A Skeptic’s Comment on Somalia

April 22nd, 2014   Submitted by Victor Clemens

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00041]Harry Binswanger ended an article recently by off-handedly rehashing the “argument from Somalia” anarchists so often hear. Libertarians have responded to this argument already, both academically (see Notten 2003; Coyne 2006; Leeson 2007; Powell et al. 2008; and Leeson et al. 2009) and popularly (see Maccallum 1998; Davidson 2001; Bigwood 2002; MacCallum 2007; Powell 2009; Knight III 2009; Carson 2010; Barker 2011; Grimmett 2013; etc.), but since folks seem intent on continuing to use it I wanted to respond myself, so I can send anyone I talk with about it here.

I will begin by stating my respectful disagreement with Yumi Kim and any similar treatments people may point me too, which in my opinion erroneously romanticize Somalia. I will take a negative rather than a positive position, i.e. merely explaining why I reject the argument that Somalia demonstrates the “unworkability” or “impossibility” of anarchist ideas, rather than using it as a positive example of a well functioning stateless society.

The argument takes the form: “In Somalia statelessness led to extreme violence and poverty. Therefore, in every possible case, statelessness will lead to extreme violence and poverty.” Since this invokes inductive, not deductive, logic, it technically makes no attempt to “prove” the “impossibility” of a peaceful stateless society. It merely tries to provide evidence for the extremely high improbability of such a society.

Perhaps I expect too much, but if my reader cares to visit their nearest university and ask someone in the anthropology department whether or not “stateless societies” have ever existed, I would expect them to answer that, of course, many such societies have existed, some violent, some not. David Graeber has stated that thousands of stateless societies have existed, and that “for every case of Somalia there are probably twenty where state authority breaks down and people do not start killing each other”. Steven Pinker argues, in contrast, that stateless societies have historically had far more violence than societies with well-functioning states, (see Pinker 2013 and “Lord Keynes” 2013,) and Mark Cooney has argued that statelessness and “tyranny” both tend towards violence, (while pointing out a couple of exceptions like the Semai where people lived in peaceful, autonomous communities,) and that relatively weak government has done the best job of keeping violence at bay. Perhaps statelessness tends towards violence, perhaps not, perhaps this bears on the moral dispute involved, perhaps not. Regardless, stateless societies have existed throughout human history; a good inductive argument needs to examine more than a single example, in my opinion.

Now, what of the premise? We can’t merely provide statistics on Somalia’s impoverishment under statelessness, this would give us data but no correlation across time; to establish a causal connection, (which we need to do to argue that future attempts at creating stateless societies will end in chaos,) we must compare Somalia under government to Somalia under statelessness. Peter Leeson gives these statistics comparing Somalia under Siad Barre’s dictatorship to Somalia after the collapse of his regime, when it fell into a period of statelessness.


Source: Better off Stateless, Peter Leeson

I shall refer readers wondering about the ‘?’ for GDP to Leeson’s paper for explanation. In short, he argues that, for multiple reasons, the data likely overstate pre-collapse GDP and understate post-collapse GDP, to degrees difficult to calculate. In regard to the two measures which worsen, Adult Literacy Rate and Combined School Enrollment, Leeson argues that these reflect the withdrawal of foreign aid financing education pre-1991 more than the shifting of educational burdens from state to community. For those curious to know more about how education fared in Somalia post-collapse, Samatar 2001 and Abdinoor 2008 provide good information.

One other measure stayed the same, and the rest, the majority, improved, giving us statistical indication of a positive correlation between the introduction of statelessness and improved living conditions. But how come? I can think of a few responses.

1) Leeson, (and others,) used wildly inaccurate statistics. If so I’d imagine we’d have to rely on qualitative accounts (preferably first-hand), of goings on in Somalia to determine whether their lives improved or deteriorated. But some sources portray Somalia as having existed in a “bitter 20-year civil war”, with attacks on foreign doctors and reporters, and widespread internal conflict, while others describe it more as a torn region struggling, with some success, to recover, while providing no clear conclusion as to the eventual necessity of a new government, (see, e.g. Maass 2001; Cockburn 2002; Bhalla 2004; The Economist 2005; Donnelly 2006; and Rogers 2013) and a few like Jamil A. Mubarak, Jim Davidson, Michael van Notten, and Peter Little say that parts of Somalia grew peaceful under statelessness and significantly improved economically. Since these portrayals contradict a bit, I don’t think we can use them by themselves to establish a negative correlation between statelessness and standards of living in Somalia.

2) Of course Somalia’s living conditions improved, the U.S. and U.N. sent monetary aid, and ground troops to help stabilize the region. However:

A) The main area seeing international intervention, Mogadishu, has evidently seen more violence than other areas of Somalia, providing some question as to whether intervention had a stabilizing effect, rather than perhaps making things worse. (see, among others, Davidson 2001; Leeson 2007; and Powell et al. 2008)

B) Anthropological research by Ioan M. Lewis and Ahmed Y. Farah in the relatively peaceful northern region of Somaliland indicates that local, relatively decentralized, “grass-roots” peacemaking efforts, and not U.N. intervention, brought about the level of peace achieved in that area. Their research seems to me to agree with the thesis put forward by Coyne and MacCallum that international intervention had no net positive, and may have had a net negative, effect on Somalia’s stability. (By providing a financial incentive for “warlords” to continue fighting over aid money.)

C) The actions of U.S. and U.N. peacekeepers over the years have apparently included torturing Somali teenagers, injuring and killing civilians in air strikes, funding “warlords” and running secret prisons. None of these sound like particularly effective peace building measures.

3) Ian’s research just shows that Somaliland and Puntland achieved a degree of peace by establishing governments. Problems:

A) As Leeson points out, these “governments” only controlled small parts of the territories they claimed, and didn’t seem to have the power to force people to pay taxes, or establish a monopoly over the use of force. Andre le Sage’s research on justice in Somalia indicates that they depended on a plurality of institutions for dispute resolution, and security provision, and according to most authors they relied most heavily on customary law (what they called Xeer), not centrally provided courts. (see, e.g., Lombard, Gladitz, and Friedman)

B) The Awdal region seems to have had relative peace and security even without falling under the nominal protection of Somaliland or Puntland. The Awdal “capital,” Borama, may have gained its security from a local city government, but again, we would need to establish that they had some power to enforce taxation, and a monopoly over the use of force.

C) Leeson points out that the distinction between “governments” and non-government institutions may constitute more of a spectrum than a black and white dichotomy. I do not regard Somalia as purely anarchistic, (having non-hierarchical social organization, not necessarily equivalent to “stateless”,) and while according to I.M. Lewis Somalia’s traditional stateless system of justice lacked hierarchy, others have criticized the portrayal of Somali customary law as egalitarian or non-hierarchical. Various anarchists have also argued that Somalia never qualified as anarchic. In any case, an in-depth comparison of Somalia to the sorts of societies different anarchists advocate probably escapes this article’s scope.

4) Dani Rodrik argues that while Somalia may have improved under statelessness, without the creation of an effective government they will remain impoverished. While I find this plausible, it differs from the argument I wish to respond to presently.

Conclusion: If I can not find a way to demonstrate…

A) a negative correlation between statelessness and standards of living in Somalia…

B) that a positive correlation resulted from a negative effect from statelessness combined with a significantly stronger positive effect from international intervention or…

C) that the positive effect resulted primarily from the creation of proto-state institutions, rather than trade and customary law…

…then I have not yet thought of a way to establish a causal link between statelessness and violence or poverty in Somalia. I hope I have helped readers understand why I do not accept the claim that Somalia demonstrates the impossibility of a peaceful, prosperous anarchist society. I invite those who’ve made the argument I criticize, especially fellow skeptics and freethinkers, to respond.

References: (Mouse over for full citation)

(1981: Robarchek) (1993: Everett) (1994: Kusow; Farnsworth) (1997: Cooney; Mubarak; Lewis et al.) (1998: Maccallum) (2001: Samatar; Maass; Davidson) (2002: Bigwood; Cockburn) (2003: Notten; Little) (2004: Hargis; Bhalla; Graeber) (2005: Le Sage; Nenova et al.; Hagmann; Graeber; The Economist) (2006: Kim; Donnelly; Coyne) (2007: Menkhaus; Leeson; MacCallum; Rodrik) (2008: Abdinoor; Powell et al.; Schaeffer; Lefkow) (2009: Leeson et al.; Powell; Knight III) (2010: Long; Carson) (2011: Drum; Francavilla; Scahill; Barker; Atkins) (2012: Reporters Without Borders; Leeson; Halliday) (2013: Pflanz; Pinker; “Lord Keynes”; Rogers; Pflanz; Grimmett; Arman) (2014: Abdihamid; Binswanger; Various) (Year Unknown: Lombard; Rorison; Gladitz; Friedman)

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8 Responses to “A Skeptic’s Comment on Somalia”

  1. VanmindNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the effort. For readers: try scrolling down to the “Conclusion” section first in order to get hip to the thesis.

  2. KeithNo Gravatar says:

    Wow! Thank you for the analysis and up to date bibliography.

    Like every out of the closet anarchist, I’ve been in the traditional exchange of: “If anarchy is so good why don’t you eff off to Somalia” to which the equally traditional and unthinking stock reply is “If statism and central planning is so good, why don’t you go to North Korea”

    I really enjoyed reading van Notten, it’s a fantastic little book, and several of the economic comparisons between Somalia under Barre and After Barre, and Somalia compared to its Sub Saharan African statist peers (By 2006 Somalia had overtaken approximately half of that field on most key indicators of development).

    I agree with you that attempting to construct a simple hypothesis and to then test it empirically, is probably futile. The best that we will come up with if we make that attempt is an egregious post hoc fallacy.

    As you rightly point out, Somalia is far from homogeneous. Puntland, Somaliland and Awdal are a world away from those remnants of the former Barre regime who currently live as warlords around Mogadishu.

    Even those Somali communities who currently live under states, have a (probably largely undeserved) reputation for violence. During my time in Kenya, I never made it to the culturally Somali city of Garissa, those who did, traveled there and back in Kenyan army escorted convoy. Given the accounts that I’ve heard and read of the Kenyan Army’s behaviour along the borders (especially the UN sponsored torture, murders and village burning along the Ugandan border in the name of “disarming civilians”) and it’s habit of running away when it meets any real opposition, I’d rather catch a lift with a local truck driver.

    What we would describe as “normal” human beings do not suddenly become violent or begin thieving, raping or fraudulent as soon as there is no statist in sight.

    By contrast, even with a state, the likes of Harold Shipman, Larry Murphy, Bernard Madoff etc, continued their prolific criminal activities for years, decades even. In each of those examples, they were caught by ordinary individuals, rather than by some fictional statist super detective (Shipman by an undertaker, Murphy in the act of attempted murder, by some deer poachers, and Madoff by his sons).

    Normal, productive human societies (including most Somali communities) are structured in a way that wise and productive individuals are the ones who gain respect, and, in the absence of fixed formal periods of service, if they mess up, then their previous customers abandon them and go to a competitor.

    Economist, George Ayittey, describes the great lengths which pre colonial African societies went to, to avoid granting any individual power over another; even to the extent that the Kikuyu and Igbo peoples along with the Somalis, were traditionally anarchist.

    By contrast, statist structures favour parasitic liars, cheats, bullies, self promoters – in short, the most dangerous, devious and destructive individuals, who are not only brought together into a group, to be able to conspire together, but then grant themselves and their cronies, special privilege. Including the special privilege of eliminating competitors.

    It is ironic that those psychopaths and narcissists brought together to further develop their parasitic and predatory behaviours within the Barre regime, are now cited by statists as reasons in favour of bringing together the most extreme psychopaths and narcissists in the institution called “state”.

    • Thank you for you kind comments, Keith! I think I agree with most of what you said. On the Igbo, though, I’ve seen various anarchists refer to them as an example of an anarchist society, (from Rothbard in For a New Liberty to libcoms in various places online,) but the one detailed article I read about their society indicated that, not only did they have slavery, they sometimes, (often?), sold people into slavery after having an “oracle” falsely find them guilty of some offense. (Apparently in their system of law, “oracles” served as their “highest court of appeal”.)

      This kind of turned me off to using the Igbo as a good example of an anarchistic society. What good does not having a king or a state do you if people can still enslave you?

      As for the Kikuyu, I honestly don’t think I’ve studied them. I shall have to do so! I always enjoy this stuff. Can you recommend any good sources on them? You mentioned George Ayittey; I don’t think I’ve read any of his work before, but I ixquicked him and he looks like a pretty cool author to read up on. Do you have any specific works of his you might recommend?

      • KeithNo Gravatar says:

        Much of my stuff is second or third hand, George Ayittey seems to have been closely involved in the proof reading and probably also in offering guidance during the writing of van Notten.

        Ayittey’s serious academic treatise “Traditional African Institutions” is a little expensive for me http://www.bookdepository.com/Indigenous-African-Institutions-Geo rge-BN-Ayittey/9781571053374 perhaps I should be less idle and get it ordered through the local library.

        I don’t know a great deal about the Kikuyu – I’ve worked with some, but that was before I’d learned that their culture had traditionally been anarchist. I’m putting some emphasis on the past tense there, as the Kikuyu “Mount Kenya Mafia” are the dominant political force in the colonial artifact that is the Kenyan state.

        Your remark about the Igbo enslaving, points to a contradiction in their philosophy of anarchy. The Somali anarchy too, is not exactly libertarian – for example the genital mutilation of children, the coercive arranged marriage of women, absolution for “honour killing” of homosexuals, and the vendetta killing of innocent individuals on the sole basis that they belong to the same clan or jilib as a fugitive murderer.

        [I need to go do some jobs, so I’ll try to be brief and come back to this in more detail and with a hopefully clearer head, later.]

        This brings us to a point Mama Liberty was making on her blog a couple of days back (and that thinkers, like Rothbard, van Noten, van Dun, Hoppe etc make too) – that even if we do rid ourselves of leaders, we will still have imperfect knowledge, gaps and contradictions in our philosophy,

        and we will still have the same mix of individuals, some good, most average to mediocre and some downright bad, the same bell curves of ability, and the same temptations to go for expediency and pragmatism, or to make a lazy appeal to tradition, instead of pursuing principle.

        Scholars of Natural Law, like Michael van Notten and his mentor Frank van Dun ( http://users.ugent.be/~frvandun/ ) at least give us hope that once we are free of statist fiat law, that we have a free process of discovery, which should allow us to move closer to Natural Law, one dispute resolution at a time.

        The contrary process to that appears to be (in the case of the Igbo) the substitution of magical thinking of oracles and religious “revelation” (one man’s prophet might very well be another man’s paranoid schizophrenic, or stoned substance abuser), for the hard thinking required to logically work through a dispute and to resolve it justly.

        and for the especially hard work of pointing out institutionalized injustices (such as mutilation of children, coerced marriage and persecution of those who are different (homosexuals, athiests etc)) and of righting them in a just and generally acceptable manner.

        No anarchist ever claimed that the oceans would cease to be salty and turn to lemonade, or that the abilities of the average man would rise to the level of a Goethe; we can leave that kind of delusional thinking to the socialists. Compared to its sub Saharan African statist peers, (I’ve spent time in a few of them) rather than an impossible nirvana, Somali Anarchy looks pretty good 🙂

  3. Jim DaviesNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you Victor, very well presented. It’s impressive to see so many “improvements” in the table despite the repeated external attempts to impose a government on Somalians, and despite the villains who take refuge in their territory while training to do violence elsewhere.

    Also notable is that their antipathy to government arises from tradition rather than from a systematic education in economics and rational morality. They have set the world a remarkable example, but when we achieve a zero government society we shall, I think, do a lot better yet.

    • Thank you! Glad you liked the article. I agree, if and when, (probably when, at least on a small scale,) we succeed in creating a stateless society based more explicitly on anarchist moral philosophy, I think we can do much better than Somalia or other stateless societies that have existed. Perhaps we can come closer to what Leeson calls “first-best anarchy”. I’ve seen a lot of efforts that I find inspiring and that give me some hope for that, intentional communities like Modern Times, the Rainbow Gathering temporary autonomous zone, the Free State Project, and so on. But we definitely have a long ways to go.

      I would add that I think the negative experience the Somali had under Siad Barre’s regime probably also contributed to their apparent antipathy towards the possible creation of a new government. If they hadn’t had their traditional stateless institutions to rely on where government failed them though, I doubt they would have done as well as they did.

  4. MamaLibertyNo Gravatar says:

    It is certainly not the lack of a “state” that troubles Somalia… and so many other places. It is the constant warfare between competing factions, warlords, and foreign governments to monopolize the use of force to extract “taxes” and control of the population. Too many, far too many states, not “statelessness.”

    The statelessness of individual sovereignty and personal responsibility is not on the table at all. The next best available, often, is the tribal systems the people have evolved and lived with for centuries. If that’s what they want instead of individual liberty, it’s nobody else’s business, of course.

    What they don’t need, and which certainly doesn’t help them in any way, is the meddling of foreign “powers,” attempting to impose their own “state” systems and extract resources that simply don’t belong to them.

  5. full articleNo Gravatar says:

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