Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think
by Peter T Leeson
(Cambridge University Press, £18.99)
THE term anarchy — “without a ruler” — derives from Greek and as such needs to be employed with a degree of caution as well as reflection.
It’s been permanently vulgarised in western political parlance to describe political chaos and/or lawlessness.
And it’s a convenient knee-jerk epithet, mouthed predominantly, but not exclusively, by reactionary forces at times when mass movements, strikes and rebellions inconvenience their hold on power.
In his book Anarchy Unbound Peter T Leeson singles out Somalia — the worst performing state globally according to the Fund For Peace Failed States Index (FSI) of last year — to argue that while its official government is as “predatory and dysfunctional” as the other 35 top states listed, the alternative structures that spontaneously emerged have supplanted and “outperformed” the state in its traditional functions.
Leeson defines the process as “low-quality anarchy” and identifies its durability as rooted in tribal traditions of governance.
That hardly makes them progressive, however.
Significantly, anarchic Somalia is way down on the FSI list in negative life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality rates and health care provision.
Our perceptions, understanding and action related to such developments should be informed, Leeson suggests, by the economist Harold Demsetz’s wise caution against the so called nirvana fallacy, that of “comparing of an imperfect reality with a hypothetical ideal state.”
Self-governance has existed historically in a plethora of continuously mutating forms with it being employed in most instances as a means to facilitate localised co-operation over shared aims and aspirations.
The buccaneers of the 17th and 18th centuries emerge as glorious prototype anarchists, politically ahead of their time, who voted on collectively elaborated rules to guide their enterprise, paid into mutual funds to compensate the injured or ill. They were also supportive of gay partnerships — matelotages — where all possessions were shared equally. Unlike our own dear MPs, elected captains could be voted out at anytime.
That’s one of the reasons why Leeson’s concluding assertion that “pockets” of anarchy can be effective even amid “good” government may not be as implausible as it sounds.