Saturday, October 15, 2011

Somalia: 'libertarian paradise'

I'm not sure in what context this remark was made, but I think it's worth pointing out that this critique is no different than a conservative or right-wing libertarian responding to a criticism of modern state capitalism by snorting, "oh yeah, and how did the Soviet Union turn out, ya Marxist?" It's intellectually dishonest. It's lame. It's -- perhaps most damningly -- just plain unoriginal, returning "About 210,000 results" on Google. And it's a damn weak attempt to hang around the necks of those who would dare imagine a world where people are free to organize and live in communities not subject to the coercive interference of an outside, centralized power, a failed state -- Somalia -- that has been torn apart by decades of Western state intervention, as noted by libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky and none other than Jeremy Scahill.

From a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and brutal military occupation that left more than 16,000 civilians dead and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, destroying the first semblance of normalcy the country had experienced in nearly two decades, to an ongoing U.S. war involving CIA torture chambers and drone strikes, Somalia has been ravaged by powerful nation-states, not anarchy.

But hey, let's put that all aside and just concede for a moment that Somalia is in fact some anarchist's wet dream, "a libertarian's paradise." Let's just ignore the fact Somalia was ruled by a military dictator for decades and not make the cheap point that the period preceding its current "anarchist" stage therefore indicts anyone who believes in the justness and necessity of centralized power.

We can say this for the little 'ol anarcho-paradise that is Somalia: At least it hasn't, like some other countries in the region, murdered tens of thousands of its neighbors. At least, like another government I know whose legitimacy has never been questioned by any respectable liberal writers, dropped nukes on any Japanese cities or killed upwards of one million Iraqis or put one out of every 100 of its own citizens in steel cages.

Up next: Is North Korea, with its socialized health care and strict regulation of business, a "liberal paradise"?

Update: Scahill says the comment "was a joke." Okay. But what's the punchline?


  1. Attacking Chomsky and now Scahill - From the LEFT. Very much to your credit, you are the very opposite of careerist.

    Scahill's another one. So clued in but also very much wanting to be one of the club. His GOP debate live tweets and some of his media appearances are cringe-worthy.

  2. Semantics, but: I prefer the word critiquing. Attacking is for the George Bush's and Barack Obama's of the world; critiquing is what I do to those folks I respect and hold to higher standards.

    Carry on.

  3. You're exactly right. The stuff that comes at them from the right is categorically different from what you're doing. Much more fair and intelligent for sure. It was a lame attempt at a mildly humorous compliment.

  4. Anonymous11:51 AM

    Oy. Bad wording. I mean yours is much more fair and intelligent, not the right's.

    Oh Tarzie

  5. No, no, I gotch' ya. I'm just being touchy.

  6. Well done, sir. If the Somalia-Is-What-You-Get-Without-States argument had even halfway decent researchers, they'd have to rename their argument to something like Somalia-Is-What-Happens-When-States-Run-Completely-Amuck. Somalia is a corporate playground, with thirty years of war funded by government run foreign powers.

    1. Anonymous10:47 AM

      Assuming for a moment that we dismantled government in the United States in favor of a completely market based system... what would prevent corporations and other states from running amuck in the massive power vacuum?

  7. Indeed. What libertarian would be happy to live in a foreign-(mis)managed "failed state" controlled by foreign-state-sponsored warlords? Scahill has spent significant time in Somalia and should therefore know better, so obviously he doesn't understand the meaning of 'libertarian'. It's understandable that even intelligent, informed people bump up against marginalized groups that they're not very familiar with and unintentionally offend them (assuming that's what happened), but saying "it's a joke" is no defense. The punchline only works if you're ignorant.

  8. Yeah, the "joke" defense strikes me as a bit of a cop-out, but I'll take it. We all say kinda dumb things from time to time (see: my blog) and it's better than sticking to a silly argument.

  9. Maoists seem to like it though:

  10. And North Korea is still authoritarian.

  11. Anonymous5:07 PM

    The point isn't that libertarians want a world that looks like Somalia--it's that if they had their way, the results would look like Somalia. The punch line is that they don't realize that.

    It's a joke, not an in-depth analysis.

  12. if [libertarians] they had their way, the results would look like Somalia.

    ... a country torn apart by two decades of U.S. proxy wars, including repeated invasions by a brutal Ethiopian military? Very funny.

    1. Yes. Somalia is what you get when you create a power vacuum.

  13. I seem to remember this catcall starting -- maybe it was just a snarky retort -- years ago when CATO actually published a paper using Somalia ex-Mogadishu as a thriving example of their idea of glibertarian paradise. They may have even had a point, regarding life being better in, say, Puntland, than it had been under the previous draconian US and Soviet backed dictatorships.

  14. About 200k hits on Google -- and half of them are from the Daily Kos comment threads.

    Ditto for "pot-smoking Republicans."

    And the worst of it is, everyone who says it thinks it's original and witty.

    The proper comparison to present-day Somalia is not Frankfurt or Georgetown. It's Somalia when it was under a state, and its neighbors like Ethiopia that currently have states.

  15. Christopher11:45 PM

    Ditto for "pot-smoking Republicans."

    That one's worse, to me. I mean, a lot of left wing types disagree with libertarians on how the state works, so it makes sense that they'd come up with jokes about it.

    But hearing people who are generally against the drug war and perfectly happy to explain why it's a racist waste of money dismiss people who agree with them as jerks who just want to smoke pot makes me cringe.

    Also, just wanting to smoke pot and be left alone is a perfectly admirable thing.

  16. Obviously Scahill meant "libertarian" in the debased, contemporary, American sense of the term as it is understood by most people in this silly country. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, for example, often characterizes its deeply statist and authoritarian positions as "libertarian."

    Now, since the 1960s there has been a tradition of alliances between "left" libertarians and Rothbardian right-wing kooks.

    I shit on that tradition. Peddlers of RonPaulogetics deserve to be scolded as humorlessly as Chuckles Davis scolded Jeremy Scahill for his inoffensive tweetletwat.

  17. Anonymous9:51 AM

    "I seem to remember this catcall starting -- maybe it was just a snarky retort -- years ago when CATO actually published a paper using Somalia ex-Mogadishu as a thriving example of their idea of glibertarian paradise."

    I'm not aware of the CATO paper you're referencing and even though CATO publishes some weak shit, I seriously doubt they tried to pass off Somalia as any type of libertarian ideal. However, there have been several papers written comparing conditions in Somalia before state collapse and after.

    From Somalia After State Collapse: Chaos or Improvement? (pdf)...

    "Telecommunications is one major area of success in Somalia. The one measure for which we have complete data, main lines per 1,000 of population, shows dramatic relative improvement since Somalia became stateless, moving from 29th to 8th among the African countries included in our survey. We only have data since the collapse of the state for mobile phone, Internet usage, and households with televisions. Somalia ranks highly in mobile phones (16th) and Internet users (11th), while it ranks 27th in households with televisions. 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."

    Another paper, Better Off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse (pdf) was written by Peter Leeson.

    Also noted in the papers is that the death rate, infant mortality rate and cases of tuberculosis are lower in Somalia since the state's collapse while life expectancy has increased.

    It also shouldn't be lost that the most dangerous places to be in Somalia are areas like Mogadishu where the state was most powerful before its collapse and where groups who want to be the new state continue to fight (with the help of foreign funds).

    The statist-US is still a better place to live than a psuedo-stateless-Somalia but it looks like a psuedo-stateless-Somalia is still better than the prior "functioning"-state-version.

  18. Brian M10:48 AM

    Ewxcellent post, Charles. This argument came up on a liberal leaning rationalist/atheist discussion board I participate in. My main question was why, given the prevalence of skeptics on the board, they did not turn their skepticism towards the claims of patriotism and nationalism and Statism? Nobody ever responded to THAT question.

  19. Anonymous10:08 PM

    The problem is money is force. The myth of freedom in libertarianism, but libertarianism denies money is force. The 'free transactions' are nonsensical since money is a representation of power in society. Free transactions will not lead to the best outcome and countless revolutions against self-interested parties engaging in free transactions to cement their own power and protect it from others have proved libertarians incorrect.

  20. People don't like to think about this point but...

    At first Somalia had a government, a brutal dictatorship. This dictatorship forgot the first rule of government, which is that the parasite should not kill the host. That government brought the country as low as a country can possibly go, looting anything that could be looted and everything else was pretty much destroyed.

    Only then did the Somalia government collapse under its own weight. What made that unusual is that a new government didn't take over, making this somehow a "libertarian paradise."

    The first thing is that ever since then, the US government has been offering a very large amount of foreign aid to whoever manages to establish themselves as the new government. This turned the clan leaders into warlords, because of the promise of billions of free dollars courtesy of the US taxpayer.

    The Somali people did try to rebuild, which was hampered by foreign interventions in the name of "stability." Some outside army come in, shoots a bunch of people, breaks a lot of stuff, and creates a temporary government. This government collapses as soon as the foreign troops are pulled out, and the Somali people start rebuilding again.

    But the closest the smear comes to having a basis is that the lack of government (even with all the government intervention) didn't result instantaneously in a paradise. As low as Somalia got, they expect an immediate turnaround.

    Even thing things have improved there.

    From 1991 to 2011:
    Life expectancy went from 46 years to 50 years
    Birth rate went from 46 to 44
    Death rate went from 19 to 16
    GDP per capita went from $210 to $600
    Infant mortality went from 116 deaths <1yr, per 1,000 births to 109 deaths <1yr, per 1,000 births
    Access to safe water went from 35% to 29%
    Adult literacy went from 24% to 38%

    Five out of seven indicators have shown marked improvement, one is ambiguous, and one has gone down. I daresay if an imposed government had shown such success it would be shouted from the mountaintops as a glorious triumph.

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