Anarchism in Iceland

Just read this interesting post[Polycentric Order: First Draft of Anarchic Iceland] about Icelandic history. Apparently, from 930 CE to 1096 CE, they had a tribal form of government with no really official rules. Just that the chieftans met for 2 weeks of each year to resolve disputes and re-establish boundaries. The rest of the people subscribed to different chieftans, as they saw fit.

Most importantly, an individual’s subscription to be bound by a specific chieftan’s rule was not based on geography. That is: the chieftancies were not determined via geographic boundaries. So, explicit war did not exist, because there wasn’t any physical territory to stake and claim. Individuals within the society commingled as they saw fit, and chieftains were obligated (via market forces) to serve their clients.

The situation changed in 1000 CE, with a Christian invader, who took hostage chieftan’s relatives until they might switch to the Christian religion. Eventually, through this coercive mechanism, Christianity became a rule of law (no chiefdom would allow you to remain unpledged) and churches established a geographical tax. With the new tie to the land, rulers now had a supply of funding (not subject to market forces) which they could use in the traditional statist manner: land grabs, war, etc. So long the stable anarchy, and welcome the violent and disruptive state!

The article concludes with an interesting lesson:

The lesson here, which is the same lesson that can be culled from other anarchistic societies, is that the Icelanders needed a theory of anarchy. They were living in anarchy, and it was truly glorious especially given the natural resources of Iceland, but they weren’t anarchists. They didn’t understand why their system worked so well, that it worked because of the infinite fallback and negative feedback mechanisms that are inherent in human interaction.

Without understanding this, it is inevitable that a stateless society will stumble into archon rule. For a stateless society to be maintained, it must have a widely accepted theory of anarchy and the ability to identify and oppose archons, and not be fooled when archons claim that they need them to fight other archons, and never to compromise with archons. The artificial man of the state is immortal, and waited 70 years to impose Christianity, another 96 years to impose the tithe, and another 168 years rule over Iceland altogether.

So anarchism, though immensely flexible in it’s distribution organization, does not necessarily have a built-in immunity against other (more coercive) forms of social assembly. Like the ideal democracy, it also requires a body of dedicated and informed participants.

Left open is the question: “How well could anarchy work today? Does it scale?” The free market seems to scale well. With proper rules of thumb and customary practices, the principles of the free market ought to be extensible to judicial and enforcement enterprises. Iceland had a good run with such a system (although 2 weeks per year would obviously not be enough as population expands), can we go back and try it again?

Note: David Friedman is one of the few people that I know to have investigated systems of law and enforcement through free market mechanisms.[Exploring Liberty: The Machinery of Freedom]