David Friedman Replies to (part of) McKay's FAQ

The general tone of this "faq" did not suggest that a detailed response would be worth the trouble, but I thought a few points worth mentioning.

> F.9 Is Medieval Iceland an example of "anarcho"-capitalism working in 
>     practice?

> Ironically, medieval Iceland is a good example of why "anarcho"-capitalism
> will *not* work and will degenerate into rule by the rich. It should be
> pointed out that Iceland, nearly1000 years ago, was not a pure
> capitalistic system.  In fact, like most cultures claimed by
> "anarcho"-capitalists as examples of their "utopia," it was based on
> artisan production, with free access to communal land
What communal land? All of the land had been claimed by quite early in the saga period--I think by 930, when the legal system was set up.

> However, there were capitalistic elements in the system, namely private
> property and "private states" around the local Jarl (lord). 

If you are going to write about history, it is worth taking at least minimal care to get the facts right. There were no Jarls in Iceland--none. The title existed in Norway and elsewhere in the Norse world. You are probably thinking of Godar, sometimes translated as "Chieftains." They didn't have "private states," unless you use the term very loosely, since their authority was not territorial. They were the link by which other people connected to the legal system. An icelandic farmer could be the thingman of any chieftain who would have him, and could freely switch from one chieftain to another. Jesse Byock in one of his books actually maps the location of chieftains and thingmen in part of Iceland fairly alte in the period, and it is clear that not only was the authority non-territorial de jure, it was non-territorial de facto as well--you didn't get all the people in one area being linked to a particular chieftain.

>The existence
> of private property soon led to the destruction of communal forms of
> self-management, which was replaced by the rule of the rich. The artisans
> and farmers would seek the "protection" of a Jarl, providing their labour
> in return. This payment was used to enrich the Jarl, enabling him to
> enlist more houscarls (warriors), which gave him even more social
> power. 
This is wholly imaginary. "Huscarl" is an Anglo-saxon term and an Anglo-saxon institution--it corresponds to nothing in Iceland. The chieftains did not get labor from their thingmen--they got military support, plus a thingtax paid by those who did not go to the Althing in order to cover the expenses of those who did. It looks as though the author, or whomever he read, simply made up a history for Iceland along vaguely Marxist lines, without looking at any of the sources.

> This change from a communal,
> anarchistic society to a statist, propertarian one is described in an
> article on Iceland by Harvard's Einar Haugen in the _Encyclopaedia
> Americana_: 

I doubt it--certainly the quote you give below, which is a reasonably accurate although seriously oversimplified account of the breakdown of the system, does not correspond to what you wrote above.

> "During the 12th century, wealth and power began to accumulate  in the
> hands of a few chiefs, and by 1220, six prominant families ruled the
> entire country. It was the internecine power struggle among these
> families, shrewdly exploited by King Haakon IV of Norway, that finally
> brought the old republic to an end."

Note that this conflict (the Sturlung period) starts almost three hundred years after the Icelandic legal system was set up. That's a pretty long time lag.

> F.10 Replies to Some Errors and Distortions in Bryan Caplan's > "Anarchist Theory FAQ" version 4.1.1. > [1]. Caplan, consulting his _American Heritage Dictionary_, claims: > "Anarchism is a negative; it holds that one thing, namely government, is > bad and should be abolished. Aside from this defining tenet, it would be > difficult to list any belief that all anarchists hold." > > The last sentence is ridiculous. It is not at all difficult to > find a more fundamental "defining tenet" of anarchism. We can do so > merely by analyzing the term "an-archy," which is composed of the Greek > words _an_, meaning "no" or "without," and _arche_, meaning literally "a > ruler," but more generally referring to the *principle* of rulership, i.e. > hierarchical authority. Hence an anarchist is someone who advocates > abolishing the principle of hierarchical authority -- not just in > government but in all institutions and social relations.

There is a fairly obvious problem here--the definition of "anarchist." If you define anarchism as opposition to hierarchical authority rather than as opposition to rulers (and it seems clear from your etymological discussion that either definition is etymologically possible), and anarchists as people who agree with that, then that becomes a "belief that all anarchists hold." On the other hand, if you define anarchy as Caplan does, and anarchists accordingly, then there are lots of anarchists (me, for example) who don't believe in abolishing the principle of hierarchical authority in all institutions and social relations. So your "The last sentence is ridiculous" really translates as "The last sentence is inconsistent with McKay's view of anarchy."

> We must conclude, then, that "anarcho"-capitalists are not anarchists at
> all.  In reality they are capitalists *posing* as anarchists in order to
> attract support for their laissez-faire economic project from those who
> are angry at government. 

If you are using "capitalist" in its usual sense, this statement is obviously false--very few anarcho-capitalists are people who make their living from the return on capital. You are confusing--whether deliberately or not I don't know--people who support capitalism with people who play a particular role in capitalism. This lets you make a series of absurd allegations concerning the self-interested reasons why anarcho-capitalists hold their views. The allegations are absurd not because it is impossible that we hold our political views for bad reasons but because those particular bad reasons would apply to capitalists, which most of us aren't.

David Friedman