Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Belated Reply to Brad DeLong

I recently, courtesy of Google, came across a piece by Brad DeLong critical of my views. It argued that there were good reasons why anarcho-capitalist ideas did not appear until the nineteenth century, reasons illustrated by how badly a stateless society had worked in the Highlands of Scotland in the 17th century. I wrote a response and posted it to his blog, then waited for it to appear.

Today I discovered what I should have realized earlier—that his post was made nine years ago. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that my comment did not appear. The issues are no less interesting now than they were then and his argument is still up to be read, so here is my response:


Your initial argument rejecting a stateless order on the evidence of the Scottish Highlands is no more convincing than would be a similar argument claiming that Nazi Germany or Pol Pot's Cambodia shows how bad a society where law is enforced by the state must be. The existence of societies without state law enforcement that work badly—I do not know enough about the Scottish Highlands to judge how accurate your account is—is no more evidence against anarchy than the existence of societies with state law enforcement that work badly is against the alternative to anarchy.

To make your case, you have to show that societies without state law enforcement have consistently worked worse than otherwise similar societies with it. For a little evidence against that claim I offer the contrast between Iceland and Norway in the tenth and eleventh centuries or northern Somalia pre-1960 when, despite some intervention by the British, it was in essence a stateless society, and the situation in the same areas after the British and Italians set up the nation of Somalia, imposing a nation state on a stateless society. You can find short accounts of both those cases, as well as references and a more general discussion of historical feud societies, in the webbed draft of Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, a book I'm currently working on; comments welcome.

So far as the claim that the idea of societies where law enforcement is private are a recent invention, that is almost the opposite of the truth. The nation state as we know it today is a relatively recent development. For historical evidence, I recommend Seeing Like a State, whose author goes to some lengths to make it clear that he is not a libertarian while giving a perceptive account of the ways in which societies had to be changed in order that states could rule them. 

As best I can tell, most existing legal systems developed out of systems where law enforcement was private—whether, as you would presumably argue, improving on those systems or not is hard to tell. That is clearly true of, at least, Anglo-American common law, Jewish law and Islamic law, and I think of Roman law as well. For details see my draft.

In which context, I am curious as to whether you regard yourself as a believer in the Whig theory of history, which views it as a story of continual  progress, implying that "institutions A were replaced by institutions B" can be taken as clear evidence of the superiority of the latter.


At 10:20 AM, September 23, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Back when I was an anarchocapitalist reading The Machinery of Freedom, I remember having the thought that if you go back far enough (to be safe, back to a time when we all lived in hunter-gatherer tribes), one's religion, nation, legal system, and culture were probably all rolled up into one thing, and individualism was nonexistent--at least if the modern tribal life like that seen in nature documentaries is any example.

At the time I just shelved the thought, but now I want to take it down and reexamine it. If we take this as the original configuration and apply evolutionary reasoning, what is likely to have happened next?

At 1:56 PM, September 23, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child:

I would trust the documentaries about chimpanzees more than the ones about modern tribes. I think people are more objective about chimps...and they often like to project their ideas of a "perfect simple life" when they make the documentaries about tribals. Chimps of course live in strictly hierarchic tribes. But it is not as if there is no individuality. Actually, the hieararchy is (as any hierarchy of power actually) perpetuated by the individual "selfish" (I don't think it is appropriate to describe animal behaviour by human term without at least using hyphenation) behaviour, there are no "collective goals"...unless they coincide with the goals of the particular chimp's selfish genes...actually, even what seems to be like the most self-sacrificing animal of all - the ant - is actually "selfish" (in terms of gene) like any other. Dawkins spends a whole chapter (if I remember it correctly) describing their peculiar behavour in Selfish Gene (a very very good read...I just did not like the short bits where he jumps to his usual "all religious people are stupid or evil", but fortunately there are maybe 2 paragraphs about that in the whole book).

Anyway, even if the ancient tribal societies where extremely collectivistic, it does not change much. The idea is not that we should get back "to the roots" or "back onto the trees" (although they are some people, most of who are very likely not libertarians, who suggests that we...all of us...should do just that), it is that some changes can be for the good and some for the better and sometimes, unfortunatelly, the bad changes are succesful for quite a while.

A funny thing is that it was the official Marxist doctrine that history is strictly linear...that is bad stuff is replaced by less bad, that by rather good and so on...communism was supposed to be the final stage (but it was not explained why as far as I know) after which there is no more progress possible. My father had to learn stuff like this for exams (as it was mandatory at the universities here to take an exam from matter what your major was), so I know it from him. Fortunatelly, most of the marxism professors were (at least that's what my father tells me) rather stupid and it was easy to pass the exam even without learning almost anything about the communist just made something up that sounded like it could be it and they let you pass. I guess the objective of those exams was really to filter out those who protested to even pretend to learn that nonsense.

At 2:50 PM, September 23, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

Yeah, I wasn't prescribing we go back to hunting and gathering; I was just pondering the evolution of legal, religious, national, and family institutions that are separate from one another.

My take from those tribal documentaries isn't that their lives are perfect and simple, but that their notion of a legal system and a national defense and a religion and a notion of kin are likely to be all rolled up into one thing. (I don't think there is a conspiracy by all documentary filmmakers to create an illusion of this through clever editing and voiceover.) Such an all-in-one system is simpler than our way in certain respects, but in others it is also more complicated.

At 2:59 AM, September 24, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child:
Maybe I did not express myself clearly. I did not suggest that you want people to go back to living like tribal hunter gatherer societies or that you personally think their life is perfect. I was jus trying to say that their life might actually be different from what it might seem like in a documentary. To get back to Dawkins - he mentions certain tribes in Africa (or Papua New Guinea, I don't remember that well) that were described by some travelers in a way that had very little to do with reality. And exactly in this way - the travelers went on to describe them as sharing people who care about the common goals and sacrifice their own good for the good of the community (whatever that is supposed to be). It was either because they did not understand the language very well, or because they simply wanted to see something and so they saw it (also the locals might realize it is in their interest to pretend to be something the travelers - who probably brought some resources with them - would like to see)...or they were deliberately lying (which I hope is the least likely alternative).

At 9:40 AM, September 24, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

Yes, I would be skeptical too if people of a tribe were reported as never being selfish or out of line. However, the existence of outliers does not negate the general rule. It seems unlikely that such a commonly held notion about tribal structure (as highly communal and integrating many institutions into one system) could evolve without some basis in fact.

By the way, I base my notions about tribal structure not only on what I've seen from documentaries, but also on what I've read from former tribespeople themselves.

Do we have reason to believe, for example, that Chinua Achebe's account of tribal Igbo life (as described in books like "Arrow of God" and "Things Fall Apart") is radically inauthentic?

Also, do you think it is faulty to take these tribal structures as a kind of blueprint for what all human society may have been like many tens of thousands of years ago?

At 11:19 AM, September 24, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power child:

Again - I'm not saying there is no truth in those reports, just that they are often biased.

As for those two tribes I have not heard of them so far, so I cannot judge...

Your question: I think it is a mistake. The environment around us shapes us greatly. Not so much today perhaps, at least in the developed societies, but it was very important in the past. Some areas are hotter, some are colder, some are isolated, in some, the tribes faced a lot of competition of other tribes, somewhere you can get food easier (Nile delta), somewhere it is extremely hard (Kalahari desert). All of those factors (and more) played a role in determining what those ancient tribes were like.

Even today's primitive societies are not the same. There is one tribe in Africa (unfortunatelly I forgot the name, but I think I could look it up) that kicks their children out of the house at the age of 5 or something...and from then on they have to survive on their own (or in groups of similar aged children). And the simple fact that these tribes remained tribal up to this day is a variable you have to control. Perhaps they are still tribal exactly because their societal structures are the way they are (or at least it could be an important factor). So while some of the ancient tribes could have resembled the tribals of today in some respects (probably all of them in at least some respects), it should not be taken for granted that when we observe the tribals, we are looking at something like the tribes of our ancestors 10k years ago.

At 12:23 PM, September 24, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

On the issue of inaccurate reports on primitive people, both of you might be interested in reading up on the controversy re Margaret Mead's book on Samoa. It's one of the most famous books in anthropology, she is one of the most famous figures, and someone some time back wrote a book arguing that it was almost entirely bogus--that she had been taken in by some teenage informants who though it was great fun to tell the innocent foreigner, fresh out of graduate school, a highly inaccurate account of their society which happened to fit what she wanted to believe.

The original critical book was by Derek Freeman and there has been a considerable literature since, with some anthropologists defending Mead. My guess from what I have read is that Freeman is correct--if anything too generous in treating Mead as the innocent victim rather than as someone deliberately distorting the evidence to say what she wanted it to.

But in any case, it's an interesting controversy.

At 12:36 PM, September 24, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David: Didn't Dawkins mention her in the Selfish Gene as well? Or maybe I read about it somewhere else and have mistaken it for Dawkins in my memory. Anyway, this is what I meant in the post above. Although, I have not read about it any further. I might, thanks for the tip, I'm adding it to the "to read" list :)

At 2:29 PM, September 24, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Right. It is worthwhile to be skeptical of individual reports by anthropologists, documentary filmmakers, and their ilk.

But if there are general patterns that seem to keep popping up in information about tribal peoples, then there is reason to believe these patterns have at least a kernel of truth to them. We can hardly suspect that all tribal peoples are colluding to deceive us about their structural nature.

All this was a tangent though: I'm specifically interested in the evolution of later societies from earlier ones. My (possibly flawed) understanding about the most primitive human societies is that there was likely no real separation between religion, law, and family hierarchy. Understanding the cultural evolution here would be useful for understanding how various institutions became integrated or independent from governments later on.

At 3:55 PM, September 24, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Power Child:

One of the arguments one sees in discussions of early Irish law is that, because the writers were very conservative, inclined to record legal rules even if no longer practiced, their writing provide some evidence on early Indo-European law. Judging by that, kinship was certainly important, but was not the same thing as either law or religion.

At 5:20 PM, September 25, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...

Reading the sagas gave me the strong impression that the private law enforcement system of Iceland they described worked poorly compared to that of contemporary England. Also, that it made it easier for the more powerful to get their own way, encouraging the consolidation of wealth and power that produced the Sturlung Era.

At 11:37 PM, September 25, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


Not my impression or, more important, Byock's. The sagas telescope the action to focus on the interesting parts, but the actual scale of violence is pretty small. Even the Sturlung period, which was violent enough to lead to the breakdown of the system, killed over fifty years a lot fewer people than died through violence in England during three weeks of the year 1066.

My guess is that that is still true if you adjust for population size, but I doubt the data are good enough to be sure of that.

At 2:44 AM, September 26, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will have you know that the British Empire was on the whole a force for good.

At 9:28 AM, September 26, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...

But of course, the number of people killed in two separate foreign invasions says nothing about the quality of a system of law enforcement. And an accurate measure of the killings in the Strulsung Era would require a comprehensive count, rather than just the killings known to the author and interesting enough to make it into the saga

At 1:10 PM, September 26, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

On the Iceland topic: Does anyone know of any archeological study or any other estimate of killings independent on the sagas? As much as I would like to believe the system worked as well as the sagas seem to suggest (I have not read them, so I only have to believe David and other people who have that the sagas suggest that, but I think I can trust that), I think that sagas alone are not a piece of evidence you can "bash other people's heads with" (I recognize that David has not made such a claim, but I would like to actually have some more concrete proofs). After all, from what I gather, they are essentially part history part that time the distinction was quite blurry...and they are probably nothing like a list of all violent deaths in Iceland.

The logic of the system seems to me to actually lead to less violence as long as one player in the game does not accumulate extreme wealth and power (more than most of everyone else together) which is however true of our system as well...or of any system for that matter. But there can be an error in the logic...and if the data is not in sync with the model, then it is at least a reason to reexamine the model (as long as you are not an austrian economist :D ). Which is why I'm interested in estimates of the amount of violent deaths based on something other than the sagas.

At 4:26 PM, September 26, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...

Even if the data was available, I don't think the absolute number of killings tells you as much as you might think. There's a world of difference between justifiable homicide, drunken argument that got out of hand, and "sell me your farm or we'll kill you" or "help kill your brother-in-law or important people, people of stature, will make sure you face the direst consequences"

Also, if the consequences of killing people are much less severe for important people than for others.

At 5:59 PM, September 26, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...


My reading of Byock is that he thought that lawsuits by non-godar had little chance of success without godar support, that everyone knew this, and that godar like Snorri were entirely willing to exploit this to their own advantage.

Do you disagree?

At 6:09 PM, September 26, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...


Read a saga. They are ripping yarns and I don't think you'll regret it. Njal's is my favorite. You may skip over the legal boilerplate, as long as you remember that the very fact that legal boilerplate was inserted into a saga is totally awesome.

At 8:03 PM, September 26, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


To begin with, Snorri is in the Sturlung period, at which point things were breaking down, with conflict not between individuals or even individual godar but coalitions of godar aiming to end up as the ruler of Iceland, at least as I interpret the events.

Beyond that, in the earlier period anyone involved in a dispute would be a godi or the thingmann of a godi, and in the latter case likely to be supported by his godi.

On archaeological evidence, I had a correspondence with Byock some time back and he mentioned someone who had looked at the skeletal collection at the National Museum of Iceland and found strikingly little evidence of violence. He thought that was the best evidence available, but that the collection might be unrepresentative.

I'm pretty sure that there isn't the sort of archaeological evidence, for Norway or Iceland, from which one could deduce violent death rates. On the other hand, the sagas, pre Sturlung, are describing very small scale violence, with every casualty named. So the real questions are the accuracy of the sagas and how complete their account of what was going on is.

At 7:04 AM, September 27, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...


I should have been clearer. I was referring to Snorri Godi, not Snorri Sturluson.

In the Eyrbyggja Saga Snorri Godi shows a great deal of discretion in his support of his thingmen, and often he doesn't. And he only supports Thorolfr in return for a valuable tract of woodland. That's the kind of exploitation I was talking about.

At 7:51 AM, September 27, 2013, Anonymous vidyohs blanco said...

Power Child

Your thought that "individualism was non-existent" in hunter/gather tribes is just doesn't hold up in the face of the evidence we do have. Europeans encountered just such tribes here in the Americas and while those tribes banded together for security and a bit of comparative advantage, the individualism was very dominant in practice. They spoke just I would speak: It is MY bow, they are MY arrows, it is MY kill, it is MY teepee/wikiup/house, it is MY corn, and then it is MY horse. Not one of the societies encountered by those early Europeans practiced collectivism or had a central authority assigning place and things to individuals. Individuals were free to come and go as they pleased, and sharing in non-emergency situations was done to gain status, not as a result of compulsion by a central authority, custom, or practice.

At 12:24 PM, September 27, 2013, Blogger Will McLean said...


There's at least one unnamed casualty in the Laxdaela saga, a nameless shepherd.

Rereading that, I was struck by how rare unpremeditated murder was in the saga. I suspect that this did not reflect an actual lack of such murders, but that they usually weren't useful in weaving a dramatic narrative.

At 12:59 AM, September 28, 2013, OpenID undertallen said...

Tribal societies were very violent. Amongst hunter-gatherers, about 15 percent of all adults die murdered or in war, for men it is 25 percent and for women about 4. There is generally a large surplus of men because girls are more often killed after birth than boys.

Azar Gat has about 150 pages on hunter-gatherer warfare and tribal life in "War in Human Civilization". Martin and Daily discuss this is "Homicide" which is excellent, but not for those with a weak stomach.

I am sorry to say this, but Pinker's latest, "The Better Angels..." is to be avoided on the subject. I was so impressed by his previous books.

On the other hand, Adam Ferguson's masterpiece from 1767, "An Essay on the History of Civil Society" is very good on the subject.

At 1:02 AM, September 28, 2013, OpenID undertallen said...

Small mistake: Martin Daly and Margo Wilson were the authors of "Homicide".

At 11:35 AM, September 28, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tibor and Power,

I strongly recommend Christopher Boehm's two books on what foragers were really like. The books are based upon his research and a survey of all forager and tribe anthropological studies.

Foragers were in no way collectivistic.

They valued freedom and autonomy and worked together to repress alphas from using coercion to bully other members of the band. Boehm describes them as "universally" and "obsessively" concerned with being "free from the authority of others."

Decisions were made by persuasion, as members had exit rights to depart to other bands of relatives.

Though they were egalitarian in political power, they were not equal in status, skill, possessions or influence, nor did they consistently value equality. As Boehm clarifies, foragers are "not intent on true or absolute equality, but on a kind of mutual respect that leaves individual autonomy intact."

They did help each other by sharing meat, but this is the equivalent of insurance, those with plenty of rapidly spoiling meat shared when they could with those doing the same. Free riders, slackers and cheats were not countenanced. Doing so risked being ostracized or abandoned. Bullying (coercion) was extremely hazardous to one's health, as those who were bullied were well armed and capable of leaving the band or killing you in a single blow.

Boehm also goes into detail on the white washing of foragers among those with an agenda.

Coercive dominance was always a threat, but it was one which most foragers were able to avoid as long as they were nomadic without dependence upon stored food (which could be coercively used to dominate others).

At 11:35 PM, September 29, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


My source for hunter/gatherer violence was _Warfare Before Civilization_--have you read it?

But the pattern described there didn't look to me much like Iceland, or northern Somalia, or early Ireland.

At 11:03 AM, October 01, 2013, OpenID undertallen said...

No, War Before Civilization is in my Amazon cart. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time, yet.

I am Swedish, and I do know where you are coming from if you look how the Icelanders organised themselves.


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