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No, Somalia is not a “Libertarian Paradise”

February 17, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky


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.”

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

    Yes, Somalia is a libertarians dream.

    • DougFo permalink
      June 15, 2015 11:58 am

      Yes, Somalia is evidence that Libertarianism doesn’t work. And just like any delusion, evidence to the contrary must be denied

      • September 29, 2015 10:48 am

        But a Libertarian society only works if people agree that’s the society they’re going to set up. If I want to set one up and the guy down the road wants to become a War Lord and start executing people and running pirates, there’s not much hope.

        As much as I think it’s a crock, Libertarianism doesn’t equal total chaos. There’s still a respect for rule of law, the argument is where the reach of the law is curtailed.

      • September 30, 2015 3:29 pm

        But libertarianism advocates for a small government with limited, enumerated powers- one of them being the protection of private property. And keep in mind, when it comes to being warlords and executing people, governments tend to be the most prolific practitioners

  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.

  5. adadf permalink
    June 17, 2015 8:39 pm

    “neither do most libertarians over the age of 19” BULLSHIT

    • May 22, 2017 12:00 pm

      Indeed— I know many over-19 libertarians who worship Rand. Sorry to say. They also believe they are the heroes in a Randian utopia. The ones I have met also worship the rich, believing falsely that one dollar is earned by one unit of productivity. They tend to stick to a simple formula: unfettered and hard-working people will “work things out for the best.” All the other losers will perish. This simple mindedness is, in my experience, a form of intellectual laziness. It is unpleasant to discuss politics or the economy with them, as you know ahead of time exactly what they believe, and this belief does not change. It comforts me to read this particular article. Good to know there are libertarians who are not simple-minded. I believe in a balance between opposing ideas. Libertarians can add to that balance without opposing everything that is. Remove the whine and the sarcastic descriptions of persecution, and you could have a good piece.

  6. Notgeorge Lucas permalink
    September 8, 2015 12:42 pm

    You make an excellent set of points, but too bad you defeat the whole Libertarian thesis of less government is better government by stating that Somalia is not a libertarian utopia because it suffers from too much big bad government in the past. Isn’t the whole Libertarian thesis that less government is better and provides more freedom?

    • September 8, 2015 1:38 pm

      “by stating that Somalia is not a libertarian utopia because it suffers from too much big bad government in the past. Isn’t the whole Libertarian thesis that less government is better and provides more freedom?”

      Well yes, that is the thesis. Somalia had too much of it at one point and thus resulted in many of the poor conditions it sees today, thus making it less libertarian. To be sure, there are many other non-political factors at play, but a history of statism (not lack thereof) helped to create the mess. Not sure if there’s some semantic misunderstanding here, but I thought my defense of the thesis was pretty clear- thanks for reading!

  7. March 17, 2016 2:21 pm

    Wait so you’re ok with a minimum wage, a social safety net, and minimal healthcare? Are you sure you’re a libertarian?

    • Logan permalink
      May 22, 2016 9:44 am

      If those things are funded without force, meaning we willfully pay for them, there is no problem. The issue is the government stealing our money to pay for these things. It isn’t necessary and would occur on its own. If the government dude it, then it happened on its own. It just happened with a bunch of politicians in a room instead of a bunch of geniuses in the room.

      Quite simply, if you have a well educated, highly intelligent populace, all you need to do is Allow them to do anything that isn’t directly harmful to another’s property and isn’t an action of initiating violence where there wasn’t any. Once this occurs, so long as the populace is aware of the rules of contract and not committing violence, private businesses will appear to offer every conceivable service and goods, including defense, courts, and anything else you need. Libertarianism sure not disallow a government to rise or to offer any services. It simply requires that government follow the same rules. By that logic, said government would function the same as every other business. The problem is when government doesn’t follow those rules and you can’t stop it without war, which was the basic argument of Thomas Jefferson and state power. We need a Chicago eat or the government has to lose power through voluntary action of politicians.

      • May 29, 2016 9:00 pm

        willfully pay for them? haha who willingly wants to pay more….so once they get sick they should just fucking die…..Or they stuck with a 150k bill that they’ll never pay….hum…I wonder who’s gonna have to end up paying for that….

      • May 22, 2017 12:05 pm

        “if you have a well educated, highly intelligent populace” Aye, there’s the rub.

      • May 22, 2017 12:16 pm

        “By that logic, said government would function the same as every other business.” But many business function poorly. In fact, most businesses function poorly. Larger business that are publicly funded, have to create wealth for their non-working shareholders. They pull more wealth out of the economy than they create in product. In addition, they are poor innovators. Most of the technology and science they are using comes from centralized government, which has the benefit of being able to do pure research without having to care about profit. This idea that people will “work things out for the best” has no example in all of human history. Even small tribes of people have conflict that must be managed with authority. Have you ever been to an HOA meeting? That’s just a handful of like-minded condo owners. They would eat each other if it were legal.

      • May 22, 2017 12:39 pm

        “Allow them to do anything that isn’t directly harmful to another’s property and isn’t an action of initiating violence where there wasn’t any.” And what if they don’t. (And I promise they won’t). Who enforces the rules? I think what you are saying is all violence stems originally from government and trickles down, thus corrupting people who are naturally good. I’ve recently been to a town that is somewhat libertarian. Very little municipal control. Lots of barking dogs, ramshackle and unfit dwellings, drunken driving accidents, poor roads and neighbors who will shoot you if you accidentally go onto their land. Not my cup of tea. There is also an idea floating around here that Americans might just naturally be more civic and community minded. I agree to some extent. But it is government and homogenized public schooling, including civics lessons, that established such concepts. Humans are not naturally interested in the well being of anything outside their own clan.

  8. August 27, 2016 10:59 pm

    I doubt many libertarians would go for GMI. Most see that someone has to pay for GMI, and the ‘G’ means that force and coercion will be involved in that guarantee.

  9. NoTrueScotman permalink
    August 30, 2016 11:17 pm

    LOL you libertarian bros reeeeally like to use the No True Scotsman fallacy, don cha? xD

  10. John permalink
    September 22, 2016 12:43 pm

    I think Somalia is a good example of the inherent problem with Libertarianism, and gives strong evidence that we cannot successfully implement anything remotely approaching it here in the US. Namely, it requires a certain kind of people who are predisposed to cooperation and following the Golden Rule. Africans are not so predisposed, and any heterogeneous group of people like in the US will not be either. I think this why many in the new “alt-right” have abandoned Libertarianism.

  11. Pete permalink
    August 3, 2017 4:05 pm

    Oh, so it’s the “wrong kind” of Liberatarianism. Hmmm…. where have I heard THAT argument before?


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