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No, Somalia is not a “Libertarian Paradise”

February 17, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky

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And don’t trust anyone who says it is.

Contrary to what members of the major parties say (mostly garden-variety Democrats, but some of the more parochial Republicans too) – Somalia and other broken, war-torn nations are NOT Libertarian utopias.

When people say “Oh, if you’re such a libertarian, why don’t you just move to SOMALIA!”, it usually means one of two things. Either they are completely ignorant of the history of East Africa, or they’ve realized that the Libertarian critique of a powerful central government has some weight to it. But since they can’t acknowledge this fact, lest they upset their polite company of #UniteBlue sophisticates or have David Brooks write some dreadful column about them – they have to reach for their cherished last resort: the third world.

Not Even a Straw Man

On its face, the point about the failure of “small government” in Somalia looks convincing. The country has suffered through a lack of stability since the civil war and the weakness of the central government certainly hasn’t helped. But what anti-libertarians are doing is actually making an excellent point in reverse. The impotence of the Somalian government is not the cause, but the symptom of larger forces, those being:

1. Ethnic and tribal violence that destroyed stabilizing institutions

2. The legacy of British and Italian colonialism that left the country unaccustomed to self-governance

3. The long-term effects of central planning under the military dictatorship of Siad Barre

If anything, Somalia suffers from a legacy of too much government. With the exception of increasing the literacy rate, the Supreme Revolutionary Council of 1969-1991 failed spectacularly and featured all the characteristics of centralized authoritarianism: rape and torture on behalf of the secret police, aggression against neighboring states coupled with massive military spending, a paternalistic cult of personality, and a command economy that failed so badly that once the Soviets pulled their support, the government was left to beg the West (i.e. The IMF) for help.

Then there’s the civil war. And the enforcement of a state religion, which includes last December’s official banning of Christmas celebrations throughout the country. And if recent allegations are to be believed, the current government cannot be trusted with basic weaponry without it landing in the hands of Islamist militants.

Some libertarian paradise.

But to the critics of libertarianism, none of this matters:

I’ll just share a meme from ‘Being Liberal’ with burning buildings in what looks like Somalia…that oughta’ show those heartless libertarians how awful their Ayn Rand worshiping philosophy is!!! They just want everyone to starve and die on the street without healthcare!!!

What Libertarianism Actually Is

This also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of libertarianism. First of all, I don’t worship Ayn Rand and neither do most libertarians over the age of 19. At its core, libertarianism is simply the application of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, along with a skepticism of centralized authority. In short: personal liberty and voluntary association. And just because one is opposed to central planning in healthcare or education DOES NOT mean that person thinks people should be unhealthy and ignorant.

By its very nature, a centralized state has the monopoly on physical violence and therefore has the power to enforce the law. It’s natural then that those who may have privileged access to resources and connections to those in power will use that privilege as leverage to manipulate the law in ways that serve their interests. Somehow this fact gets lost on those who argue for giving more power to the state, rather than less.

By saying this, I don’t mean to confuse my liberal friends into thinking that libertarians are against things like the social safety net, or any form of government at all. Libertarianism is not the same as anarchism. Though, I’m sure any serious anarchist would be equally aghast to hear his or her philosophy attributed to Somalia as well. God help you if you say such a thing within earshot of them.

In many ways, libertarians can agree with liberals and the left on the conception of the good in a just society. Unlike many conservatives, who use a certain conception of “small government” as a Trojan horse for solidifying old hierarchies and the status of “preordained” elites, libertarians should aim their critique at the way centralized authority actually exacerbates inequality and injustice. And at the same time, we can argue for sensible social welfare programs like a Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) and a simplified universal health insurance program. These simple, universal programs can satisfy the needs of society while doing away with huge bureaucracies and armies of compliance departments at big corporations (for more on how libertarians and the left can come together, check out these essays by Gary Chartier called Socialist Ends, Market Means).

“Gee Drew, you sound awfully different from most libertarians I run into.”

Yes, there is the stereotype of the isolated nut who sees everyone else as parasites. We all know the type, and can spot him or her from miles away. But this has nothing to do with the principles of libertarianism. Just because some hysterical idiot on talk radio said something about “moochers” and “takers” does not mean he speaks for the entire movement. It might sound like I’m dodging, but just hear me out. Advocating for personal liberty and a less powerful state does not obligate you to suddenly have despicable attitudes towards the less fortunate. Liberals are right to be angry when conservatives march out straw-man arguments about “welfare queens”, while completely ignoring corporate tax breaks and subsidies. Conservatives are right to get ticked off when liberals characterize everyone on the right as heartless, racist jerks who worship Fox News (speaking of which).

So yes, I can say “I’m not that kind of libertarian.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. B.W. permalink
    May 24, 2014 11:42 am

    Yes, Somalia is a libertarians dream.

  2. John permalink
    May 24, 2014 7:33 pm

    Well, you make a lot of interesting points. However, it’s my impression libertarians are simply concerned with centralized government authority. But corporations also enjoy a monopoly on physical and emotional violence: demanding an end of environmental regulations despite evidence of poisoning people and firing individuals who dare express critical opinions of the business during their private time. What is misunderstood about liberals by libertarians, we simply want the maximum number of people to have access to health care, education and economic security. This includes protesting and making laws against racism and economic segregation. Libertarians seems to endorse the individuals rights, not realizing not all individuals have equal access to resources. The wealthy individual can use extensive legal means to accomplish their ends despite documented harm to the community. Hey, just look at cigarettes!

    Libertarians are presented here as more of a philosophy rather than a governmental system, but it is still used in a very dangerous fashion.

  3. Steve Smith permalink
    June 20, 2014 2:21 pm

    The fact of the matter is that the geniuses over at the Ludwig von Mises institute have on numerous occasions mentioned how Somalia is better off economically than some of its neighbors, and attribute this to the lack of central government. They attribute the continued disorder to the political intervention of foreign governments and tend to ignore several bottom-up factors that are driving the conflict.

    Yes, you are right that Siad Barre’s government was abusive, corrupt, and overall tyrannical. Thanks to his administration, as well as the imperial administrations prior to him, tensions were generated between groups that may have not been there had it not been for the governments. However, what could have prevented this from happening? Another government telling Britain and Italy that they can’t bring Somalia under their sphere of influence? What could have prevented Siad Barre from rising to power? Another more powerful entity curbing his influence or flat out restricting his freedom of movement? Wouldn’t this entity either be a government or a social movement aspiring to govern?

    Anti-libertarians may be talking glibly to suggest that libertarians move to Somalia. But libertarians are still by and large utopians who fantasize about a type of society that simply cannot exist. Furthermore they are still historical revisionists who focus only on historical points that confirm their pet points while ignoring the horrors and dangers of anarchy and disorder, which they seem to be constantly trying to move towards. There is no freedom and liberty without government. What matters is justice. Large governments that are protective of individual freedoms and rights and are bound by the rule of law can be as just as small governments committed to ensuring private economic freedom. Sweden and Switzerland are both fairly good, transparent governments, even if they have quite different taxation rates.

    • June 20, 2014 4:10 pm

      You make a lot of solid points here, I would only caution that what you call for in this statement:

      “There is no freedom and liberty without government. What matters is justice. Large governments that are protective of individual freedoms and rights and are bound by the rule of law can be as just as small governments committed to ensuring private economic freedom. ”

      Is what a lot of libertarians call for and would like from their own governments. Libertarianism is not the same as anarchism. Yes, I know some libertarians like to play semantic games, but I assure you that’s not my intention here.

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

  4. Craig permalink
    September 11, 2014 8:53 am

    Anyone who strictly holds to the Non-aggression Principle (NAP), in all aspects of life in society, is a libertarian. Anyone who makes exceptions to the NAP is not a libertarian, regardless of what he or she may claim. Anyone who does not know what the NAP is can look it up.

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