One of the pithiest objections to people who fundamentally criticize the government is to tell them to move to Somalia. For example, P.J. O’Rourke recently said in an interview with Reason magazine, “Any time I talk to an anarchist I say, ‘Let me just take you over to Mogadishu, see anarchy at work.'” And if you haven’t seen it yet, this satirical YouTube video on a libertarian vacation is pretty funny. Yet these glib put-downs are actually quite ignorant. Somalia under anarchy was much better than Somalia under government. When you compare apples to apples, you see that the people criticizing the State are making perfect sense.
People lose the ability to think rationally when it comes to politics, so let’s change the context for a moment. Suppose I say, “You can get a better night’s sleep if the room is dark.” Would it be a good put-down for a critic to retort, “Oh, if you don’t like light, then go take a nap in a black hole!” ? Of course not.
By the same token, pointing to a region–like Somalia–that was awful and also lacked a functioning State, does not prove that adding a State to the mix is a good thing. In the specific case of Somalia, this isn’t merely a rhetorical point; we know that in many measurable respects, Somalia-under-a-State was worse than Somalia-under-anarchy.
Economist Ben Powell has done some interesting empirical work on this issue. In 2009 he summarized his research in this way:
There is no doubt that Somalia remains extremely poor today. However, as far as living standards can be assessed, they appear to be improving since the collapse of Somalia’s national government [in early 1991–RPM]. In fact, standards are improving faster in Somalia than in most of sub-Saharan Africa.
In other research my coauthors and I used the World Development Indicators to compare Somalia’s performance with 41 other sub-Saharan African countries…
…We examined 13 measures: the death rate, infant mortality, life expectancy, child malnutrition, telephone mainlines, mobile phones, Internet users per 1,000 population, households with television, DPT immunization, measles immunization, percent of the population with access to sanitation and an improved water source, and cases of tuberculosis.
Although Somalia’s 2005 standard of living was low by western standards, it compared fairly favorably with other African nations. Of our 13 measures, Somalia ranked in the top 50 percent of nations in five and only ranked near the bottom in infant mortality, immunization rates, and access to improved water sources. Although in 2005 the nation placed in the bottom 50 percent of countries on seven measures, it has actually improved performance relative to other countries since the collapse of the Somali state. Somalia ranked in the bottom 50 percent of all seven variables for which we have 1985-1990 data. In the last years of the Somali nation-state (1985-1990), its performance relative to other African countries deteriorated from the early 1980s, with Somalia losing ground in life expectancy, death rate, and infant mortality as well as DPT and measles immunization. Only telephone landlines showed a slight improvement during this time.
Life expectancy in Somalia fell by two years from 1985 to 1990, but it has increased by five years since becoming stateless. Only three of the 42 countries improved life expectancy as much since 1990.
While Somalia’s infant mortality ranking has continued to slide, its death rate has improved, jumping from 37th to 17th since 1990. While still in the bottom 50 percent in cases of tuberculosis, Somalia’s relative rank has improved from 40th to 31st since the collapse of the government. Although Somalia’s immunization rates for measles and DPT are among the lowest in Africa, its problems in this area existed before the collapse of the state. During the last five years of government rule Somalia’s immunization rankings fell from 19th and 21st, respectively, to next to last in both categories. While the country has stayed near the bottom of this ranking, the percentage of children immunized has improved.
…Telecommunications is a major area of success in Somalia…In many African countries state monopolies and licensing restrictions raise prices and slow the spread of telecommunications. In Somalia it takes just three days for a landline to be installed; in neighboring Kenya waiting lists are many years long. Once lines are installed, prices are relatively low. A $10 monthly fee gets a customer unlimited local calls, and international calls are only 50 cents per minute. Web access costs only 50 cents an hour. According to The Economist, using a mobile phone in Somalia is “generally cheaper and clearer than a call from anywhere else in Africa.”
Powell also addresses the specific issue of battling warlords. He explains that the fighting among clans was most intense when outsiders were trying to install a new government. This makes perfect sense: Groups that hate each other already are more willing to fight if they are vying for control over a State apparatus that will make one of the groups the recipient of Western money and weapons. (Elsewhere I have more specifically addresses the “warlord” objection to anarchy.)
In many measurable respects, Somalia in the years after its State collapsed performed better than in the same stretch of time before the collapse. Nobody is suggesting that “Somalia under anarchy” was a paradise, but that is hardly a plug for the State, because “Somalia under a central government” was even worse. Finally, even the specific problem of sectarian warfare is arguably exacerbated by attempts to set up a centralized State.