Somalia is not known for its natural beauty. Its landscape is rocky and dotted here and there with dusty shrubs and acacias poking through the sand. Less than two percent of the land is arable. It must be said that the ocean there is very beautiful and very blue, but turning away from the ocean to face the shore again brings back into view the rocky hillsides and the crumbling hovels that the Somalians call home.
The political landscape of Somalia fares no better. It is a patchwork of warlords who have each parceled out a slice of mud to call his own, to rule according to his whims and fetishes. There are the Islamic warlords of al-Shabaab in the south, the government strongmen who collaborate with al-Shabaab when it suits them, the Somaliland separatists who want a separate nation in the north, and a thousand other men of questionable loyalties.
To most people, Somalia is just another African sand-pie, a footnote at the end of a long and dismal book of African failures. It takes a certain type of idiot to look at Somalia and see something promising. I say that it takes a “certain type” of idiot because the vast majority of idiots are not fooled: they know Somalia is not worth thinking about, so they do not think about it at all. It requires an idiot of some erudition to see promise in a failed state like Somalia; it requires the intelligent stupidity of a libertarian.
Libertarians are interested in Somalia primarily because its central government is weak and has no effective presence throughout most of the nation. For decades, Somalia has been living in anarchy. Perhaps if libertarians were as rational as they claim to be, after studying Somalia for a while, they might admit that anarchy is not a very effective solution to much of anything. They might also admit that certain fundamental differences exist between the races, but that issue will have to be tackled in some other essay on some other day. Whatever the merits of decentralization in theory, in practice it mostly involves being subject to the whims of the local warlord and his cadre.
The libertarian has to search hard to find support for his cause. He speaks in affectionate terms about how Somalia’s cellphone service is the clearest in Africa. He does not speak much at all about how the GDP per capita is 400 dollars. He also conveniently forgets to mention that the life expectancy for the average Somali is merely 52 years. Only five or six nations in the world have shorter life spans.
At this point, the libertarian might object and say that although these conditions are undeniably bad, they are still better than when Somalia was ruled by a communist dictatorship. I would argue, however, that these conditions are such negligible improvements that they can hardly be called improvements at all. In practice, it seems that anarchy is not much different than communism.
Now, to drive home my point, let’s juxtapose Somalia’s anarchy with a well-known authoritarian state. My goal is to clear the smoke blown by years of liberal propaganda by showing how giving people more freedoms is not a prerequisite for a well-run society. As counter-intuitive as it sounds to the modern ear, it must be said that plenty of people have flourished in times of gentle oppression.
The primary example I would like to present is England: not the England of today, of course, where London is 40% foreign-born and has a mayor who faces Mecca when he prays. I am referring to England back when it had a spine – back when the kingdom was ruled by Tudors.
Henry VII and VIII set in motion a series of clever reforms that reached a climax during the rule of Elizabeth I. England had finally found its stride. It must be noted that Elizabethan England, despite its relative freedom, was not keen on handing out legal recognition of liberties to its people. The era was one of unapologetic centralization. The crown’s subjects were given no guarantees of free speech at all; in fact, the censors worked hard and fast to clamp down on anything they perceived as dissent. Freedom of speech was still very far over the political horizon. And yet, despite the book burnings, despite the cages, despite the severed heads around London Tower, the Elizabethan era gave us Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spencer, Jonson, and Bacon. Imagine an era that gave the English language so much genius and not one assurance of free speech to go with it!
Consider, too, that it was during the Elizabethan era that England took to the seas and began trading in markets all around the world. This proved to be the beginning of a commercial superpower; it was the back on which an empire was built. Much to the disappointment of libertarians everywhere, England’s commercial revolution was highly regulated, weighted, parceled, and taxed.
If you are interested in other states that succeeded by grinding against the gears of libertarian wisdom, take one afternoon to research Pinochet’s Chile or Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. These nations enacted relatively free economic programs, which would surely add a sparkle to any libertarian’s smile. But these states also enacted political policies that were so restrictive a libertarian would rather choke on his bow-tie than defend them.
I do not mention these examples in an attempt to show how liberty is undesirable, nor am I making the ludicrous claim that more oppression is generally better; rather, I can only praise oppression in its gentlest forms. In fact, I would take this thesis a step further and say that, libertarian logic be damned, there are cases of societal breakdown where only authoritarianism can preserve liberty.
If Lee’s iron hand had not ruled over Singapore, how would the nation have preserved liberty with the Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian races tearing at each others’ throats? How would England have fared if Elizabeth’s despotism had not kept the Catholic and the Protestant from crucifying one another in the streets? Americans in particular live in a nation that has widespread religious, class, and ethnic differences: as these factions start to chip away at the pillars of state, it will be the authoritarian, if we choose him well, who will be the sole champion of liberty in America. The key issue will be what liberties he preserves and what liberties he revokes.
This claim is not as contradictory as it might seem at first glance. The reactionary and libertarian both agree that small governments are good. But the reactionary feels that small governments are made not by relinquishing authority, as the libertarian would do, but by strengthening it. Liberty is too precious to be entrusted to anarchy in the same way that diamonds are too precious to be entrusted to one’s doorstep.
Let us examine this idea in more detail. Suppose we have one of those highly attenuated legal battles where the details of the case are complicated and emotionally charged. Let us suppose that a drunk driver crashed into a tree and his passenger was killed when she flew through the windshield; she had not worn her seat belt. The grieving husband of the passenger demanded compensation from the driver to help take care of his kids in place of his now deceased wife. Daycare is expensive these days, after all. The driver apologized profusely but pointed out that the passenger was just as responsible for her death because she was not buckled into her seat. The husband countered by saying that the belt would not have been an issue if the driver had not been drunk and crashed into a tree.
Since these men live in a libertarian utopia, there is no superseding legal authority to arbitrate: a third-party arbitration company will have to be hired. Now let’s suppose that one of these arbitration companies is owned by a brother-in-law of the driver, and not surprisingly, the driver only agrees to hire that company. The husband refuses. The driver in turn refuses to pay any compensation whatsoever. The furious husband now threatens to kill the wife of the driver to make him understand what it feels like to lose a loved one.
How can any libertarian who sings the praises of anarchy not see how this situation will only continue to escalate? How can there be any justice for the woman who lost her life in the original crash and what about the violations of liberty that will ensue when this conflict devolves into a family feud? If there had been one authority to take control of this dispute the liberties of everyone involved would have been much more safely guarded. In a world where emotion forms the greater part of human action, liberty requires authority.
A libertarian who is honest with himself has to ask why even jungle tribes have a chief and why high schools have hall-monitors. Human beings require authority, and if authority is to mean anything at all, it requires the power of compulsion; liberty cannot last long in a nation that thinks of its authority as a polite suggestion.
Of course, not many libertarians will be swayed by this argument. They are far too busy sketching intricate political systems on paper to be bothered with considerations of human psychology. In this respect, the libertarian finds himself standing shoulder to shoulder with the socialist. Reality takes a backseat ride when ideology runs wild at the wheel.
Perhaps the solution to this mess would be to redefine liberty; or to put it another way, to redefine the modern misinterpretation of liberty by restoring the word to its original meaning. Liberty, as we now know it, is a set of unquestionable boundaries that are owed to all citizens: the right to peaceable assembly, the right to free speech, the right to a free press, and so on. The problem with these “rights” is that they are very enticing ideas that are very murky in their specifics. They exist in the minds of Americans as a hazy bundle of entitlements, as things that they are owed, rather than things that they must earn.
The greatest problem with this notion of liberty as an entitlement is that once citizens start declaring rights as “universal” and “God-given” there is no mechanism to stop them from continually inventing new ones. The “right to privacy” or the “right to universal healthcare” are muddled ideas that our founding fathers never anticipated. Jefferson and Madison almost certainly would not have approved of them, but they are ideas that have as much legitimacy as America’s own Bill of Rights: if Madison can conjure up new rights with a few quill strokes there is likewise nothing to stop Supreme Court justices from doing the same thing. And so the list of entitlements owed to Americans steadily grows longer as its list of responsibilities dwindles.
The ancient Roman, much to his credit, would sneer at our notion of liberty as a barbaric perversion. Imagine how, with his Italian temper, he would tug at the lines of his toga and stomp his sandals in frustration listening to a modern liberal explain liberty. In Roman minds, liberty had to be tempered with civitas, which is defined roughly as a body of citizens living under one common law; that is to say, citizenship provided liberties but it also conferred collective responsibilities. Liberty was not a wish-list filled with entitlements, it was a reward to those who served society and upheld the law. It is not hard to see why Rome built an empire on this definition of liberty; and it is ironic how a modern libertarian would condemn this notion of liberty as fascism.
Singapore is one state following a model that aligns closely with the Roman notion of liberty while the libertarian has got no compelling models for his pet theories: he has his fantasies and Somalia. Neither does his ideal any favors.
We Americans will have to ask ourselves challenging questions in the coming years. This train has been wobbling on the tracks for an uncomfortably long time and if we do not straighten out things soon, we risk a furious, explosive derailment. How will we deal with the racial divisions that await us? How will we curb the linguistic threat posed by Spanish? How will we protect our culture from the wild-eyed readers of the Quran?
As we ponder these questions, as we start to provide answers for them, we must quietly ask ourselves one further question and ask it as persistently as a pebble stuck in a runner’s shoe: would we rather emerge from the chaos looking more like Singapore or Somalia?
Article originally published at Social Matter Magazine.