One, Two, Many Somalias

The war in Iraq is clearly a disaster. A year and a half after President Bush's infamous 'Mission Accomplished' speech aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, the situation has become far worse than it was that May Day when the president 'landed' a Navy jet on the ship's runway. Attacks on U.S. troops continue to occur regularly, and it is painfully obvious that the troops control only the ground under their tank treads. Even Baghdad is unsafe.

What, then, should be done about the situation? The right-wing hawks' answer is, to paraphrase Che Guevara, 'one, two, many Fallujahs.' The left-wing hawks' answer is, as John Kerry explained, to get other countries in on the 'many Fallujahs.' The consistent antiwar'and, not coincidentally, pro-freedom'answer is simply to bring the troops home and let the Iraqis sort it out.

The immediate reaction of most Americans is to recoil in horror at the thought of pulling out and leaving the Iraqis to their own devices. Even Pat Buchanan, one of the most eloquent opponents of the invasion, recently agreed with Bill O'Reilly that pulling out of Iraq is simply not an option. To do that, say proponents of a continued occupation, would have two disastrous consequences. First, it would cause America to lose face with the rest of the world, which is true but irrelevant since we ought to be concerned with doing what's right regardless of how it looks. Second, it would leave Iraq in a state of anarchy, which in turn would lead to chaos and lawlessness and a general decline in the quality of life.

Or would it?

Consider the case of Somalia , another disastrous U.S. intervention wisely ended by President Clinton after the infamous 'Black Hawk Down' incident. Hawks then were upset at the appearance of American weakness and indecision, regardless of the correctness of the decision to remove Americans from harm's way when they were not in any conceivable way engaged in the defense of the U.S. They were also chagrined that the job was left unfinished and thus that Somalia was left in disarray, ruled by no government in particular.

Conventional thinking would expect the Somalia of 2004 to be vastly worse off than the Somalia of 1991, when the period of anarchy began, with crime and poverty running rampant, necessities such as water and electricity in short supply, and a market economy all but impossible in the absence of a stabilizing authority. Conventional thinking, of course, would be wrong.

Recently two World Bank economists, Tatiana Nenova and Tim Harford, published an article describing how 'surprisingly innovative' the Somali private sector has been when it comes to operating in a state of more or less complete anarchy.

In the opening paragraph the authors note, with great astonishment, that '[i]n extremely difficult conditions the private sector has demonstrated its much-vaunted capability to make do.' In fact, this 'experience suggests that it may be easier than is commonly thought for basic systems of finance and some infrastructure services to function when government is extremely weak or absent.' This assumes, of course, that one subscribes to what is 'commonly thought.' For those of us with a little more imagination, along with an understanding of history and human nature, it is no surprise at all that a people can survive and even thrive in the absence of government. Why shouldn't people enjoy richer lives without a permanent criminal class feeding off their productivity and then ordering them around in ways that are not in everyone's best interest?

Those concerned about deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the U.S. should take heart in the knowledge that the Somalis have built up a reasonably sound telephone system by combining the operations of their local telephone companies with those of dreaded multinational corporations like Sprint. While the system isn't perfect, it is improving steadily. Nenova and Harford note that '[v]igorous competition has pushed prices well below typical levels in Africa , and Somalia now has 112,000 fixed lines and 50,000 mobile subscribers, up from 17,000 lines before 1991.' In addition, while some calls could require connections among several different companies, 'firms in Mogadishu have now agreed on interconnection standards, and those in Hargeisa appear to be following suit.'

Similarly, entrepreneurs 'have divided cities into manageable quarters and provide electricity locally using secondhand generators . . . . They offer households a menu of choices (daytime, evening, or 24-hour service) and charge per lightbulb.' This may not be the sort of system to which Americans have become accustomed, but it's a heck of a lot better than having no electricity at all, and it beats the pants off much of Iraq under U.S. occupation.

Only urban areas of Somalia have public water supplies, but'surprise, surprise''a private system extends to all parts of the country.' Furthermore, since the price of water is unregulated, '[p]rices naturally rise in times of drought,' thus helping to conserve much-needed water in those times. Would that we had such a system here, where instead we are treated to water rationing and government threats whenever water supplies run low!

Back when the Somali government operated the lone national airline, it had 'just one airplane and one international route.' With anarchy, by contrast, have come '15 firms, more than 60 aircraft, 6 international destinations, more domestic routes, and many more flights.' Not possessed of the means to ensure safety, the Somalis engage in the much-maligned outsourcing to foreign countries for airplanes, crews and maintenance.

Somalis have a private system of courts, primarily handled by traditional clan systems. When a judge tried 'to levy taxes and take over the privately run port of El Ma'an ,' the Somalis wisely told him and his court to take a hike. The private court system may not be perfect, but it's miles better than one funded by theft and given to power grabs.

When it comes to finances, the Somalis have developed systems to exchange currency ('as close to perfectly competitive as is ever likely to be possible,' aver the authors), to transfer funds (a 'transaction is usually completed within 24 hours'), to save money ('rotating credit associations [based on] clan links'), and to issue traveler's checks via Saudi banks for pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Naturally, there are problems that the market has thus far failed to address as fully as the ones just described. The authors mention that the road and education systems are in particularly bad shape. However, they are careful to note that the problem of primary school enrollment, at 17 percent of the school-age population, is largely a result of the nomadic lifestyle of most Somalis. In addition, 'the private schools are locally acknowledged to be superior to those run by local government,' so it is hard to see how further government involvement in the education system would improve matters. In a similar fashion, where 'municipal governments . . . have the power to collect tolls, they do not spend them on maintenance.' (This sounds remarkably like state toll roads here in the good ol' U.S. of A. You don't suppose government has the same dismal record everywhere'do you?)

Nenova and Harford conclude: 'The achievements of the Somali private sector form a surprisingly long list.' (Once again, this is only surprising to those who cannot imagine a stateless society, which, of course, includes most people.) They then try to make the case for the existence of government anyway, but they end up making the case against it by citing once more the places where government has failed and where the private sector has either done better or at least done no worse.

Since they work for the World Bank, whose job it is to hand out other people's money to foreign countries and then order them around, the authors do their best to explain why the Somali experience 'should give hope and guidance in other reconstruction efforts.' 'It may,' they say, 'take less encouragement than is commonly thought for stripped-down systems of finance, electricity, and telecommunications to grow.' Actually, though, the lesson that should be drawn from the Somali experience is that it takes no outside encouragement for the market to function and provide for the needs, and even luxuries, of people. If anything, given what the authors have just told us about the failure and corruption of government institutions as compared to the relatively smooth, inexpensive, efficient, and trust-based systems of the private sector, it seems that government 'encouragement' and 'reconstruction' are likely to do more harm than good and will merely serve as diversions of valuable resources from worthwhile private-sector projects to self-serving political boondoggles. In short, the best government is no government.

Somalia , like so many other African countries, suffered first under colonial rule and then, following independence, Marxist dictatorship. The collapse of the dictatorship ushered in the era of anarchy'an era in which 'Somalia boasts lower rates of extreme poverty and, in some cases, better infrastructure than richer countries in Africa,' according to Nenova and Harford. Most Westerners assume that the solution to Africa 's problems lies in democracy, which they erroneously equate with freedom; perhaps the example of Somalia proves that the solution lies in anarchy.

Iraq , too, suffered first under colonial rule, then under a dictatorship. Now that the dictator has been overthrown, isn't it time the occupation government got out of the way? Rather than trying to set up a government of any kind in Iraq 'a government which, no matter how benevolent, ultimately rests on theft and the threat of force'why not follow the example of Somalia ? Bring the troops home and let anarchy reign. The Iraqi private sector, already much more advanced than that of Somalia , will surely be able to handle the problems of reconstruction and then of building a civil society. The alternative is 'one, two, many Fallujahs' in a futile attempt to get numerous disparate factions to knuckle under to Uncle Sam's iron fist and then to agree on some form of government which will never be able to please everyone and will always be engaged in plundering some groups for the benefit of others.

One more thought: Whether or not anarchy ends up being permitted in Iraq 'and chances are it will not be'this is one experiment worth trying at home. Perhaps the slogan of freedom lovers everywhere should be: 'One, two, many Somalias .'

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Michael Tennant is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.