Veblen on Iceland

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

A friendly Icelander Check out Thorstein Veblen on Icelandic anarchy; conical hat tip to Joel Schlosberg, who sent it to me with the following note:

Here’s an interesting passage from Thorstein Veblen’s 1917 book An Inquiry Into The Nature Of Peace And The Terms Of Its Perpetuation, chapter 1, pp. 9-14 (available at Project Gutenberg at <> – in fact, I came across this passage while proofing the book for PG at Distributed Proofreaders). Even though he’s hostile to it and sees it as a failure, he describes it pretty clearly – just to prove that Icelandic anarchy wasn’t the wishful thinking of modern anarcho-capitalists.

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7 Responses to Veblen on Iceland

  1. William H. Stoddard June 28, 2007 at 12:23 am #

    I don’t believe that it’s accurate to call Iceland an outright anarchy. It’s true that it had no monopoly on the use of force; indeed, Iceland’s small and undifferentiated economy seems not to have supported full-time specialists in the use of force, whether governmental or private—most enforcement was left to self-help. And it had no monopoly on adjudication of disputes. But its judicial body, the Thing, had the power of compulsory process, meaning that it could order someone to appear to be tried, and the power of outlawry, or declaring someone who did not cooperate with compulsory process, or who had grievously offended against the laws, to be denied the protection of the law. And both of those capabilities were monopolies of the Thing. See William Ian Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking for the details. This is about as minimal as a “state” can get, but there is a single organization with exclusive control of certain nontrivial legal functions.

    On the other hand, it’s quite fascinating to see Veblen holding Iceland up as a model of a more desirable society, given the positions he’s better known for. His tone does not come across to me as hostile; rather, he seems to regard it as admirable, but unworkable in a world occupied by coercive states that maintain armed forces. He almost makes it sound like Tolkien’s vision of The Shire, which seems also to have been inspired by Iceland (see my essay “Law and Institutions in the Shire” at

  2. Dain June 28, 2007 at 9:03 pm #

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  3. Brad Spangler June 28, 2007 at 10:17 pm #

    While Stoddard is right that the Icelandic Thing’s capabilities of compulsory process (for members) and declarations of outlawry (for ex-members) were non-trivial, I would argue that those capabilities are not themselves coercively monopolistic and thus not intrinsically statist. That there was just a single such organization and that there was no widespread understanding of how a hypothetical multiplicity of co-existing Things would be a better arrangement is obvious flaws in the eyes of the modern Rothbardian — but that’s not to bad at all in a historical context. Grade them an A minus.

  4. William H. Stoddard June 29, 2007 at 1:01 am #

    I do not myself believe that it was a historical accident, or simple inability to grasp the superiority of competing Things, that was responsible; I think that out and out anarchy is unworkable. But that’s a large topic and I don’t really want to debate it here. My point is simply that Iceland was not a true anarchy, and therefore cannot be counted as a historical example of a functioning anarchy with a legal code, or as historical evidence than anarchism is workable.

    It does, on the other hand, count as good historical evidence that an ultraminimal state, far more minimal than the one established by the Contitution of the United States, is workable, even under comparatively low-tech conditions.

  5. Administrator June 29, 2007 at 5:17 pm #

    It’s true that Iceland had a semi-monopolistic legislature; far from being a strength of the system, this turned out to be its fatal weakness, as I’ve argued here and here. But the legislature was at least less monopolistic than most in the following respect: an individual was free to change his legislative representative without changing his geographical location. By analogy, imagine if I could simply decide to switch my congressional representative from Mike Rogers to Ron Paul without having to move to Texas (and my taxes would then go to pay Paul’s salary instead of Rogers’) — such a lowering of the cost of switching representatives would obviously serve as a much more competitive check on them.

  6. Soviet Onion June 30, 2007 at 1:33 am #

    But its judicial body, the Thing, had the power of compulsory process, meaning that it could order someone to appear to be tried, and the power of outlawry, or declaring someone who did not cooperate with compulsory process, or who had grievously offended against the laws, to be denied the protection of the law.

    I wonder how market anarchists propose to compel an accused person to submit to arbitration/negotiation without some overarching coercive entity forcing them to do it.

    As I see it, the ultimate check on outlawry comes through the profit/survival incentive of private security agreements. Firms or militias need to strike a balance between defending saving money and maintaining their clientelle. They won’t expend resources defending someone they determine is guilty of aggressing against others and bringing danger on themselves; those people are a too much of a liability to make for profitable defense. With regard to accusers, they also probably won’t back a claim with force if they can’t find adequete evidence to back it up. Pursuing possibly fraudulent claims is an equally expensive proposition. Knowing this, both of these provisions are likely to be present in contracts from the start.

    With this in mind, investigation and negotiations between clients (or between firms on behalf of clients) are not just a matter of determining what wrongs have been done and how much restitution is due. They also function as a game of chicken to see which firm will back down first and give its client an ultimatum. An attacker that, after extensive investigation, cannot produce evidence of their client’s claim, or finds evidence to contradict the claim, will eventually refuse to press the case and tell the client to forget it. That client can either accept this or take it to another firm that will tell them the same thing (or maybe find something the original one missed).

    Now, assuming that proof is found, it will most likely trigger the defending firm to capitulate. Not wanting to waste lives and resources defending someone who provoked the incident, they tell the client to either negotiate a reasonable restitution payment or find someone else to defend them. The client can similarly try to do that but, with the evidence against them hanging over their head, no one will take them in. They’ll have to pay a reasonable settlement to avoid becoming defenseless in the face of the accuser’s firm.

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