Indian Libertarians

Ten Examples of Anarchic Societies

Shivank Mehra Tuesday April 26, 2016



In this article I will mainly focus on examples of anarcho-capitalist societies. To give a brief summary, anarcho-capitalists advocate a stateless society with social order governed by free association and economic order governed by a free market. The services of police, courts and military are considered "essential" and impossible to be provided by freely competing private agencies or voluntary social associations. "Give me one example where it has worked!" is the usual retort. In this article, I present ten examples of anarchist societies that thrived peacefully for several generations, and in some cases several centuries or even millennia.


1) The people of Icelandic Commonwealth formed voluntary associations for mutual defense, and the most prominent military leaders met annually in an assembly called "Althing" to adopt arbitration arrangements among themselves. Other than that, these leaders neither held territories, nor collected tax, nor enjoyed the exclusive right to administer justice. Although the Althing was established in 930, these voluntary associations began to form as early as 870 when Icelandic settlement began. It lasted for 130 years and came to an end in 1000 after the forced Christianization of Iceland by Norway. After that, the Church gradually usurped more and more power until it paved the way for Norway to annex Iceland in 1262.


2) The native American peoples such as Yurok, Hupa, Karuk and some of their Northern California neighbors have traditionally lived in an anarcho-capitalistic society since the medieval ages till the 19th century. The economy was based on private property, and traditionally, the Dentalium shell was used as currency. Disputes between individuals were settled by hiring private arbiters, and there was no State. Today, these tribes live in autonomous regions and maintain many of their old ways.


3) The Ifugao province of Philippines, prior to its colonization, had existed in a state of anarcho-capitalism for over 2000 years. There was no central authority that could make laws or force compliance. Yet, there was a legal system that protected the right to property, in which legal disputes were resolved by hiring a private arbitrator. Except for private arbitration, the only other alternative was war between families, but it was not considered as a feasible option. Without a State to subsidize the cost of violence, the people of Ifugao found peaceful arbitration to be a better alternative.


4) The Kapauku Papuan people of West New Guinea present yet another example of anarcho-capitalism. From medieval times to the 20th century, these people lived in an anarchist society. Everything in this society was subject to individual private ownership, even tracts of forests. Legal disputes in this society were resolved by hiring private arbitrators. Upon losing the case, non-compliance with the arbiter's decision meant being outlawed and ostracized by the community. This kept the legal system intact even though there was no State or formal government.


5) In medieval Europe, many free cities were able to secure their autonomy against the lawless nobility. These free cities became Europe's centers of economic development, trade, art, and culture. A haven for runaway serfs, the free cities persisted as pockets of freedom inside a continent mostly dominated by feudal lords. The examples of such cities are countless and too many to make a comprehensive list, and they maintained their autonomy for centuries. The people in these cities formed voluntary associations called "communes" for mutual defense. These cities erected walls to protect themselves from direct invasion, but when the nobility harassed the city folk who were traveling outside the city walls, the people of their commune would exact revenge upon the noble lord, typically by sneaking into his fields and burning his crops. The communes thus acted like private defense agencies, protecting and avenging their clients against physical harm. Norms emerged to deter inter-personal and inter-group violence, and the private norms that emerged in these cities became the basis of modern civil law.


6) American Western frontier during 1830 to 1900, also known as the "Old West", was an anarcho-capitalist society. In most towns, government was either absent or defunct. Private claim clubs were formed to protect persons and property. These clubs registered the property claims of their members. There were miner's associations, homeowners' associations, cattlemen's associations, as well as vigilante groups. Contrary to popular opinion, these were very well ordered and had a well-developed system of arbitration. The institution of the claim club reached perfection in Iowa, where more than a hundred such groups carefully regulated land commerce until the United States government intervened. Statistics reveal that crime rates in the Old West during its de facto statelessness were very low, and far lower when compared to the crime rates when it came under government jurisdiction.


7) Ancient Ireland existed in a state of anarcho-capitalism from prehistoric times till the 17th century. It is a remarkable example of a society that persisted in a state of anarchy for countless millennia. On a cursory look, it appears to be a society divided into small kingdoms. However, prominent modern historians and scholars (like Kenneth Nicholls, Joseph Peden, etc.) have suggested that these small "kingdoms" were in fact private corporations that were formed for defensive purposes. Irish "kings" played a ceremonial role and as such had no sovereign authority. Legal disputes between individuals were resolved by hiring private arbitrators, and like everyone else the "king" had to submit to an independent arbiter if he was sued. Sometimes a group of kingdoms would acknowledge an "overking". These overkings, however, did not come about through conquest but through a voluntary alliance between the smaller kingdoms and the overking, who acted as a middle man in unifying the smaller kingdoms for mutual defense.


8) The States in medieval Europe recognized no international trade laws, and unlike in the modern era, private arbitration was not binding under any official court of law. Yet, international trade flourished, because the merchants established their own courts along the trade routes. These courts did not have any political power. Merchants voluntarily submitted their cases to these courts and chose to abide by their verdicts in order to maintain their goodwill in the merchant community. Although the merchants lived in State-governed societies, the international trade relations among them were ungoverned by the States and can be looked upon as an example of anarcho-capitalism in practice.


9) The Republic of Cospaia was an independent Italian Republic that lasted from 1440 to 1826. For more than three and a half centuries, this society had no government and no taxes. Yet, it thrived quite peacefully and enjoyed a free economy, becoming a center of tobacco production. It was never invaded, despite being landlocked, perhaps because its neighboring States recognized its value as a buffer between them to prevent further war.


10) Somalia, from 1991 to 2006, was a stateless society with a polycentric (i.e. private and competitive) legal system. Although often perceived as an example of a failure of anarchy, the reality is that Somalia represents a failure of government and a success of anarchy. It is a remarkable example of what happens to a society under a totalitarian State. The full scale socialism practiced under Siad Barre's military dictatorship led to complete collapse of economy and society. Yet, when the oppressive regime collapsed, it left behind Somalia in a stateless condition in which order emerged anew. Private police forces and traditional clan structures became the source of order. Under an unregulated free market, the economy prospered, especially the telecommunications industry, which in many ways is more advanced than that in India. All indicators show that the Somali society flourished and improved considerably during its anarchic period compared to the total ruin from which it started out.