Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
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    Wednesday, September 12, 2007


    Law and Chaos

    There is an utterly fascinating article at the Mises Institute regarding the rule of law in Somalia while it has been without a central government.

    Wait, what?

    Yes, you read that right. It gets even better: not only have Somalis operated under the rule of their traditional law, but according to several measures by the World Health Organization, their living conditions have improved. Central government has brought nothing but warfare and violence to their country. Despite this, the United Nations is desperately attempting to re-institute a central government. Some of the measures by the WHO are listed in the article, but this pretty well sums it up:

    Another even more comprehensive study published last year by Benjamin Powell of the Independent Institute, concludes: "We find that Somalia's living standards have improved generally not just in absolute terms, but also relative to other African countries since the collapse of the Somali central government."

    Democracy, held up by the UN and various westerners as the be-all, end-all, do-all form of government, is a curse in Africa (some might say everywhere else as well, but that's another blog entry). To wit:

    Democracy is unworkable in Africa for several reasons. The first thing that voting does is to divide a population into two groups -- a group that rules and a group that is ruled. This is completely at variance with Somali tradition. Second, if democracy is to work, it depends in theory, at least, upon a populace that will vote on issues. But in a kinship society such as Somalia, voting takes place not on the merit of issues but along group lines; one votes according to one's clan affiliation. Since the ethic of kinship requires loyalty to one's fellow clansmen, the winners use the power of government to benefit their own members, which means exploitation of the members of other clans. Consequently when there exists a governmental apparatus with its awesome powers of taxation and police and judicial monopoly, the interests of the clans conflict. Some clan will control that apparatus. To avoid being exploited by other clans, each must attempt to be that controlling clan.

    Y'know, it doesn't take much thought to see how this is basically the same thing democracy does to us in America. Look at the vitriolic campaign ads and the hatred spewed forth by folks of all political stripes as we march into another election season. Look at the fearmongering. Look at how every issue group casts the election in terms of "us" versus "them" -- dividing us into two groups, demanding that we see the election as eventually creating a group that rules and a group that is ruled. As Charlton Heston once said, civilization's veneer is very thin indeed.

    Moving forward, the author goes on to describe the traditional Somali legal system in a fair bit of detail, starting with this interesting quote:

    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.

    This of course reminds me of Hans-Hermann Hoppe's thesis about how insurance companies would encourage safer behavior in the absence of central government in a western nation. The main problem with government handling behavior disorders seems to be the removal of a relational reinforcement to behave well, especially since the form of correction government uses is punitive rather than restorative. In the traditional Somali legal system, this is not the case:

    First, law and, consequently, crime are defined in terms of property rights. The law is compensatory rather than punitive. Because property right requires compensation, rather than punishment, there is no imprisonment, and fines are rare. Such fines as might be imposed seldom exceed the amount of compensation and are not payable to any court or government, but directly to the victim. A fine might be in order when, for example, the killing of a camel was deliberate and premeditated, in which case the victim receives not one but two camels.

    And my favorite part about this system is that, rather than placing public figures on a pedestal and giving them some form of immunity to various legal procedures and liabilities, this system treats them more harshly:

    Fines are used in another interesting way. It is expected that a prominent public figure such as a religious or political dignitary or a policeman or a judge should lead an exemplary life. If he violates the law, he pays double what would be required of an ordinary person. Also, it should be noted, since the law and crime are defined in terms of property rights, the Xeer is unequivocal in its opposition to any form of taxation.

    I'm not saying (and neither is the author) that Somalia is presently a paradise. But this pattern has been repeated over and over as I've been watching the past few years: in places where formal government holds incomplete control, and lacks the resources to bring down its fist upon certain sectors of the population, those sectors tend to do better in terms of relative wealth. It certainly calls into question the basic assumption that "government is necessary to ensure prosperity", and gives real-world evidence to support the Austrian conclusion that government is and can only be a net destroyer of wealth.

    Posted by Tom, 9/12/2007 6:02:25 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...