More on peaceable anarchy in Somalia

The comments on the “Free market anarchy for Somalia” post were excellent. See them here.

Several voiced support for letting Somalia try out new models of governance, and that political leaders from the outside are pushing a national or federal system for the wrong reasons. Here are my hasty thoughts.

It’s possible that international political leaders are constrained by a failure of imagination, but they also have a stake, and possibly a legal obligation, to promote a nation state system. So I agree we should not be surprised by their actions.

But more than just imagination and self-interest constrain foreign experts, intellectuals, and organizations. Finding institutions that provide a stable political equilibrium is very, very hard. The nation-state system is the go-to option because it has provided stability better than most of the alternatives so far. Maybe more importantly, it is the default, and thus a focal point and a norm. That status provides added stability independent of whether it is actually the right or the wrong model.

Phooey, you might say, failing and failed states need to experiment with new models. That innovation is the key to success. I say: easy to say if you don’t bear the risk. Experimenting with new models of government, as de Waal suggests, is exceptionally risky, maybe more risky than promoting an ill-fitting federal system and national government.

The last thing a private sector wants, moreover, is political instability. A clan-based or fragmented system might serve the short term business interests of the established businessmen, but does a merchant state leave a sense of policy stability, a long horizon of peace, and a possibility for peaceful political evolution? If the answer is “maybe, but maybe not” then the conditions are not present for domestic or foreign investment, for innovation, for creative destruction–all the things that actually drive growth and development.

The anarchic merchant state strikes me as the foundation for a stagnant oligarchy.

But that’s not my main worry. A stagnant merchant oligarchy could be pleasant compared to the present. It’s the uncertainty and risk that any of these stable outcomes will prevail that worries me.

In this, de Waal’s proposal for Somalia has echoes of Paul Romer’s push for charter cities, or Jeff Herbst’s suggestion that international enforcement of borders and sovereignty in central Africa should end–for instance, letting eastern Congo operate autonomously, or even letting Rwanda annex it. (See my charter city discussions here, and on Herbst here.)

de Waal and Romer and Herbst have my admiration. They may very well be right. But even if in expectation these are better proposals–in that the average expected outcome is better than the alternatives–these proposals come with huge amounts of uncertainty. Things can get worse, or stay just as bad.

Who is willing to bear that risk? Who will underwrite it? And who has the right to decide on behalf of the people who will bear the brunt of any failure?

You may disagree, but  in my mind the burden of proof is on the new model. Otherwise, give the one with some degree of success the time it usually needs (in historical perspective) to work: decades, not years.

If you insist we still ought to experiment with new models of the state, so be it. But we should pause before we use as our laboratory the homes of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. Their ability to hear and understand their options, and exercise voice in the matter, is almost nonexistent.