Stateless societies in the West?

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    Another question you were asked in the live session involved the point at which the most individual freedom was experienced in Western Civilization. So I was wondering if there are any instances of stateless, orderly societies in the West. I assume post-1500 would probably be out the door on this subject. I have heard Stefan Molyneux mention an era in Ireland when there was essentially peaceful anarchy, but I’m unsure about the details.

    Jason Jewell

    Early medieval Ireland and Iceland are the places most often mentioned in this context because there’s no centralized government. Everything was clan- and tribe-based. These would not have been societies in which individual liberty was necessarily prized, though. David Friedman has written about medieval Iceland:


    These would not have been societies in which individual liberty was necessarily prized, though.

    Could you expand on this? How was liberty violated in medieval Ireland and Iceland? Do you think the unlibertarian aspects of these society were caused by the lack of government, or did they persist despite the absence of government?

    In the article you link to, David Friedman writes:
    And yet these extraordinary institutions [in medieval Iceland] survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one . Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small;[5] and its literary, output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.[6]

    Friedman’s footnote 5 reads as follows:
    Sveinbjorn Johnson, Pioneers of Freedom (1930). A partial exception is the status of thralls, although even they seem freer than one might expect; in one saga a thrall owns a famous sword, and his master must ask his permission to borrow it. Carl O. Williams, in Thraldom in Ancient Iceland 36 (1937), estimates that there were no more than 2000 thralls in Iceland at any one time, which would be about 3% of the population. Williams believes they were very badly treated, but this may reflect his biases; for example, he repeatedly asserts that thralls were not permitted weapons despite numerous instances to the contrary in the sagas. Stefansson estimates the average period of servitude before manumission at only five years but does not state his evidence. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Icelandic Independence, Foreign Affairs, January 1929, at 270.

    Friedman also writes, “Third, a person unable to discharge his financial obligation [to pay the fine for a crime] could apparently be reduced to a state of temporary slavery until he had worked off his debt.” Thus, it seems that some slaves were justifiably enslaved.

    Doesn’t all this suggest that medieval Iceland was pretty free in comparison to other contemporary societies? Could you recommend a source that gives a different evaluation of Iceland?

    Jason Jewell

    When I wrote that individual liberty wasn’t necessarily prized, I meant that there was no notion of individual autonomy of the kind that many libertarians hold up as the ideal today. Individual autonomy is mostly an Enlightenment idea. Kinship networks imposed many duties on people in medieval Iceland, and individuals were not “free agents” in society like they are today. Of course, there’s nothing un-libertarian about that, but in my experience when someone asks questions like yours he often has some idea of individual autonomy in mind, and I didn’t want to mislead you.

    If you’re really interested in Iceland, I’d suggest reading some of the sagas of the period to get an authentic sense of the culture. The sagas had a big influence on J.R.R. Tolkien and a number of other authors.

    If you read them in the original Icelandic, I’ll ask Tom Woods to give you a free one-year extension on your Liberty Classroom subscription!


    I see I misunderstood you. Perhaps the case of medieval Iceland is evidence for Hoppe’s contention that a libertarian society would have to be based on strong family and kinship ties, coupled with conservative social mores.

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