Libertarians, meet Somalia

Libertarians state that they are about personal, civil liberties (at least for some).  Their philosophy is that government should play a small, limited role in society and should not intrude on most day-to-day social and commercial interactions.  Human responsibility and the “free market” will adjust behaviors accordingly.  That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it. 

Some so-called libertarians, who claim to believe in personal responsibility and personal rights, do not support personal rights for women of reproductive age—or for anybody who wants to be married to someone of the same sex.  It’s not clear to me whether these people are really the religious right in some weird disguise, or just normal—that is to say inconsistent—human beings. 

Let’s talk, though, about the big government thing.  Whenever the government passes a law that provides for the common welfare (health insurance reform; financial reform), or addresses equal civil rights for someone, some libertarians cry about a “huge government over-reach.”  Their ideal is a government that does. . .  well, what, exactly?  Close to nothing. 

Fortunately, for discussion purposes, we don’t have to ask people to imagine what a country with a small government looks like, because we have a real live one we can look at.  Libertarians, meet Somalia. 

Somalia’s government is geographically small as well as administratively small.  The government controls a “few square blocks” of the capital of Mogadishu.  Outside of that, there is no government. 

Richard Engel, an NBC reporter who goes to lots of dangerous places: Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on, recently got back from Somalia and is headed there again.  He was on the Rachel Maddow show recently, and talked about what it was like.  Before I discuss what he had to say, though, I do want us to engage in an imaginative exercise after all.  Picture the city in which you live; or the nearest city of more than 100,000 people.  Imagine the city hall and three blocks in each direction.  Those are probably municipal and/or state buildings, some restaurants and diners, banks and ATM machines, bail bonds places, and probably about seven Starbuck’s stores.  Now imagine that beyond the boundary of those three blocks, in any direction, is complete lawlessness. It doesn’t just mean potholes in the streets.  No traffic lights, no police, no postal service, no libraries, no maintained parks, no water maintenance, no sewer maintenance, no trash removal, no fire fighters, no EMTs. 

That’s Somalia.  If you get in a car accident in Somalia, no one will come and help you unless you (somehow) have a working cell phone and can call someone.  Let’s hope that the local warlords don’t get to you first.  Engel said, “In Afghanistan, there is the military.”  In Somalia, don’t even expect the military to come help you because there isn’t any. 

But you could pay someone to help you, right?  A helpful villager?  Well, forget about using your travelers’ checks or your platinum card, or your folding money.  There is no financial infrastructure. 

What if you got sick because you drank some bad water or ate some spoiled food?  Is there a clinic you could go to?  Wait a minute, you’re thinking; nobody gets sick from water these days.  Think again.  There is no governmental arm of environmental health or public health in Somalia; nobody checks to see if water is clean or whether untreated sewage is running straight into the aquifer—or soaking into the ground right next to the standpipe you are waiting in line to drink from. 

This is not to say that no one’s in charge in Somalia.  Plenty of people are; local warlords.  They provide security for their villagers at a huge cost and serious curtailment of those villagers’ individual freedoms.  They raid each others’ territories—a free market reduced to its most basic level.  Engel pointed out that Somalia is the new Club Med for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  “It’s like they can have their own country,” he said.  Then he corrected himself.  “They do have their own country.  Somalia.” 

Libertarians will say that this is how we all lived hundreds of years ago.  They’re right.  It was.  The problem is that they’re saying that as if it were a good thing.  People who look back to the feudal times tend to picture themselves as the warlord, not the thrall who had no freedom or individuality at all.  For me, I imagine being a woman in those times, and I don’t get a hit of golden nostalgia.  Go back to those days of “individual freedoms” and “free market forces?”  No thank you. 

Is government bureaucracy too big?  Sure, and too cumbersome and sometimes just plain silly.  But governance is a good thing—and an important thing.  Ask the descendants of Rosa Parks.  Ask any woman who now makes as much as her male colleague for doing the same work.  Ask anyone from the 1960s who is not on a walker or a cane, or in a wheelchair, now because they were given a vaccine for polio.  Ask anyone who had EMTs rescue them from their crashed vehicle or their burning house. Ask anyone who can come in from a hot sweaty run in their local park and chug a glass of water at their sink before cooling down with a pleasant shower. 

And if you really want small government?  Somalia welcomes you.

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