“Medieval Iceland is perhaps the closest approximation of an anarchist or libertarian republic that the world is likely to see. Founded in the years between 870 and 930. when its Althing and legal system were established, Iceland was settled by people unwilling to submit to a more coercive and, as the sages describe it, tyrannical Norwegian monarchy.” (Pencak 1995: 1).I will reserve the question of how close medieval Iceland really was to some kind of anarcho-capitalism system for another post.
But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was.
David Friedman (1979) studies the system of private law in medieval Iceland as an example of a real world “privatised” justice system.
However, Friedman appears to admit that “public” crimes existed in Icelandic society (a slight difficulty!). Furthermore, as far as I can see, the actual courts seem to have set up in a rather democratic manner as quasi-“public service” institutions, rather than as fee-taking private businesses.
But, again, let put these concerns aside for the moment.
Iceland had a system of wergild, a private custom and legal procedure by which a murder only results in the perpetrator paying a fine to the kin or family of the victim. I would contend that such a practice means that the rich can literally get away with murder.
And, lo and behold!, we read from Friedman himself that this is what actually happened:
“A second objection 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 seems to have been for the first two centuries after the system was established, this was a less serious problem.”I am sorry, but did I read that correctly?
The private Icelandic legal system broke down by the 13th century as (presumably) inequalities of power and wealth resulted in just the type of problem critics complain would happen.
Apparently a real world privatised justice system would require a high degree of equality of power and wealth, which I submit to you is grossly unrealistic.
A final comment on the level of violence in medieval societies. I freely admit that I do not have proper estimates at hand for Iceland, but other evidence suggests that medieval societies were extremely violent by modern standards in the absence of strong state-based law enforcement and widespread private tort law.
Friedman himself actually cites a crude calculation of per capita homicide rates in medieval Iceland on the basis of some mere epic fictions, the “Sturlung sagas.” But that is an incredibly naive and unconvincing method of calculating real world historical homicide rates.
Friedman, D. 1979. “Private Creation and Enforcement of Law – A Historical Case,” Journal of Legal Studies 8.2: 399–415.
Pencak, William. 1995. The Conflict of Law and Justice in the Icelandic Sagas. Rodopi, Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA.