13 April 2009

Piracy - the libertarian dream?

Since the collapse of the Somali government in the 1990s Somalia has been effectively without a government. According to what I hear American libertarians saying, this should be the fulfilment of a dream.

But then Somali pirates attack shipping in the neighbourhood. Well, that's a libertarian dream too -- after all, they are only exercising their natural human right to bear arms, and what's the point of bearing arms if you don't use them for fun and profit?

What about the people who are robbed by the pirates? Well that's easy enough -- they have the right to bear arms too, so let them do so and fight it out. As one American libertarian blogger puts it: A conservative blog for peace:
A free-market solution to piracy. With the rest of the world I’m happy that Captain Phillips is free and salute the US Navy for their work. But like companies have private armies in Iraq, why not rent a private navy (seagoing security guards) for your company’s ships? (Because in a truly free society like that the state would lose power and we mustn’t have that, oh no.)

So what have we here?

It seems to me very like a hankering for the kind of society that prevailed in Western Europe after AD 476. The collapse of civil authority, the Pax Romana and rule by feudal warlords who gave themelves titles like Duke, Count, Baron etc., and of course gave themselves the right to bear arms. In fact something very similar to the state of Somalia today.

The proposal for armed security guards on ships, a private army, is, of course exactly the same solution as was adopted by the feudal warlords in Western Europe in the "Dark Ages", and by those in Somalia in the 21st century.

And how did the Somali pirates get going?

Well, in a very similar way to the private security guards on ships -- if they ever do get going. By exercising their right to bear arms, that's how.

The Mahatma X Files: K'naan sez
Already by this time, local fishermen in the coastline of Somalia have been complaining of illegal vessels coming to Somali waters and stealing all the fish. And since there was no government to report it to, and since the severity of the violence clumsily overshadowed every other problem, the fishermen went completely unheard.

But it was around this same time that a more sinister, a more patronizing practice was being put in motion. A Swiss firm called Achair Parterns, and an Italian waste company called Achair Parterns, made a deal with Ali Mahdi, that they were to dump containers of waste material in Somali waters. These European companies were said to be paying Warlords about $3 a ton, whereas to properly dispose of waste in Europe costs about $1000 a ton.

In 2004, after a tsunami washed ashore several leaking containers, thousand of locals in the Puntland region of Somalia started to complain of severe and previously unreported ailments, such as abdominal bleeding, skin melting off and a lot of immediate cancer-like symptoms. Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environmental Program, says that the containers had many different kinds of waste, including "Uranium, radioactive waste, lead, Cadmium, Mercury and chemical waste." But this wasn't just a passing evil from one or two groups taking advantage of our unprotected waters. The UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says that the practice still continues to this day. It was months after those initial reports that local fishermen mobilized themselves, along with street militias, to go into the waters and deter the Westerners from having a free pass at completely destroying Somalia's aquatic life. Now years later, the deterring has become less noble, and the ex-fishermen with their militias have begun to develop a taste for ransom at sea. This form of piracy is now a major contributor to the Somali economy, especially in the very region that private toxic waste companies first began to [bury] our nation's death trap.

So the Somali pirates are simply following the free market solution advocated by American libertarians.

Wicked evil governments should not exceed their powers by trying to restrict good honest capitalists from dumping toxic waste. Let the people who are poisoned by it act themselves to stop it, and exact compensation from any other passing vessels trespassing on their waters. An ideal libertarian solution.

But I think libertarians like A conservative blog for peace might just possibly be missing something, somewhere.

See also SAFCEI: Somali piracy and toxic waste


LutherPunk said...

Wow, this may be the most misinformed reading of Libertarianism I have ever encountered...

You have overlooked a couple of key principles here. Fist of all, Libertarianism is rooted in the principle of non-aggression. Even the right to bear arms is understood in the sense of being good for the order of civil society (ie, aggression may need to be met with force to deter it), not as a way to impose the individual wills.

Secondly, Libertarianism also holds a core value of respect for private property. I hardly think open theft, blackmail, and extortion honor that value.

Did the Somali fisherman have a right to defend their ancestral fishing areas from foreign interlopers? Perhaps. But when they began boarding ships and committing acts of violence they crossed the line from self-defense to aggression.

As far as Serge's private army proposal goes, I am not sure I am 100% on board with him, but would have no issue if a crew were well armed in order to protect body and property from harm.

Finally, bear in mind that the vast majority of Libertarians are not anarchists purely speaking. Thus the state does have a minimal role, including defense of their citizens.

bigbluemeanie said...

Johan Hari had a similar observation about the origin of the Somali pirates.

It also seems that, like terrorists, the classification is in the eye of the receiver. Sir Francis Drake and Queeen Elizabeth I were notorious pirates to all but the English: they would raid and steal from other ships on the high seas.

Hari ends his article with a story of a 4th Century pirate:

He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know "what he meant by keeping possession of the sea." The pirate smiled, and responded: "What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor."

I know this doesn't really address the philosophical question you raised about libertarianism. I don't know much about it but I wonder how many libertarians supported recent US imperial wars?

Steve Hayes said...


The libertarian I quoted was opposed to the US imperial wars. What I found odd was that while he thought that wars between states were bad, he seemed to approve of wars between private armies and advocated the formation of private armies.

Roy said...

I think you have mistaken libertarianism for anarchy.

Anonymous said...
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Iosue Andreas Sartorius said...

"The libertarian I quoted was opposed to the US imperial wars. What I found odd was that while he thought that wars between states were bad, he seemed to approve of wars between private armies and advocated the formation of private armies."

Serge has been a great influence on me over the years. He is, as am I, opposed to wars of agression, whether they be conducted by states or private armies, but not wars of defense, by states or private armies.

Steve Hayes said...

Western Confucian,

The problem that I see in this case is that a private army (or several of them) that began in defence has moved to aggression. The implication of what Serge said was that private armies could solve the problem better than states. While I don't have very much confidence in states, I have even less in private armies.

States can possibly try to see the problem whole, and try to find solutions, even if they often fail. But asserting that the problem will be solved by privatisation seems very short-sighted to me. In this respect libertarians often seem to be just like Marxists -- they pop out solutions dictated by ideology, like trinkets from a Christmas, cracker. Simply repeating the privatisation mantra doesn't cut it.

bigbluemeanie said...

I don't agree with this notion that "wars of defence" are justifiable.

History is littered with wars between countries where both were simply defending themselves (in their own view). The notion of defence, and what you are defending, is always contested. One of the ways this is done is in choosing a particular date or event as the start of the conflict, and ignoring things before that. Another is to have a completely one-sided interpretation of history. Also there is a small step from defending to pre-emptive defence.

While I respect people like George Galloway who consistently argue that "people have a right to defend themselves" (such as with Palestinians against Israelis or with Iraqis against American and British occupation) I find that most people are not as consistent as him. They are quite open in a view that says "we have the right to resist/defend but others don't". (And of course GG is opportunistic in a different way).

What I do not understand is how war or violence could rationally be seen as a solution when it invariably the actual problem.


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