Courtesy of Real Truth Now. This meme has taken countless forms in social media, including this viral video. The “if you’re a libertarian why don’t you move to Somalia!” argument is used to show how libertarian principles supposedly result in misery and violence. After all, who would want to live in Somalia?! However, making this comparison shows a profound ignorance of both Somalia and libertarian thought.
This shallow argument leaves out almost the entire context of Somalia. It’s true that Somalia has been without a functioning central government since 1991, but there’s so much more to the story, and it’s not favorable to those who support big government.
A Brief History of Somalia
Shortly after gaining their independence from colonial rule in 1960, Somalia was taken over by Mohamed Siad Barre, who instilled an oppressive military dictatorship. Under the influence of the Soviets, this was transformed into a socialist regime in the 70s, where the government instituted full-scale central planning under its policy of “scientific socialism”. In practice, this meant brutalizing the Somali people and terrorizing anyone who posed a threat to the state’s power. As the Africa Watch Committee noted:
“Both the urban population and nomads living in the countryside were subjected to summary killings, arbitrary arrest, detention in squalid conditions, torture, rape, crippling constraints on freedom of movement and expression and a pattern of psychological intimidation.”
The UN Development Program proclaimed,
“The 21-year regime of Siad Barre had one of the worst human rights records in Africa.”
Given the history of Africa at the time, it’s no small feat to attain this distinction. The Barre regime was notoriously corrupt and brutal in almost every facet, and drained the vast majority of the country’s resources and output into the military and cronyism. Before the regime collapsed, 90% of state spending went to the military, while less than 1% was spent on social services. In the 1980s, Somalia had one of the lowest per capita calorie intakes in the world. Starvation was commonplace. In 1988 alone, over 50,000 people were slaughtered by the regime (about the number of Americans who died in the entire Vietnam War). By 1991, the civil war was mostly over, and the Barre regime had collapsed, leaving a power vacuum in its wake. Somalia was a desolate, failed socialist state.
The history of Somalia before 1991 is not only horrific, but one completely dominated by government. By the time Somalia went stateless, it was an impoverished, illiterate society, that had experienced decades of totalitarian rule. After the collapse of the central government, there were efforts by some groups to take power and establish a new (likely brutally oppressive) government, but none were successful. Instead, the country became organized into different clans. To view the stateless era of Somalia in context, it’s important to understand this background and see how it has done since. Comparing it to the US or other first world countries is fallacious.
Somalia Without a National Government
How has Somalia fared without a government? Surprisingly, better than where they started. The conventional wisdom is that there will be complete chaos and disaster without government, but even the BBC acknowledges that the society runs surprisingly well. The livestock sector is thriving, with Somalia being the leading exporter in East Africa. Somalia has attracted a number of major corporations to invest in their agricultural sector, including Dole Fruit. Their telecommunications industry and infrastructure is also impressive, relative to the region, with The Economist declaring it’s “generally cheaper and clearer than a call from anywhere else in Africa.” A mobile phone call can be made anywhere in the country. Somalia is definitely still impoverished, and few in the Western world would want to inhabit it, but comparing the two is nonsensical. Comparing Somalia to its neighbors and itself before the civil war makes much more sense. Below is a chart doing just that.
Out of 13 measures of living standards, Somalia ranks in the top 50% of African nations in six of them. It still ranks poorly in infant mortality, immunization and access to clean water, which are significant shortcomings, but from 1985-1990 Somalia ranked in the bottom 50% in every measure where data was available. Their life expectancy has increased by 5 years since becoming stateless. One would be hard pressed to blame Somalia’s problems on a lack of government, when it arguably has performed better than other countries who have governments in the region during the same time period, and clearly better than when they had a government. Both of the scholarly papers above agree Somalia has done better relative to their peers without a central government.
What about law and order? Can anyone just do what they want? It turns out that absent the state, Somalia returned to Xeer, which is a traditional Somali legal code based on customs predating Colonialism. It’s similar to the old British Common Law, except built on the moral views of the region. There are many good parts to the system, as it outlaws things we all agree are wrong like murder, assault and theft. It’s based on restitution, instead of punishment, which means the court is trying to make things right for the victim, not just concerned with imprisoning the offender. Here are examples of some penalties, payable in the “gold standard” in Somalia, the camel! (Note: intentional violent acts often cost double)
The judges are designated by each community, generally an elder who is respected. Most disputes are resolved quite quickly. If the crime occurs “across tribal lines”, often a third clan will be the arbiter in the case to prevent bias. There are many things wrong with the system, like how women and homosexuals are treated, but this is no different in most other African nations with governments. It’s clearly a primitive system, as Somalia is still a primitive country with the according beliefs. However, it shows that absent a central government, societies will naturally develop a framework of laws that correspond to their moral views that often work better and are more just than the government alternative. At least they don’t have a totalitarian government instilling constant fear, imprisoning citizens for crimes against the state, and taking their property to pay for a corrupt military.
As far as crime itself in Somalia, it’s wide-ranging. The northern part, called Somaliland, has been quite peaceful and has lower crime rates than much of the world. Other areas, particularly Mogadishu, are much more dangerous due to a variety of reasons, including the hard-line Islamist groups trying to gain control. This is an awful situation to be sure, and one not limited to Somalia. It’s hard to get reliable global statistics, but in this ranking, Somalia is #70 in the world for homicides. Not great, but far from the worst places, all which have governments. As with the US, some areas are much worse than others.
Is Somalia Libertarian?
In one word, no!
Being libertarian does not simply mean a lack of central government. No influential libertarian thinker has defined the term, or their ideal society that way. There are many differing opinions about the level and amount of government among libertarians, but in general it’s a philosophy that holds liberty as the principle objective (hence the name!). This means a society where the Enlightenment ideas of individual rights, including property rights, are respected. To boil it down to one idea, it would be the non-aggression principle. Consistent libertarians advocate for a society where physical force and coercion (including fraud) are outlawed. Since the state as it usually exists is a form of coercion, they also oppose most (or even all) state functions, but the main focus is on protecting rights, not the obliteration of government.
How does Somalia compare to this worldview? It’s certainly not a bastion of liberty, and there are likely next to no people there who espouse the philosophies of John Locke, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard! It’s a primitive society, where tribal clans coexist because none can overpower the other, not a nation embracing the non-aggression principle.
Individual rights are certainly not respected in Somalia. Much of it, and the Xeer law system, is based on Sharia Law. Under this, women (1/2 of the population!) have very few freedoms. For example, if raped they are often forced to marry the rapist, and genital mutilation is still condoned. Only recently have they even been allowed to drive! While there is some economic freedom, it’s still a nation largely ruled by force, not by law. Libertarians champion free markets, which means its participants are free from the use of force in the marketplace, both from government and criminals. Somalia does not uphold this ideal at all.
The indigence of Somalia can hardly be blamed on its lack of formal government, as its devastation was a direct result of it! A government is just an agency with a monopoly on the use of force in a region. In Somalia, this agency has long been used for beating one’s opponents over the head with a club and ruling over them. Instituting a government there would likely only empower one group to oppress another in a more effective and massive scale. Enabling a central power over an area where the regions dislike each other and don’t respect individual rights would be a disaster. If anything, Somalia has shown that even the most primitive and backward countries can function better without a government than with. The situation there is not “libertarian”, but until their society starts valuing liberty, it’s probably the best alternative.