The following is a post by me, made about 2/20/97, in response to a post by Daibhidh on one of the anarchy news groups in which he quoted extensively from an FAQ which attacked what the authors believed to be my views on medieval Iceland. The FAQ in question had been up for some time in a succession of versions; I had criticized the corresponding section of an earlier one at some length in earlier posts.

"You" in this response refers to the authors of the FAQ Daibhidh is quoting, not to Daibhidh:

<5es8rv$>, (Daibhidh) wrote:


> excerpted from The Anarchist Theory FAQ



> As William Ian Miller points out


I'm glad to see that the authors of this FAQ have finally discovered Miller, thus providing them with someone sympathetic to left wing political views who actually knows something about saga period Iceland, unlike the authors of the original version of the FAQ, who were making it up as they went along. Now if they'll just read him, instead of searching for convenient quotes, they might learn something. Those interested in a still more expert voice on my side of the argument are referred to Jesse Byock's books.


> Kropotkin in Mutual Aid indicates that Norse society, from which the settlers

> in Iceland came,

> had various "mutual aid" institutions, including communal land ownership

> (based around what he

> called the "village community") and the thing (see also Kropotkin's The State:

> Its Historic

> Role for a discussion of the "village community"). It is reasonable to think

> that the first settlers in

> Iceland would have brought such institutions with them. This is confirmed by

> the Encyclopaedia

> Britannica, which notes that these settlers claimed large areas of land for

> themselves and their

> families, whereas later settlers founded smaller households. Thus the original

> settlers would have

> owned the land as family (i.e. communal) holdings, divided up between kin-folk

> according to use.


Read the sagas. Early settlers, some of them fleeing the unification of Norway by Harald Haarfagr, found Iceland almost empty, and claimed substantial chunks of coastal land (the interior is mostly uninhabitable). Later land was scarcer; the original settlers sometimes gave away chunks of their (presumably unused) land to new arrivals, thus getting neighbors. The holdings were "communal" only in the sense that the settlers came as extended families, with the patriarch (or, in one notable case, matriarch) parcelling out the holdings and continuing to play a major role in family affairs. There were no villages, and I have yet to see any reference in the sagas to communal land ownership. Perhaps you can point one out.


> Miller points out that it would be wrong to impose capitalist ideas and

> assumptions onto Icelandic

> society:


> "Inevitably the attempt was made to add early Iceland to the number of regions

> that

> socialized people in nuclear families within simple households. . . what the

> sources tell us

> about the shape of Icelandic householding must compel a different conclusion."

> [Op. Cit., p.

> 112]


> In other words, Kropotkin's analysis of communal society is far closer to the

> reality of Medieval

> Iceland than David Friedman's attempt in The Machinery of Freedom to turn it

> into a capitalist

> utopia.


1. Are you arguing that left anarchy is, and anarcho-capitalism is not, consistent with a society where the parents of adult children continue to exercise considerable influence (control is a bit too strong, given some of what happens in the sagas) over them? That is all he is describing. You typically have a couple and their married adult children living near each other, and most of the time cooperating.

2. As it happens, I don't describe Iceland as either a utopia or anarcho-capitalist, as you would know if you had actually read either the book or the JLS article (which is what Miller is responding to, incidentally); the latter is available on my web site, as you apparently know (you excerpt quotes from it later). I argue that it had some of the features of anarcho-capitalism, and thus provides evidence that some of the arguments against anarcho-capitalism are wrong.


> It is

> these Sagas on which David Friedman (in The Machinery of Freedom) bases his

> claim that

> Medieval Iceland is a working example of "anarcho" capitalism.


It is a good idea to read things before making public statements about what they say, instead of deducing what they must say from third hand accounts. Perhaps you can quote where in _The Machinery of Freedom_ I assert that "Medieval Iceland is a working example of 'anarcho' capitalism."

What irritates me about this FAQ is not its conclusion--with enough iterations and a little effort actually reading the literature, it could end up as a reasonable counterargument against my position. It is the irresponsibility of people who apparently do not care whether what they publish is true. If you go back to the early versions of the FAQ, you find a series of entirely made up facts--Icelandic Jarls (a Norwegian position with no Icelandic equivalent), Icelandic housecarls (an Anglo-Saxon position with no Icelandic equivalent), etc. Apparently the authors' approach is to make up their facts, then correct the more blatant errors after I point them out, on the theory that they will eventually, by a process of elimination, come up with an account true to the facts.


> Hence we can see that the artisans and farmers would seek the "protection" of

> a godi, providing

> their labour in return.


You are now back with imagination. Where in the primary sources do you have accounts of artisans and farmers trading labor for protection? Where, for that matter, do you have any account of anything describable as a class of artisans? What do you think your imaginary artisans were doing?


>This system, however, had an obvious

> (and fatal) flaw. As

> the Encyclopaedia Britannica points out:


> "The position of the godi could be bought and sold, as well as inherited;

> consequently, with

> the passing of time, the godord for large areas of the country became

> concentrated in the

> hands of one man or a few men. This was the principal weakness of the old form

> of

> government: it led to a struggle of power and was the chief reason for the

> ending of the

> commonwealth and for the country's submission to the King of Norway."


There is one minor detail missing from this telescopic summary--the dates. Norse settlement of Iceland started about 870. The legal instituions were established in 930. The civil conflict that led to the final collapse began about 1200. Or in other words, despite its "fatal" flaw, the system functioned reasonably smoothly for longer than the U.S. has so far existed.


> As protection did not come free, it is not suprising that a godi tended to

> become rich. This would

> enable him to enlist more warriors, which gave him even more social power (in

> Kropotkin's words,

> "the individual accumulation of wealth and power").


1. According to the Icelandic sources, Chieftainship was honor, not income.

2. Why did this only start happening two centuries after the system was set up?

3. Precisely where do you find references to thingmen paying the Chieftains for their "protection?" Why do you think that in a system of competitive chieftains, chieftainship would be any more profitable than any other activities? Indeed, why do you identify the role of the chieftains with selling protection at all? What the chieftain owned was a link to the legal system--who your chieftain was determined what court you could be sued in. "Protection," more precisely enforcement of legal rights, was provided by coalitions which might be centered on a chieftain but didn't have to be. A farmer several of whose adult sons were good fighters had a considerable amount of force at his disposal--we're talking about a society with a small and dispersed population. A coalition of a few such fighters might be just as effective at rights enforcement as the local chieftain.

4. Where, prior to the final period of breakdown post 1200 (the Sturlunga period), do you find references to chieftains "enlisting" warriors? Any warriors at all? If you had read the sagas, or even paid attention to Miller, you would have figured out that the people doing the fighting are farmers--some of whom went viking in their youth and thus acquired some military experience. To find professional warriors, you have to go to Norway or England.


> Soon, artisan production

> became a form

> of wage labour (as the "protection" fees had to be paid)


You are making all of this up. To begin with, what artisan protection are you talking about--who is making what? Second, what protection fees are you talking about? The only payment associated with the link between Thingman and Godi (chieftain) is the Thingtax, which is a contribution that thingmen who don't go to the Allthing that year make to the expenses of those who do.


> Kropotkin's general summary of the collapse

> of "barbarian"

> society into statism seems applicable here - "after a hard fight with bad

> crops, inundations and

> pestilences, [farmers]. . . began to repay their debts, they fell into servile

> obligations

> towards the protector of the territory. Wealth undoubtably did accumulate in

> this way, and

> power always follows wealth." [Mutual Aid, p. 131].


Or in other words, you are making up your facts to fit what Kropotkin wrote about what happened in a different society. What were the "servile obligations" in Iceland--a society which had no class of serfs?


> This change from a

> communalistic,

> anarchistic society to a statist, propertarian one can also be seen from this

> quote from an article on

> Iceland by Hallberg Hallmundsson in the Encyclopaedia Americana, which

> identifies wealth

> concentration in fewer and fewer hands as having been responsible for

> undermining Icelandic

> society:


> "During the 12th century, wealth and power began to accumulate in the hands of

> a few

> chiefs, and by 1220, six prominent families ruled the entire country. It was

> the internecine

> power struggle among these families, shrewdly exploited by King Haakon IV of

> Norway,

> that finally brought the old republic to an end."


You gave one end of the time period--but omitted to mention that it was during the early 10th century that the system was set up. 1220 is almost three hundred years after the establishment of the legal system in 930. You also refer to a change from a "communalistic, anarchistic society," despite the fact that the encyclopedia article you quote says nothing at all about such a society. It is describing the change from a private property society where the equivalent of political power is widely dispersed to one where it is concentrated.


> The

> attempt to ignore the facts that private property creates rulership (i.e. a

> monopoly of government

> over a given area) and that monarchies are privately owned states does

> Friedman's case no good.

> In other words, the system of private property has a built in tendency to

> produce both the ideology

> and fact of Kingship - the power structures implied by Kingship are reflected

> in the social relations

> which are produced by private property.


Sure--just start with private property and wait three or four centuries and you might (or might not) get kingship. I can just imagine your explaining this to the original settlers--who fled Norway to get away from monarchy, and delibertately set up a political system based on Norwegian institutions, including not only private property but private property in the equivalent of seats in congress--with the King omitted. And maintained it for several centuries.


> Fiedman is also aware that an "objection [to his system] is that the rich (or

> powerful) could

> commit crimes with impunity, since nobody would be able to enforce judgment

> against them.

> Where power is sufficiently concentrated this might be true; this was one of

> the problems

> which led to the eventual breakdown of the Icelandic legal system in the

> thirteenth century.

> But so long as power was reasonably dispersed, as it seem to have been for the

> first two

> centuries after the system was established, this was a less serious problem."

> [Op. Cit.]


> Which is quite ironic. Friedman is claiming that "anarcho"-capitalism will

> only work if there is an

> approximate equality within society!


That is not what I am claiming, as you could probably figure out if you read the article trying to understand it instead of looking for convenient passages to excerpt. It would also be obvious if you were at least moderately familiar with conventional economic theory--whether or not you agreed with it, you could at least understand other people who did. A competitive market does not require egalitarianism, just lots of producers. In the article you are quoting, I think just before or after the passage you are quoting, I explain the mechanism by which poor people could get their rights enforced. What is necessary is not that everyone be equal, but that there be a substantial number of potential enforcers.


> But this state of affairs is one most

> "anarcho"-capitalists claim

> is impossible. They claim there will always be rich and poor. But inequality

> in wealth will also

> become inequality of power. When "actually existing" capitalism has become

> more free market the

> rich have got richer and the poor poorer.


This is not, as it happens, true, but that would be another long argument.

As you would know if you had actually read _The Machinery of Freedom_, I argue that the stability of the anarcho-capitalist institutions I argue for there depends on economies of scale in law enforcement being low enough so that you have a substantial number of competing enforcement agencies. The corresponding condition was met in Iceland for about the first two hundred and fifty years, judging by what we can tell of how the system was working. The question of why it eventually failed is an interesting one, but handwaving about the inevitable concentration of wealth under capitalism doesn't help answer it.


> Friedman is aware of the reasons why "anarcho"-capitalism will

> become rule by the rich

> but perfers to believe that "pure" capitalism will produce an egalitarian

> society!


You are exercising your imagination again. Both halves of the quoted statement are claims about my beliefs, and both are wrong.


> In the case of the

> commonwealth of Iceland this did not happen - the rise in private property


Private property existed from the begining of the system


> was

> accompanied by a

> rise in inequality and this lead to the breakdown of the Republic into

> statism.


330 years after the settlement of Iceland.


David Friedman

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