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Saga Iceland Was a Communal Society... Really?


Oh Lord, grant me nose plugs mightier than Adamintine, for the Anarchist FAQers have been at their mischief again.

Like Iain McKay's reply to Bryan Caplan's long essay The Anarcho-Statists of Spain there is a big problem with the dispute. Basically the attackers make a big deal out of things that either don't affect Friedman's case, or that only affect it slightly.



~~~ COMMUNAL ~~~


For some reason the existence of local governments called hreppar (hreppr singular) is the main historical item used to dispute Friedman's claim that Saga Iceland played host to polycentric law and private property. Yes I uttered that sentence and yes I'm accurately summing up these guys' argument.

In other words they don't bother dealing with the actual meat of Friedman's argument, which is that there was no centralised executive to bring cases to trial. All cases were brought privately.

The laws of the land allowed for a set number of godord or arbitration associations, each held by one godi who would actually hear the cases. Godi could sell their godord, and anybody could ask to buy one. However, the constitution agreed around 930CE outlawed the entrepreneurial creation of additional subsequent godord. This had the long term disadvantage that the total number of godord could only remain constant or decline.

"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 . . .
Why do geographically defined associations equal communal societies? They were not societies in their own right. They were non-optional units of local government. Now if governance is necessarily communal by nature fine, I have no argument with that, but what exactly does this quote undermine in Friedman's work?

The answer is his assertion in The Machinery of Freedom 2nd Edition that there was no executive governance at all in Iceland, because Hreppar count as holistic local governments that include executive functions.

"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 . . .
"The hreppr was essentially non-political and addresses subsistence and economic security needs. Its presence freed farmers from depending on an overclass to provide comparable services or corresponding security measures." [Viking Age Iceland, pp. 137-8]
Yep. Local governments existed. This is the one criticism that actually sticks because it contradicts Friedman's claim that there was no executive branch of government in Iceland at all.

But Friedman's assertion re executive government had nothing intrinsically to do with the function of the godi or the fact that suits were always brought privately. Note that nowhere in the FAQ or the article do the writers actually demonstrate the falsity of Friedman's claim about the private ownership of land, even coming close to conceding the point. .

"During the summer common lands and pastures in the highlands, often called almenning, were used by the region's farmers for grazing . . . Common lands were called almenning . . . these public lands offered opportunities for enterprising individuals to increase their store of provisions and to find saleable merchandise." [Op. Cit., pp. 47-48]
Land out of the way was unclaimed and so was common. Agreed. So what? This does not magically make the claimed land common, or undo the fact that such claimed land was traded routinely right from the earliest days of the Viking settlement of Iceland.

Calling a society communal or communalistic just because the out-of-the-way and unclaimed tracts of land were periodically divvied up for use by the hreppar is like calling the UK a communalistic society because it has local governments who do the same things, which they do, by the way. So do local governments in pretty much every country on Earth today - so all modern civilisation is communalistic? No dice, bro.

Local government units that pool resources do not make a society as a whole communal. I think we can agree on that. So Viking Age Iceland was not a communal society. Now let's get on to the other trenchant critique offered in the article.



~~~ MODEL ~~~

Is Iceland an example of anarcho-capitalism in action? No. The total number of arbitrators/chiefs/godi was intrinsically limited by the laws they set out at the beginning of their social experiment. Compulsory local governments/hreppar existed and every Icelander was a member of one. The point above about land is a non-starter considering people couldn't use most of the interior, and nobody - Friedman and myself included - is opposed to local land-sharing partnerships.

Friedman is trying to have it both ways. He claims Iceland is not "anarcho"-capitalist, yet can somehow be used to refute arguments against his ideology.
An example of the kind of argument refuted by the Iceland example is

Either these people are very very dense about what Friedman means by 'some aspects' or they are just being wilfully dishonest, as I hopefully demonstrate below.

But this is only relevant if Iceland was considered a model. As Friedman claims is not a model, it becomes pointless to discuss why it lasted two centuries. But by stressing the time involved, Friedman is obviously trying to suggest it does have lessons for us, that some aspects of it can be considered a model. So he really is trying to have it both ways. Why mention it at all unless it has some relevance to "anarcho"-capitalism? As the section shows, Iceland was not remotely "anarcho"-capitalist so why it lasted two centuries is beside the point
Yeah. Some aspects of Saga Iceland can be considered as a model for some aspects of anarcho-capitalism, namely private property protected privately and polycentric (though not exactly private) arbitration and mediation. That's it. Those two things.

Nothing in the FAQ or the article takes these meaningfully to task, with Byock quotes employed out of context to draw overwrought conclusions about property on the island and a word game to try to pretend there was no wage labour from the Tenth Century. According to the Sagas there was. No archaeological evidence has made the case that there was no wage labour in Saga Iceland.

Therefore I consider these two important criticisms insufficient to overturn Friedman's description of Iceland as a propertarian society, or his contention that the polycentric law and private enforcement of property and grievance claims provides a useful example and model of the important aspects of anarcho-capitalism.

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