Rum, Sodomy and the Nash redux

by Henry on April 22, 2009

John’s post reminds me that I was giving some grief to Matt Welch about seasteaders and the more … conceptually novel side of libertarianism last week (Matt held his own).

This came up in an argument over Peter Leeson’s new book on the joys of eighteenth century piracy as an exercise in stateless government, and the recent excitement off the coast of Somalia. I suggested that Somalia looked like a libertarian paradise – no government, lots of guns etc – something that Matt certainly didn’t agree with personally. But what I didn’t know (until one of the bloggingheads commenters pointed it out) was that Peter Leeson himself has written an article arguing that “modern Somalia is teh awesome”:http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.peterleeson.com%2FBetter_Off_Stateless.pdf&ei=f1HvSY3bIt6HlAfM_tQp&usg=AFQjCNGG2u3zX0OOHBmfsJ00LJIiuI829Q (or, at least, a lot better than you might think). As he argues in a different, summary essay (linked to below):

Like all other choices, the choices we face in “selecting” governments are constrained. Unfortunately for most developing countries, the political choice set they face is far smaller than the political choice set more developed countries face. Historical features, such as clan tension, rampant corruption, territorial conflicts, and many others, which cannot be changed in the short run, severely restrict the kind of government countries like Somalia can reasonably expect to have if they have a government. Sadly, well-functioning, well-constrained governments like the ones we observe in the U.S. and western Europe are not part of this choice set. Ultra-predatory, corrupt, and abusive governments, however, are. And so is anarchy. As Somalia’s experience illustrates, for many LDCs with these limited options anarchy may very well be the best feasible choice.

I’ll leave the claim here to others who know African politics better than me (Chris Blattman, feel free to chime in) and merely note that these views presents an interesting question for the Princeton people charged with publicizing his book. On the one hand, piracy and Somalia are surely topical issues, but on the other, professor Leeson’s views on piracy and the benefits of Somalian political organization are likely to be unpopular with many people (his current proposed solution for the Somalian piracy problem, by the way, is to privatize the ocean).

I’ve started reading his book on piracy, which is an entertaining enough exercise, but one which I suspect is a bit fishy on the empirics. He clearly has his ideological druthers (see “here”:http://www.cato-unbound.org/2007/08/06/peter-t-leeson/anarchy-unbound-or-why-self-governance-works-better-than-you-think/ for his grand theory of why we don’t really need government), but then, so do we all. While I don’t find his claims for anarcho-libertarianism to be particularly convincing, I am probably not the target audience, and they have their place in the grand ideological debate. What I do find disconcerting though, is his obvious sweet tooth for efficiency arguments and just-so stories. History, when you look at it at all carefully, is much too messy to support any ideological explanation unequivocally. The book (and the academic articles that it draws upon) simply feel too neat to me, and don’t persuade me that he went into his research on these topics looking to be surprised by what he found (which I really think you should, any time you engage in empirical research). Others’ mileage may vary.

{ 16 comments }

1

dsquared 04.22.09 at 5:55 pm

Surely the way to analyse Somalia is by a “natural experiment” with Somaliland, which in 1991 has as near to the same ethnic and economic starting point as you’re likely to get, but which developed a functional government rather than going into the experiment with anarchy, and seems to have come out with substantially better results.

2

Alex Tabarrok 04.22.09 at 7:00 pm

I posted about Somalia with some links a few years ago. It’s a mess but better than one would have expected.

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2004/04/somalia_and_the.html

Alex

3

Stuart 04.22.09 at 7:09 pm

I don’t know why, but whenever someone talks about the more extreme forms of libertarianism or anarchism, I am reminded of that scene in Life of Brian where John Cleese’s character complains, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

4

koan0215 04.22.09 at 7:32 pm

I’m curious as to what authority can auction the ocean. Assuming that you did want to buy bits of the sea around Somalia, then whom would you pay?

5

omega Centauri 04.22.09 at 8:05 pm

I have never thought that the state of libertarian chaos would be long lived enough to be considered as a stable state. I think it is better to think of it as starting conditions for an experiment in the formation of government. In most cases IMO, it is one of the warlords vying to become progenitors of the next dynasty who wins out. In some cases, we have seen religiously based movements form a government. The most recent example was the Taliban in Afghanistan. Somalia is most likely to follow the latter example.

Of some interest might be Walid Phares article in the asia times:
Jihadis target the high seas
He seems to think the pirates are being co-opted into the Jihadi movement, and are seeking to lure in western intervention.

6

Stuart 04.22.09 at 8:31 pm

Somalia is most likely to follow the latter example.

I thought there was a good chance of what seemed a fairly reasonable (compared to the likely alternatives anyway) but religiously based government a couple of years ago in Somalia, but US pressure and military support for several warlords helped break it up?

7

omega Centauri 04.22.09 at 10:27 pm

Stuart:
You may well be right, that Somalia was on a track to perhaps succeed in forming a more or less conventional government, until the US decided to use the Ethiopians to smash it. But now it seems the less benign sorts of outcome have become the most probable. We never seem to learn the lessons on unintended consequences, do we. And the ironic result is likely to be that our spite over the protection of a handfull of people on our badguys list, is likely to lead to a whole country run by people who would qualify for that same list.

8

P O'Neill 04.23.09 at 12:49 am

d^2 may have proved that British colonialism left better institutions than its Italian counterpart.

9

jholbo 04.23.09 at 2:20 am

Great post title!

10

Henry 04.23.09 at 3:37 am

Kieran’s (originally) rather than mine.

11

Matt Kuzma 04.23.09 at 5:30 am

I think privatizing the seas is a fine idea, but I only think that because I also think that if you properly broke up the value of various assets associated with the oceans, the grand total of their value would rival the accumulated wealth of all of civilization. I imagine Leeson is only thinking in terms of shipping rights and drawing territorial borders on the surface, but any serious attempt would also have to include all other rights to assets associated with the ocean. Fishing rights and drilling rights are obvious, but slightly less obvious are things like the right to affect the ability for the oceans to replenish atmospheric moisture through evaporation. It’s a process integral to the survival of all life on Earth, so simply allowing the owners of shipping rights to do as they please with it is suicidally stupid. And of course there are dozens of equally invaluable services the oceans provide that could not be reasonably ignored and by default bundled with shipping rights. If all those things are properly divvied up and accounted for, I’m sure we’d find that nobody could afford them.

12

Zamfir 04.23.09 at 7:10 am

koan0215 says: I’m curious as to what authority can auction the ocean. Assuming that you did want to buy bits of the sea around Somalia, then whom would you pay?

Luckily, Leeson has a good Coasian answer, Jeltsin-style : It’s not so important where the proceeds go. The important thing is that the un-owned becomes owned.

13

David Gerard 04.23.09 at 9:32 am

14

ajay 04.23.09 at 12:02 pm

Fishing rights and drilling rights are obvious, but slightly less obvious are things like the right to affect the ability for the oceans to replenish atmospheric moisture through evaporation. It’s a process integral to the survival of all life on Earth, so simply allowing the owners of shipping rights to do as they please with it is suicidally stupid.

How, exactly, could you affect the ability of the oceans to evaporate?

15

Barry 04.23.09 at 12:16 pm

koan0215 04.22.09 at 7:32 pm

“I’m curious as to what authority can auction the ocean. Assuming that you did want to buy bits of the sea around Somalia, then whom would you pay?”

Zamfir 04.23.09 at 7:10 am

“Luckily, Leeson has a good Coasian answer, Jeltsin-style : It’s not so important where the proceeds go. The important thing is that the un-owned becomes owned.”

Gee, I guess the poor oppressed multinational megacorps will have to reluctantly step up to the plate, and ‘buy’ the oceans (for the price of some bribes). Poor them :(

16

fourcultures 04.27.09 at 3:38 am

Fourcultures wrote a critique of Leeson’s pirate economics book back in December.
“In summary, the Individualist trading syndicates, the Hierarchist maritime empires and the Egalitarian (or sometimes Fatalist) pirates all had different approaches to social organisation, which biassed their economic rationality in one of four directions…”
See: Pirates: Just Acting Rationally?

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