Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. — Proverbs 9:1
T. E. Lawrence is the Lawrence, of Arabia, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom is his autobiographical account of his time spent serving in the British and Arab armies during World War One. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve got the basic idea, but it’s always good to read the original.
This is a pretty hefty book; my copy clocked in at about 690 pages. (The trick is to read about 50 pages a day; then you will finish it before the library wants it back.) The first hundred pages or so will make more sense if you already know a bit about the British/Ottoman front in WWI, but if you don’t want to read an additional four or five hundred pages in preparation, just read my reviews of Lawrence in Arabia and The Berlin-Baghdad Express. In particular you’ll want to know something about the absolute disasters that were Gallipoli and the Siege of Kut–Lawrence played a small, bitter role in the latter.
Once you get into the meat of Lawrence’s adventures, however, the book stands perfectly well on its own.
T. E. Lawrence was originally a British archaeologist who traveled to the Middle East to study Crusader-era castles and fell in love with the region. When Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war, Lawrence was one of the few Brits with any first-hand knowledge of the area, people, and language, so he was sent to the intelligence bureau in British-controlled Cairo to draw up maps for the troops.
The war was, of course, a terrible idea for everyone involved. The Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, but the British generals were too stupid to strike anywhere useful and kept insisting on throwing its men into yet more trenches. The war also put the Bedouin population around Mecca in a bind, for while they were ruled by the Ottoman Turks, they got most of their income (and thus their food) from the annual pilgrimage, and the world’s largest Muslim country–and thus their biggest source of pilgrims–was British India. The Bedouins simply couldn’t afford to go to war with Britain–they’d starve–but they could afford to take British food and guns and gold and rebel against the Turks: so they did.
But how could the British actually manage a rebellion down in Arabia, especially when the locals were deeply distrustful of the British and the Arab aristocracy didn’t want to let Christians anywhere near their holy cities? This is where Lawrence, who actually spoke Arabic and understood something of the culture, inserted himself. He convinced the Arab leaders to let him journey far enough inland to actually meet them, liaisoned between them and the British in order to get them the guns and supplies they needed, and so made himself useful enough that Prince Faisal decided to keep him around.
Lawrence was, from the beginning, suspended between two armies. His basic job was to get Faisal to do what the British wanted (Lawrence was, after all, a British subject in pay of the British army,) moving troops here and there and attacking the Turks as needed. This was obviously complicated by the fact that what was in Faisal’s interest wasn’t necessarily in Britain’s interests, and vice versa, and so to get the Arabs to do what they wanted, the British commanders weren’t above lying. For Lawrence, actually on the ground among the troops, actively deceiving people into giving their lives to benefit the British was a heavy burden, and he assuaged his conscience by trying to minimize casualties and giving Faisal the best advice he could to position the Arab troops favorably come the inevitable post-war settling of accounts.
Lawrence soon realized that the Arab troops he was accompanying were not even remotely suited to modern, European-style trench warfare–for that matter, neither were European troops, but the sheer size of European armies allowed them to keep throwing men into the giant war-grinder for years on end. The Arab armies were too small (and poor) to grind through men and materials in this way; if they tried to face the Turks in head-to-head combat, they would run out of men and collapse.
While laid up with dysentery (or some similar illness,) Lawrence had plenty of time to think through all of the books of military strategy he’d read and ponder the point of war. The point of the Arab rebellions wasn’t “the shedding of blood” nor even the conquering of enemy territory. It as simply to make the Turks go away, and this was best achieved not by killing the Turks, but by being a pain in the ass making it difficult for them to maneuver in Arabia. In open combat, the Arabs were at a distinct disadvantage–they had fewer men, fewer resources, fewer weapons, and no way to conscript troops or force the soldiers to even stay and fight if a battle turned against them–but when it came to sabotaging supply lines, the Arabs were at a distinct advantage, because Turkish rail lines went through hundreds of miles of trackless, uninhabited desert where a raiding party could materialize in an instant, do damage, and then disappear. By contrast, the Arab supply lines were basically wells, camels, and forage.
Thus, in Lawrence’s words, while the traditional army was a solid, immobile block tethered to supply lines, the Arab army should be like a gas, materializing where needed, doing damage, and then melting back into the landscape, indistinguishable from ordinary Bedouins with their tents and herds.
Thus was born Lawrence’s strategy of leading small parties of men and camels across the desert to blow up trains, bridges, and track, with the occasional unavoidable battle.
It’s a good book. Is it 690 pages worth of good? Not quite; I think Lawrence could have cut about a hundred pages’ worth of descriptions of sand and rocks, but that’s still 590 pages of exciting train demolitions and life-or-death struggles across the desert. The book also chronicles Lawrence’s mental degeneration under the strains of war, starvation, torture, and watching people die, sometimes by his own hand. If you’re the sort of person who likes long books about wars, like Lord of the Rings or War and Peace, Seven Pillars of Wisdom should be right up your alley.
Overall: This book is four years old and kind of boring. It makes some interesting points, however, which I will try to summarize for you.
The good: It’s a fairly comprehensive review of the major scandals of the Obama Administration/government during Obama’s term.
Cons: The book doesn’t provide a solid comparison of the Obama admin to other administrations, and a lot of the stuff it tries to make political hay over seems like ordinary bureaucratic crud.
Why even bother with reading a book about old scandals? Aside from the lack of choice in the matter (I suppose I could have done more crosswords,) it is good to occasionally look back at the things we were previously concerned about and evaluate whether our concerns were justified or not. Did that thing turn out to actually be a big deal, or did it fizzle away?
One thing you’ll immediately note is that pretty much all of this has faded away. Remember the scandal about Hillary Clinton’s private email server? Well, the server didn’t disappear; we just don’t hear anything about it anymore. It was a political tool for one side to wield against the other side during an election, and once it had served its purpose, it was dropped.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Hillary’s server stopped mattering. Whether it ever actually mattered from a practical, legal, or national security standpoint remains whether it’s a useful political bludgeon or not.
The author, Tom Fitton, is president of Judicial Watch, an organization that exists for the purpose of filing FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. They seem to target primarily liberal administrations; it would have been good if the book gave more details about anything from the Bush administration for comparison.
The scandals outlined in the book cover Hillary Clinton’s email server, Benghazi, the ATF’s “Fast and Furious” program, voter fraud, Congress and the Senate claiming to be “small businesses” to take advantage of DC taxpayers, the IRS targeting of conservative political orgs, and immigration/border enforcement. There’s also the general theme of “they keep denying our FOIA requests” that runs through the whole book.
The author makes a big deal about the Obama administration denying more FOIA requests than any previous administration, but here we are lacking some critical details, like whether the Obama admin received more FOIAs. Fitton doesn’t explore whether this increase in denials is due to some specific Obama-era policy or appointee, or if it’s just the latest incident in the incremental development of more lawyerly bureaucracies that find reasons to deny whatever you’ve filed a request for. I am personally inclined toward the latter theory, because I see the same trend everywhere in society. A form stars out as a way to request something a procedure as a way to get it done, and then they transform into a way to deny, slow down, and prevent things from getting done.
Here’s a quote from the book about “defying the inspectors general”:
The cavalier and obstructive attitude of the administration and its Justice Department was also demonstrated by the fact that agencies within the executive branch like the FBI have started refusing to comply with requests from the government’s own Inspectors General [IGs] to provide requested records, information, and documents the IGs need to conclude their investigations… In 2014, a majority of the IGs signed an unprecedented letter to Congress, complaining about the administration’s actions… asked Congress to use “all available powers” to enforce access.
Of course, this is not necessarily Obama’s fault–many government employees are career guys who work for many administrations or enforcing policies set up by their predecessors. I get annoyed when people attribute to the “X administration” things that really had nothing to do with it. Are there riots going on under Trump? Yes. Are these “Trump’s riots?” No.
I’m sure I don’t need to relate the fine details of Benghazi, which you probably know more about than I do. I did find Hillary’s first statement on the matter (at 10:08 PM) interesting, though:
Some have sought to justify this behavior as a response to inflammatory material on the internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.
Now, this is an incredible statement on many levels, not just the obviously incendiary content (borderline 1st amendment violation, too.) But I don’t think we should take this at face value–in fact, I suspect the statement’s entire goal is to be so asinine that it distracts conservatives away from asking “Wait, what caused this?” and toward arguing about whether or not it’s appropriate for a woman who attends “spirit cooking” events to claim that the US Government has an opinion about people denigrating other people’s religious views. It certainly takes willpower not to argue against the the statement’s surface-level claims, but let’s try.
The thing we’re not supposed to notice is that the stated rationale for the attack–that it was in response to some random Youtube video–doesn’t make sense. It is more sensible to assume that the attack was a response to something more substantial, like other US actions in the Middle East (eg, the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Aboyahiye in Pakistan and a reprise of 9-11, since the attack happened on 9-11-12.) These people are terrorists/militia guys, not YouTube fans.
Here’s what I suspect was actually going on: The Obama administration wanted to support the so-called “Islamic Spring” because it was supposed to bring democracy to the Middle East, but honestly, when’s the last time a revolution in the area did anything good? (If there was one and I just haven’t heard of it, let me know.) Iran had a revolution, and look how that turned out. No, stable governments in the Middle East are generally better for their people and the rest of the world than civil war and lawless zones that get taken over by groups like ISIS.
Regardless, Obama and Hillary had decided they didn’t like governments of Syria and Libya, so they were arming the “pro democracy” forces there, which just coincidentally happened to be terrorists connected to the same terrorists who attacked the embassy in Libya. What they don’t want us to ask is, “Wait a minute, why are we funding a civil war in Libya?”
I suspect there are people somewhere in the government who really believe that we can finally have peace in the Middle East if we can just swap out this leader for that leader, much like some people think that sooner or later, their lottery number has to come up.
It never works.
If we think of human societies like natural ecosystems, then we know an ecosystem is in balance when it produces or has enough resources to feed everything in it; it goes out of balance if some disaster like a volcanic eruption or death of all of the wolves messes things up. Humans have to eat; societies also trade for useful goods and appreciate peace, health, and security. Every society tries to achieve a balance of strong enough government forces to keep people safe from invaders or local malefactors, but without harming innocent citizens or costing too much in the process.
When the US goes an mucks around with other countries, we change the balance of their ecosystems and like birds at a feeder, our inputs become part of the system. When those countries are complicated systems that we don’t understand, our involvement can quickly become a total disaster. (You can’t half-ass colonialism.)
This is where, as far as I can tell, Trump has so far done a better job than Obama (or Bush): he hasn’t gotten involved in any of these quagmires. When there was a question of Syria violating the Genevia Convention by using poison gas, he dropped a few bombs, but mostly he’s left other countries alone.
I don’t completely blame Obama for his Mid-East interventions, because many of these policies were simply continuations of terrible Bush-era policies, and it is difficult for most people to to question things that are just handed to them as received wisdom. Which is a bit of an insult to Obama’s intelligence, I suppose.
Next we have the Hillary Clinton email scandal, which you probably know all about already. It’s remarkable how quickly the media and everyone else stopped caring about Hillary’s emails once Trump got into office. The scandal does raise the question of how much technology is contributing to our notions of both secrecy and access. There wouldn’t have been any missing minutes from the Nixon Tapes had Nixon not tape recorded things in the first place. There wouldn’t be any missing Hillary emails had email not yet been invented. Just 50 years ago, before email, text messaging, and ubiquitous electronic record keeping, Washington produced far fewer documents than it does today. 100 years ago, they couldn’t have tape recorded everything; 200 years ago, they didn’t have typewriters or telegrams. What would there have been to FOIA during the Monroe administration? What if someone had tried to request all documents related to the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s expedition? Perhaps a law might declare that citizens have a right to attend sessions of Congress, but at what point do letters between George Washington and his cabinet become government documents? My basic inclination is that all government documents should be public by default, with exceptions only for matters of national security and the like, but this is not necessarily reasonable.
On the other hand, perhaps this new electronic media makes it easier for people to lie, because they can coordinate their stories faster.
In sum, yes, Hillary had an illegal email server and it was probably vulnerable to hacking.
The book spends a while discussing documents related to Huma Abedin’s financial disclosures, required as part of changing her job title. This sounds less like “corruption” and more like “people trying to deal with a byzantine, sclerotic bureaucracy.”
A bigger issue is whether the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) have benefited financially from their time in politics in a manner that is unseemly or inappropriate (again, it would be good here to have some comparison with other presidents and their speaking fees.)
A joint examination by the Washington Examiner and Judicial Watch found that former President Clinton gave 215 speeches and earned $48 million while his wife presided over US foreign policy.
(A former president being married to a current high-ranking government official or politician is a new arena of political morality.)
There are a few interesting bits about Bill and Epstein. Quoting an interview with Virginia Roberts (one of Epstein’s victims) from the NY Post:
…Clinton also visited Epstein’s private Caribbean retreat… “I remember asking Jeffrey [Epstein], “What’s Bill Clinton doing here?”… [He] laughed it of and said, “Well, he owes me a favor.”
And from New York magazine:
… in 2002, Clinton recruited Epstein to make his plane available for a weeklong anti-poverty tour of Africa with [a bunch of people, some of them famous, including the now-imprisoned Ghislane Maxwell].
(I wonder if they realize there’s plenty of poverty they could be touring right here in the US. 48 million dollars could go a long way toward helping foster kids get a better start in life.)
The “Fast and Furious” scandal, like some of the others, actually started under Bush II. Obama decided to expand the program, though.
In Fast and Furious, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agents directed people known as “straw purchasers”–low level illicit weapons purchasers who work for the Mexican drug cartels’ smugglers inside the United States–to buy guns at Phoenix, Arizona-area federally licensed firearms dealers. Those guns were then smuggled into Mexico by cartel operatives, after agents let the weapons get into the hands of these cartel operatives by not tracking them. The smuggled guns continue to turn up in disturbing places. Fast and Furious weaponry was in the arsenal of two terrorists who tried to storm a cartoon convention in Dallas, Texas, in 2015 and was owned by Mexican drug lord Jaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at the time of his final 2016 arrest.
In October 2009, the ATF Phoenix Field Division created a gun-trafficking division for the purpose of funneling weapons illegally to the Mexican drug cartels.
I wonder if this program had any connection to the mysterious Las Vegas shooting, which we still haven’t learned anything about.
The point of all of this was to hopefully later use the guns to track down the larger organization that was using them, not just the guys doing the purchasing, in order to build a larger conspiracy case. Unfortunately, the program did not come with a way to effectively track the guns.
The odd thing here (well, one of the odd things) is that despite this being a local ATF program that the president normally wouldn’t be involved in one way or another, “Fast and Furious” was the only scandal in which Obama used his “executive privilege” claim to withhold documents that had been requested by the House of Representatives. The book’s best specuation here is that Obama wanted to use the program to score an anti-second amendment propaganda victory:
At the end of March 2009, Clinton visited Mexico’s capital, Mexico City… While there, Clinton gave speeches bashing American gun stores and gun owners for the violence. …
The nation’s top diplomat’s trip was much heralded in the press and was an obvious attempt by the political figures at the top of the Obama administration to mislead people into agreeing with her claim that “90 percent” of the “guns that are used by the drug cartels against the police and the military” actually “come from America.” …
Clinton’s claim is actually false. A diplomatic cable uncovered by WikiLeaks shows that 90 percent of the weapons the cartels get come from Central America or from corrupt Mexican military officials. Oftentimes cartels will raid armories in Guatemala. Or crooked Mexican military officials will split up a shipment of new rifles among their troops and the cartels. For instance, if two hundred new fully automatic AK-47s come in, a dirty military leader might give a hundred to his troops and sell the other hundred to his buddies int he cartel. …
For organized crime purposes, the guns the cartels get from Central America or from corrupt military leaders are better than what cartels could get from America. … The ATF’s own figures show that only 17 percent of the guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced back to the United States.
The other, more mundane theory (also put forth by the book) is that the ATF guys were trying to build up the size of their case in order to get more funding. (I suppose we are all trying to get more funding, after all. If an organization is paid to stop crime, then it naturally develops a certain interest in there being plenty of crime around for it to stop.) The only problem, of course, is that crimes had to actually be committed with the guns before the ATF guys could get their funding, and most people prefer that the ATF not try to get people shot.
The next chapter was on the push for voter ID/to clean up voter registries. I wish the author had provided some examples of actual voter fraud, rather than just invite us to imagine it. For example, there was some brazen fraud during LBJ’s senate race. I think both sides here have settled on a political stance without checking whether it actually benefits them–perhaps Democrats would actually benefit more than Republicans from requiring voter IDs, for example.
More interesting is the matter of prosecutors, who certainly have agendas:
A prime example of intimidation at the polls reveals the Obama administration’s disappointing attitude toward election crimes occurred in the 2008 federal election when two members of the New Black Panther Party stood in a doorway of a polling place in Philadelphia …
The case against the defendants was strong… but the case was abruptly curtailed and all but shut down by the newly appointed officials of the Obama administration.
Eventually some of the older lawyers left because they felt sidelined by the new guys.
Chris Coates, the chief of the voting section… was another lawyer who didn’t go along with the administration’s radical agenda and wanted to enforce voting laws in a racially neutral, non-partisan manner. The Obama administration was particularly angry at him because he had approved the filing of the voter intimidation lawsuit… Popper says the Obama administration set up an entire structure to bypass Coates… there was in essence “a shadow Justice Department” with subordinates making recommendations regarding Coates and the cases Coates should have been consulted on.
Hawaii had some incidents in which it tried to set up elections that only Native Hawaiians could vote in.
Then there’s a funny controversy where Congress and the Senate claimed to be “small businesses” employing only 45 people in order to qualify for a health insurance exchange for small businesses set up by the Washington, DC city council. In reality, the House and Senate employ over 20,000 people. 12,359 Congressional employees signed up for an exchange intended for businesses employing 50 people or fewer, totaling 86% of people enrolled. To say that they committed fraud is a bit of an understatement.
Next we have the IRS scandal, which was fairly famous in its day. Simply doing away with 90% of the tax code would solve most of this problem, of course.
IRS officials, led by Lois Lerner… issued a “Be on the lookout” [BOLO] with the criteria to be used to flag applications… whether “tea party,” “patriots,” or “9/12” were used in the organization’s name; whether the issues outlined in the application included government spending, government debt, or taxes; whether the organization was educating the public about “how to make America a better place to live” or about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; or if there was a statement b the organization criticizing how the country is being run This… went on for years.
I have also heard that the IRS targeted liberal organizations, but the book doesn’t talk about that.
… Lois Lerner sent confidential taxpayer information to the Federal Election Commission… in violation of Federal law… According to other emails obtained by Judicial Watch, she had communicated with the FBI and lawyers at the DOJ about whether it was possible for the DOJ to criminally prosecute conservative tax-exempt organizations for supposed “political activities.”
(Are they not supposed to do political activities?)
… Lerner illegally sent the FBI 21 computer disks containing 1.1 million pages of confidential information about tax-exempt organizations.
(There was also some colluding with senators about which orgs they wanted targeted and shut down.) Skipping over some details, the IRS then played the “Oops, we deleted the emails game,” even though they had backups and probably weren’t even deleted.
Judicial Watch finally obtained IRS documents that showed the IRS went to absurd lengths… to harass organizations applying for tax-exempt status, asking organizations like the Tea Party for copies of all information on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, or asking an Ohio group, American Patriots Against Government Excess, for all of the books read in their book club meeting–including a summary or book report for each of the books! …
Another IRS email thread… revealed that the inappropriately obtained donor lists were being used for a “secret research project” that because of redactions and blackouts, could not be identified. Other documents… confirmed that the IRS started using donor lists… to target donors for audits. The House Ways and Means committee announced… “nearly 1 in 10 donors were subject to audit.”
The IRS tried to get people on non-payment of a “gift tax” on donations which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court back around 1982. Like Hillary, Lois Lerner also conducted gov’t business on her private email account. As you might expect, the gov’t investigated itself, found it had done nothing wrong, and dropped the case without any convictions.
Nothing in the chapter points to Obama being personally involved in or knowing about the scandal ahead of time, but it was certainly done to help his side.
The next chapter is on immigration and border control. There is definitely a fundamental difference in how liberals and conservatives approach the issue, with libs taking a “the more the merrier” approach, and conservatives wanting to actually have some say over who moves to their country. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that immigrants tend to vote for the Democrats, not the Republicans, so more immigration is in the Dems’ interests.
None of the administration’s border security and extreme immigration policies should be a surprise. The administration is filled with radical political appointees like Cecilia Munoz, who joined the administration as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and then moved up to be the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Munoz, who was only able to join the admin after she was granted an ethics waiver from Obama’s supposed lobbyist ban, was a senior official at the National Council of La Raza. La Raza openly advocates for illegal alien sanctuary policies…
The Department of Agriculture sent the Mexican Embassy a Spanish language flyer advising Mexicans in the US that they would not need to declare their immigration status in order to get food stamps.”
In May 2002, we sought information regarding Al-Qaeda as part of Judicial Watch’s terrorism Research and Analysis Project. It took the government 11 years to furnish the records we requested. … at the end of the [Bill] Clinton administration, the US disregarded an intelligence report about an Al-Qaeda plot to hijack a commercial airliner… because “nobody believed that Usama bin Laden’s organization or the Taliban could carry out such an operation…” The only reason the plot was not carried out was because the Chechen withdrew from the operation after the EU condemned Russian action in Chechniya.
Well, that’s about it for the interesting parts of the book. Judicial Watch may do valuable work (even if they’re partisan, well, there are plenty of partisans on the other side, too,) but the book itself is rather bland and, well, several years old. I hope you liked the review, though.
As I read, I couldn’t help but compare human society to an anthill (mostly because I happened to also be reading the anthill dialogue in Godel, Escher, Bach at the same time).
Ants, honeybees, termites, and a variety of other insects are eusocial. Eusocial insects live massive colonies with social organization of a sort familiar to us humans, from division of labor to cooperative raising of the colony’s young (This is why my avatar is a bee.)
Eusocial insects can do some amazing things, like build bridges and towers out of their own bodies:
The fascinating thing about ants, bees, and the like is that, while they have “queens”, they don’t really have a conscious monarch calling the shots. The behavior of each individual ant somehow adds up to the behavior of the entire colony, yet the entire colony behaves in a way that is difficult to reduce to the behavior of individual ants.
The division of labor creates specialized behavioral groups within an animal society which are sometimes called castes. Eusociality is distinguished from all other social systems because individuals of at least one caste usually lose the ability to perform at least one behavior characteristic of individuals in another caste.
And according to Godel, Escher, Bach:
Anteater: [Aunt Hillary] is certainly one of the best-educated ant colonies I have ever had he good fortune to know. The two of us have spent many a long evening in conversation on the widest range of topics.
Achilles: I thought anteaters were devourers of ants, not patrons of ant intellectualism!
Anteater: Well, of course the two are not mutuaully inconsistent. I am on the best of terms with ant colonies. Its just ANTS that I eat, not colonies–and that is good for both parties: me, and the colony.
One of my conclusions from listening to many demands (and promises) for politicians to “create jobs” is that most people no longer have any idea where jobs come from, nor how to make them happen. Jobs seem to come from the job fairy, given or taken as her capricious will determines.
And the modern economy is complicated enough that this is… about accurate. No one could have prevented the Great Depression. No individual created the great post-war economic boom. Recessions come and go despite our best efforts to prevent them; bubbles inflate and burst. These things just happen, and ordinary people find themselves dragged along for the ride.
One of the things that happened over the past 40 years was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that paved the way for the wholesale transfer of the American manufacturing establishment to China. The older folks in Arnade’s account speak warmly of the manufacturing days, when you could walk off the highschool graduation stage and into a job at the local factory.
I have a children’s book written in the ’50s in which an American child tells a group of Canadian children about his country. He tells them all about the factories, which make all manner of fabulous things.
Today, such easy employment is so far from reality that I almost got angry reading these accounts. “What, it was easy for you? It’s not so damn easy for us young people, you know. We never got to walk out of highschool and straight into jobs.” But anger is not productive and it tells us nothing about how the world should be.
Whether we are better or worse with manufacturing jobs in China is debatable–I think we are worse off, but the migration of unpleasant jobs that damage the environment to areas with laxer worker and environmental protections might have been inevitable. But even if it was in our best interests as a whole, it certainly wasn’t in the interests of the workers who lost their jobs and the people who remain in communities that have completely lost their economic base. The deaths of a few ants may benefit the anthill, but it certainly doesn’t make those ants happy.
At least we have the decency to honor soldiers whose sacrifices benefit society; little concern is given for people whose jobs were sacrificed for efficiency, progress, profits, or avoiding environmental regulations.
It’s easy to ask, “Why don’t you make your own job? Found your own company? Start a business? Do something to pump life back into the community?” but this is easier said than done; not everyone can come up with successful entrepreneurial ideas.
I don’t like the idea of being a (semi)eusocial species. I want people to be able to adapt to a changing economic system. I don’t always get what I want, though. Economies come and go, wars start and end, society careens on like juggernaut, and most of us just hope for the best.
One of the interesting parts of the book is Arnade’s tour of the nation’s McDonalds’s.
In neighborhoods across the country, Arnade finds community (and people to interview) beneath the golden arches. Here people meet friends for breakfast, play dominoes, or just hang out and avoid the weather. In many areas, McDonald’s also has the only nice playground around, and kids are happy to have a place to play.
McDonald’s Corp would probably like Arnade’s depiction a lot better if it stopped at “neighborhood hotspot” and didn’t include all of the homeless and drug addicts who also find it a warm, dry, safe place to rest.
There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.
Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.
McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips.
I have changed my position on the “healthiness” of fast food since I wrote that piece; I am now concerned that the temperatures used to cook food quickly at fast food joints oxidizes oils, resulting in health problems. This doesn’t mean that organic cupcakes are good for you, just that oxidized oils are bad.
People talk a lot about “food deserts” and argue about whether the unhealthy food options in poor neighborhoods are a matter of preference or oppression.
It’s probably a bit of both. People like McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t eat other things if they could.
But there are reasons restaurants don’t like to locate in poor neighborhoods, mostly theft. In a relevant anecdote, Arnade describes how a sweltering summer day led locals to try to steal ice from the McDonald’s drink machine. Of course a bit of theft from the drink machine is routine, no matter the neighborhood, but the manager of this location did not appreciate having his store so blatantly robbed. The event is meant to be humorous in the book (which it probably was in real life,) but I couldn’t help but think, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” If people steal from the stores in their neighborhood, those stores shut down and new ones don’t open.
Of course, there are other ways people get poisoned besides probably willingly eating delicious junk food. Like pollution. Arnade doesn’t talk much about environmental toxins like lead or burning plastic, but I happened to watch a Netflix documentary about this last night, so I’ll talk about it anyway.
Apparently “plastic” is not really recyclable. Well, some kinds of plastic are, but many varieties effectively are not, and you can’t make new plastic products out of several varieties of plastic mixed together. So when you throw all of your recyclables into the big bin together, they are effectively useless to the recycling plant.
The recycling plant near your home has employees who sort through the recycling, separating cans from paper from plastics and attempting to send all of the useless trash like used napkins and pizza boxes to the landfill. Metal and glass are valuable and can be recycled, but–until recently–all of the plastic got bought up by Chinese recycling plants.
Until recently, China imported MASSIVE quantities of plastic trash. More humans were employed to sort through this trash (poor humans). The usable stuff–types 1, 2, and 5–got recycled. The unusable plastic got disposed of–by burning
This is your “recycling” on fire:
Eventually the Chinese government decided that burning plastic is noxious and disgusting and that Chinese lungs shouldn’t be a dumping ground for the world’s trash, so it banned the import of most waste plastic. Suddenly the “recycling” plants had a huge problem: no where to dump all of the plastic they were pretending to recycle.
Entrepreneurs in Malaysia (and other nations) stepped in to fill the gap, and locals were astonished when giant piles of burning garbage appeared overnight in their communities.
Soon the Malaysian government also decided that burning plastic is bad and started banning the stuff.
Goodness knows where our “recycling” will go now to get burned. Maybe, horror of horrors, we’ll have to bury it in a landfill instead of loading it on giant container ships and using fossil fuels to send it across the ocean. (I am generally against shipping things across oceans if we can avoid it.)
But pollution isn’t just a third world problem; the distribution of poor communities in the US was determined largely by the direction of the winds blowing pollution from factories and chemical plants.
“There’s a good reason burning household trash, including plastic, is prohibited in most of the U.S. — the toxic species,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, an assistant professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, as well as the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. When plastic is burned, it releases dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates. These emissions are known to cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems, and they’re potentially carcinogenic.
It’s bad enough being poor, with all the difficulties that entails, without having to breathe burning plastic, smoke, or whatever’s in the local chemical plant. (Even in areas without such industries, the poor are more likely to live in houses that still have lead paint.)
The authors conclude by arguing that the legalization of prostitution brings a level of public scrutiny, official regulation, and bureaucratization to brothels that decreases the risk of these 3 types of systematic violence.
Of course, some people argue that bureaucratizing prostitution will only increase the paperwork and push out the independent contractors.
What about prisons? Arnade does not visit any prisons, but many of the people he interviews have. The need for some kind of prison reform is a safe bet, since prisons are full of people whom society doesn’t like and doesn’t want to spend money on.
"Warehousing" in slave dehumanizing conditions will continue to manifest violence. This is exactly like my state slave quarters where I'm housed at. I hear we will soon receive new toilets and sinks. At heart none of this is the issue or solution #BurnThePrisonspic.twitter.com/L9u3LV2GBY
— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak — #PrisonersHumanRights (@JailLawSpeak) January 4, 2020
I am definitely in favor of imprisoning violent people, but this seems like… not what prison should be like.
Edited to add: Regardless of how you think Epstein died, his case highlights a number of “mistakes” in the way his prison–a relatively nice one, I believe–was run, from transferring a probably still suicidal guy off suicide watch to the non-functioning security cameras to the guards straight up not watching the prisoners and lying about doing their rounds. People are killed or commit suicide in prison all the time; we just don’t normally hear about it because they aren’t as rich and famous (or infamous) as Epstein.
Homicide has been up over the past few years, which is not good for anyone and probably means we need more street-level policing. Yes, the police sometimes kill innocent people (or dogs), but non-police kill more innocent people, so police are a net gain.
Montrealers discovered last week what it is like to live in a city without police and firemen. The lesson was costly: six banks were robbed, more than 100 shops were looted, and there were twelve fires. Property damage came close to $3,000,000; at least 40 carloads of glass will be needed to replace shattered storefronts. Two men were shot dead. At that, Montreal was probably lucky to escape as lightly as it did.
Well, it’s getting late, so I’d better wrap this up. This book covers many difficult topics and is not easy to discuss, and parts of the book I’ve neglected to mention–the author also interviews many immigrants from Mexico and Somalia, as well as locals in the areas where they’ve moved, for example. I apologize for wandering so far afield.
I feel compelled to offer solutions, but these are difficult problems to fix. People live their own lives, sometimes suffering, sometimes triumphing. Our World in Data has some interesting charts about income distributions in different countries that I’d like to end with:
How very differently the benefits of economic growth can be shared is shown by a comparison of the USA and the UK over the last 40 years. In the US incomes for the bottom half of the population were stagnating for most of the last 4 decades (with a notable exception over the second half of the 1990s). In the UK the first period resembles the experience of the US – incomes at the bottom of the distribution were stagnating, incomes at the top were rising rapidly. But over the second period – from 1991 onwards – the trend in the UK has changed significantly: economic growth was shared equally across the distribution from the lowest to the highest decile.
The comparison also show that growth in the UK – particularly for the lowest income group – was much stronger than in the US. A comparison with other rich countries shows that the experience of the US – strongly rising inequality and stagnation for a large part of the population – is unique to the US. Other rich countries were much more successful in sharing the benefits of growth across the distribution.
Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a difficult book to review. Dire poverty is a tough subject to face head-on without reflexive squirming. It is very tempting to impose one’s own interpretations on the author and his subjects. We want to make it, somehow, better. If we blame people for their situations, then our discomfort fades. If we shift the focus from poor people to rich people, the author, or ourselves, the discomfort fades. etc.
1. What the book is
Dignity is an unflinching series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and unluckiest people. The author visits poor neighborhoods across the country, photographing and interviewing residents about their lives. He talks to prostitutes, criminals, drug dealers, junkies, preachers, single mothers, abuse victims, the disabled, the homeless, and the destitute.
It is not, for the most part, a commentary. It does not propose solutions. The author’s intention is to simply talk to people and hear their stories. If you are looking for a book full of solutions, look elsewhere. If you want to know more about what the problems are, this is your book.
Note: I “read” this book in audiobook form, so I will not be quoting and all references are made from memory. I also, obviously, could not see the pictures that come with the paper version.
The author is fairly liberal, and this comes through in his writing. This is a bone of contention for some people, with folks who’ve only read the summaries lambasting the author for being “pro Trump,” and the most prominent Amazon reviews lambasting the author for being “anti-Trump,” (much to the author’s consternation). Personally, I don’t care about the author’s political views, but if they bother you too much, you won’t enjoy the book. If you are interested in my views on race and democracy, I recommend you read my Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists.
I would have liked to read some stories in the book from American Indians–the situation out on the reservations is quite concerning. I also would have appreciated some statistical information on overall trends–are things getting better or worse over time?
2. Why I read it:
I like anthropology because I want to learn about the lives of real people. Literature is pleasant to read because it well-written, but its characters are generally fictions drawn from the author’s experiences or the kinds of people the author wants to write about. I am interested in the sorts of people who don’t normally show up in books.
Too many novels fall into the trap of trying to paint the poor as sympathetic because they are secretly like the author–usually plucky orphans with a love of literature. Certainly some orphans love literature, but I wager most do not. These type of characters show that these authors lack real insight into their subjects and their bias that the character is worth saving because she is improbably like the author.
In real life, the poor are not simply high-class people waiting to be discovered, maybe given a few books and a makeover. They are simply people, with their own unique problems.
Was the book effective?
I think the author wants us to identify with and feel sympathy for his subjects’s struggles. Some people I did feel sympathy for, like the woman who was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mom, or the man who suffered permanent brain damage when a friend accidentally smashed his head open. They were given really shitty hands in life through no fault of their own. Others I didn’t feel sorry for; they had made obviously bad decisions that led to bad places. (Even if I did feel bad for them, I am unable to stop other people from making bad decisions.)
This is true, of course, of any system–some people suffer because due to bad luck, others from bad choices. Many are in the gray zone of low-IQ, which isn’t a choice but leads to things we call bad choices.
One of the difficulties I have with the book is that because there are so many interviews, most are, by necessity, fairly superficial. This gives us insight into many different neighborhoods and problems, but it doesn’t give us much depth for any particular problem. Since few of us like to be entirely honest about our own flaws, judging the source of a problem based on a few pages of interview is difficult.
When we talk about problems, we have to be clear what the problems are, where they come from, and if they are solvable at all. (Some problems aren’t.)
Things I think we can’t change: intelligence, drug addiction, manufacturing jobs heading to China (sorry), automation.
Things we can change: mental illness, regular illness, schools, paperwork, prisons, number of criminals on the street.
Just kidding, paperwork is here to stay until the apocalypse.
A lot of problems in this book are blamed, more or less, on white people. A typical example is someone claiming that they elected a black mayor and “the next day” all of the whites left town, hauling all of the jobs with them. Another interviewee was more honest, noting that the whites left after a riot.
The 1967 Detroit Rebellion, also known as the 1967 Detroit Riot or 12th Street riot was the bloodiest incident in the “Long, hot summer of 1967“. Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.
The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city’s Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.
The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and … money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote in 1994:
The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The rebellion put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.
Riots can coerce governments into handing out more benefits or pumping more money into schools, but they also drive away anyone who can get out.
I’ve looked at the data six ways to Sunday, and it looks like “white flight” was driven primarily by black crime, which was a big deal in the seventies and eighties:
Homicide rates are still disproportionately high among blacks even if we control for income:
In the first decade, 66-75, African Americans in the 75th-90th percent of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%. In 76-95, blacks in the top 10% of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%.
The author talks a bit about his own experiences with racism. He grew up in a small town in the South where he was bullied by the other white kids for having parents who supported the NAACP and desegregation. Like many “successful” people, the author did well in school, went to college, and eventually settled in a much whiter neighborhood than the racist one he left behind.
Arnade reflects on this fact–on how most of the kids he grew up with eventually mellowed, probably finding more in common with each other than with people like him who moved up and out. He’s the one who white-flighted, and I’d wager that crime, jobs, and “good schools” have driven most white movement over the past 50 years, not black mayors.
Arnade rejects simple solutions to the problems of poverty. Affirmative action, for example, pits poor minorities against poor whites, while still affirming the upper-class belief that what matters is how smart, rich, and successful you are. Arnade challenges his reader to envision a world in which we don’t value people based on how smart or successful they are.
As I said, it is nearly impossible to change someone’s intelligence for the better. (If someone has some technique that has stood the test of randomized long-term trials that control for genetics, please let me know so I can use them on my kids.) Most would-be reformers run up against this fact like a brick wall, but once you accept that you cannot fundamentally make people smarter (or more conscientious, harder working, etc), you can focus on the things that you actually can change.
The difficulty, of course, is that intelligence is really important. Not because I value it (though I do) but because “intelligence” is a rough shorthand for “being able to run your own life.” Even if we could somehow not have any “values” and love each other equally, the dumber people would still make more mistakes and end up, on average, with shittier lives than the smart people (unless we have also instituted some sort of highly coercive state to prevent people from making their own decisions).
At least Arnade does not claim that everyone is equally intelligent, that if we just made more kids do more math, they’d all become physicists. He knows and has the grace to recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be smart. Some of us are dumb.
Perhaps his hope is not that we will vote for this candidate or that program, support this law or that institution, but that we’ll be kinder and more understanding of the troubles other people are going through.
I propose that we reduce paperwork.
Lizard people (metaphorical, not literal) love paperwork. Paperwork is how they show that they are better than you. Paperwork shows how deserving they are. Paperwork is an arbitrary hurdle used to distinguish the “deserving” poor from the undeserving, and how we discourage people from applying for welfare, food stamps, SSDI, etc. Paperwork is how big corporations drive smaller competitors out of business or prevent them from existing in the first place. Paperwork keeps poor, low-education entrepreneurs from starting businesses and keeps them trapped in low-end jobs.
Paperwork is the goddamn devil.
Unfortunately, many of the programs put in place to “help” the poor just increase the regulatory burden in their lives and make everything worse. For example, a friend of mine was homeless in San Francisco for many years. He had a fairly regular income, but also schizophrenia. San Francisco has many tenants’ rights laws, which are supposed to protect tenants from eviction, but in practice make renters unwilling to take on the lowest classes of renters–that is, folks they have reason to think they may have to evict. Dealing with all of that paperwork, lawyer fees, etc., is just too expensive for the landlords to make leasing to a high-risk tenant worthwhile, so especially poor people, even if they have the money to pay for a month’s rent, simply are not allowed to live in one place for that long, not even in the crappiest of homeless hotels.
In this case it’s not the tenants who have to fill out the paperwork, but the procedural burden placed on the landlords is still having a negative effect on their lives.
This is not me coming from a radical libertarian perspective, but the opinion I’ve formed via conversation with my friend about what it was like being on the streets and the various barriers he faced.
Many people who have spent years working with the homeless repeat that you cannot fundamentally change people. Aside from treating their mental illnesses and helping them get off drugs, the basic personality traits that lead to long-term homeless will in all likelihood persist. However, that does not mean that we need to increase the regulatory burden on landlords. There are always some people on the edge between homelessness and not, and we don’t need to make it artificially more difficult for them.
One conclusion I draw from Arnade’s account is that the war on drugs (and prostitution) is not going so well. As one woman he interviews says, you can’t do prostitution if you don’t have some drugs first to numb you to the experience.
Many of us use drugs–alcohol, Xanax, adderal, heroin, etc–to smooth over the stresses of our jobs or the parts of life we hate. We drink or pop medication to forget, to be popular, to make it all more bearable, and so, argues Arnade, do the poor.
“Mothers little helpers” were prescribed to my late mother to sedate her trauma. She went onto to die by over dosing. Can’t help but think the medication made her worse.
I think in these discussions of why people do drugs (trauma? rejection? loneliness?) we should consider another possibility: drugs make people feel better and are really addicting. Of course not everyone gets addicted to drugs, and many people who use drugs manage to do so without destroying their lives, but it is clear that for many people, the appeal of drugs is nigh over-powering. Many drug addicts, even the ones with family who love them and try to save them, eventually lose everything and end up dead in a ditch.
If people live in an area where drugs are common, then there is a good chance that at some point in their lives they will try them, and of the people who do, a good chance that they’ll become addicted, simply because drugs are addicting.
The War on Drugs doesn’t seem to be working.
Decriminalization is one potential approach. Several US states have tried decriminalizing marijuana, so we now have some preliminary results to discuss. According to Wikipedia:
In Colorado, effects since 2014 include increased state revenues, violent crime decreased, and an increase in homeless population. One Colorado hospital has received a 15% increase in babies born with THC in their blood.
Since legalization, public health and law enforcement officials in Colorado have grappled with a number of issues, serving as a model for policy problems that come with legalization. Marijuana-related hospital visits have nearly doubled between 2011, prior to legalization, and 2014. Top public health administrators in Colorado have cited the increased potency of today’s infused products, often referred to as “edibles”, as a cause for concern.
Summary: less crime, more people using pot. It’s a trade-off.
Slate Star Codex did some analysis/summarizing of the effects of marijuana legalization and found that it increased traffic accidents, which resulted in a lot more innocent people getting killed.
As far as I know, we don’t have good studies on the effects of marijuana on fetal development that control for genetics (or environment,) but the relevant mouse studies aren’t hopeful–looks like prenatal exposure to THC causes permanent brain damage.
So legalizing drugs looks like a bad idea, though decriminalization + increased funding for drug treatment programs might be good.
Another possibility is trying to give non-drug users more options to get away from high-use communities, and to give drug users community-based options that will help them escape their addictions, too.
Many of the desperately poor are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Thankfully, mental illness is actually one of the things we can treat. We have very good medications that can radically decrease the negative effects from diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because it’s a fairly simple mechanical fix that we can actually do, if we just identify the people who need medications and convince them to take them. (People who have just discovered that all of their “friends” were really delusions do need support, however.)
Less mental illness could also result in fewer people trying to self-medicate with drugs.
As Arnade discusses, the official places set up to help the poor, like rehab clinics and welfare offices, are generally unpleasant and uninviting. Take Cabrini Green: it looks like it was designed by someone who was suffering and wanted everyone else to suffer, too.
People do not feel welcome in such spaces, nor do they want to stay and hang out. The poor opt to hang out in other, more comfortable places, like McDonald’s, church, or drug dens. There is probably room for improvement in making the spaces where people try to improve themselves more pleasant.
School is the government institution most of us have the most contact with. In my experience, most school teachers are well-intentioned and want schools to be pleasant places for children. Certainly they want kids to learn.
In my experience, though, most kids don’t like school. It’s work, it’s coercive, and for about 50% of the kids the pace is consistently too fast or too slow. Our mainstream model is based on German schools and is focused primarily on raising student test scores. Many kids simply want to run and play and aren’t suited to this particular style of learning.
As a kid I attended public school and hated it; as a homeschooling parent I use a different teaching model for my own children.
One thing kids from very deprived backgrounds generally lack is a stable adult presence in their lives. In traditional schools, students change teachers ever year (or every 50 minutes in the higher grades.) In Waldorf schools, students stay with the same teacher for their first 8 years, providing stability and the chance for a deep relationship.
There is one Waldorf school in California, Birney, that is also a public school, drawing from the general neighborhood, much of which is low-income minorities. A study of the effectiveness of this school vs conventional schools showed positive results:
African American and Lation students at Birney have a suspension rate that is ten times lower than similar students in the district.
Over five years duration for African American, Latino and other socio-economically disadvantaged students the effect of attending Birney was correlated with an increase of 8 percentile ranks (i.e. from 50th percentile to 58th percentile) in ELA. Attending Birney had a smaller but positive effect size for these students in math.
Birney’s good test scores might be a side effect of which parents chose to send their kids to a Waldorf school, but the overall happiness of the students shines in study’s many interviewees:
I remember how excited I was every single day. I was so excited to go to school. That was a feeling that was shared throughout the class. “What are we going to do today, where are we going, what are we going to learn?” and that’s the biggest thing about Waldorf. It infuses that excitement, that love for learning.
I’m not convinced that Waldorf schools are perfect; they are just one example of a different way to run schools that still works.
I’ve never seen a consistent enough definition of “systematic oppression” that I could figure out what it really means and how to test it, but I bet if you were a smart kid in foster care trying to apply to college, you’d be facing it.
Our current college application system is needlessly complicated (see: paperwork). Just do like we do when kids go to highschool and assign each kid as they near the end of highschool to the nearest branch of the State U, community college, or trade school, with some adjusting for SAT scores, and let them apply elsewhere if they want to. This way, everyone can at least get some basic job skills.
This is not a recommendation for how we should pay for college.
Arnade spends a lot of time at McDonald’s and inside churches. The role of religion in the lives of the poor is notable, though as an atheist, Arnade admits observing it all from a certain distance. Why are the poor so much more devout than the wealthy?
We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultrapoor Filipino households six months and 30 months after the program ended. At six months, we find increases in religiosity and income, no statistically significant changes in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. These effects fade away at 30 months. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and reducing poverty in the short run among adults in developing countries, but more work is required to understand whether the effects can persist and if not, why not.
This seems reasonably likely to hold true for folks in the US as well. A commitment to Jesus results in a simultaneous commitment to being honest, hard working, avoiding drugs, etc, and provides an environment full of other people with similar commitments. This works for a while, resulting in more money, which is evident to both the individual and his family and friends.
After a while, the effect wears off. People go back to their old ways. But life is long, and there are many opportunities for people to get clean, get sober, and return to the church–for at least a while.
Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different From Ours. Sorry for the slight delay; we’ve been recovering from Halloween. Today we’ll be discussing Athenian law.
Athens is famous for being the inspirational democracy, though the extent to which it was actually a democracy is a tad overstated by modern standards–we’re not sure exactly how many people lived in ancient Athens, but the majority of them, probably a supermajority, could not vote. Only male citizens could vote; the population also contained, (aside from women) a large number of “resident aliens” who were free, but not citizens, and plenty of slaves.
Only the child of two current citizens was a citizen, and it was rare for foreigners to be awarded citizenship. Men often had one regular wife, who was a citizen and whose children would therefore enjoy the rights of citizenship, and a concubine or two who were aliens or slaves and whose children, likewise, would be aliens or slaves.
The obvious issue with this system is that the non-citizen population is likely to grow faster than the citizen population, but citizenship carries with it too many benefits to be given away lightly.
The less obvious issue is that people often fell in love with people from other social castes and wanted them for primary spouses, not secondary spouses. This theme shows up a lot in Greek plays, in which star-crossed lovers from across social castes face doom until, at the climax, it’s revealed that there was a mix-up at one of their births and the beloved is actually an Athenian citizen and the marriage can go forward. (Or at least this is a major plot point in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an American play of the 1960s.)
The benefits of being a male Athenian citizen included the right to marry another Athenian citizen, vote in the assembly (Athens was a direct democracy, not a representative one,) serve on a jury, (juries were huge, often 200 to 500 people,) serve as a magistrate, be a paid arbiter, and own property.
Resident aliens (called “metics”) were not slaves, but generally couldn’t participate in the government or own land They could prosecute some legal cases and had to have a citizen “sponsor.” Exceptions existed.
Slaves were, well, slaves. Slavery sucked.
Debt slavery was abolished as part of the reforms of Solon about two hundred years before the start of the period being discussed, so most slaves were either prisoners taken in war or the descendants of such. … A slave’s owner could sue to collect damages for an injury to his slave and could be sued for damages done by his slave. He was not free to kill his slave but was free to beat him.
One wonders who would bother to prosecute the case of a slave who died under mysterious circumstances whose owner claims he didn’t kill him.
Slaves worked the typical gamut of jobs, from servant to farm laborers to silver miners.
It occurs to me that we tend to read about ancient Athens through people who generally held it in high regard; we don’t have many of the original legal documents from the Athenian legal system (we have, however, various speeches that people gave arguing their court cases, which often contained descriptions of relevant laws,) or much in the way of records made by Athenian non-citizens; I can’t recall even having read anything written by a Spartan, who might offer a countering opinion on the quality of Athenian government. Imagine if we were in a similar position with respect to the US–the US fell, most of our texts were destroyed, a Dark Age ensued, and a thousand years later, people began digging up American artifacts and decided the US must have been a pretty happening place; people began learning Ancient English and reading American novels and philosophers in school. Now another thousand years pass, and you’re trying to piece together the American legal system from old Perry Mason episodes and a thousand years of scholarship… and we would have about the situation we now have with ancient Athens.
[This ends our customary disclaimer about the difficulties of understanding a two thousand+ year old legal system with very few surviving primary source documents.]
Jury trials must have taken up a lot of Athenian time:
Each year, 6,000 jurors were selected by lot from those who volunteered; the only qualification was being a male citizen and at least 30 years old. … If we accept an estimate of 30,000 for the total number of adult male citizens, at any one time about a fifth of them were on the jury panel.
These cases had between 200-500 jurors each; Athenians must have loved trials (which is probably why they went to the effort of getting professional speech writers to compose their legal orations, some of which were popular enough to be preserved down to the present day).
Witnesses gave their testimony in writing in advance; during the trial, their only contribution was to confirm that it was indeed theirs.
This implies that a lot of people were literate–or else there were scribes for the purpose. Either way, Athenian society clearly was pretty literate, which always prompts the question: why? We can’t credit the state of things at this point for having created themselves, so what did cause the flourishing of Athenian learning and culture?
The testimony of slaves, however, sounds pretty awful:
The evidence of slaves was admissible only if given under torture and only if the owner permitted it.
The Athenians had public and private cases; any male citizen could prosecute a private case, and for many cases the prosecutor received a large fraction of the resulting fine, providing an incentive for ordinary citizens to take on cases–but to protect against malicious prosecution, if a fifth of jurors failed to vote for him, he could be fined and barred from bringing future suits.
We worry about police planting drugs on a suspect in the process of search; the Athenians worried about a private party planting his own property on someone in order to accuse him of stealing it. They had a simple solution. The accuser was allowed to sear the house where he suspected his stolen property was hidden. But he had to do it naked.
The Athenians believed in a kind of contagious ritual pollution called miasma. The threat of contagion meant that murderers had to be exiled or kept out of the courts and temples:
In one case we know of, a defendant charged with murder claimed that the only reason for the charge was to keep him from showing up in another court to prosecute a different case.
Belief in miasma also resulted in the objects used in murders being ritually exiled.
So they destroyed the clacker balls because children could hit themselves with them.
There are then some rules of family life/inheritance which are pretty standard fare. Adoption was legal, but like becoming a citizen, seems a bit onerous. Only males could inherit property, but were required to support the surviving womenfolk of the family.
If a man died with a daughter but no male descendants she would be required to marry the nearest male relative, outside of the narrow limits of the incest rules, who would have her.
Okay, that seems kind of bad for the children, but not too awful…
If already married she was required to divorce her husband.
What? This makes marrying a gal who has no brothers an awfully bad deal!
Finally, the authors examine the production of “public goods”, which were simply assigned every so often to local rich people:
If you were one of the richest Athenians, every two years you were obliged to produce a public good. The relevant magistrate would tell you which one.
It seems like a system that, despite its obvious flaws, worked pretty well so long as the population of Athens stayed small enough.
What did you think? Thankfully ancient Greece is a very well-studied place, so hopefully some of you are experts on the era and have some great insights to share.
Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, by Leeson, Skarbek, and Friedman. Today we’ll be finishing up with feud law (short wrap-up chapter) and looking at English law of the 1700s.
The application of English law, as described by the authors, cannot help but make the reader wonder how on earth England managed to function at all (as, indeed, I often wonder about the US, laboring under the execress of US law). The suggest that somehow it managed, despite its shortcomings. I suggest that the English people managed, despite the imposition of a terrible system upon them, simply because the English are the sorts of folks who are accustomed to dealing patiently with bad systems.
Any attempt to generalize English economic, scientific, literary, or scientific success via imitating their legal system may therefore be imitating the wrong thing, though this may be true for all legal systems.
But let us back up a step and ask what makes a good legal system in the first place?
Obviously it must do justice, but this is a tautology; what is justice?
A good legal system:
Discourages or prevents future misdeeds.
Compensates the victims
People may object here that a good legal system should also punish evil-doers. People (myself included) have a deep desire to punish the wicked, but this is not the purpose of the justice system, but its means.
Let us analogize to eating. Why do we eat? What purpose does putting a sandwich in my mouth serve?
We can say that we eat because it is pleasurable just as seeing a murderer punished makes us glad, but this does not explain why eating sandwiches makes us happy and eating sawdust does not. The mere act of putting food-like substances in our mouths and swallowing them is not pleasurable, nor do even the most dedicated gourmands among us seek to create whole dishes of ersatz food simply to simulate the experience of eating. Flavor is nice, but it serves a more important purpose: nutrition. We eat to deliver calories and nutrients to our bodies.
Indeed, we do all sorts of things that “feel good,” because they help keep us alive and propagate our genes. Evolution has geared us to find staying alive pleasurable and dying unpleasurable.
Similarly, we desire to punish the wicked because it accomplishes the two goals stated above: it prevents or deters them from committing future crime, and it (sometimes) recompenses the victim.
(Note: I will use the word “criminal” here to refer to “person who has committed what is generally regarded as an evil act by their community,” but of course sometimes things are officially crimes that people don’t actually consider wrong, and vice versa, sometimes things are not illegal that people believe ought to be.)
Number 1, encouraging or preventing future misdeeds, is generally accomplished by physically preventing criminals from further action by imprisoning, exiling, or executing them, and by frightening potential criminals into not offending via the threat of being caught and imprisoned, exiled, executed, tortured, etc.
Number 2, compensation, is achieved by returning stolen property or forcing the criminal (or their criminal insurance group, if you’re in Somalia,) to pay a fine or labor in place of a fine.
We may add two more requirements to our ideal system:
3. It does not punish the innocent, nor place undue burden upon innocent people,
4. It is equally accessible to all classes of people.
Any legal system that causes harm to innocent people would of course become itself criminal. A system that favors certain classes of people over others–say, by not prosecuting murderers who only kill poor people–obviously doesn’t achieve justice. Such a system also impairs economic activity by limiting people to doing business with partners they can find ways to enforce contracts on.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to measure whether a system actually does any of the above. Crime may go up or down for reasons entirely divorced from the legal system, like the installation of surveillance cameras or a change in demographics. We can compare victimization reports to incarceration rates, but that only tells us about crimes punished, not crimes deterred.
At any rate, with this in mind, let’s plunge into the work, starting with Feuds:
We have now seen a number of societies in which law enforcement was private and decentralized. That pattern, although strange to us, is historically common. It seems likely that in many, perhaps most, societies it was the original legal system on top of which later systems were constructed. I call it feud law.
Feud law is simple and straightforward: if you harm me, then I threaten to harm you until you pay damages. If you don’t pay, you hurt.
The authors list four requirements for Feud law systems to work:
First, threats need to only be effective for correcting wrongs, not as extortion.
Second, I have to be able to actually carry out my threats.
Third, the system has to work for everyone (see my #4).
Fourth, feuds must end. They can’t just go on forever.
It is interesting that the Somali system effectively has no legislature (neither does the Comanche). I suspect that for many groups–especially nomads–this was historically true, due to the nature of their existences and low population densities. In the development of law, it appears that judges came first; legislators and law-givers came second.
The authors then talk about the evolutionary origins of vengeance, which as discussed, is useful strategy:
That you will revenge yourself against anyone who wrongs you, even at considerable cost to yourself, is a reason not to wrong you.
The person who can enforce vengeance against others is strong; the person who cannot is a wimp:
Being known as a wimp lowers your status. It also marks you as a safe target for future wrongs.
The authors are fond of the idea that feud systems can work out for the good of everyone, even wimps, the weak, and poor people, if other people can gain status by taking on their cases for them. This hinges on people not deciding that “taking on cases for poor people is low-status,” “I’d rather take on this much easier case over here,” “I really just don’t care about your problems.”
From all of my reading about historical, decentralized, feud and feud-like legal systems, I must say that I am not convinced that any of them do a particularly good job. For starters, it is rather difficult to end a feud if the other guy is still pissed about. Second, the “money” paid out in feud systems is often taken from relatives (or others in your feud-insurance group,) which puts strain on a bunch of innocent people. Third, the “money” is often not money at all, but women and children, who become effectively slaves. (Think back to the child Okonkwo murdered in Things Fall Apart., because someone in the child’s village had murdered someone in Okonkwo’s village. Obviously the just solution is to… take someone’s innocent child and chop him up with machetes. Well, that is a solution that deters future crime, yes, but it fails on point three, because it harms someone who is innocent.)
… a number of existing legal systems show evidence of having been built on top of pre-existing feud systems.
The clearest example is Anglo-American common law. It evolved out of Anglo-Saxon law. Anglo-Saxon law, at least prior to its final century, was essentially Icelandic law plus a king. The king claimed that some offenses were violations of the king’s peace, hence that offenders owed damages to both him and the victim. Expand that approach enough and eventually the exception swallows the rule, converting all crimes into offenses against the crown alone.
We’ll be looking at the hard to believe it worked, if it did, English law in a bit.
The authors note that just because feuding is no longer the official legal way to deal with one’s problems, it still remains a very instinctive way, and the way folks who don’t have other legal options (like drug dealers) punish folks who’ve done them wrong:
Much of the crime in a modern society can be interpreted as private enforcement. A retaliatory killing in the course of a conflict among urban gangs is one example, a husband who discovers another man in bed with his wife and shoots him another.
It’d be interesting to see some data on this.
There is a summary of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, which I will leave to you to read.
On to merry old England.
The two most striking anomalies are the institutions for prosecuting offenders and the range of punishments.
Prosecution was, in essence, private. There were no police, DAs, or taxpayer-supported Constables, but you could hire your own:
A victim of a crime who wanted a constable to undertake any substantial effort in order to apprehend the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of doing so. … Any Englishman could prosecute a crime… It was up to him to file charges with the local magistrate, present evidence to the grand jury, [etc].
The English were opposed to the idea of a professional police force on the grounds that such a thing was “French” and “tyrannical.” (As the authors point out, though, it is the French system that went down in the flames of Revolution and the English system that persisted, so… maybe the English were on to something.)
This system of people prosecuting crimes themselves was, as you might have guessed, a pain in the butt. Poor or busy people who’d suffered a crime generally didn’t have the resources necessary to bring a case to trial, so the government decided to fix things by offering rewards for the conviction of serious crimes.
Naturally, criminals started framing innocent people just to collect the fines:
The most famous of the resulting scandals involved the McDaniel gang who, when one of hteir plots miscarried and they were themselves tried, turned out to have been responsible over a period of about six years for the transportation of two men and the hanging of six and to have received a total of 1,200 pounds in state rewards.
Paid police were introduced in London in 1829, and later to the rest of England.
The authors then note that the strange thing is that this system functioned at all, though I suspect it functioned mostly despite itself, due to the character of the English people and community-level mechanisms such as reputation and social standing.
The other oddity of English law at the time (at least from a modern perspective) is the relative lack of intermediate punishments. Criminals could be hanged, banished, sold into slavery in a foreign country, or pardoned. The moderate punishment of a few years’ imprisonment was rare, most likely because it would have required the building of expensive physical infrastructure (prisons) and staffing them with paid jailers, and the English were obviously leery of putting any taxpayer money into their criminal justice system.
The prisons of the eighteenth century, when they existed, were pretty awful. (I have posted about prisons before.) Rat-infested, unheated, unventilated (though sometimes there were massive cracks in the walls that made them far too ventilated,) no toilets; in general, if you went to prison, there was a good chance you would die there.
As for the offenses themselves, the British had an interesting way of raising their overall IQ:
“Benefit of clergy” originated as a legal rule permitting clerics charged with capital offenses to have their cases transferred to a church court, which did not impose capital punishment. “Cleric” came to be defined as anyone who could read…
Clergyable offenses were offenses for which, absent benefit of clergy, the punishment was death. Manslaughter, for example, was a clergyable felony.
It sounds like this started as the church exerting independent power and claiming the right to punish its own, separate from the secular authorities, with the government potentially going along with it because people who could read were too few and far between to hang, and gradually evolved as literacy spread.
Once the British developed good boats and colonies, they realized they could just get rid of their annoying criminals. At first, they sold them into slavery, though the book shies away from calling it that:
Transportation was by private merchants. A merchant who wished to transport a felon was required to pay the sheriff “a price per head…” After transporting the felon to the New World, the merchant could sell him into indentured servitude…
Merchants made good profits on young, healthy people who’d make good slaves, but old or useless prisoners couldn’t be sold for much and so languished in holding cells.
Transportation became rarer because the receiving colonies began passing laws against it–for some reason respectable folks in Virginia and Maryland didn’t want the English dumping a bunch of criminals into their communities.
Eventually the government decided that instead of selling prisoners to the merchants, they’d get rid of more prisoners if they paid the merchants to take them. They were still sold into slavery on the other side of their journey, however.
In England in the 17th and 18th centuries criminal justice was severe, later termed the Bloody Code. This was due to both the particularly large number of offences which were punishable by execution, (usually by hanging), and to the limited choice of sentences available to judges for convicted criminals. With modifications to the traditional Benefit of clergy, which originally exempted only clergymen from civil law, it developed into a legal fiction by which many common offenders of “clergyable” offenses were extended the privilege to avoid execution. Many offenders were pardoned as it was considered unreasonable to execute them for relatively minor offences, but under the rule of law, it was equally unreasonable for them to escape punishment entirely. With the development of colonies, transportation was introduced as an alternative punishment, although legally it was considered a condition of a pardon, rather than a sentence in itself. …
During the Commonwealth, Cromwell overcame the popular prejudice against subjecting Christians to slavery or selling them into foreign parts, and initiated group transportation of military and civilian prisoners. With the Restoration, the penal transportation system and the number of people subjected to it, started to change inexorably between 1660 and 1720, with transportation replacing the simple discharge of clergyable felons after branding the thumb. Alternatively, under the second act dealing with Moss-trooper brigands on the Scottish border, offenders had their benefit of clergy taken away, or otherwise at the judge’s discretion, were to be transported to America, “there to remaine and not to returne”.
Probably some of my great-great-ancestors in there.
The Transportation of convicts to Australia is well-known, but plenty of American colonists started out the same way. I don’t know how many were transported–Wikipedia gives estimates between 50,000 and 120,000 for North America and 162,000 for Australia.
Indentured servants voluntarily entered into the master-servant arrangement for a specified number of years (between five and seven), made the decision themselves to go to the colonies, and had to be given a freedom fee, clothes, and seeds at the end of their service. Thus, it was more economical for some planters to purchase British felons who also served for seven years in most cases, but who did not have to be paid at the end of their term of labor. The purchase price of convicts was also lower than that of indentured white and enslaved African laborers. Late in the colonial period, a male enslaved person cost between £35 and £44. Most male convicts sold for less than £13 and the women for £7 to £10. Even semiskilled convicts could be purchased for £7 to £14 and skilled felons for £15 to £25. A final inducement for buying convicts came from the fact that because they were already outlaws from society’s rules, they could more easily be exploited.
The transportation of convicts to the US basically stopped due to the American Revolution, which probably caused an uptick in demand for other, more expensive varieties of slaves.
Ugh, cheap labor is such a horror show.
Back to the book. The authors note that juries did not always convict people to the full extent of the law:
In other cases the jury failed to include in its verdict features of the crime, … that would have made it non-clergyable the combined effect of acquittals and conviction for a lesser… offense was that, in the sample examined by Beatte, fewer than 40% of those charged with capital property felonies and fewer than 25% of those charged with murder were actually convicted of those offenses.
Of course, in the US system, something like 95% of criminal cases end in plea bargains rather than court cases of any sort.
Convicts could also be pardoned, which resulted in only 16% of those charged with capital crimes actually hanging. (This is still much higher than in our system.)
Evidence that this system worked comes in the form of crime statistics:
Beattie’s figures, based on homicide indictments per capita, suggests that rural homicide rates fell more than fourfold and urban about ninefold between 1660 and 1800. … it seems likely that much, perhaps most, of the drop in the crime rate between 1660 and 1900 occurred prior to the introduction of paid police.
This is in line with the generalized drop in homicide that we’ve seen across the developed world over the past thousand years:
Murder rates tend to track pretty well with development level and IQ, though it’s not clear whether reducing murder makes it easier for people to do business, or raising standards of living makes people less likely to murder each other, or making people smarter makes them less likely to murder each other and better at doing business–but it’s probably all of the above.
Either way, given the nigh-universality of these trends over time and space, I suspect they don’t have as much to do with the specific penal institutions of 17th and 18th century England and more to do with things like “the rise of capitalism” or “the Hajnal Line.”
The authors discuss a number of other potential mechanisms to make the British system more workable, including, essentially, prosecution insurance groups, ie, an association for the prosecution of felons.
Thousands of prosecution associations were established in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I interpret their main function not as insurance but commitment.
(That is, demonstrating to a potential thief a willingness to prosecute him.)
There was also a system that was similar to our plea bargains, which let criminals (or people accused of crimes) pay off the prosecutor and not go to trial. This benefited the prosecutor (who still got paid) and the defendant (who didn’t hang or go to the colonies.) This sounds rather similar to the Gypsy system of threatening to report each other to the local legal system if the other person doesn’t stop misbehaving.
Viewed from this standpoint, cases that went to trial represent failures, not successes, of the system.
Well, that is an interesting interpretation of the legal system being so unworkable that it functions as an effective extortion threat.
The tactic of starting a prosecution in order to be paid to drop it is familiar in the literature on malicious prosecution.
Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
The authors then discuss why England lacked much in the way of imprisonment, agreeing with my assessment that it was just too expensive.
As for enslaving prisoners, outside of the colonies:
I conclude that galley slaves, at a time when galleys were still militarily useful, probably produced services worth more than the cost of guarding and maintaining the slaves but in other employments France, like England, found that prison labor cost more than it was worth.
Slaves are bad workers.
The authors neglect the enslavement of Scottish coal miners, though.
The authors delve into the role of pardons and paying off prosecutors, and conclude that the majority of convicts getting off with lighter sentences than the ones prescribed by law isn’t necessarily a bad thing (especially if the laws were improperly harsh to start with) if the occasional very public execution of a criminal is frightening enough to make potential criminals afraid to commit crimes. Humans do not generally sit down and work out the exact odds of getting caught and convicted before committing a crime, but watching someone die publicly and painfully can make a sharp impression. Thus only the occasional real enforcement of the full penalties may have been necessary to keep down crime more generally.
In conclusion, I am not quite in agreement with the authors that this was a reasonably good system despite itself. I think the British managed to find workarounds to compensate for a mediocre system. I suppose the distinction I am drawing here is bottom up vs top down. I think if you tried to impose this system on a different group of people, you’d end up with different outcomes because they would invent different informal ways of routing around the system’s inefficiencies, which means the relative “success” of the system is really the success of the people in it.
If I am going to recommend a particular set of rules, those rules should be independently functional, not only functional because people ignored them and set up alternative rules to abide by.
But perhaps I am being too picky, and this is always the way of modern legal systems–top down rules imposed by the powerful combined with bottom-up institutions created by emergent social behavior.
Well, that’s all for now. What did you think of the chapter? Any thoughts on the (very short) section on the development of English law over the past millennium? Take care, and we’ll read more in a week.
Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. I know we normally hold book club on Mondays, but since I spent most of Monday just laying the groundwork necessary to be able to discuss Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa law, today we’ll actually jump into the subject.
Notably, the nomadic plains Indian lifestyle was not some ancient way of living the Indians had followed since time immemorial, but an essentially new invention enabled by the importation of the horse. Comanches started out as hunter gatherers and maybe sporadic horticulturalists in the Great Basin (Utah, more or less.) The Kiowa started out near the Canadian boarder in western Montana. They’re related to agriculturalists, but probably weren’t farming up in the black hills. And the Cheyenne hailed originally from the other side of the continent, descended from agriculturalists who were driven out of their homes by other Indians who’d gotten guns from the settlers. The Cheyenne also have a tradition stating that they intentionally decided to stop being farmers and become nomads; the other two groups were likely already nomadic before they got horses.
The authors write:
Faced with a sudden opportunity for progress, the chance to stop scratching in the earth as primitive agriculturalists and turn into noble savages hunting buffalo living in tipis and proving their manhood by making war on each other, the Indian tribes living on or near the Great Plains seized the opportunity.
Obviously I question whether the Comanche were ever agriculturalists, but the Cheyenne probably were. A better question is what happened to the other agriculturalist/horticulturalist peoples near the edges of the Great Plains like the Mississippian peoples, whose cities had largely disappeared by the time American settlers reached them.
The result was the development in the eighteenth century of a common material culture shared by tribes with quite different origins. It depended on the horse but also made good use of the rifle rifles having been initially provided by the English to tribes willing to fight tribes allied with the French and by the French to tribes willing to fight those allied with the English.
One thing I noticed while researching this chapter is that the eventual triumph of the settlers in the late 1800s by no means seemed guaranteed in 1800. Once they got ahold of horses and guns, the Indians held their own against American and Spanish/Mexican settlers for over a hundred years. Their eventual defeat was due to a combination of the railroad, increased wartime production of guns during the Civil War, the steel plow, irrigation techniques that opened up the Great Plains to agriculture, and overwhelming quantities of European immigrants that just kept flowing into the US. (Oh, and diseases.)
I start with the Comanche; their government is the simplest of the three to describe, since they did not have one. A Comanche war chief was simply an entrepreneur a warrior who announced his intent to go steal horses from the Mexicans Americans, or some other tribe and invited anyone interested to come along. Within the war party he had absolute rule, but anyone unhappy with the situation was free to leave.
I note that the Comanche seem likely to have had the simplest social structure before they obtained horses, so this might account for their simplicity after moving onto the plains.
In addition to peace chiefs and war chiefs, there was also a council.
The council consisted of respected elders whom everyone simply agreed were held in respect; there was no formal process for joining the council, nor any formal process for implementing the council’s decisions.
Generally the majority made little effort to impose its will on the minority, for, as in most Indian tribes, it was thought that agreement should be unanimous.
When your lifestyle involves riding horses around on the open plains at will, it is hard to impose your will on anyone because it is hard to catch them. If they don’t like you, they’ll just move away and go hunt somewhere else.
The Comanche, in other words were anarchists. Their social system included institution for coordination at the level of the individual band but nothing we would recognize as a government over either the band or the entire tribe.
The authors note that one of the theoretical problems with an anarchist society is convincing everyone to pay enough to contribute to the common defense; the Comanche solved this problem by making “providing for the common defense” extremely profitable to the individual–mostly by stealing their enemy’s stuff, raping their women and torturing the men to death.
I mean, it’s a solution, sure, but it’s a solution that didn’t exactly inspire their neighbors not to massacre them when they could.
Still, I’d like to contrast Comanche warfare–which probably bears a close resemblance to warfare as typically conducted throughout human history, plus or minus the horses and guns–with modern warfare. The US has been in many wars over the years, but hasn’t actually held onto any of the land it conquered since, well, the Indian wars (which we hardly even recognize as real wars). We conquered Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish American War, but we no longer own these territories. We conquered big chunks of Europe and Asia in WWs I and II, but we gave France back to the French and Japan back to the Japanese. We gave South Korea back to the South Koreans and have basically tried to return Afghanistan and Iraq to local rule.
There might be some government fat cats or weapons contractors who make money off these wars, or they might potentially benefit us all in some grand, abstract way that you can’t really pinpoint in your daily life, but no common American has benefited from these conflicts in the direct, immediately obvious way of an Irish raider carrying off his neighbor’s cattle or a Comanche stealing another man’s wife. We’ve invented the concept of “just war,” and it seems that everyone hates it.
[The Comanche] drove the Apache from the southern plains raided the Mexicans for horses and slaves and, despite the disadvantage of lower technology and smaller population, blocked American expansion across Texas for decades, fairly earning the title of Spartans of the plains.
In this case, it’s not about tech, it’s about mobility and the ability to survive largely off theft.
… they made warfare into a private rather than a public good. for most of their history, the incentive to fight was not the welfare of the tribe but the individual warrior. Successful raids produced valuable loot. Heroic and successful fighting produced status.
I think there is still some status in being a soldier, but not much. We might say that modern governments have appropriated for themselves the spoils that would rightfully go to their soldiers.
On the other hand, modern soldiers get paid.
On wife stealing and family structures:
The strongest bond within the tribe was between brothers who, among other things, shared their wives and had the power to marry off their sisters. [Note: maybe] From the standpoint of the brother the ideal brother-in-law was a wealthy and successful warrior. The sister might prefer someone [else]… and given the opportunity, leave the husband chosen for her by her brothers to run away with one such. The incentive of the wife stealer was less possession of the wife than the opportunity to outface the husband.
Wife stealing was carried out openly, followed by demands of compensation from the original husband. Of course, with no police or prisons to enforce the demand for compensation, the only real threat the aggrieved husband can make is that of killing the thief.
Carrying out that threat was neither desired nor likely, since if the husband killed the stealer (or vice versa) the victim’s kin would take revenge by killing the killer. The intended result of the threat was to set off the game that economists call bilateral monopoly.
So each side calls up whatever resources it can to back up its threats and then one side pays up.
Of course, if a man suspected his wife of adultery, he could just torture or kill her. After all, men are stronger than women and there weren’t any police or prisons to protect them from violent spouses.
Cases of wife stealing and adultery seem to have been the nearest thing to legal disputes among the Comanche. … One possible resolution was for the wife to swear by earth an sky that she was innocent, at which point the husband accepted the oath… The same approach was used to settle some other disputes, such as disagreements as to which member of a war party had counted coup on an enemy… As far as minor theft was concerned, the Comanche, like the other two tribes I will discuss, regarded such matters as beneath the notice of a warrior. As a Cheyenne would have put it, “if you had asked, I would have given it to you.”
What we regard as extreme generosity is often noted of nomads. It’s in part due to the fact that nomads simply cannot store up large amounts of stuff. They don’t store grain for winter because they don’t farm and they have nowhere to store it. As a result, nomads–especially nomadic hunters–always face the threat of simply having a couple of bad weeks and running out of food. Nomadic economies work better when people share food (and hunting weapons) fairly freely, especially from large kills such as buffalo that a single man can’t hope to eath by himself, anyway. This doesn’t mean that people lose their sense that “This is my arrow because I made it myself,” but it does result in a lot of sharing, some voluntary, some very socially enforced.
We see as well the abundance of the nomadic lifestyle. Certainly they had fewer physical belongings than we do–since they can’t carry that much around–but what they did have, like horses and buffalo, they had in abundance. This abundance is partly due to the fact that they stole a lot of horses from other people, so they didn’t have to put in the hard work of raising them themselves, and yes, it is easy to be generous and happy when you are living off the fat of another man’s labor, and partly because they had a low population density on an open plain that was full of giant herds of delicious animals.
Low population + tons of resources = happy people.
The more people are trying to share a certain area or set of resources, the less there is to go around, the less “wealth” each person feels they have, the less freedom, less happiness, more hoarding.
From Footnote 441:
“From the liberality with which they dispose of their effects on all occasions of the kind it would induce the belief that they acquire property merely for the purpose of giving it to others.” (Neighbors 1853, 134)
I am reminded as well of a by now only vaguely remembered passage in which some missionaries or others initiating contact between the settlers and plains Indians gifted them with necklaces, beads, and other sundry products of civilization which they thought fine presents, and which the Indians happily received. Then when time came to break up camp, all of the new gifts were abandoned, trampled underfoot in the process of getting underway and left behind in the mud. Of course the missionaries probably saw this as some failure to value items of wealth or perhaps ingratitude, but to nomads who have to physically pack up and haul all of their belongings from place to place, additional stuff that doesn’t have hooves quickly acquires negative value.
The value of a gift-giving network, though, is much greater than the value of any individual item that passes through it. Through such networks travel not just trifles like beads and necklaces, but things of substantial value like food, horses, weapons, wives, or allies, so it makes perfectly reasonable sense for a man to obtain something simply for the sake of giving it away.
What about murder? As already mentioned, a first killing required a second, of the killer by the kin of his victim. At that point the matter ended. … For these purposes, killing a favorite horse, thought of as having a soul, counted as murder and so justified the killing of the responsible human in revenge.
The Comanche believed in magic and sorcery, and might kill a man believed to be killing people via lethal magic, but don’t appear to have believed in it strongly enough to make killing the sorcerer mandatory (a rare show of good sense in the ethnographic record on sorcery).
Occasionally the whole tribe might come together and decide that a particularly bad medicine man deserved to die and killed him.
The Kiowa, while in some ways similar to the Comanche, had something a little closer to a government and much closer to a well-defined class/rank system. The latter consisted of four classes. The Onde were the high-status warriors… they are estimated to have been 10% of the men. The Ondegupta were the would-be Onde… Not surprisingly, the Ondegupta were the chief source of conflict within the tribe as they… tried to gain status. Below them were the common men and below those the Dapom, the dregs of society. … Kiowa bands had recognized headmen, almost all of Onde rank, who in practice made important decisions for the band.
There were also ten “medicine bundle” keepers and one “keeper of the Sun Dance fetish,” the nominal grand chief of the tribe. In case of disputes, the medicine bundle keepers would hear out both sides and help them come to an agreement about an adequate resolution and compensation.
If someone was killed, the killer might be killed in retaliation by his victim’s kin or they might accept compensation, the equivalent to the Icelandic wergeld or the payments that atoned for killing under Islamic law or among the Somali.
This seems to be a very common pattern. It’d be interesting to see a broad cross-cultural comparison of the communities where it is (or was) common vs the ones where it isn’t.
The Kiowa and Cheyenne had military fraternities or warrior societies. Wikipedia reports:
Like other plains Indians, the Kiowa had specific warrior societies. Young men who proved their bravery, skill, or displayed their worth in battle were often invited to one of the warrior societies. In addition to warfare, the societies worked to keep peace within the camps and tribe as a whole. There were six warrior societies among the Kiowa. The Po-Lanh-Yope (Little Rabbits) was for boys; all young Kiowa boys were enrolled and the group served mostly social and education purposes, involving no violence or combat. The Adle-Tdow-Yope (Young Sheep), Tsain-Tanmo (Horse Headdresses), Tdien-Pei-Gah (Gourd Society), and Ton-Kon-Gah (Black Legs or Leggings), were adult warrior societies. The Koitsenko (Qkoie-Tsain-Gah, Principal Dogs or Real Dogs) consisted of the ten most elite warriors of all the Kiowa, who were elected by the members of the other four adult warrior societies.
Specific warrior societies developed among the Cheyenne as with other plains nations. Each society had selected leaders who would invite those that they saw worthy enough to their society lodge for initiation into the society. Often, societies would have minor rivalries; however, they might work together as a unit when warring with an enemy. Military societies played an important role in Cheyenne government. Society leaders were often in charge of organizing hunts and raids as well as ensuring proper discipline and the enforcement of laws within the nation. Each of the six distinct warrior societies of the Cheyenne would take turns assuming the leadership role within the nation. The four original military societies of the Cheyenne were the Swift Fox Society, Elk Horn Scrapper or Crooked Lance Society, Shield Society, and the Bowstring Men Society. The fifth society is split between the Crazy Dog Society and the famous Dog Soldiers. The sixth society is the Contrary Warrior Society, most notable for riding backwards into battle as a sign of bravery. All six societies and their various branches exist among the Southern and Northern Cheyenne Nations in present times.
The Dog Soldiers have their own Wikipedia page, with a photo of a fellow in an excellent headdress.
The Dog Soldiers or Dog Men (Cheyenne: Hotamétaneo’o) are historically one of six Cheyenne military societies. Beginning in the late 1830s, this society evolved into a separate, militaristic band that played a dominant role in Cheyenne resistance to the westward expansion of the United States in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming, where the Cheyenne had settled in the early nineteenth century.
After the deaths of nearly half the Southern Cheyenne in the choleraepidemic of 1849, many of the remaining Masikota band joined the Dog Soldiers. It effectively became a separate band, occupying territory between the Northern and Southern Cheyenne. Its members often opposed policies of peace chiefs such as Black Kettle. In 1869, most of the band were killed by United States Army forces in the Battle of Summit Springs. The surviving societies became much smaller and more secretive in their operations.
Apparently they’re still around.
On to Cheyenne law:
Of the three tribes, perhaps of all the Plains Indians, the Cheyenne came closest to having a government–part of the year.
That might be because they started out as agriculturalists with a more complicated social system.
The entire tribe, possibly as many as four thousand people, gathered together in a single camp in summer when food was plentiful.
That sounds pretty nice.
During the winter the tribe separated into much smaller bands and dispersed in search of game.
The summer encampment had a government, the Council of Forty-Four as was probably necessary for coordinating 4,000 in close proximity. Once every ten years, the members of the Council chose a successor for themselves. You couldn’t name yourself as your own successor, but someone else could.
Each of the soldier societies had two chiefs, functioning as war chiefs, and two “servants,” lower-level chief responsible for a particularly dangerous part of the defense against attackers.
Of course, anyone could organize a war party if they wanted to and could get anyone to follow him.
The council was responsible for making decisions about war or peace… deciding cases of homicide or whether to permit the readmission of an exiled killer, and deciding the movements of the tribe in search of game. …
A further responsibility of Council was to control the buffalo hunt… The basic rule was that nobody was to attack a buffalo until the word was given, at which point the line of hunters would charge the herd, with the ends of the line wrapping around to entirely enclose it.
There follows a description of what happened to two lads who, being full of teenage spirit, entered the buffalo hunt before the signal was given. The tribe caught up with them, whipped them, killed their horses, and broke their guns.
The boys and their father apologized, and the tribe forgave them:
“Look how these two boys are here in our midst. Now they have no horses and no weapons. What do you men want to do about it?”
One of the soldiers spoke up. “Well, I have some extra horses. I will give one of them to them.” Then another soldier did the same thing.
Bear Standing on a Ridge was the third to speak out. “Well,” he announced, “we broke those guns they had. I have two guns. I will give them one.”
All the others said, “Ipewa, good.”
There is another interesting story about a man who borrowed a horse, then kept it for a year. When the owner finally got antsy and asked for it back, he returned it with a second horse in apology for keeping the first for so long. The original owner, having done without his horse for so long, didn’t need two, and so sent the original back to the borrower, since he seemed to like it so much.
Beating up another Cheyenne was between you and him. Killing another Cheyenne meant exile from the tribe.
The reason, as they saw it, was not punishment but hygiene. Killing a fellow Cheyenne polluted the medicine arrows that were one of the tribal fetishes… Until the arrows had been ceremonially renewed and the killer exiled, no luck could be expected in hunting or warfare.
Exile was not lethal; there were other friendly tribes on the plains.
Eventually the exiled man could return to the tribe if the victim’s kin were okay with it, but he was still seen as somewhat polluted.
Llewellyn and Hoebel see the combination of temporary exile and permanent pollution as successfully replacing feud, evidence of the superiority of the Cheyenne institutions to those of other primitive societies.
It was probably only a partial replacement, though.
So that’s the end of the chapter. Definitely more material on the Comanches than the Kiowa or the Cheyenne, but I hope it was adequate.
Ireland is one of those countries that it has become popular to over-mythologize, especially in certain New Age/Wiccan circles, so I am always a little skeptical about Irish-related claims–I’m in the uncomfortable position of knowing a lot, but not knowing how much of what I know is actually true.
People want Ireland to be this eternal place with a deep connection to Europe’s mythic past, perhaps because it wasn’t conquered by the Romans, or perhaps because it retained a more primitive agricultural/herding economic system for longer than its neighbors (which strikes me as probably just an accident of geography.)
Ireland was settled relatively late, by European standards, because it was covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age. (If humans lived there before the Ice Ages, we have no evidence of them.) The first (known) humans showed up around 12,500 years ago, but we don’t know if they stuck around; evidence of really continuous habitation doesn’t show up until 10,000 years ago.
These folks were hunter-gatherers who built simple shelters that would have made the first little pig proud.
Around 6,500 BC, Ireland’s hunter-gatherers were conquered by farmers, known as the Linear Pottery Culture or LBK. LBK originated around Anatolia and raised sheep, goats, cattle, wheat, and barley. They also appear to have introduced red deer to Ireland. (I suspect wheat that originated in the Middle East originally struggled to grow in Ireland, but sheep did fine.)
The hunter-gatherer population of Ireland was never very big–Wikipedia estimates it around 8,000 people. The farming/herding population was much bigger, around 100,000 or more.
The LBK people also brought the practice of building stone monuments, such as the famous Newgrange, built ca. 5,200 years ago.
Metallurgy arrived with a new group of people, the Bell Beaker, around 4,500 years ago (2,500 BC). They were probably Indo-European speakers but we don’t know which language they spoke; Irish proper probably arrived a little later, with the Celts. This era is marked by the production of metal objects–jewelry, swords, axes, etc–and of course the development of mining and long-distance trade.
Housing changed in a rather distressing way–people began constructing their huts (called crannogs) on platforms built in the middle of lakes. This is how you build when either the fishing is very good, or the invaders are very nasty.
As far as I know, the Celts arrived around 500 BC, which on the scale of ancient human migrations wasn’t that long before the Romans invaded Britain, a mere 450 years later.
This is the society whose laws were variously recorded when literacy reached Ireland a few hundred years down the line, around the 7th through 12th centuries CE. The Tain Bo Cuailnge (pronounced “cooley,” because Irish likes to throw in extra letters, but honestly, English has words like “through”, so who are we to judge?) or “Cattle Raid of Cooley,” written in the 12th century (though it may be based on manuscripts that were written centuries earlier and just haven’t survived) about events in the first, offers some insight into the political structure of pre-British Ireland.
Insights from the Tain:
Ireland was ruled by multiple kings, not a single high king
Some of the rulers were women
Wealth was counted in cattle
Particularly nice cows/bulls might be traded or lent for political reasons
Sometimes cattle were stolen; particularly successful cattle raids were immortalized
There are hints in these stories of the archaeological record–of course, the Irish histories speak explicitly about the migrations of different peoples to Ireland; Cu Chulainn (the hero of the Tain) is himself half Gael and half Tuatha de Danann–depending on the source, the Tuatha are a conquered people, fairies, gods, or people who worshiped a particular god (or goddess).
I propose a fairly straightforward sequence of events: The Celts (or Gaels) invaded and, after some conquering, married a fair number of the locals. In some areas bands of locals and invaders lived side by side for some years; many advantageous marriages may have been conducted to join the estates of local chiefs with invading warriors, and notables like Cu Chulainn with mixed ancestries may have been fairly common. Alternatively, the ancestry may be a bit more attenuated, like when certain American whites claim a smidgen of Native American ancestry. (*cough* Elizabeth Warren *cough*)
The conquering of a bronze-age people by an iron-age people might be remembered in the claim that “fairy folk” have no iron or are allergic to iron. I’d be allergic to iron, too, if the iron were a spear slicing open my intestines.
At any rate, some of the conquered people might have retreated into the hills and bogs and other unappealing places, eventually becoming a memory of an impoverished, violent, “fairy race;” elsewhere, rulers keen on presenting themselves as legitimate to all of their subjects may have played up their semi-mythic Tuatha ancestries, even turning their ancestors into a kind of ancestral cult which eventually resulted in elevating them to the levels of gods and demi-gods.
Or perhaps this is all nonsense speculation. Let’s get on with the book:
Ireland at the beginning of the fifth century was a pagan country with a rich oral literature and an elaborate legal system, also oral. …
Whoever the authors [of the legal texts] were, they showed a strong conservative bias, recording not only legal rules still in practice in the seventh and eight centuries, when the texts were written down, but older rules as well. Their writing thus provides a somewhat blurred window on the pre-Christian legal system, which may have preserved institutions going back much further, possibly as far as the period before the different Indo-European languages separated. The evidence for that conjecture is in part linguistic, similar words in different Ind-European languages connected with the same legal/political institutions, and in part comparative, features that the early Irish legal system shared with ancient Indian law.
This is a fascinating idea which the authors never return to or develop at all in this chapter. We’re never told which terms in Irish law are cognate with terms in other legal systems, nor which traits it shares with the Indian system. (Maybe they’ll get around to it in a future chapter?) People have this funny habit of assuming that Irish things in particular are ancient survivals from ancient Europe, but why would Ireland in particular have any more ancient Indo-European survivals than, say, Germany? or Russia?
To the extent that Irish law looks like Indian (or Somali) law, I’d posit that 1/3 of the similarities are due to the needs of a herding society (Ireland and Somalia), 1/3 the dominance of a warrior elite over a conquered peasant class (Ireland and India) and 1/3 random chance/people identifying parallels that aren’t really there. Overall, I suspect that Irish law developed in situ, in response to the particular situation in Ireland.
The Ireland described in the law books was divided into a large number of small kingdoms… modern scholars estimate hat there were about a hundred of them, with a population of a few thousand in each.
I feel like this is an abuse of the word “kingdom.” Shouldn’t these be “fiefdoms” or “clans” or “chieftanships” or something similar? The text supplies the Irish word “tuath,” which just means “people,” so I think “clan territory” is more appropriate.
A king might recognize the overlordship of another and more powerful king. … While the idea of a high king of all Ireland existed and the title was sometimes claimed, such a king is mentioned only rarely…
A king who is under another king’s rule isn’t a king.
For the most part, an individual had legal rights only within his own kingdom, although some special categories, such as poets and hermits, had rights elsewhere.
Good poets must have been in short supply.
An interesting custom:
… when the subject of one king was killed by the subject of another, both acknowledging a common overlord, the procedure for collecting the fine for the killing was initiated by the victim’s king taking a hostage, presumably a subject of the killer’s king, in the court of their overlord.
Getting your king to go out of his way to visit another king’s court and take a hostage sounds like an inconvenient way for the common man to achieve justice. I doubt it happened very often, except for cases involving rather prominent or powerful subjects/relatives of the king.
Within the clan, people were divided into kin groups, with agricultural land generally held within a group, called a derbfine, defined by a paternal great-grandfather.
The derbfine, like the much larger dia-paying group in the Somali system, was responsible for enforcing the rights of its members, if necessary by feud, sharing in the payment of damage payments by its members and the receipt of damage payments to its members.
The authors note that networks of mutual obligations, while good when you have debts, limit your ability to make contracts that might impose new costs or debts or obligations on everyone else in the network.
Kind of like how your health insurer would really appreciate it if you didn’t smoke.
Despite the occasional “warrior woman” or queen popping up in the sagas, Irish law wasn’t favorable toward women:
Marriage law recognized a range of possible relationships, depending both on the resources each party brought into the marriage and the degree to which the marriage had or had not been approved of by the women’s kin… A man would normally have a chief wife but could also have a secondary wife or concubine.
A woman was under the authority first of her father, then her husband, hen her sons, and had very restricted rights.
Fostering was common, though:
Fostering of children was a common practice that established a form of pseudo-kinship… a man’s foster father had a claim to a fraction of the blood-money if his foster son was killed…
Irish law was built around a status system similar to the Indian Caste system, which is probably a reflection of the realities of life in a conquered country:
An individual’s honor price determined what he was owed for offenses against him but also the limits to his legal capacity, including the amount for which he could contract on his own authority and the weight of his evidence in legal dispute.
The major categories of status were [noble], non-noble freemen, and unfree. Within each there was a range of sub-categories. …
[Nobles] had a variety of legal privileges, limiting the degree to which legal rights could be enforced against hem… One consequence… was to make contracting with them risky, since it might prove impossible to enforce the contract, a problem pointed out in the period sources.
There’s a system rather like feudalism or sharecropping, in which lords have clients who are provided land or animals in exchange for a share of the produce or other services.
Among the unfree, the major divisions were between the semi-free… who had no land of his own and no independent honor price, the hereditary serf, who was bound to the land, and the salve.
More than one level of unfree. Sounds awful.
The legal sources describe mechanisms for making and enforcing contracts that do not appear to depend on either royal courts or any centralized mechanisms for judgement and enforcement. But there are also references to what appears to be curial law, law enforced in the court of a king. …
Private contract law depended on a system of sureties, third parties with rights and obligations connected with the contract…
Freedom of contract within the system was limited by the network of mutual obligations. … A son was obliged to support his aged father, so a father could under some circumstances cancel a contract the son made that might reduce his ability to do so [and vice versa]. Husband and wife had mutual obligations which gave each the right to cancel some contracts made by the other, with the details depending in part on the nature of their marriage.
The derbfine also placed restrictions on the sorts of contracts and obligations the individual could have–in general, in systems where governments don’t offer social safety nets, such restrictions are the norm.
Anyway, if you did make a contract and then failed to fulfill it, after some back and forth announcements and mediation, the other party could come and drive away your cattle. People probably did not always allow their cattle to be driven away without a fight, though.
Of course, if you’ve entered into a contract with someone of higher social standing than yourself, you don’t get to just up and drive away their cattle. The king has more soldiers than you do; good luck.
So if a king or other noble has wronged you, the proper procedure was a kind of ritual fast outside the noble’s house. For whatever reasons, the nobleman was obliged not to eat while the fast was going on, until he had satisfied the claim against him. How exactly this was enforced, I don’t know. Maybe shame.
More violent crimes, like murder, were settled like the Icelandic system, via feud and payment:
In both, offenses were expected to be open rather than concealed…
Just as in Somalia, there was a pre-existing coalition responsible for both pursuing feud on behalf of a wronged member and assisting with the payment of damages owed by a member.
Ireland did have some sort of court system, with professional judges and lawyers; after a promise or physical pledge to abide by the judge’s decision, the case proceeded in a manner fairly similar to modern courts.
As in Jews and Islamic law, the legal procedure might include the swearing of oaths; under some circumstances someone accused of an offense could defend himself by swearing the charge away. …
the force of an oath was linked to the honor price of the person swearing it; a higher-status individual could overswear a lower-status.
This isn’t really a system that looks out for the little guy, but if several little guys teamed up, they might be able to get their oaths to add up to the same value as higher-status person’s.
Women’s oaths were only accepted if no one else could be found to swear on a thing. In general, they weren’t allowed to be witnesses.
Disputes could also be settled via ordeal or duel.
That’s all for now. If anyone knows what these supposed parallels with Indian law or proto-Indo-European legal survivals are, I’d love to hear them.
Next week we’ll hop across the pond and discuss the Comanches, Kiowa, and Cheyenne.
Welcome back to our discussion of Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek’s Legal Systems very Different from Ours. Today we are discussing Somali law, specifically that of the pastoralists of northern Somalia (law works differently in southern Somalia, due to the different agricultural system and people there.)
I have often characterized Somalia as more of a place where other countries aren’t than a country proper. There is no real central government control of most of the territory known as “Somalia,” though things have apparently been stabilizing a bit over the past few years–a mere 500 people were killed by bombs in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, in 2017.
Somaliland–the northern part of Somalia–has about 4 million people and 68,000 square miles bordering the Gulf of Aden, for a population density of about 65 people per square mile. (For comparison, the US has a density of about 91 people per square mile, but we also have Alaska.)
There’s also some fishing and a few crops, but the area is pretty dry and not suited to growing much.
Most Somalis are ethnically Somali and speak the Somali language, which is at least easy to remember. The Somali language is a branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, along with Arabic and Hebrew, and the Somali people are similarly ethnically related to other Afro-Asiatic speakers. What percent of their ancestors have been in the area approximately forever and what percent arrived within the past few thousand years from Arabia or beyond, I don’t know, but Somalis look fairly distinctive to me.
The ongoing civil wars and low level of infrastructure development (like irrigation systems) results in a lot of human suffering, though I don’t know how it is distributed through the country–this famine happened in the southern part of the country.
The authors argue that the suffering of the Somali people is not due to the inadequacy of local institutions, but due to colonial authorities trying to impose foreign institutions like “states” and “democracy” on a people who were entirely unsuited to them:
The exiting colonial powers set up a democratic central government, possibly not the best option for a society whose traditional institutions were decentralized and stateless. The democracy lasted for nine years… the central government disintegrated and the Somalis were back with their traditional system.
With two differences. First, the experience of a past central government and the expectation of a future one encouraged some… to engage in a power struggle aimed at putting themselves in the profitable role of rulers… Second, outside powers, acting through the UN in the belief that the country needed a central government, attempted to reestablish one… The result has been an extended period of violence and chaos…
There’s a lot going on in these two paragraphs. First, I grant that Somali history is probably complicated and this is probably an over-simplification, but civil war and anarchy are definitely part of the overall picture. Why Somalia should be such a basket case while nearby Ethiopia, which doesn’t seem that different and has also had plenty of suffering over the years, should still have something resembling a functioning government, I don’t know.
Second, some comparative before and after data for places like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania might be useful when it comes to statements about the role of colonialism and violence, since this would allow us to make some comments on its effects (Ethiopia: no colonization, still mass famines; Tanzania, colonized, seems pretty stable.)
We can also ask whether it was the experience of central government that prompted people to try to conquer Somalia, or the availability of machine guns and armored vehicles.
Either way, the thesis that outside powers acting through the UN just managed to muck things up even more than they were before doesn’t sound unreasonable.
But let’s get to the legal system:
While Somaliland has a government… it is a government based on traditional institutions with an upper house of clan elders and one that appears for the most part to defer to customary law privately enforced in the traditional manner…
The Somali legal structure runs through clan-based kinship structures, which is to say it’s based on the needs of a pastoral community. To briefly review, in case you don’t remember the series on pastoral herders I did a couple of years ago, pastoralists (herders) generally own a combination of personal and communal herd animals which move around within a communal system of land/grazing rights. It is rare for herders to simply own their own herd on their own plot of land, because animals need a lot of land–more land than most individuals can own, unless population density is really low. Herd animals naturally migrate and move around depending on the rain, temperature, predators, grass, etc. A small herd may need fewer pounds of feed per day, but it still needs to travel equally long distances to get to summer pasture, winter pasture, etc., or else it depends on someone transporting food to it (our strategy in the US).
So it’s impractical for individual herd owners to each own enough land for their personal herds, (you’d have to be extremely wealthy), but it is practical for groups of herders to collectively control large chunks of land and move their herds around communally on them.
Of course, individual people still put in individual labor to care for their herds–individual ownership is useful–so individuals have claims to particular animals, but not always the ones they are directly caring for. For example, a man might have a herd of his own, but a particular billy goat is actually his cousin’s, borrowed for the sake of making more kids. A portion of the kids and the milk made by the nannies are therefore also his cousin’s, but his cousin may not come to collect them for several years, during which time the kids grow up, are eaten, and replaced. Sooner or later his cousin does come calling (say, because he needs to gather goats to pay for his son’s wedding).
And likewise, the man may have claims on goats in several of his relatives’ herds, or the whole family may pool all of the goats together and send the kids out to watch them, and everyone knows they get a 10% share of the herd.
Different people in different places obviously develop different systems, depending on the nature of the geography, the animals, and the local culture, but the important thing is that herds, even when they are individually owned, are very communal and run through kinship.
Every Somali memorizes as a child his genealogy through the paternal line up many generations, an important piece of information since it defines his relationship to every other Somali. … The closer the linkage between two Somalis–the smaller the number of generations to a common ancestor–the more likely they are to be allies. …
If, to simplify considerably, there is a conflict between two individuals whose common great-great-grandfather in the paternal line had two sons, the group that becomes engaged on the side of each will be the descendants of the sons from whom he is descended.
I suspect that this maps very closely to how herds are managed and shared, because you do not want to anger the people who have your goats.
If a conflict arises involving a member of one of those groups against someone whose genealogy links with theirs higher up the genealogical tree, the two groups that were enemies in the first round may ally.
Somalis don’t just rely on kinship groups, though. They have insurance clubs, like Triple A but for in case someone stabs your camel instead of flat tires.
The dia [blood money]-paying group is responsible for paying for offenses by its members, collecting for offenses against its members, and in the the latter case, using force or the threat of force to obtain payment. … The dia-paying group’s membership and internal rules are defined by explicit contract.
After all, if you have no prisons, what kind of long-term punishments do you have? Fines. And without banks or much in the way of hard currency, wealth is stored in herd animals, and the value of a man’s life, like that of a corporation, is not immediately available. It’s earned over time. The collective amount he has available to draw on is the collective herd owned by his kinsmen (or dia-paying group) just as they can draw on his herds, in turn, to pay their debts.
Dia-paying groups are usually between 300 and 3000 men. Too small, and the cost to each individual is too high; too big, and internal conflicts split the group.
There doesn’t appear to be (traditionally) an real legislature that passes laws, perhaps because no one had the power to do so. Instead, individual dia-paying groups establish their own laws by explicit contract, and questions of application are up to local judges.
I wonder how the contract-making actually works, though. Are they written contracts? (Only about 50% of Somali men are literate.) Is there some official way to register them? How do you keep track of who has paid up and who hasn’t?
Anyway, judges make their decisions, and if people like their decisions, they keep using that judge. If they think that judge makes stupid decisions, they can switch to a different judge. If people like a judge’s decisions and he makes a lot of decisions on new topics, a kind of informal case law builds up that future judges may rely on. (Judges, at least, are probably literate.)
… matters of marriage and inheritance are usually brought before a judge who applies Koranic law, almost all Somalis being Muslims.
This would normally require literacy, of course.
The schedule of payments of blood-money for death or injury is based on that in Islamic law, modified by custom and contract, with the amount sometimes larger or smaller depending on the relationship between offender and victim.
Note that this system is run by men; women who are victims of violence (there’s a lot of rape in Somalia,) have less support. Refworld notes:
If the rapist is from another clan, the clans will often settle the conflict through the system of a diya payment. It is the males of the clan who negotiate the price, sometimes against the wishes of the victim, and the settlement money often stays with the male relatives (Africa Watch 4 Oct. 1993, 18).
Predictably, a woman’s life is worth half as much as a man’s.
Somali political institutions at the clan level exist but are limited. …
Was it always this way?
When a dispute arises between members of different dia-paying groups the elders from each side form a court with themselves ad judges, ask the parties to state their cases, hear witnesses and state a verdict. … If force is needed to make the losing party obey the verdict in an intra-clan dispute, the judges can recruit all able-bodied male villagers for the purpose…
Thus the Somali system is ultimately a feud system, one in which law is enforced by the private application of force or the threat of force, but a feud system with institutions for avoiding violence via widely respected mechanisms to arbitrate disputes.
I’m not sure what he means by “private” here. Obviously it’s not state-based, since there is no state. But since this is the (apparent) government structure, it’s still the government. It’s just a smaller-scale system.
I’d like to see some actual data on how good it is at curbing violence, though, before he declares it successful. There’s not a whole lot about Somalia that I’d describe as “successful.”
Interesting note on oaths sworn during trials:
One such oath consists of the oath-giver swearing by his marriage; if it later turns out that his oath was false, the marriage is dissolved.
Since marriages are also legal contracts involving the transfer of money/property/herd animals from one household to another, this is also a monetary pledge.
The punishment for murder is a life for a life; if the murderer flees, the aggrieved can just hunt down and kill some other random poor sap from the murderer’s family, because why the fuck not, they apparently can’t tell each other apart which really incentivizes your family to turn you over to the victims rather than help you flee.
Usually people accept blood money, though, hence everyone’s membership in blood money societies, because “oops I killed someone” insurance is apparently a thing people need in Somalia.
Somali legal rules for bodily injury have one other interesting feature. If a man seriously wounds another, his family must take the victim into their household and nurse him back to health–the same requirement as in ancient Irish law.
The Irish abandoned this law for obvious reasons (you don’t want to be “nursed back to health” by a guy who wants you dead) and I bet the Somalis have, too.
There are a variety of regulations on grazing land, though it is mostly first come, first serve. Some agricultural land is semi-privately owned, with rules about not selling it to people outside the clan, because rampant ultra-racism is the norm.
One odd feature of Somali customary law is that a wealthy man is required, with detailed legal rules, to share his wealth with neighbors and relatives.
That doesn’t sound too odd. There are probably good reasons for the rule, like the lack of refrigerators for storing large amounts of meat obtained by butchering and a limit to the available grazing land before one flock just eats all of the food and leaves nothing for the others.
I thought the case of dealing with the state of Ethiopia as a clan was interesting, though it’s a bit long to quote. Basically, some Ethiopian soldiers (I think) killed a Somali merchant. An hour later, the victims family killed two random soldiers in retaliation. The military decided that the retaliatory killing was just and did not retaliate by wiping out the village.
Anyway, that’s the end of the chapter. It’s an interesting chapter, but since Somalia is such a messed up country, it’s hard to take seriously without some evidence that the system is actually working for its people.
I do find it interesting, though, that even in a place as broken as Somalia, people still organize into groups, make contracts, take out insurance, etc. Organization of some sort seems to be a near-automatic, inherent feature of human groups. It’s also interesting that a system can survive without lawmakers (or any kind of organized executive) and just rely instead on common understandings of what the group does and does not allow, but not without judges.
(This of course reminds me of the progression in the Old Testament, from wandering pastoral nomads in Exodus, following the “oral law,” to the rule of judges in Judges and finally kings in Kings, but only after the people asked for one: 1 Samuel 8:
When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders.[a]2 …But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah.5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.”
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use.17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord.22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
Have a good day; we’ll be looking the supposedly similar Irish feud law next Monday.
Iceland today is a small country; Iceland in the saga era was even smaller. Official records weren’t kept until the 1700s, but at that time, the population was a bit under 50,000 and stayed there for over a hundred years, so I think it’s safe to put 50,000 as our max population for the saga period.
Ethnically, the male population was about 66% Viking and 34% Scottish/Irish slaves; the female population was about 60% Scottish/Irish slaves and 40% Viking.
Note that Iceland’s population went from about 50,000 to 350,000 in two hundred years–seven times bigger–yet Wikipedia claims, “Due to a shortage of labor, immigration to Iceland will most likely increase in the future.” How the fuck do you septuple your population and still have a “shortage of labor”?
Anyway, back to the Viking age, when people solved their problems by stabbing each other, setting their houses on fire, and kidnapping the women:
In saga-period Iceland a thousand years ago, if you killed someone his relatives sued you.
Despite being a bunch of Vikings and their slaves, Icelanders still set up a legal system that was sufficiently complex that modern scholars aren’t sure exactly how it worked. (I’m sure if some future legal scholars tried to piece together the American legal system from old episodes of Perry Mason plus some law review articles, they’d also be confused.) Our understanding of the Icelandic system similarly comes from a combination of entertaining stories (sagas) and a collection of legal texts written down later, the Gragas. It’s tempting to claim that Gragas must be correct, since it is actually a collection of legal texts, but I challenge you to read a bunch of US case law and use it to piece together how US law actually works in practice. (You won’t.)
As for what we know:
The political system they developed [in Iceland] was based on Norwegian traditions with one important innovation–there was no king.
At the base of the system stood the godi [note: the d should be crossed]… The original godar seem to have been local leaders who built pagan temples and served as their priests. A godi received temple dues and provided in exchange both religious and political services. The godord was his congregation. The relationship between the godi and his thingmen was contractual not territorial. The godi had no claim to the thingman’s land and the thingman was free to transfer his allegiance.
It’s hard to have a king or exert much power over people when population density is low and they can just move on if you annoy them too much. I don’t think this is really a political innovation so much as a reality of low-density frontiers-like areas.
Personally, I don’t like using non-English terms when perfectly good translations exist. the godi (plural, godar) is a priest. The godord is his congregation.
Under the system of laws established in AD 930, these local leaders were combined into a national system. In 960, Iceland was divided into four quarters, each containing nine godord clustered in groups of three called things. …
The one permanent official of this system was the … lawspeaker; he was elected… His job was to memorize the laws, recite them once during his term in office, provide advice on difficult legal points and preside over the … legislature.
I once tried to figure out how many laws the US has and came up with an official answer of “no one knows, not event he government.” It’s not exactly clear what is and isn’t a law–for example, if the state mandates that parents whose kids have more than 10 unexcused absences from school in a year be charged with truancy, then does the schools’ procedure for reporting medical absences count as a law? Our system is complicated, and no mortal could ever memorize it, much less recite it all in a timely manner.
The existence of the lawspeaker was probably just necessity in a system where not everyone was literate, but it also provides a check on the number of laws (and thus the structure that the law takes,) since it must be humanly possible for someone to memorize them all.
The godord [congregation] itself was two different things. It was … the particular men who had agreed to follow that godi [priest], to be members of that [congregation]. … The godord was also a bundle of rights, including the right to sit in the [lawcourt] and appoint judges for certain courts. … it was the right to be the person through whom ordinary farmers plugged into the legal system.
So everyone has to be associated with some congregation of other, but you get to chose the one you want to be part of. Once you’re part of a congregation, you have to pay your priest an annual tax, which pays for the expenses of the men who attend the annual lawcourt and decide cases. Membership in the congregation and thus the right to sit in the legal assembly and hear court cases could be bought, sold, given away, inherited, etc.
For serious offenses, conviction meant full outlawry. … It was legal to kill an outlaw, illegal to feed him, shelter him, or help him to leave Iceland. … A lesser outlaw had the right to leave Iceland and could return in three years.
If you’re declared an outlaw, then the court takes your stuff and gives it to the victims or their surviving relatives (saving some for any of your innocent children).
Prosecution was up to the victim or his kin… Most cases in the sagas were settled out of court, usually for money damages. … Many were settled by arbitration. .. Calculations by two different scholars suggest tat only about a tenth of cases went to a final judgment by the court.
Icelandic law distinguished between killing and murder–secret killing. After killing a man, one was obliged to announce the fact immediately. … Murder cost the killer the ability to raise legal defenses, such as the fact that his victim was an outlaw or had forfeited his immunity by attacking [first, I presume.]
Since this is a system of privately enforced law in which people essentially join a legal society and then pay taxes to it, there’s always the possibility that the poor will be too poor to afford justice, or the rich so rich they can buy their way out.
The former was not a problem, the authors argue, because the money for a successful conviction was always potentially available, so even people too poor to prosecute a case could sell their case to someone else who would be happy to pursue it for profit.
The latter case, the rich buying their way out of trouble, became a problem as the poor peasants (and slaves) who made up Iceland’s initial population gradually built up their estates and some families became significantly more wealthy than others:
By the Sturlung period there were many areas where all or most of the godord were held by one family, reducing or eliminating the ability of the individual thingman to choose his godi and creating a de facto, if imperfect, form of territorial sovereignty…
Another possible source of concentration of wealth and power was the introduction of Christianity…
A second and related cause of the breakdown was the introduction into Iceland of a foreign ideology–monarchy. … Several of the leading figures, when out of Iceland, usually as a result of a settlement that included temporary outlawry, became retainers of the king…
Population growth=all of the good land gets snatched up. Over time, some families get richer and accumulate more power. Eventually, they use that power to get more power, setting themselves up as local lords; with all of the good land taken, people have nowhere else to go if they get fed up.
Exit provides a workable system if there are other places to go; not if everything is closed off already. Eventually, bigger societies become more hierarchical, except in Iceland’s case, this led to a total breakdown of the system.
Of course, even during the breakdown, Iceland was still safer than the US at the peak of the crime wave:
According to a calculation by a scholar who went through the Sturlung sagas counting bodies, during more than fifty years of the violent breakdown of the traditional system the number of people killed or executed each year, on a per capita basis, was roughly equal to the rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter in the United States in 1975.
Today, of course, Iceland is one of the world’s safest countries:
That’s all for today; next week we’ll look at Somali law. Should be fun. Take care.