Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Was Medieval Iceland an Example of Anarcho-Capitalism?

Some people appear to believe that it was:
“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.


  1. They really try hard to find their historical roots those Anarcho-Capitalists,don´t they?They even have to read Icelandic Saga and Snorre Sturlason.It´s pathetic.It was elements in old Scandinavian Viking society that could fit as well with Socialism as well as Liberalism if one stretch it hard,the pre-democratic elements, womens rights etc.but it was also incase of Iceland a society that relied on slaves that was captured,mostly from Ireland.Good now we know!Here is some pictures from a Anarchocapitalist Utopian Society:
    Clip from Shadow of the Raven by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson

  2. "We already tried libertarianism - It was called feudalism"


  3. Great post. In case you are interested, Michael Lind over at Salon.com has been discussing the issue of the lack of actually-existing libertarian countries in a couple of articles:



  4. Long on Lind


    "Lind’s question is analogous to ones that might have been asked a few centuries ago: If religious toleration, or equality for women, or the abolition of slavery are so great, why haven’t any countries tried them? All such questions amount to asking: If liberation from oppression is so great for the oppressed, why haven’t their oppressors embraced it?

    ...A better question we might ask Lind and Dionne: if the intrusive state is so great, why does it need to retain its clients by force, rather than letting them peacefully opt out?"

    1. Eric Charles,

      (1) The problem here is that slavery and so on cannot be ethically justified, but a left liberal/social democratic state can be.

      (2) You seem unaware that the state, its social security polices and so on are desired by most people.

      Even taxation is mostly seen as a civic duty:

      "The IRS Oversight Board conducted an independent poll in 2005 that found 96 percent of the respondents agreed ‘it is every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes.’

      The Pew Research Center in a similar study in 2006 found 79 percent of the respondents said that cheating Uncle Sam was ‘morally objectionable.’

      Certainly, Americans pay they taxes because they have to: ever since 1945, taxes have been automatically withdrawn from pay-checks. But people also comply because they think it is fair. Polls show that most Americans think only ‘a few’ people cheat on their taxes. Paying taxes, just like leaving a tip, is a social norm”

      Maxwell, S. 2000. The Price is Wrong: Understanding What Makes a Price Seem Fair and the True Cost of Unfair Pricing, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, N.J. p. 146.

      "if the intrusive state is so great, why does it need to retain its clients by force, rather than letting them peacefully opt out?"

      First, you are assuming people are all oppressed by and opposed to the modern state. As I just showed you above, they are not.

      But that being so, we have the free rider problem and the fact that a monopoly on force for law and order and justice is better, fairer and a more effective way of providing these things.

    2. LK- Ethical and public goods arguments are worthy of discussion and most if not all libertarians engage and take these arguments seriously.

      Don’t expect libertarians to spend much time on Lind’s argument, however. Surely, the idea that because something hasn’t been embraced, proves its illegitimacy, is guilty of some logical fallacy.

  5. The historical stupidity of claims of "anarcho"-capitalism in Iceland is shocking. This is discussed in an appendix to An Anarchist FAQ:


    As in most pre-capitalist societies, there were "commons", common land available for use by all. During the summer, "common lands and pastures in the highlands, often called almenning, were used by the region's farmers for grazing." This increased the independence of the population from the wealthy as these "public lands offered opportunities for enterprising individuals to increase their store of provisions and to find saleable merchandise." [Byock, Viking Age Iceland, p. 47, p. 48]

    Icelandic society had a network of solidarity, based upon communal life:

    "The status of farmers as free agents was reinforced by the presence of communal units called hreppar (sing. hreppr) . . . these [were] geographically defined associations of landowners. . . the hreppr were self-governing . . . .[and] guided by a five-member steering committee . . . As early as the 900s, the whole country seems to have been divided into hreppar . . . Hreppar provided a blanket of local security, allowing the landowning farmers a measure of independence to participate in the choices of political life . . .

    "Through cooperation among their members, hreppar organised and controlled summer grazing lands, organised communal labour, and provided an immediate local forum for settling disputes. Crucially, they provided fire and livestock insurance for local farmers. . . [They also] saw to the feeding and housing of local orphans, and administered poor relief to people who were recognised as inhabitants of their area. People who could not provide for themselves were assigned to member farms, which took turns in providing for them." [Byock, pp. 137-8]

    In practice this meant that each commune was a mutual insurance company, or a miniature welfare state. Each farmer had to belong to the commune in which his farm was located and to contribute to its needs.

    The hreppr "was essentially non-political and addressed subsistence and economic security needs. Its presence freed farmers from depending on an overclass to provide comparable services or corresponding security measures." [Byock, p. 138]

    Significant changes in society started to occur in the eleventh century, as "slavery all but ceased. Tenant farming . . . took [its] place." Iceland was moving from an economy based on possession to one based on private property and so "the renting of land was a widely established practice by the late eleventh century . . . the status of the godar must have been connected with landownership and rents." This lead to increasing oligarchy and so the mid- to late-twelfth century was "characterised by the appearance of a new elite, the big chieftains who are called storgodar . . . [who] struggled from the 1220s to the 1260s to win what had earlier been unobtainable for Icelandic leaders, the prize of overlordship or centralised executive authority." [Byock, p. 269, pp. 3-4]

    So, in-so-far as Iceland was egalitarian it was free but as inequality rose and undermined the communal institutions, it became unfree. There is a lesson there, but not one compatible with "anarcho"-capitalism! I'm surprised they point to it as an example of their authoritarian ideology.

    An Anarchist FAQ

  6. What actually caused the socioeconomic inequality that led to the breakdown of the Icelandic system was the introduction, via Christianity, of a monopolistic element: the stadhr tax. See: http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig3/long1.html
    and: http://praxeology.net/libertariannation/a/f13l1.html

    1. Bollocks from a think tank,not valid.

  7. By libertarian I meant liberty that could not
    be checked by a sovereign power. Capitalism came several hundred years later. Icelanders had to travel abroad to get wood, let alone
    be concerned about anything we would call economic development. Sorry I didn't use a less
    loaded word.