By Tom Woods
To this day I find myself replying on Twitter to people who genuinely think this is a devastating argument:
“If you want to live in your libertarian paradise, you should move to Somalia.”
Whenever I see this, I know I am not dealing with the sharpest knife in the drawer, as they say.
I recently saw someone post a photo of a page in a textbook he was forced to use in college, and it brought up the Somalia example.
“If you are a libertarian or an anarchist who believes states are a threat to freedom, you should consider moving to Somalia.” That’s the first sentence on the page.
(The offending book, if you’re curious, is The Good Society: An Introduction to Comparative Politics, by Alan Draper and Ansil Ramsay.)
Here we have an academic textbook literally urging libertarians to move to Somalia if they hate states so much — in other words, it’s written at the level of “You like carrots? Why don’t you marry one” from third grade.
“Without a state,” we read, Somalia under statelessness descended into a Hobbesian “state of nature where life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Then, after two whole paragraphs on the situation in Somalia, we get study questions. If you look really, really closely, you may detect a very slight bias in these questions.
VERY SLIGHT, I tell you.
“1. Which is preferable, bad government or no government?”
“2. Why hasn’t Somalia without a state become the paradise that libertarians anticipate?”
Now for one thing, was there ever a libertarian who predicted that a stateless Somalia — or a stateless anywhere else — would be a “paradise”?
More importantly, if we’re going to get a picture that’s worth anything of life in Somalia without the state, the correct comparison to make is not between Somalia and the United States (the comparison most writers like this are implicitly making), but between Somalia and comparable African countries.
And on that front, Somalia during its stateless period comes out pretty darn well. In most metrics of living standards it held steady or improved.
In the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization in 2008, Professor Benjamin Powell and his colleagues wrote:
“This paper’s main contribution to the literature has been to compare Somalia’s living standards to those of 41 other sub-Saharan African countries both before and after the collapse of the national government. We find that Somalia’s living standards have generally improved and that they compare relatively favorably with many existing African states. Importantly, we find that Somali living standards have often improved, not just in absolute terms, but also relative to other African countries since the collapse of the Somali central government.”
Economist Peter Leeson, in Anarchy Unbound (Cambridge University Press), reports similar findings — yes, Somalia ranked low in some categories during the stateless period, but that’s where it ranked before statelessness, too, and if anything it actually made progress in those categories (life expectancy was up, for instance, and infant mortality was down).
Does our textbook cite any of this? The question answers itself. The only person quoted in the book is a New York Times reporter.
I think I’ll take Ben Powell and Pete Leeson.