Has a libertarian society ever existed?

by Ian Huyett



It’s sometimes suggested that libertarian ideas are hazardous because they lack precedent. Functioning decentralized societies, it’s implied, are absent from humanity’s past.

Yet throughout recorded history, nations have survived and thrived without the overarching authority that President Obama assures us is necessary for prosperity.

My observation is nothing new. Each of the systems I’ll name here has been the subject of at least one lengthy examination by a libertarian scholar.  I have yet to come across, however, a reference sheet that briefly reviews a few of them. I’ll attempt to provide one below.

Icelandic Godord

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 3.18.34 PMPerhaps the most familiar example of a historic libertarian order, the godord system of old Iceland has been cited by economist David Friedman and other libertarian thinkers as an example of a decentralized legal system.

It’s not a coincidence that many advocates of liberty see a paradise amidst the pages of Iceland’s sagas. To hear some medieval historians tell it, Iceland was founded as something of a 9th century Free State Project. “According… to their own histories” says Carolyne Larrington of St John’s College, Oxford “the Norwegians migrated from Norway because King Harold Fairhair was centralizing power there.”

The creation of Iceland was, first and foremost, a flight from overarching government. Iceland was founded to protect traditional Norwegian values: an emphasis on community, a respect for competition and a commitment to individual responsibility.

Because Icelanders rejected kingship, men who wished to become godar – religious and political leaders – had to persuade others to follow them voluntarily. Iceland – which is about the size of Virginia – was consequently divided into dozens of small chieftaincies, or godord.

These chieftains had no royal claim to the lives of their constituents, who were free to leave and join other godord at any time. This made leaders accountable to their followers and created a market for fairness and efficiency in government.

Each chieftaincy collected voluntary taxes in the form of temple dues. In turn, they provided judges and lawyers whose job it was – failing a mediation in private court – to arbitrate between or advocate for their subjects as needed.

While power in Iceland was eventually centralized, the godord system stood for nearly three centuries. As Roderick Long has pointed out, “We should be cautious in labeling as a failure a political experiment that flourished longer than the United States has even existed.”


Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 3.17.45 PM
Strikingly similar to the godord scheme, the xeer system likewise flourished for at least hundreds of years in what is today the state of Somalia – where it still persists in the rural north.

The system differs from Iceland’s in that membership in one’s clan – or qabil is fixed at birth.  It affords even greater competition, however, between private courts, or guurti. These courts – which traditionally meet beneath Acacia trees – are financed by donations from local businessmen. For the businessmen, these donations serve as a kind of advertisement.

Xeer is nearly identical to its Icelandic equivalent in its focus on restitution and its practice of exiling repeat offenders. Somalia’s legal lexicon, however, contains virtually no loan words. As I see it, then, godor, xeer and similar systems that have independently emerged elsewhere suggest an intuitive human legal order.

Somalia’s present, unfortunate state stems from a transgression of that order: the reign of Marxist tyrant Siad Barre, who violently suppressed the xeer tradition in the name of egalitarianism. Barre not only outlawed the customary question “what is your clan?”, but banned the question “what is your ex-clan?” soon after.

As George Mason’s Peter Leeson has shown in great detail, most measures of well-being in Somalia have actually improved since the implosion of Barre’s centralized state. Yet Somalia’s libertarian folkways are under constant attack by the nation’s Westernized intelligentsia, who abhor “qabilists” as backwards reactionaries that refuse to embrace the modern era.

Carolingian Law

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 3.16.52 PMAs the first European superstate since the fall of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire is not the first place that one would expect to find libertarian policies. Yet a look at its structure reveals that Charlemagne was something of a medieval Ronald Reagan: a violent interventionist abroad who made a point of being relatively laissez-faire at home.

Charlemagne was an overwhelmingly successful conqueror: the King of the Franks more than doubled the territory he inherited from his father and is credited with an intellectual revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Ironically, medieval historians say that a policy of legal decentralism made the Emperor’s successes possible.

Though Charlemagne waged a campaign of terrorism against Saxony, he had a remarkable respect for the sovereignty of communities within his borders. Internally, the Holy Roman Empire was a loose confederation of small principalities that were encouraged to retain contradictory sets of laws. Consider the words of University of London historian Tom Asbridge:

“Today, we’re thinking about how is Europe going to live together – the European Union – and we’re trying out different models. We’re trying out a model of centralized power, in which we all follow sort of a similar set of laws, a similar set of practices. And the alternative, of course, is to have a loose conglomeration of powers, and we all follow slightly different forms of law, but we get on, we cooperate. The interesting thing is that Charlemagne’s vision of his empire – of the equivalent of Europe – was to allow people to follow quite different sets of laws depending on their local region, their traditions. And to have a loose umbrella of power that held it all together. That actually worked for Charlemagne. Later generations, his successors – Louie in particular – tried to enforce centralized power, and that didn’t work. So perhaps there’s a lesson for us to learn about Europe: Charlemagne’s way of diversity in unity perhaps is the way forward.”

The Hoplite-Farmer

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 3.15.45 PMDonald Kagan is one of the world’s most respected scholars of Greek history. In a lecture at Yale, Kagan explains why Cypselus, known as the first dictator of Corinth, was considered a reprehensible autocrat in his day.

“Cypselus, like just about all the tyrants, used his power to do something that the Greek governments normally did not do: namely, collect taxes from their people.

You have to understand that the idea of taxation being normal would have gotten a Greek foaming at the mouth. When there’s no tyranny, there’s no taxation…

The normal form of taxation that existed in the Greek world – when it was in its independent polis phase – was simply customs duties on trade. But the hoplite-farmer wasn’t gonna be taxed. Paying taxes is what barbarians did to their kings. A very powerful feeling.”

Cypselus’ imposition of taxes on Corinth doubtless appeared horrible because it could be contrasted with the many other independent polities that made up Greek civilization. Our species has formed communities since we could walk on two legs. Those communities, when allowed to emerge and compete, are under pressure to afford us freedom.

While cumbersome superstates seem like today’s default arrangement, they are ultimately a blip on the timeline of human existence. Libertarianism offers a legal arrangement that, far from being counterintuitive, is grounded in long established common sense.

About The Author

Austin Petersen

Austin Petersen is the founder of The Libertarian Republic, as well as the CEO of Stonegait LLC. Formerly an Associate Producer for Judge Andrew Napolitano's show "Freedom Watch", on the Fox Business Network. Austin was referred to by the Judge as "The right side of my brain". He built Judge Napolitano's social networks with over 700,000 fans and millions of clicks a month. Austin graduated from Missouri State University. He has written and produced award winning plays and videos, and previously worked for the Libertarian National Committee and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

32 Responses

  1. shelly hester

    How high was the infant/maternal mortality rate in these societies? Were the elderly, sick and disabled taken care of? Did children of all social classes get access to an education? Were women given the same rights as men? If a member of those societies decided they no longer believed in that society’s dominant religion, was there a system in place to protect them from losing rights or their lives? All of the things most human beings worry about can not be answered by this particular political/philisopical system.

    • m l

      Don’t confuse historical political/philosophy with advances in technology & evolution of first principles that now exist. All of these things have not been solved through the inherent violence in today’s system.

    • Sovereign Mary

      Shelly – Let me provide you with a little historical information by the founding fathers. Charity is to come voluntarily from the individual and voluntary enterprises and groups within the American society and not from the federal government committing despotic and dictatorial Legalized Plunder through taxation.

      “To lay taxes to provide for the general welfare of the United States,
      that is to say, ‘to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the
      general welfare.’ For the laying of taxes is the power, and the general
      welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They are not
      to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay
      the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union.” — Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826),
      US Founding Father, drafted the Declaration of Independence, 3rd US President ad libitum – “at one’s pleasure” (at liberty)

      “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”
      — James Madison

      “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on the objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” — James Madison
      (1751-1836), Father of the Constitution for the USA, 4th US President
      — James Madison

    • Juraj Seffer

      I fail to see what those questions are trying to achieve. One cannot compare the infant mortality rate of Somalia to Denmark, pronounce that statism has a lower rate and should therefore be adopted.

      The argument isn’t that private law and abolition of State will bring a heaven on Earth with no bigots, racists, misogynists and so on. The argument is that all other things being equal, not having State is better than having one, from ethical and utilitarian perspective. If a certain society holds that children must be sacrificed every now and then to please a god, having private, decentralised law is better than a political system.

    • American-By-Choice


      They were familial cultures. Wherein each individual was known to the next and each held accountable, by the other.

      If a person needed something he asked for help, such was provided, as they would not ask, IF they could possibly do so for themselves and had provided help to others, who had asked.

      People like you, were known as FOOD. Providing help to other creatures, much superior to you, thus vastly more worthy of the life which people like you sustained, through that which God provided to you and ultimately the creature which consumed you.

    • Levi Russell

      “Did children of all social classes get access to an education?”

      Did anyone “get an education” 3,000 years ago?

      “All of the things most human beings worry about can not be answered by this particular political/philisopical [sic] system.”

      How do you know? You were just asking all those questions.

      Some people and their intellectual dishonesty…

      • American-By-Choice

        The author is a collectivist.

        Collectivism, in all of it’s innumerable facets, rests in Relativism.

        Relativism rejects objectivity.

        Objectivity is ESSENTIAL to truth, trust, morality and justice.

        No truth, no trust.

        No trust, no morality.

        No Morality, no Justice.

        No Justice, no ‘liberty for all’.

        Ask her what ‘education’ means… she’s ignorant of its meaning. She erroneously ‘feels’ that education is the acquisition of knowledge, which rests in learning of ‘facts’, through an organized construct, such as a school or university.

        In truth, education is merely the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction.

        She’s as ignorant as a stone, a relativist of no particular redeeming value.

        In Nature, such entities are relegated to that which we know as ‘FOOD’.

      • Tom barnby

        We are actually trying to figure out how they knew what they knew. The understanding of construction, the pyramids, and the solar system and how it determines so much how we function here on earth shows the level of intelligence was greater than it is today all things being equal.

      • Layla Godey

        Part of the problem with thinking that lack of education within those societies invalidates them is that it ignores the fact that written language and mathematics developed over time. Once developed, they still required enough people who actually did know how to read and write to be present in all communities (in order to teach and pass reading and writing skills on to others), and people with sufficient personal wealth that it wasn’t necessary for them to have to spend their days at manual labor producing food, clothing and shelter rather than reading, writing and procuring scarce reading and writing materials -people worried about how to survive a winter weren’t apt to have a lot of time to spend on producing paper and ink…their kids wanted food.

    • Pelagian

      Considering when these societies existed, infant/maternal mortality rate is not a factor of the political/philosophical system.
      Yes the elderly, sick and disabled were generally taken care of.
      As for education, I’m assuming you are referring to some form of state-regulated system of education rather than an education geared toward learning what one needs with the ability to learn what one wants. (Autodidactism is generally superior to the modern day indoctrination method that passes itself off as education.)
      Gender equality is modern concept so it wasn’t dealt with in these early political/philosophical systems.
      If your question is whether any of these ancient systems managed to include all your listed criteria, then probably not. If your question is will Libertarianism, then the answer is: it will do a better job than any political/philosophical system currently in place in the world.

      • American-By-Choice

        Infant morality is a fundamental datum used in the socialist ruse which holds third world shit-holes up as superior to the US.

        The point being her highest stated priority, exposes her as being among that foolish flock.

    • Saint_Sithney

      Actually, ancient Nordic society was probably the most gender equal society in history. Women were essential to the community as individuals, not vagina-possessing bargaining chips. Women tended to have much higher control of finances and day to day running of the community, though warrior women were not rare.

      As for your life expectancy question, really? We’re discussing primarily ancient through early medieval history, and you are saying their superior freedoms to control their lives are negated by the fact that the germ theory of disease hadn’t been proposed?

    • terry_freeman

      Education in Athens was widely available. You might possibly have heard of some of their more famous teachers and students.

      • Leah Hotchkiss

        I love how freedom lovers see education as a commodity to be available for those who wish to partake…she sees it as a something ALL must have. Not everyone wants to learn. There will always be a certain % of a society that will never be educated, simply because we are human and don’t want to do it. Ironic that forcing someone to be government educated, while noble-sounding, isn’t freedom either.

  2. American-By-Choice

    Leave a person free and they will prosper, wane and perish.

    Regulate, oka: Enslave a person and they will wane and perish.

    There is no third alternative.

    But I invite the reader to offer as many alternatives as they’re capable of producing.

  3. Keith Lombard

    you left out my family…the Lombards, we are the ones who took control of italy after the fall of the roman empire. for several hundred years (also longer then america has existed) the Lombards had one of the most libertarian societies that ever existed…thats part of the reason our history is not brought up to often.

    If you want to get real technical,Charlemagne learned his ways from my people when he defeated us. credit where it was due,he was the only one powerful enough to take italy from us,and he still left a lombard in charge of the place. if anyone would like to know more google the lombards, or lombardic people.

    we did not believe in ruling people, when we defeated someone in battle they did not become a slave or subject,they became family,and we would teach them to think for themselves. we did not wish to control,we worked to liberate and enlighten,and any place the Lombard went,we encouraged men and women to follow their hearts.

    it was one of the most open societies ever anyone could walk right up to the king and speak to him like he was a brother,and not a master.free speech,freedom of religion,the right to bear arms,and all this back in the times of Beowulf,on up to Charlemagne’s rule.

      • Keith Lombard

        feel free my friend. enlightenment is always an honorable endeavor. and i am honored you took interest.

    • oli

      Do you have books? Journals? Or memoires available on the web?

      • Keith Lombard

        well,there are sites that tell part of the story,and the Historia Langobardorum written by Paul the deacon…the old Norse Edda tells the story of when Odin gave us our name even,lol but most of our history was hidden and still is by the catholic church.

        i have thought about writing to the pope and asking to research my family from their records. from my research i am almost certain that the tale of king author was actually a tale of king ardoin. because for starters the round table was our symbol,it showed the king was your equal,and just a man himself.

        i know a lot of things just from what has been passed down through the generations. some of it i can’t actually prove unless i can get my hands on those hidden texts still from the interest people have shown it kind of makes me want to get that history out there more. for what it is worth we are still the same people. our way of thinking is the same,we just do our thing in a different way nowadays.

    • Whitney Walker

      Cool! That’s probably the most awesome family history I’ve heard to date. Glad to see you’re keeping with tradition.

    • likeyoudontalreadyknow

      You give a highly romanticized version of Lombardian history. Most wealth was held by the king. Freemen and even most nobles had little compared to other kingdoms. Slaves were certainly a part of their society. The Lombardian rule over Italy was – at most – a 210 year period. That’s a couple decades short of the USA’s existence. (After 774, the Lombards lost most of Italy and became fractionalized and had infighting.)

      • Keith Lombard

        lol you give a historically inaccurate re-telling of other peoples observations or speculation. in truth anything you might think you know came from what someone else wrote. also while the Lombard’s only held control of all of Italy for a little over 200 years. before that as we were migrating down though Germany,and plenty of other places we lived the same way. our system was basically a version of Godord. back when we were known as the winnli we adopted that system. your right about how there was infighting after the fall of Italy to Charlemagne. that had more to do with the queen adopting Christianity,when we were a pagan people. its when some of the clan went to Ireland,some went to Africa, basically different clans went on and did their individual thing,which is what they had always been taught to do. there is literally nothing you could tell me about my family that i do not know,unless you can break into the Vatican or have access to their vaults,and i doubt you do.

  4. Layla Godey

    Interesting-thanks for posting this article. I couldn’t help take notice, however, of this:

    “It’s sometimes suggested that libertarian ideas are hazardous because they lack precedent. Functioning decentralized societies, it’s implied, are absent from humanity’s past.”
    I find it an odd thing that libertarianism Must present proof of sorts that it has existed before, and that proof being demanded primarily from the very people who cluck and chide others for “trying to live in the past-move forward-progress!”. (Just as observation…)

    • American-By-Choice

      Brilliant observation. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. JohnComeau

    more modern examples I’ve heard of but haven’t visited are Svalbard and Zomia. if anyone wants to take up a collection for my round-trip airfare I’ll be glad to report on what I find :^)

  6. Schlomo Weinberger

    Okay let’s be honest. ‘Liberty’ isn’t exactly a system of political philosophy, or a working rule of governance. In fact the term kind of implies lack of governance, don’t you think? I don’t identify as a Libertarian, although I’m drawn to it nonetheless. This I think is an inevitable effect one might expect to observe elsewhere. People desire Liberty in precise relation to their feeling oppressed. This could be represented mathematically. At other times in History, when a People felt cared for and well governed and trusted that their leaders had the best interests of their people in mind, they could readily and easily lend their wills and even their lives to those leaders and feel a part of something greater than themselves. A society is built around something that unifies it, in the pursuit of some common aim or good. Notice how Somalia’s tyrant banned the question “What is your clan?” This natural unit of society is actually specifically his target. As isolated individuals, what else have we but to clamor for our Liberty? And yet, when have we been more helpless to affect it?
    There is indeed a Third Way or rather ‘Third Position’ it is often called. Look it up.

    • cvr527

      As it currently exists,the third way, was supposedly advocated by Gerhard Schroeder and Bill Clinton. The facts do not back up their claims however. Bill Clinton is a chameleon who pretends to be a reasonable centrist but who swings hard left at every opportunity. Schroeder was a complete failure and only claimed to be an advocate of the third way after he was slumping in the polls and sure to lose. The real problem with the third way, as far as the US is concerned, is that it maintains the infrastructure for progressive efforts to turn the US into a eurosocialist nanny state.