15A033 Get Thee to Somalia by Jim Davies, 5/17/2015   


Half a century ago empty-headed Conservatives huffed and puffed when faced with legions of long-haired youth chanting "Hell, No, We Won't Go!" and responded with "America: Love it or Leave it."

Their successors today, statists of all colors, when faced with powerful reasons to do without government altogether, sometimes urge the anarchist to go live in Somalia. That's because there, in a country of ten million that is nearly as large as Texas, there is no government and never has been, in any form we might recognize as such.

Those critics think themselves clever - because Somalia is a poor country. By just suggesting we migrate there, they imply an equation between poverty and anarchism, and so are spared the strain of analyzing the real relationships between poverty, government and anarchism.

The unhappy fact is that most of the world's countries are dirt-poor, and that all except that one have governments; hence, poverty correlates not with the absence of government but with its presence. Nonetheless, it's a fair question: why is Somalia, unburdened by the parasite of government, still mired in poverty?

First, a quick note of some exceptions. There are three kinds of government at large in Somalia, defining "government" as a set of thugs wishing to rule other people. There is (A) a variety of small pirate gangs who hole up in the hinterland and make raids in small fast boats on the shipping lanes offshore - see the ZGBlog Pirates of the Horn. Then (B) there are gangs of Muslim fundamentalists bent on terrorizing others into submission to their version of Islam, who use the wide open spaces of Somalia as bases for raids on neighboring Kenya and elsewhere. Lastly (C) there is, and has been for half a century, a series of UN attempts to foist a conventional government on the country in the teeth of its people's wishes, and their armed thugs in police and military gangs have infested parts of the cities like Mogadishu. In the pained words of the CIA Fact Book under "Government Type", Somalia is "in the process of building a federal parliamentary republic." Sure.

Otherwise, in the large rural parts of the country, ten million people are left alone to tend their goats and grow their crops the way they wish, and the way they have for centuries past. An invaluable insight into their culture is furnished by The Law of the Somalis by Michael van Notten, who studied it in some scholarly detail. I'm rather sorry he used the word "Law" in the title and book, because that conveys a connotation of edicts, or rules handed down by an Authority; the book makes clear however that the society is subject to no such things. Rather, it has evolved a system of customary conduct, which is judged on a local, even familial basis. Extended families, in fact, form the cornerstone of Somali society, as do the principles of self-ownership and responsibility; Somalis have always been known as proud and independent, irrepressible. Disputes and krimes are handled by inter-family "courts" set up ad-hoc for the purpose; there is no government justice monopoly, and judgments take the form of compensation to the victim. So a better, albeit longer, title to van Notten's book might have been "The Somali System of Justice."

I was amazed to read that van Notten found that the prevailing religion in Somalia (Sunni Islam) was never imposed by conquest as usual, but accepted voluntarily, and never as a strict replacement for the existing more primitive religion. Today it might be fair to summarize the situation as "nominally Muslim." Tradition counts for much more than even religious law. The net of it is that over around 9,000 years Somalis have developed a very effective but wholly decentralized way to live together in an orderly and respectful fashion.

So, will I heed the advice of our adversaries and get me to Somalia? No, because I'm a terrible linguist - the thought of learning Somali or Arabic at my age is daunting. Van Notten himself married into a Somali "clan" or family, and then formed a new one with a similar basis whose purpose was to trade, import-export. Interesting idea! Sadly, he died prematurely in 2002 but a younger person might well find it an attractive idea to pick up and develop, so helping bring the people of that society some of the blessings of civilization without the curse of government. Though unkindly and sarcastically intended, that Statist suggestion to go to Somalia may actually prove well worth considering.

Mostly, though, my reason for turning down the advice is that I'm eager to help bring America up to Somalia's standard of individual liberty, and even beyond it. With TOLFA the process is well in hand, and with a bit of luck I hope to live to see it. Meanwhile, although it's true that Somalians are poor by conventional measures, they are the richest people in the world by a different standard: for they are free of the curse of government. On that metric, they all possess a pearl of very great price.

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