Tom Woods, of the Tom Woods Show, a fine and informative libertarian podcast, puts out an excellent daily email newsletter. Today’s interested me:
On my Twitter feed the other day, someone posted a photo of a page in a textbook he was forced to use in college.
“If you are a libertarian or an anarchist who believes states are a threat to freedom, you should consider moving to Somalia.” That’s the first sentence on the page.
(The offending book, if you’re curious, is The Good Society: An Introduction to Comparative Politics, by Alan Draper and Ansil Ramsay.)
Here we have an academic textbook literally urging libertarians to move to Somalia if they hate states so much — in other words, it’s written at the level of “You like carrots? Why don’t you marry one” from third grade. Seriously, this is exactly the same dumb-guy argument I might encounter on Twitter.
“Without a state,” we read, Somalia under statelessness descended into a Hobbesian “state of nature where life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Then, after two whole paragraphs on the situation in Somalia, we get study questions. If you look really, really closely, you may detect a very slight bias in these questions.
VERY SLIGHT, I tell you.
“1. Which is preferable, bad government or no government?”
“2. Why hasn’t Somalia without a state become the paradise that libertarians anticipate?”
This reaction, this common and absurd “Somalia Ploy,” is what you might expect from an over-emphasis on anti-statism among libertarians, at least when the “statism“ being fought is no longer informed by Ludwig von Mises’ usage of “etatism” (the French version of the word), but instead abused as a sort of hatred for The State in all its forms.
But the witlessness of some libertarians need not undermine the wits of the rest.
Here is my main reaction to the Somalia Ploy: Libertarians do not oppose The State because it protects human rights and thereby promotes public order and personal safety. No, libertarians oppose statism because States routinely, perhaps ineluctably, abuse human rights and thereby promote public disorder and personal insecurity. Certainly, all robust modern states do.
Libertarians defend the human right to liberty, the only (or, perhaps, one of the few) right(s) that can qualify as such (as a right). Why is this? Because liberty is one of the only (or few) defensible social relations that can be had by all. The right to liberty can be universalized.
Libertarians demand that the institutions of government defend rights. States too often offend against rights. But that does not mean that any society that lacks a state will necessarily defend rights. There is a logical fallacy involved to presume such a thing to be so.
Somalia does not have a long tradition of advocating and protecting rights. That is one reason that the states that preceded its recent period of statelessness were so awful.
And this historical and comparative aspect of the ploy is where Tom Woods plies his argument.
Now for one thing, was there ever a libertarian who predicted that a stateless Somalia — or a stateless anywhere else — would be a “paradise”?
More importantly, if we’re going to get a picture that’s worth anything of life in Somalia without the state, the correct comparison to make is not between Somalia and the United States (the comparison most writers like this are implicitly making), but between Somalia and comparable African countries.
And on that front, Somalia during its stateless period comes out pretty darn well. In most metrics of living standards it held steady or improved.
In the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization in 2008, Professor Benjamin Powell and his colleagues wrote:
“This paper’s main contribution to the literature has been to compare Somalia’s living standards to those of 41 other sub-Saharan African countries both before and after the collapse of the national government. We find that Somalia’s living standards have generally improved and that they compare relatively favorably with many existing African states. Importantly, we find that Somali living standards have often improved, not just in absolute terms, but also relative to other African countries since the collapse of the Somali central government.”
Economist Peter Leeson, in Anarchy Unbound (Cambridge University Press), reports similar findings — yes, Somalia ranked low in some categories during the stateless period, but that’s where it ranked before statelessness, too, and if anything it made progress in those categories (life expectancy is up, for instance, and infant mortality is down).
This is all very well and good. I am impressed. But even this does not get to the heart of the problem with the Somalia Ploy. Though it may be true that Somalia’s competing social institutions and long-standing (as well as recently developed) habits of sociality have encouraged the growth of a better-than-the-past-statist society, and a better-than-the-neighbors’ societies, too, I strongly doubt that Somalians are committed to a general right to liberty. I see little evidence that liberty has been the main focus of those institutions that have been responsible for “the peace” during the years of statelessness.
So, the Somalia Ploy must be relegated to Cheap Shot status. That serious scholars might advance it is only proof that what passes for seriousness among scholars these days leaves much to be desired.
Namely, “seriousness.” And maybe “scholarship,” too.