A PDF version of A Penrose Stairway is available here.

A Penrose Stairway: Why the Free Market
and Limited Government Are Incompatible,

by Ronald N. Neff

Table of Contents for A Penrose Stairway

January 13, 2017


Chapter Seven

Somalia: Grasping at Straws


IT SEEMS THAT SOONER OR LATER, anyone who is defending free-market anarchism will be asked about Somalia. Of course, Somalia has nothing to do with free-market anarchism, any more than the Soviet Union, with its constitution, had anything to do with the night-watchman limited government.

The demand is, in some ways, not new. In 1981, after Menachem Begin had invaded Lebanon, Roy Childs told me that one of the reasons he no longer considered anarchism a viable political philosophy was the chaos in Lebanon. I found that an astonishing remark, coming from one of the seminal writers on free-market anarchism.

Still, there is something about areas of the world where governments break down that connects them in people’s minds to free-market anarchism. I am not going to try to guess what it is, but since Jacob Hornberger makes use of Somalia among his arguments against anarchism, I shall venture to say something about it.

But first, what does he say? For one thing, he says that “many U.S. proponents of anarchy praised Somalia as a great example of an anarchist society,” and adds that to his knowledge none of them ever moved there. As I said at the beginning of my reply to Hornberger’s article, he provides no notes for his references, so it is hard to see whether he has correctly understood any of those “many ... proponents of anarchy.” I myself have no idea who they may be, and I am certain that I never read or spoke to any exponent of free-market anarchism who voiced the opinion that Somalia was a “great example of an anarchist society.” But perhaps I lead a sheltered life.

What is indubitable, however, is that such a claim is no argument against free-market anarchism. There are free-market anarchists who supported Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, and (mirabile dictu) Lyndon Johnson for president, but that surely does not count as an argument against free-market anarchism. There were even free-market anarchists who supported (at least briefly) the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, but that also does not count as an argument against free-market anarchism.

Hornberger goes on to point out that the anarchy in Somalia didn’t last very long, and that Somalia now has a government. I cannot resist replying that the fact that a given country without a government now has a government is not really much of a criticism of anarchy, let alone of free-market anarchism, and not much of a recommendation for government either. (He mentions that the government of Libya also collapsed and that now that area is beset with gang warfare, as different factions try to restore and grasp the reins of government. Again, not, I think, much of a criticism of free-market anarchism.)

The thrust of these “arguments” is that even in the absence of a government, no free-market defense agencies and no system of competing courts took its place. Of course, since there has been no free-market anarchism for the people of those countries to use as a model, their failure to develop them is no surprise. After all, the people in those countries have had so little exposure to the free market or even to the idea of a free market that if they were to attempt to organize their society along those lines, it would be nothing short of an intellectual miracle. One doubts, indeed, that they would be able to devise a system of free-market pencil production.

It is also worth noting that the governments we have been discussing — in Lebanon, Somalia, and Libya — disappeared as a result of internal upheavals precipitated by a struggle for power and by the intervention of outside forces. They did not represent the studied choice of the populace, and there was no preparation for it, no effort to build markets, no penetrating writings circulated among the people. In short, the citizens of those countries had not been attempting to win political liberty for themselves before the collapse; why would anyone expect them to do it afterwards?

When Nicolae Ceauşescu’s government in Romania fell in 1989, sending him and his wife to their reward, it happened that a friend of mine, an expert in Romanian history, was in Bucharest doing some research on the revolutions of 1848. For a few weeks, there was sufficient chaos that he could sound the call, “Send books on free-market economics,” for at the time, virtually anything could get into the country. As happened throughout Eastern Europe in the closing days of 1989 and opening days of 1990, uncertainty prevailed, and there was some hope that once the Communist regimes had fallen, some measure of liberty could be achieved. I sent a box of books to my friend for him to distribute as he thought best, and I ordered another. But about the same time I received the second box some two weeks later, the Romanian window had closed, and restrictions were in place.

What I learned from that experience was something that I suppose should have been obvious to me: the fall of tyranny anywhere does not imply the rise of liberty. Everything depends on the character and understanding of the people, especially those who exercise the most power, whether material or intellectual.

More telling is that neither the Romanians nor the Somalis attempted to found a night-watchman limited government. They had many models they could have used and improved on, if they were of a mind to, but somehow the idea just seems not to have occurred to them. Does that count as a criticism of the night-watchman limited government?

I do not think that it does, and some of the points to be made here echo those I have already made concerning the fictional world of The Walking Dead.

Political liberty is an intellectual achievement. It does not emerge even as the brainchild of some genius overnight. It develops slowly, gradually, as the result of the actions and thoughts of any number of people. A certain sense of personal dignity must find a home in the hearts of those who are candidates for those thoughts. Men must, in effect, learn to be free. We may say that men are born free, but that is mere sentiment. Surely it is obvious that we are all born servile. Obedience and dependence are the marks of our childhood. Before men can be free they must overcome their childhood inclinations to obey, to be afraid, to seek approval.

Whatever passivity that has characterized their views must give way to a sense of outrage against the violation of their persons. There must be a certain segment of the population that has confidence in their ability to manage without government help, and there must be an intellectual basis for their confidence. Even then, there are no guarantees: though they had enjoyed the prosperity bequeathed to them by Richard Cobden’s and John Bright’s success against the Corn Laws, Englishmen still managed to slip into the servility of Fabian socialism in less than 100 years. A similar development in the United States is yet more degrading: where there used to be a sizable population of men who regarded no man as master, there is now no end of those who seek the gift of the welfare state, that Circe that turns men into pigs.

So despite history's vigorous example of somewhat limited government with partly free markets to show the world how it can be done, Somali and Romanian Jeffersons and Franklins just didn’t show up.

In Somalia, the very idea of the rule of law did not emerge; only the rule of survival of the most ruthless prevailed. It is not surprising: the idea of the rule of law is not a self-evident one, and it is not a particularly robust one. Even in countries where there is a rule of law — not just in legal matters, but also in their games and other voluntary associations — people are forever trying to have exceptions to rules and prevailing customs made for them that will suit their interests. We may almost paraphrase the attorney Hornberger cited in the matter of justice: they do not want consistency, they want exception-making. G.K. Chesterton was wrong to refer to “the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the normal to the abnormal.” He was wrong because it is not modern; its pedigree is captured in the old saying that many things may “depend on whose ox is being gored.”

I noted earlier that although the free market is an outgrowth of natural law, and operates according to it, the substratum of it probably lies in Western culture itself. It is entirely possible that no other culture could even have imagined it; it is certain that no other culture did imagine it. The whole world was taught by the West what kinds of institutions converge with the natural law (which it discovered) to bring the prosperity only the free market can both promise and deliver.

Even with the proper underpinnings, a free market does not arise all at once. It does not even arise in a few months. It is not a thing to be created and imposed on a population, after all. It wells up over lifetimes and centuries. A man cannot discover the musical scales on a piano one day, and be expected to have mastered Czerny exercises the next, let alone play a Hungarian rhapsody by Franz Liszt; you cannot teach him the moves of chess one day, and expect him to play like Aron Nimzowitsch the next. Just so, a people buying and selling and investing must learn the skills that keep their businesses running. The bazaars of Samarkand may be thought of as a free market in embryonic form, but after 2300 years, they remain much the same as Alexander found them when he conquered the city. Creativity is necessary to make business flourish; without it, things just stay the same. Just so, the social and commercial innovations of the West, though they made a sophisticated market possible, were not the work of a day: it is 400 years from Jacques Coeur to the Woolworth brothers.

Although we may analyze the free market from a wertfrei perspective, virtues are crucial to its development. Men must learn the need for keeping promises, for respecting property, for taking responsibility for their errors. Moreover, they must learn skills not needed in the state of nature: how to think long-range, how to take calculated risks, how to persuade others to join them in their enterprises, how to anticipate unspoken needs and desires of future customers. None of those virtues or skills is instinctual. They must, I repeat, be learned. And passed on to succeeding generations for generations.

Without them, men are not free. They may live in a state of nature, but they are not free. The two are not identical. They may live blissfully without an organized government, without even some kind of chiefdom supported by the sorcery of a shaman. But without the virtues and habits I have named, without those skills, they are not free. Their lives may be enviable to one living in North Korea, but they are not yet the lives of free men. They are the lives of men still enslaved by their own passions and impulses. Only virtue sets us free.

So let us look again at Somalia. Do we see there the triumph of virtue? No? Then do not expect freedom — not even the Vichy liberty of the night-watchman limited state — to make an appearance. To expect otherwise is to reverse cause and effect, as though the free market (or even a night-watchman limited government) can produce virtue. The free market grows in the soil of virtue; and like any good plant, it can enrich the soil it grows in, but it does not create that soil.

Where the constellation of ideas that dominate a people is that of predators or of prey trying not to draw attention to themselves, it is no wonder that all you get is violent gang warfare. The majority of the people may be trying to lead quiet peaceful lives, happy to eat and have shelter. But that is not the formula for a vibrant free market.

So once again, Hornberger has implicitly voiced the expectation of seeing something built without looking for a proper foundation. He has left out of his calculations the role of time, the role of learning, the role of process and development. And a world in which such elementary components of human experience have been omitted is another world of Penrose stairways: we can describe it, but it cannot exist.

January 13, 2017


Chapter Eight:
The Survival of Limited Government


© 2017 Ronald N. Neff. All rights reserved.
Published in 2017 at The Last Ditch by Croatoan Books, a division of WTM Enterprises.

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