Le Québécois Libre, May 15, 2009, No 267.
With Somali piracy very much in the news in recent weeks and months, now is the perfect time for those who are inclined to do so to make fun of libertarians. Somalia, you see, has been without a central government since 1991, when Siad Barre's dictatorship crumbled. Since libertarians promote statelessness, the argument goes, we must love Somalia. At the very least, we should all vacation there.
That, in essence, is the message behind a new video, "Regulation Vacation Celebration!" that has gone viral on YouTube. Posted on May 5, 2009 by a group of comics and actors calling themselves "The Public Service Administration," it has been viewed over 138,000 times as I write this barely a week later. The one-minute video shows a young couple becoming distraught when they realize they are on a public beach. If you don't like government, the voiceover crows, "Come to Somalia, libertarian paradise!" The slick male voice adds that in this "free market haven… the police, roads, and navy are maintained by rational self-interest—and libertarian magic dust!" The punchline is that you now have cholera.
Behind the Curtain
Now, I like comedy, and I certainly do not want to complain about people using humour to try to get their points across. People should be free to speak their minds. Speak 'em if you got 'em, I say. But I reserve the right to pick apart any particular instance of humour, checking its claims and exposing it, in turn, to ridicule as the fancy strikes me. When it is done well, humour can short-circuit people's defences and thereby expose them to a truth they might find uncomfortable. But to paraphrase Alistair Fraser of Bad Meteorology fame, a good political joke is simple, stripping a thing down to its essence; a cheap political joke is simplistic, stripping a thing of its essence. Three guesses which of the two I think we're dealing with here.
Let us judge this Public Service Administration video by its own stated sources. The text that accompanies the video reads: "Lest we be accused of misrepresenting their views, actual Libertarians have been kicking around this take on Somalia with a straight face for some time now." This is followed by a link to "Stateless in Somalia, and Loving It" from the Ludwig von Mises Institute, along with a "more nuanced completely insane view" from Reason magazine's website, "The Anarchy Advantage in Somalia."
The Mises article in question, published in February 2006, leads off with a quotation from the CIA Factbook pointing out that despite the semblance of anarchy, Somalia had thriving telecommunications and informal banking sectors, with security provided by militias. In many ways, the article continues, Somalia was faring better than its neighbours, Kenya and Ethiopia, and better than it had before the fall of its central government in 1991. The bulk of the article discusses the systems of local, customary laws that preside over the purportedly lawless country. It concludes with the suggestion that inter-warlord fighting is actually caused by UN-supported efforts to impose a central government on the disparate local clans.
The Reason piece, published in December 2006, quotes from Benjamin Powell's Independent Institute study on Somalia, showing that the country compared quite favourably with 42 other African countries as measured by 13 different variables. It also compared favourably with its own situation prior to 1991. This short piece ends with a link to an earlier World Bank study that comes to similar conclusions.
Those wacky libertarians! Quoting the CIA Factbook and conducting studies that concur with the World Bank. What a lunatic fringe! And clearly, since we point out that relatively stateless Somalia has in many ways done better than its neighbours, and better than it did when it had more government, we must mean to disregard all of the developed world's hard-won victories of modern science, capital accumulation, and human rights. It follows that we should move to (or at least vacation in) a country that is part of a continent rife with superstition, famine, disease, and female genital mutilation. Now that's comparing apples to apples.
Varieties of Libertarianism
What do libertarians believe? Well, we believe that liberty is extremely important, for starters. Economically and socially—in the boardroom and in the bedroom—people have a right to make their own choices, as long as they respect other people's rights to make their own choices. Any action that involves another's person or property requires that person's consent. We own ourselves, and the initiation of force is forbidden. In addition, we tend to believe that people who are free, other things being equal, are likely to live happier, more successful lives. When others point to market failures, we libertarians counter that government failures are far more pervasive and harmful. Some libertarians (anarcho-capitalists) believe that government is entirely illegitimate, and that we would be better off with no state whatsoever, while others (minarchists) believe that a minimal state limited to national defence, police protection, and a court system is both justified and beneficial.
Either way, we libertarians think there is a lot more government than there should be—in the West, and in Somalia, too. That country's many small, regional governments ruled by local warlords are better than neighbouring central governments in some ways, but worse in others. Notably, these mini-governments regulate economic activity far less, leading to some better economic results than their neighbours, but they are just as bad or worse in violating human rights and in jeopardizing people's safety through war. Clearly, this is no libertarian paradise.
As far as comparing Somalia favourably to advanced industrial countries, the Mises and Reason articles obviously do no such thing, despite what the Public Service Administration video implies. Even though we in the developed world are groaning under the weight of burdensome government today, we nonetheless continue to benefit from a centuries-long legacy of relative freedom, during which we made enormous gains in scientific knowledge, capital accumulation, and human rights. A decade or two of reduced levels of government in Somalia could not possibly make up for the animism, the tribalism, the underinvestment, and the mistreatment of women that still prevail in much of Africa.
Had the folks who make up the Public Service Administration wanted to provide a real public service, they might have poked a little fun at Nigerian police who hold a goat "on suspicion of armed robbery," imagining it to be a practitioner of black magic who transformed himself into the animal in order to escape arrest. Or they might have ridiculed South African officials promoting nutrition as a treatment for AIDS. Or they might have sent up Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe for "saving" his black countrymen from white oppression, replacing agricultural surpluses with hyperinflation.
Of course, it is not politically correct for Westerners to say anything negative about other cultures, or to imply that poorer parts of the world share even a part of the blame for their own misery and backwardness. It is even less politically correct to point out that the police officers, health officials, and dictator responsible for the tragicomic injustices mentioned in the previous paragraph are all government thugs. All the more urgent, then, for humorists to prod us into rethinking our preconceived notions instead of, yes, misrepresenting the views of those who rightly praise the crucial importance of liberty.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.