We've written a Viking Trilogy. It's top right under Support This Site.
What's the deal?
The Govt of The Viking Age Free State Icelandic Commonwealth, or to be precise, it's near Total Lack of Govt.
This is reposted from our author blog.
After you've chewed it over, ask yourself What in the world we need with all the Government we have today? It's kinder and gentler? It's more 'Fair'? It makes people free by taking half or more of what they earn to redistribute it?
If there was ever the antithesis of Big Government personified, this was it.
And if it was such a great idea, what killed it?
3, . . 2, . . 1, . . . Central Control. Anti Competitive Taxing Policies.
If you didn't like the services your Chieftain charged you a nominal fee
to provide, you could contract with another Chieftain on the other side
of the island to do a better job for you, without having to move there.
Imagine how much better service we'd get today from government if we
could simply tell government at every level, each and everyone of us on
an individual basis, we can and will do something about you.
Privatization, Viking Style: Model or Misfortune?
By Roderick T. Long
June 6, 2002
the experience of Icelandic Vikings eight centuries ago teach us a
lesson about the dangers of privatization? Jared Diamond thinks so. In
his article "Living on the Moon,"
published in the May 23, 2002, issue of the New York Review of Books,
Diamond portrays the history of Iceland in the Viking period as a
nightmarish vision of privatization run amuck.
scholars and free-market enthusiasts have often pointed to the Icelandic
Free State (930-1262) as a positive example of a society that
functioned successfully with little orno government control. Writing in
the Journal of Legal Studies,
economist David Friedman observes that the Free State "might almost
have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which
market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental
functions." As Diamond himself notes:
"Medieval Iceland had
no bureaucrats, no taxes, no police, and no army. … Of the normal
functions of governments elsewhere, some did not exist in Iceland, and
others were privatized, including fire-fighting, criminal prosecutions
and executions, and care of the poor."
But unlike those who
see who see the Icelandic system as a model to emulate, Diamond charges
that the Free State's excessively privatized character made it radically
unstable, ultimately leading to the system's violent collapse in 1262;
his essay has already been cited byThe American Prospect
as a crucial resource for those "making the case against privatization
and shrinking government." So who's right? Does medieval Iceland
illustrate privatization'sbenefits, or its hazards?
the North Atlantic between Norway and Greenland, its northern shores
brushing the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a stark and desolate landscape of
basalt and frozen lava, punctuatedby volcanoes, geysers, and glaciers —
eerily beautiful for tourists, though a wearying challenge for farmers.
Such a harsh natural environment might have attracted few immigrants,
were it not for a still harsher political climate back on the mainland.
Iceland's first settlers — Norse and Celto-Norse refugees from King
Harald Fairhair's attempt in the late ninth century to impose
centralized control and property taxes on all of Norway — established
what historians call the Icelandic Free State, or Icelandic
Commonwealth, around the year 930. In Diamond'swords, "they privatized
government beyond Ronald Reagan’s wildest dreams" (since Reagan
dramatically increased the size and expense of government over the
course of his administration, this is quite an understatement), "and
thereby collapsed in a civil war thatcost them their independence."
"thereby" is somewhat misleading, however, since civil strife did not
become a serious problem in Iceland until around 1220, nearly three
centuries after the system was established — and the system's final
collapse did not come until 42 years after that. As I have writtenelsewhere:
"We should be cautious in labeling as a failure a political experiment
that flourished longer than the United States has even existed." Indeed,
given Diamond's criterion of instability, the United States cannot be
called stable until it survives the year 2108. (Though one could argue
that it has already failed the test: the United States had to wait only
85 years from its founding before plunging into a catastrophic civil
war, by contrast with Iceland's 290 years.)
How did the
Icelandic Free State work? The 11th-century historian Adam von Bremen
described Iceland as having "no king but the law." The legal system's
administration, insofar as it had one, lay in the hands of a parliament
of about 40 officers whom historians call, however inadequately,
"chieftains." This parliament had no budget and no employees; it met
only two weeks per year. In addition to their parliamentary role,
chieftains were empowered in their own local districts to appoint judges
and to keep the peace; this latter job was handled on an essentially
fee-for-service basis. The enforcement of judicial decisions waslargely a
matter of self-help (hence Iceland's reputation as a land of constant
private feuding), but those who lacked the might to enforce their rights
could sell their court-decreed claims for compensation to someone more
powerful, usually a chieftain; hence even the poorand friendless could
not be victimized with impunity.
The basis of a chieftain's
power within the political order was the power he already possessed
outside it, in civil society. The office of chieftaincy was private
property, and could be bought or sold; hence chieftaincies tended to
track private wealth. But wealth alone was not enough. As economic
historian Birgir Solvason notes in his masterful study
of the period, "just buying the chieftainship was no guarantee of
power"; the mere office by itself was "almost worthless" unless the
chieftain could "convince some free-farmers to follow him." Chieftains
did not hold authority over territorially-defined districts, but
competed for clients with other chieftains from the same geographical
A chieftain was politician, lawyer, and policeman
rolled into one: he represented his clients in parliament, served as
their advocate in arbitration, and offered them armed assistance in
dispute resolution. If his customers were dissatisfied with the quality
or price of these services, they could switch to a different chieftain
without having to change their physical location; therelation between
chieftain and client could be freely terminated by either party, so that
signing up with a chieftain was rather like signing up for insurance or
long-distance phone service today; legal jurisdictions were, in effect,
"virtual" rather than physical.
The fact that the provision
of "governmental" services was a competitive rather than a monopolistic
enterprise was arguably one of the Free State's greatest strengths; just
as in any other market, the competitive discipline imposed by the fear
of losing clients to rival service providers served as a check on
inefficiency and abuse of power. Icelandic law owed its resilience and
flexibility to this decoupling of authority from geography.
finds this competitive legal system unprecedented and bizarre:
"Everywhere else in the world that I know of, competing chiefs ruled
over mutually exclusive territories, within which everyone else had to
be that chief’s follower." He seems unaware that non-territorial
jurisdiction has been a fairly common phenomenon throughout history;
indeed, the prevalence of non-territorial jurisdiction in medieval
Europe is often credited with explaining the "rise of the West." It is
certainly true, however, that the Free State pressed the principle of
non-territorial jurisdiction farther than most.
non-territorial jurisdiction has its admirers, Diamond is certainly not
one of them. On the contrary, he condemns this "weird territorial
system" as a "recipe for chaos":
"Freedmen other than chiefs
could choose their chief and switch alliances, regardless of which chief
happened to reside nearby. A chief's farm became surrounded by a mosaic
of smaller farms, some of them occupied by his own followers, others by
other chiefs' followers. The resulting feuds fill The Sagas of
Yet in Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland,
one of the books on which Diamond claims to be basing his analysis, we
find precisely the opposite information: the "lack of geographically
defined chieftaincies" meant that no group could claim "exclusive or
long-time control overany one area"; as a result, there were "few
territorial u2018refuge areas'" where "feuding parties lived protected …
by a cluster of kin and friends." This "made sustained feuding
difficult," creating increased incentives for compromise. In other
words, the non-territorial nature of Iceland's legal order served to
decrease, not to increase, the violence of feud. (Diamond also asserts
that Iceland's lack of a strong central government left it "defenseless
against attacks," a charge he substantiates by recounting an incident
from 1627 — at which time Iceland was under the "protection" of the
Danish crown, and the Free State system Diamond is criticizing had been
defunct for nearly four centuries!)
Reading the Icelandic
Sagas initially gives the impression of unremitting violence — until one
notices that most of the feuds they describe consist of low-casualty
skirmishes at long intervals. Though often referred to as "Vikings,"
Icelanders made their living for the most part through farming and
trade, and violence was sporadic; thanks to the economic
incentivesprovided by Iceland's legal system, conflicts were settled in
court more often than in combat. Like any good storyteller, the authors
of the Sagas simply skipped over the long boring periods when nobody was
To keep Icelandic feud in perspective, one
may contrast it with continental Europe, whose princes, blessed with
"mutually exclusive territories," launched massive wars. As Solvason
points out, Icelandic society was "more peaceful and cooperative than
its contemporaries"; in England and Norway, by contrast, "the period
from about 800 to 1200 is a period of continuous struggle; high in both
violence and killings." Byock contrasts the prolonged and violent civil
strife which attended Christianization in Norway with its relatively
swift and peaceful Icelandic analogue. Icelanders treated the conflict
between pagans and Christians as a feud, to be resolved like any other
feud — by arbitration. The arbitrator decided in favor of Christianity,
and that was that. (So imbued were the Icelanders with the norms of
conflict resolution through arbitration that they dealt with haunted
houses in the same way — trying the ghosts for trespassing, in the
confident expectation that, if found guilty, a good Icelandic ghost
would respect the verdict of the court and peacefully depart!) Even at
the Free State's worst, during the system's catastrophic breakdown into
intestine warfare in the 1200s, the body count was fairly low; as
"During more than fifty years of what the
Icelanders themselves perceived as intolerably violent civil war,
leading to the collapse of the traditional system, the average number of
people killed or executed each year appears, on a per capita basis, to
be roughly equal to the current rate of murder and nonnegligent
manslaughter in the United States."
Obviously the level of violence during the three centuries before the civil war must have been even lower.
Diamond is best known for his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,
which argues that history is determined primarily by geographical
rather thancultural factors; he applies a similar analysis here,
maintaining that the Icelanders' radically decentralized political
system was forced on them by Iceland's scanty supply of natural
resources, leaving them "too poor even to afford a government." (Oh, for
such poverty!) In short, the law of Iceland was not the product of its
inhabitants' own ideas and values, but was in effect selected for them
by the nature of their physical environment.
But didn't the
Icelanders choose that environment because they were hostile to
centralized power back home? And doesn't the structure of their legal
system reflect that very hostility?Diamond can hardly ignore these
facts, but he minimizes their importance:
to Iceland in order to be independent of the growing power of the
Norwegian king, Icelanders wanted minimal government anyway, and that
attitude let them make a virtue of the necessity imposed by their
In other words, Icelandic cultural attitudes were
causally irrelevant to the outcome; although the system the Icelanders
ended up with was to their liking, they would have ended up withmuch the
same system whether they liked it or not.
of medieval Icelandic society as crippled by extreme poverty is not
borne out by the evidence. In their supposedly hapless and half-starved
condition, Icelanderscreated a rich literary tradition of Eddas and
Sagas, developed a sophisticated legal code, and mounted voyages of
exploration to North America — activities that would seem to indicate a
higher degree of prosperity and leisure than Diamond suggests. Arguing
that Icelanders were in fact relatively affluent, Solvason points to the
steady improvement of economic conditions and increased production of
export goods over the course of the Free State period.
ownership was far rarer in Iceland than one might expect in an island
community, particularly a "Viking" one; Diamond surmises that this is
because Iceland was poor in timber(or quickly became so as settlers
unsustainably exploited Iceland's natural resources), so that "the
original ships of the settlers could not be replaced by new ships." He
infers that Iceland,being "almost entirely without ocean-going ships of
its own," was left at the mercy of foreign navigators who "controlled
and exploited Iceland's trade." But as Solvason points out, timber was
regularly imported to Iceland for a variety of purposes, and could have
been used for shipbuilding if ships had been wanted; Solvason concludes
that Icelanders voluntarily chose to exploit their comparative advantage
in ranching (among Iceland's chief exports were meat and wool) and
leave shipbuilding to others, presumably because they found this
decision more profitable.
approach to history deserves our skepticism in any case. The world is
full of bleak, inhospitable, resource-poor regions whose inhabitants
scratch out a meager living; but how many such regions have left us a
cultural legacy comparable to medieval Iceland's? Diamond would do well
to heed philosopher R. G. Collingwood's dictum that history is
ultimately determined not by nature, but by what human beings make of
nature. By all evidence, Icelanders maintained their privatized
political system, not because they were driven by poverty and necessity
to do so (though Diamond apparently finds their system so uncongenial
that he can conceive no other reason), but quite simply because it
But if the Icelandic Free State was so successful,
why did it eventually collapse? Clearly, the explanation lies in the
growing centralization of wealth and power. As Diamond writes:
soon after settlement, Iceland had about 4,500 independent farms, but
by the thirteenth century 80 percent of Iceland's farmland was owned by
five families, and all the other formerly independent farmers had become
These five families also managed to buy up most of
the chieftaincies, enabling them to dominate the courts and parliament.
The concentration of chieftaincies in fewer hands also meant an end to
the existence of competing chieftains within the same territory; Iceland
began to be fractured into regions, each operating as a local monopoly
or mini-state. During the years 1220-1262, the resulting struggle for
hegemony among these mini-states broke out into open conflict, a crisis
that was finally resolved only when the Icelanders, exhausted by civil
war, invited King Haakon of Norway to govern them, thus bringing the
Free State period to a close.
To Diamond, this final decision
illustrates the utter bankruptcy of the Icelandic system: "I cannot
think of another historical case of an independent country that became
so desperate that it turned itself over to another country." Perhaps he
should have tried harder; he might have remembered England in 1688,
offering the crown to William of Orange after deposing the Stuarts — or,
harking farther back, the many small states who responded to civil
strife by calling in a Roman garrison, thus submitting de facto to Roman
authority. Moreover, the very desperation of the move indicates how
unaccustomed the Icelanders were to levels of violence that had long
been commonplace on the mainland. In any case, the Icelanders presumably
saw the Covenant of 1262-64, not as a surrender of national
independence, but simply as yet another case of signing up with a new
chieftain because their previous chieftains had proven unsatisfactory.
This new chieftain, the Norwegian king, was farther away, and so perhaps
less dangerous; certainly he was wealthier than any Icelandic
chieftain, and so (they imagined) less tax-hungry. What they failed to
recognize was the incentive implications of switching from a competitive
system to a monopolistic one — though admittedly, their own system had
lost much of its competitive character already. (War is not a form of
competition; it is what arises when competition breaks down.)
process of competitive chieftaincies turning into monopolistic
mini-states is obviously a move toward less privatization, not more; and
it was precisely when Iceland had become less privatized and more like
mainland Europe — a collection of principalities vying for supremacy —
that it collapsed into the kind of large-scale warfare that had raged
across the rest of Europe for centuries. It seems rather unfair, then,
to blame this catastrophe on privatization. Still, why didn't Iceland's
privatized system of law prevent the increasing concentration of wealth
and power in the first place? Was this failure symptomatic of an
inherent flaw in the Icelandic system?
offers an environmental explanation for the increasing concentration of
wealth: Iceland's harsh climate. "In cold years the poorer farms culled
or lost their livestock in the winter because of insufficient hay," and
so were "forced to become debtors who were dependent on others for
survival." The cogency of this explanation is doubtful. Wealthier
farmers had more hay, but they presumably also had more livestock; hence
they most likely did not have more hay per head of livestock. Since
wealth was held predominantly in land and livestock, not in currency,
it's unclear why hard winters should be expected to have a less severe
impact on wealthy farmers than on poor ones.
A more plausible
explanation for the Free State's decline points to the introduction of
the tithe in 1096. Made possible by Iceland's conversion to Christianity
a century earlier, the tithe— to pay church officials and maintain
church buildings — was Iceland's first real tax. (Previous "taxes"
generally turn out on closer inspection to be voluntary exchanges of
fees for services.) Assessed at 1% of the payer's property, it was also
Iceland's first graduated tax (earlier fees were one-size-fits-all), and
so took in much more revenue. Most importantly, the tithe lacked a
competitive element. Recall the non-territorial character of a
chieftain's jurisdiction: a chieftain's temptations to
self-aggrandizement were kept in check by the knowledge that if he
acquired delusions of grandeur or charged too high a price for his
services, his clients could abandon him for a rival. But the tithe was
territorial; all those who lived in the vicinity of a particular church
building had to pay for its upkeep, and were not at liberty to transfer
their support elsewhere. The catch is that the portion of tithe revenue
allocated to maintaining church buildings went not to the official
church hierarchy but to the wealthy private owners (usually chieftains)
of stadhir, "churchsteads," i.e., plots of land on which churches had
been built. The tithe was a property tax; but chieftaincies, though
marketable commodities, were exempt — as were the churchsteads
themselves, predominantly owned by chieftains. (The parliament that
enacted the tithe law was of course composed entirely of chieftains.)
tithe thus did more than just increase the income of the chieftains; it
decoupled that income from accountability. Economic inequalities per se
are not a serious threat to liberty so long as they operate in a
genuine market context, where the way to gain and maintain wealth is to
please one's customers; before the introduction of the tithe, a
chieftain who proved toopower-hungry would alienate his customers and so
suffer financial discipline. But chieftains who owned churchsteads now
had a captive market, and so were freed from all competitive restraints
on their accumulation of wealth and power. Through buying off or
intimidatingless wealthy chieftains, the top families were able to gain
control of multiple chieftaincies. This gave them a lock on the
parliament, enabling them to pass still further taxes; it also decreased
competition among chieftains, allowing them to charge monopoly prices
and drivetheir clients into a serf-like state of debt and dependence.
Icelandic system did fall through an inherent flaw, then, but not the
one Diamond imagines; the Free State failed, not through having too much
privatization, but through having too little. The tithe, and
particularly the portion allotted to churchstead maintenance,
represented a monopolistic, non-competitive element in the system. The
introduction of the tithe was in turn made possible by yet another
non-competitive element: the establishment of an official state church
which everyone was legally bound to support. Finally, buying up
chieftaincies would have availed little if there had been free entry
into the chieftaincy profession; instead, the number of chieftains was
set by law, and the creation of new chieftaincies could be approved only
by parliament — i.e., by the existing chieftains, who were naturally
less than eager to encourage competitors. It is precisely those respects
in which the Free State was least privatized and decentralized that led
to its downfall — while its more privatized aspects delayed that
downfall for three centuries.
Diamond pities the medieval Icelanders. We might do better to emulate them.
Bruce Benson. The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State. Pacific Research Institute, San Francisco, 1990.
Tom W. Bell. "Polycentric Law." Humane Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1991/92.
Jesse L. Byock. Feud in the Icelandic Saga. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982.
—–. Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988.
—–. Viking Age Iceland. Penguin, London, 2001.
David Friedman. "Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case." Journal of Legal Studies 8, 1979.
—–. The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism. Second Edition. Open Court, La Salle, 1989. Chapter 44.
—–. "Viking Iceland: Anarchy that Worked," Liberty 2, no. 6 (July 1989), pp. 37-40.
Albert Loan. "Institutional Bases of the Spontaneous Order: Surety and Assurance." Humane Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1992.
Roderick T. Long. "The Decline and Fall of Private Law in Iceland." Formulations 1, no. 3 (Spring 1994).
William I. Miller. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland.University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990.
Birgir T. Runolfsson Solvason. Ordered Anarchy, State, and Rent-Seeking: The Icelandic Commonwealth, 930-1264. Ph.D. Dissertation in Economics, George Mason University, 1991.
—–. "Ordered Anarchy: Evolution of the Decentralized Legal Order in the IcelandicCommonwealth," Icelandic Economic Papers 17 (1992).
—–. 1993. "Institutional Evolution in the Icelandic Commonwealth." Constitutional Political Economy 4, no. 1, pp. 97-125.
June 6, 2002
Roderick T. Long [send him mail] is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, President of the Alabama Philosophical Society, Editor of the Libertarian Nation Foundation periodical Formulations, and an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
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