Is Somalia better off without a government?

Peter Leeson has a provocative new 2007 paper I have just seen:

A comprehensive view of the data that allow pre- and post-anarchy welfare comparisons suggest that anarchy has improved overall development. Contrary to the typical case, in Somalia social welfare has improved because of, rather than despite, the absence of a central state.

Somalia’s government was oppressive, exploitative, and brutal. The extent of this predation created a situation in which social welfare was depressed below the level it could achieve without any government at all.

The emergence of anarchy in 1991 opened up opportunities for advancement not possible before government’s collapse. In particular, economic progress and improved public goods provision in critical areas flourished in the absence of a monopolistic and corrupt state.

Recognition of this is not to deny that Somalia could be doing much better. It clearly could. Nor is this to say that Somalia is better off stateless than it would be under any government. A constitutionally-constrained state with limited powers to do harm but strong enough to support the private sector may very well do more for Somalia than statelessness.

…The relevant question for Somalia’s future is thus whether or not a government, were a stable one to emerge, would be more like the constrained variety we observe in the West, or more like the purely predatory variety that systematically exploited Somalis between 1969 and the emergence of anarchy in 1991.

I think it’s hard to disagree with the basic point: some governments are so bad that no government might be worse. Even so, I’m wary about the conclusion.

First, I have a skeptical little data monkey that sits on my shoulder. Right now, he’s saying: no way we can take Somali economic and health data seriously. I don’t know the details of what was collected in Somalia, but I see first hand that so many of numbers are just made up, or extrapolated from unlikely sources, and so a change over time could be a real change. Or it could be error. Or it could be changes in the paces and ways people get the data, even supposedly rigorous epidemiology.

But let’s say the data are basically right and living standards are better now than under the nasty Barre regime. This seems plausible.

Is the implication that statelessness is preferable to a tyrannical government, or even a relatively unconstrained one (like we see in most other parts of the continent)? I think a constitutionally-constrained state might be a step too far, at least right away.

But let’s assume Leeson’s right: an awful lot of autocratic state forms are worse for standards of living than the current decentralized approach. Would an unconstrained central state really be a worse move for Somalis? I’m not so sure.

I think it might be a mistake to focus on levels, or the short term. The question for me is: what trajectory gets the region to stability and growth and some kind of constrained state?

History and political science suggests that the path to a constitutionally-constrained state with limited powers often lies through hardship–long periods of violence, and probably, eventually, tyrannical petty rulers. At least for a while. (Here is a take by North, Wallis and Weingast, and here is a take from Bob Bates). I’d like to think that the technology of statebuilding has gotten better in the past 500 years, and that there are better and more peaceful paths, but some days I’m not so sure.

I’m not sure it matters in this case, though. I am no Somalia expert (to say the least) but I suspect that most of the bits of Somalia that are doing well actually do have a government. It’s just not a centralized one that fits within the international laws and rules about official states. So, I’m not sure that I’d call the average situation anarchy. The things that govern people are states in all but name (Somaliland especially).

For me, the tricky question for Somalis is what to do from here. International incentives or interventions that support a centralized government could lead to stability or violence–it’s hard to predict. The alternative–recognizing statelets–might mean empowering some nasty warlords, or giving incentives for takeovers and violence, and has possibly perilous precedents for separatist movements everywhere (the slippery slope argument that comes out every time independence is whispered anywhere).

“Leave ’em alone” is also an option, but I’m not sure it an ethical, secure, or realistic one. Inaction is still an action, especially with the international laws and norms that make holding the capital such a prize.

So, for me, the real question is not “government or anarchy”, or even “constrained or unconstrained government”, but “centralized state or statelets”.

Whether I agree or not, what I like most about Peter’s work is his short and sweet libertarian critiques of conventional wisdom in development. OK, maybe not sweet. But clever. Here is a nice point Peter makes on aid. And he blogs here. I am hopeful for a response to this response.

Hat tip to Suresh.

Update: An excellent comment from Peter Leeson