the Somali side, which suggests that crime was worse in Kenya. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here, but, again, Kenya had a government, and Somalia didn’t. Powell elaborates:

“Although armed escorts are sometimes hired, transport costs per animal are usually less than $0.01/km, and this price has not increased greatly since the collapse of the government (Little 2003: 103). In a 1998 survey of 84 rural pastoral traders, only 24 percent of respondents reported security related concerns, and only 13 percent thought security was more of a problem than it was in 1990 (Little 2003: 125). Since the rural pastoralists had traditional dispute resolution mechanisms to fall back on, security has not been a major issue for herders since state collapse.”

Would you look at that? The Xeer actually functioned to maintain security. Perhaps all that’s needed is law, not legislation. Most people can’t imagine how this would ever work, but it does.

“Private courts are funded by the donations of successful businessmen who benefit from the presence of this public good in urban centers. Under anarchy, dispute resolution is free and speedy by international standards (Nenova, 2004; Nenova and Harford, 2004). This constitutes an important improvement in the provision of law and order compared to before 1991. Under government, the legal system was often used as a tool for preying on Somali citizens and punishing the opposition (Africa Watch Committee, 1990; Menkhaus, 2004).” – Leeson

Note that last part about how the governmental legal system was often used as a tool against citizens, particularly the opposition. While that may have been particularly bad under the Barre dictatorship, anyone who is paying attention knows that the same kind of thing happens right here, in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Note: Sources for this section: Leeson, UN Development Report 2001, and Powell. Note that all statistics from this area are to some degree unreliable.


What is Holding Somalia Back?

I’ve just painted a picture of a Somalia that, while far from perfect, is vastly superior to the image in most of the public’s mind. This “far from perfect” can easily be thrown back at the anarchist, and we are often tasked with explaining why Somalia is not some libertarian paradise. In this section, I intend to show why this is the case, and why the “go move to Somalia” quip is about as weak of an argument as it gets.

For starters, there’s no sense comparing the typical lifestyle of an American or European with that of a Somali. They are apples and oranges, and any reasonable person will see that. The capital accumulation that has happened in America over the past several hundred years has created great wealth for those of us lucky enough to live in the Western World. Somalia has not had the benefit of so many years of relative freedom to build up any real wealth.

In fact, the entire country has been impoverished by war and foreign imperialism for hundreds of years, and then any remaining wealth was stolen from the people of Somalia while living under communism. Somalia was destitute before the collapse – they’ve only just begun the process of rebuilding.

But even after the collapse, foreign powers have not left Somalia alone. They have been subject to nonstop foreign intervention, including from the US, UN, African Union, and Ethiopia. The periods of greatest violence after 1991 were during times when foreign intervention designed to establish a central government in Somalia were at their peak.

“Indeed, thus far in the stateless period, the three greatest disruptions of relative stability and renewed social conflict have occurred precisely in the three times that a formal government was most forcefully attempted—first with the TNG, later with the TFG, and finally most recently when the TFG mobilized violently to oust the SCIC. In each case the specter of government disturbed the delicate equilibrium of power that exists between competing factions, and led to increased violence and deaths due to armed conflict (Menkhaus, 2004).” – Leeson

It is the attempts to establish a government that are causing the violence. From 1995-2006, Somalia was doing pretty well from the violence standpoint. In the lead up to war in 2006, the US government began supporting some unpopular warlords in order to prevent the “lawless” Somalia from becoming a haven for terrorists. As the Somalis learned that a foreign power was supporting these corrupt clan leaders, the popularity of the Islamists skyrocketed. The US government caused the very problem they were hoping to prevent.

But the very idea of imposing government upon the Somalis is misguided. In 2007 (right after the Ethiopian/”covert” US invasion), the New York Times discussed some of the challenges of forming a government in clan-based Somali society:

“The government, which took the capital for the first time last month, is trying to address the clan problem head-on. It is using a mathematical formula based on rough estimates of the population (the last census was in 1975) to allocate parliamentary seats and ministerial posts on a clan basis, and plans to govern like that until the next elections, which are proposed for 2009.

But that approach is hardly original — and it does not have an encouraging history. It is the 14th attempt since 1991 to form a clan-based government; all the others have disappeared into a vortex of suspicion and violence.”

“American officials are urging the government to reconcile with all clans, and they are becoming increasingly alarmed about the authoritarian streak of the government, which has already declared martial law and briefly shut down radio stations.”

That’s right, 14 times! But we can’t just let them be, because then the terrorists will win! But the fact is, democracy is simply incompatible with Somali society, as much as that may offend the democracy-worshipping liberal sentiment.

“When the electorate is composed of close-knit tribal, religious, linguistic or ethnic communities, the people invariably vote, not on the merits of any issue, but for the party of their own community. The community with the greatest numbers wins the election, and the minority parties then put rebellion and secession at the top of their political agenda. That is nothing but a recipe for chaos.” (van Notten, 127; 2005)

It is these misguided attempts to force democracy upon Somalia that are responsible for nearly all of the violence there. The continuous effort to fund various clans creates a kind of uncertainty – the uncertainty that a new government may form. This very fact perpetuates some of the worst aspects of Somalia. Rival gangs will shoot at each other because they fear that any transitional government may grow in power to become an actual government in control of a powerful state apparatus which can be used against them.

“A democratic government has every power to exert dominion over people. To fend off the possibility of being dominated, each clan tries to capture the power of that government before it can become a threat. Those clans that didn’t share in the spoils of political power would realize their chances of becoming part of the ruling alliance were nil. Therefore, they would rebel and try to secede. That would prompt the ruling clans to use every means to suppress these centrifugal forces… in the end all clans would fight with one another.” (van Notten, 136; 2005)

For anarchy to succeed, there must be a respect for property and a functioning system of law in place to defend it, as well as a general recognition that states are not desirable and that there isn’t likely to be one. Somalia has the first condition, but lacks the second. This is why Somalia has improved so much since the collapse of the state, but has yet to become a “libertarian paradise”.



Somalia presents a fascinating case study of certain libertarian and anarchist ideas, but it is not an adequate test of the entire anarchist “program”. Unfortunately, it looks increasingly like Somalia’s “anarchist” experiment will likely be coming to a close (until some future period, when the Xeer will likely rescue them from a US backed dictator) soon, and all the wrong lessons will be learned from their experience.

In reality, Somalia has shown the modern world that institutions can fulfill all the normal functions of the state, and perform them more effectively. Statelessness leads to better results for nearly everyone, and particularly for the worst off.

However, Somalia will more likely be remembered as a violent and chaotic place, where backwards warlords would dominate over their people and attack others. It will be remembered as a place that harbored terrorists, until the “good guys” (the US government, the Ethiopian military, and the Transitional government in Somalia) came in, drove the bad guys out, and established “law and order”. Unfortunately, with US troops on the ground in Somalia as we speak, this rewriting of history will likely be coming soon.

As libertarians, we must make sure that the real lessons of the Somali experience aren’t forgotten. Please spread the word and make sure that the possibility of liberty for the Somali people survives.