The Global Assault on Stateless Societies – and Why Libertarians Should Be Concerned

Stateless societies have always been under attack, historically and currently. Whether it was colonialism destroying tribal regions or the modern American empire enforcing alien governance structures upon populations in the Middle East and Africa. Wellings’ analysis points this out well, and also shows the benefits of statelessness in terms of economic innovation and living standards. (by the blog author)

by Richard Wellings

‘African leaders like to settle nomads. Nomads make it hard to build a modern state, and even harder to build a socialist state. Nomads can’t be taxed, they can’t be drafted, and they can’t be controlled. They also can’t be used to attract foreign aid, unless you can get them to stay in one place.’

Michael Maren, USAID (quoted by Murray Rothbard)

When assessing the effect of their activities, libertarians tend to focus on the West. It is difficult to argue that libertarians have been successful at rolling back Western states. Government remains pervasive and much of the nominally private sector now depends on state-granted privileges. But, more positively, the recent explosion of interest in libertarian ideas, together with the growth of the libertarian youth movement, are grounds for optimism that active opposition to big government will increase in the future.

Looking outside the West, the picture is also mixed. There is little evidence of a genuine libertarian movement of any size, but in many regions political elites have at least adopted models of state capitalism that allow some space for individual ownership and entrepreneurship. Government is still extensive, but the state has arguably retreated somewhat since the height of the communist era, and libertarian-influenced ideas in economics may have played a part in this.

Yet there has been another far more negative development that barely registers in debates over libertarian strategy. This is the ongoing assault on the world’s stateless societies – and in many cases their destruction. The history of this process is of course very long, and includes the conquest of what is now the United States. It continues today in aggressions across the world, actions that in most cases long pre-date the War on Terror.

For example, following decades of colonial rule by France, the territories of the Tuareg tribes of the Sahara are once again occupied by United Nations/African Union troops and other powers. Rather than leaving these groups alone, Western powers have forced them to become part of ‘Frankenstein countries’ such as Mali, Niger and Chad, which straddle one of the planet’s deepest ethno-cultural cleavages. Accordingly, Tuareg resources have been looted by an unholy alliance of corrupt sub-Saharan political elites and Western governments – France, the ex-colonial power, in particular.

Across in Asia, following a long period of Western-instigated destabilisation, the de facto stateless peoples in regions of Afghanistan and North-West Pakistan have been subject to 13 years of Western intervention. Indeed, much of the resistance to this has been from local residents and clans rather than an organised and encompassing ‘Taliban’. Vast amounts of foreign aid money have been pumped into the region to extend the reach of the state in an attempt to breed dependency and allegiance.

Similarly, in Somalia, also a victim of decades of ill-conceived external interference, it would appear that statelessness would not be tolerated by Western elites. This traditionally nomadic society, which has well-established non-state mechanisms for dealing with disputes and crime, could not be allowed to exist without a centralised state subservient to international governance frameworks. The United States and the European Union have paid neighbouring African countries to conquer Somalia and attempt to impose a new government on its people. Unsurprisingly the mercenaries of the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Ugandan armies, under the auspices of the US/EU-funded African Union, have committed atrocities during the ongoing invasion.

The attack on stateless societies is not just being conducted through war and conquest. A more insidious process is underway throughout much of the world. This involves government officials counting and registering individuals in de facto stateless areas and forcing or bribing them onto biometric identity registers (sometimes with compulsory ID cards). The state often gives itself formal title to their land (which may then be sold by corrupt officials to palm oil producers, timber firms, or mining companies), while various subsidised programmes undermine state-free lifestyles through the provision of aid. Traditional means of subsidence that are independent of government are destroyed through the appropriation of land and resources, breeding state dependency and killing off local cultural practices. This is the typical pattern from the forest peoples of India to the tribes of Papua New Guinea. Needless to say, the crackdown on stateless societies, including biometric ID programmes, is to a large extent funded by Western foreign aid.

So, why should libertarians be worried about the assault on stateless societies? Perhaps the main reason is the importance of these and other sanctuaries from the state in acting as a check on government tyranny. Individuals and groups may wish to exit in order to preserve their traditional religious and cultural practices, or to avoid losing their freedom in other ways such as slavery (either directly or indirectly via punitive taxation and other takings). In The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott describes some of the strategies used by stateless peoples in SE Asia to avoid the various predations of nearby states. The existence of ungoverned territory was absolutely crucial to their success.

Stateless zones also offer the possibility of exit for political dissidents. For example, de facto stateless regions of central Asia provided refuge for opponents of the kleptocracies of the Persian Gulf. Without such sanctuary they faced kidnap, torture, extended imprisonment and execution as a result of their views. (Whether or not one finds the opinions of such individuals objectionable is beside the point.) Transnational institutions, international arrest warrants and extradition treaties arguably increase the importance of such refuges.

The exit option has the further benefit of acting as a restraint on the behaviour of states themselves. If political elites steal too much they risk generating a vicious circle as their subjects decide to leave and the returns from taxation and/or serfdom decline. Indeed, it is often the most entrepreneurial and talented who have the strongest incentives to move out. While attempts may be made to prevent exit, these also raise the costs of predation. Thus the presence of sanctuaries from the state will tend to reduce the extent of government in other areas by acting as a check on states’ ability to seize resources.

Ungoverned territories also serve as bases for counter-economic enterprises that circumvent the prohibitions on trade imposed by governments. For example, the Darien Gap and the western fringes of the Amazon rainforest play key roles in the cocaine trade; North-West Pakistan and Afghanistan in hashish and heroin. Whatever the pros and the cons of such activities, these sanctuaries help ensure freedom to choose rests with the individual rather than the state.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the ongoing aggression against stateless societies is very costly in itself, inflicting violence and suffering in the targeted regions, while at the same time requiring large increases to the tax burden and government debt in the West and the misallocation of economic resources on a grand scale. The negative impact of overseas conflicts on domestic liberties is also well established.

But what of the argument that stateless societies are very far from free, that they are frequently characterised by cultural practices that severely restrict the liberty of women and other groups? While traditions vary enormously, and some do indeed seem abhorrent according to Western mores, groups within stateless societies typically do not have the capacity to aggress against individuals on anything like the same scale as states. Compare, for example, the relatively tolerant attitudes (by regional standards) of Bedouin towards homosexuality with the brutal legal prohibitions by various Arab states; or the matriarchies of Zomia with the forced abortions and labour camps of China. One should also take into account levels of development and the logistics of surviving in the often very harsh and sparsely populated mountain/desert/jungle environments where stateless arrangements still exist. Even if desirable in principle, imported ideas such as ‘liberal democracy’ may be difficult or impossible to introduce under such conditions.

It is also incorrect to assume that economic development is impossible in stateless societies. This misconception partly results from the difficulty of measuring and incorporating their economic activity in standard GDP statistics. Trade with surrounding areas means such zones – when unmolested – have typically enjoyed significant improvements in living standards. Indeed this even appears to have been the case in the recent period of ‘anarchy’ in Somalia, despite the endless interference of outside powers.

Western politicians wishing to ‘free’ stateless societies should first explain how they would do so without violating the non-aggression principle. Would they use force to change cultural practices they abhorred? Would they appropriate resources from individuals in the West to fund their mission? And could they be sure their intervention would be successful and not counterproductive? For example, might it make target groups even more hostile to interactions with outsiders and their ideas, or alternatively incentivise them to become dependent on foreign aid handouts? The record of such initiatives does not augur well.

In conclusion, stateless societies still have a valuable role to play in the preservation and expansion of liberty. They comprise an important sanctuary from government and may bolster other sanctuaries within state-governed territories, including the counter-economy and various sub-cultures. In terms of libertarian goals, exit strategies that build up such pockets of resistance may well prove more effective in extending liberty than attempts to roll back the state through politics. This also implies that to the extent libertarians do have political influence a focus on opposing the assault on enclaves of statelessness would pay large dividends (for example, criticism of policies such as foreign aid and military intervention).

Those who hope liberty will be delivered by extending international institutions are surely terminally naive, as well as inconsistent (what about the force required to impose such a framework on the unwilling?). Such governance structures will inevitably be captured by special interests and, as with any major concentration of political power, there is a significant risk tyranny will follow. At that point, defenders of liberty will need an escape route. The importance of competition and the possibility of exit cannot be overstated.

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