Ancient Ireland Was Not Libertarian

While reading Rothbard recently, I came across an unusual claim of his. He used the example of Ancient Ireland as an example of a libertarian, even anarchist-capitalist society. In fact, it’s the only example he used of libertarian policies actually being put into practice. As someone with a deep interest in my (Irish) history, this struck me as odd. No Irish historian has ever claimed Celtic Ireland was a libertarian society in full or even in part, this claim is only made by Rothbard and a few other libertarian bloggers. So while the internet is full of claims that Ireland was stateless for 2,000 years, (Gerard Casey is a lecturer in my old college of UCD. The video fails to mention that he is a philosopher not a historian. He was also the founder of the Christian Solidarity Party, the most conservative Catholic party in Irish politics, which I would have thought was in conflict with libertarianism) or even 9,000 years (this blog literally takes a blank space and presumes it was anarchist) the evidence doesn’t support this claim.

There are two things you must keep in mind before discussing Ancient Ireland. The first is that we don’t know an awful lot about it. The Celts had mostly an oral culture, so we have few writings from their time and the few we do, deal more with myths and legends than with economics and sociology. This also means we know quite little about how Brehon Law operated. The second is that Irish history is very political, or I should say, people with a political agenda use Irish history to score political points. An early history usually quoted by libertarians, G.H. Orpen, wanted to show that the Irish were incapable of ruling themselves, so that when he described Ireland as being without laws, he meant this as an insult not as an accurate description. Likewise, during the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th century, Irish writers created a Romantic view of Celtic Ireland that was just as inaccurate. As we know so little about ancient Ireland, it offered a blank canvass for writers to project their own ideas (a common practice in many countries histories). For example, socialist and nationalist hero James Connolly claimed that Celtic Ireland was an early example of Communism.

So here is what Rothbard (In For A New Liberty pages 286 to 290) claims:

“The most remarkable historical example of a society of libertarian law and courts, however, has been neglected by historians until very recently. And this was also a society where not only the courts and the law were largely libertarian, but where they operated within a purely state-less and libertarian society. This was ancient Ireland—an Ireland which persisted in this libertarian path for roughly a  thousand years until its brutal conquest by England in the seventeenth century. . . For a thousand years, then, ancient Celtic Ireland had no State or anything like it.”

An important point to note is that we shouldn’t try and impose modern concepts on ancient societies. The modern state, which aims to protect the welfare of its people through education, healthcare infrastructure etc has only been in existence for 100-200 years. A basic state which was essentially a military alliance offering protection against outsiders has existed for maybe 1,000 years (depending on where we are talking about). But just because an ancient society doesn’t resemble a modern state, doesn’t make it Libertarian. So although ancient societies don’t have many features of modern states, they still used coercion.

“How then was justice secured? The basic political unit of ancient Ireland was the tuath. All “freemen” who owned land, all professionals, and all craftsmen, were entitled to become members of a tuath. Each tuath’s members formed an annual assembly which decided all common policies, declared war or peace on other tuatha, and elected or deposed their “kings.” An important point is that, in contrast to primitive tribes, no one was stuck or bound to a given tuath, either because of kinship or of geographical location. Individual members were free to, and often did, secede from a tuath and join a competing tuath. Often, two or more tuatha decided to merge into a single, more efficient unit. . . In short, they did not have the modern State with its claim to sovereignty over a given (usually expanding) territorial area, divorced from the landed property rights of its subjects; on the contrary, tuatha were voluntary associations which only comprised the landed properties of its voluntary members. Historically, about 80 to 100 tuatha coexisted at any time throughout Ireland.”

Rothbard is flat out wrong here. He makes it sounds as if túatha (the plural takes an a) were like political parties, where membership was purely voluntary and there was no territorial aspect. However, the word tuath comes from the Old Irish word túath meaning “people” or “nation”, in modern Irish it means “countryside”. So Rothbard is wrong on both counts, the túatha were really petty kingdoms or large families/clans that people were born into and with a monopoly over certain territory. Just as nowadays, you can leave a state and move to another one, so too could you leave a túatha (even if this was incredibly rare and involved severing all ties to your family and community), but that doesn’t make them libertarian. They also had a standing army (supported by taxes) that the local chieftain would call upon, something that goes against libertarian ideology. The túatha were really mini-states, small, weak and primitive by our standards, but still using coercion that libertarians are opposed to.

“Politically, however, the king had strictly limited functions: he was the military leader of the tuath, and he presided over the tuath assemblies. But he could only conduct war or peace negotiations as agent of the assemblies; and he was in no sense sovereign and had no rights of administering justice over tuath members. He could not legislate, and when he himself was party to a lawsuit, he had to submit his case to an independent judicial arbiter.”

Interestingly, this sounds pretty much like the American President, who after all cannot make laws but only wars. Does that make America a libertarian country? Again Rothbard is imposing modern standards on an ancient society, the king may not look like a modern President, but he was effectively a tribal dictator, in no way libertarian. The King actually was the upholder of the law (we don’t know for certain how much, but at least to some extent). While the King could not make laws (except in emergencies) no one could, Brehon Law relied heavily on tradition and custom. An important libertarian concept is that you should only obey laws that you consent to, everything else is coercion or even slavery. Yet no one consented to Brehon Law, obedience to it was not voluntary, it was mandatory.

The brehons were in no sense public, or governmental, officials; they were simply selected by parties to disputes on the basis of their reputations for wisdom, knowledge of the customary law, and the integrity of their decisions.

Furthermore, the brehons had no connection whatsoever with the individual tuatha or with their kings. They were completely private, national in scope, and were used by disputants throughout Ireland. Moreover, and this is a vital point, in contrast to the system of private Roman lawyers, the brehon was all there was; there were no other judges, no “public” judges of any kind, in ancient Ireland.

It was the brehons who were schooled in the law, and who added glosses and applications to the law to fit changing conditions. Furthermore, there was no monopoly, in any sense, of the brehon jurists; instead, several competing schools of jurisprudence existed and competed for the custom of the Irish people.

This is some more bad history. Rothbard is again imposing modern standards on an ancient society. There were no government officials of any kind two thousand years ago (outside Rome). There were also no police or prisons in medieval societies, but that doesn’t make them libertarian. Rothbard is wrong to describe the brehons as private, although they had some degree of independence, they were dependent on the local chieftain to enforce their rulings. So the brehons were about as independent as modern judges, that is to say partially. While there were brehons throughout Ireland (just as there are lawyers throughout Ireland today), they existed within the system of túatha. Rothbard is also wrong to say that the Brehons didn’t have a monopoly, there was only one Brehon Law, you couldn’t pick and choose which laws you wanted to follow as Rothbard believes you should.

I must stress again, that we don’t know an awful lot about how the Brehon Law operated, how it was enforced etc. However, it is clear that it did not operate as Rothbard imagines an ideal Libertarian law system should operate. People did not select their judges, there was no free market of laws or judges, in fact there was no free market at all in ancient Ireland, coinage was rare, with cattle being closer to a currency. Society was incredibly rural (there were no towns until the Vikings invaded) which meant little trade and communities were instead highly self-sufficient. The position of Brehon was not open to all, it was mostly kept within certain families. To become a Brehon you had to either be born into a Brehon family or have a wealthy and powerful patron, neither of which sounds very libertarian.

There were occasional “wars,” to be sure, in the thousand years of Celtic Ireland, but they were minor brawls, negligible compared to the devastating wars that racked the rest of Europe. As Professor Peden points out, “without the coercive apparatus of the State which can through taxation and conscription mobilize large amounts of arms and manpower, the Irish were unable to sustain any large scale military force in the field for any length of time. Irish wars . . . were pitiful brawls and cattle raids by European standards.”

It is true that Irish wars were much smaller than European wars, after all our population is much smaller. However, there was a constant state of small wars and cattle raids. In fact, what few records we do have from ancient Ireland are usually tales of war and battles. The most famous Irish legend is that of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid Of Cooley) where Queen Medb of Connaught invaded Ulster to steal the prize bull (hardly the actions of a libertarian society). The most famous person in Irish mythology is Cú Chulainn, who was not an entrepreneur or someone who grew rich through innovation and peaceful co-operation like a good libertarian, but rather a ferocious warrior.

Rothbard makes a crucial mistake by assuming that as Irish wars were small, society was much more peaceful. It ignores that there were a lot more of these wars. Which is worse, one large war which kills 500 people or 100 small wars which kill 10 people? Although the small wars seem too petty to be worth recording, cumulatively they kill more than a single attention grabbing large war. Steven Pinker has found that pre-state societies are far more violent than even Medieval societies (which are in turn far more violent than modern states). It is estimated that 15% of people in pre-states died violent deaths, compared to only 3% in early states. As the power of the state increased, the level of violence decreased, contrary to what libertarians would have you believe. Interestingly, even the Soviet Union and Communist China were less violent than the average anarchist society. They have even been stateless societies that killed more (on a per capita basis) than the murderous Pol Pot dictatorship in Cambodia. (The Better Angels Of Our Nature is an excellent book on this topic and the decline in violence over time).

All in all, Celtic Ireland is a terrible example of a libertarian society. Contrary to libertarian beliefs, the smallest unit of society was not the individual, but the clan/family (the Irish word for family is clann). Individuals did not have rights, they were part of a clan and were expected to further the interests of the clan even if it harmed their own. In fact, the Celts didn’t have our modern concept of private property (which is quite a problem seeing as Rothbard bases his entire ideology on private property rights) land was held communally. Irish society was incredibly hierarchical where everyone had their place in society. Even what clothes you wore was governed by hierarchy, commoners mostly worse brown, while purple was reserved for nobility. This class division was written into law, where the punishment fines was higher depending on the victims social class.

There was a strong degree of clientalism in society (which has survived even to this day) bordering on serfdom. People would have a patron who would protect them and provide for their welfare, in exchange for which they would pay taxes and fight for them. In order words, a primitive state. There was a whole system of this with chieftains, nobles, kings and even a theoretical High King of Ireland at the top. So instead of coercion by the state, there was coercion by chieftains and nobles. There was also a minority of slaves, not enough for Ireland to be called a slave society, and slavery was not hereditary, but considering that Rothbard spends how his book calling every aspect of the state slavery, it doesn’t help his case if his ideal libertarian society had slavery. (Random fact: Saint Patrick wasn’t Irish, he was captured and sold into slavery by pirates, which does sound like something that would happen in a libertarian society).

So the claim that Celtic Ireland was Libertarian isn’t a historical claim, its a propaganda claim. This can be seen by the fact that this claim has never been published in a historical journal or by any historian, instead it is only made by Libertarian political and philiosophical theorists. Rothbard’s only source (having only one source is a usualy sign of a weak theory) was published in the Libertarian Forum. People frequently use history as a blank sheet they can project their ideology or make claims about the present (look at how frequently Americans make reference to what the “Founding Fathers intended”). So when Rothbard made a claim about something that happened thousands of years ago in a country thousands of miles away, he probably felt pretty confident that no one would contradict him. The fact is that Rothbard’s ideas and libertarianism in general have never been put into practice and holding up Ireland as an example is historically inaccurate.

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18 thoughts on “Ancient Ireland Was Not Libertarian”

  1. Fascinating. I think the general trend to less violence has been accomplished primarily to consolidation of smaller groups into larger. When Germany was a collection of small principalities, they warred with one another incandescently. When they merged into “Germany” they stopped warring with one another physically and warred with one another politically. Now that most of Europe is in the E.U. do you think they are more or less likely to war with one another?

    So, the libertarian dream of each man for himself is a recipe for the maximum amount of violence possible and directly opposite from the trend of human history, which is the creation of larger and larger families. If confronted by a space alien menace, I suspect we would quickly become one giant family, which is the purpose of groups after all.

    I read your posts avidly because I find them well-reasoned and well thought out … and I am a quarter Irish. ;o)

    1. ” When Germany was a collection of small principalities, they warred with one another incandescently. ”
      Except when they combined they had much bigger wars. Violence has been decreasing pretty much forever, but the idea that that is due to bigger/ more robust political organizations doesn’t follow. Two things are happening at the same time, more organization and less violence. However that doesn’t mean one causes the other or that the causation went in the direction you expect.

      “So, the libertarian dream of each man for himself is a recipe for the maximum amount of violence possible and directly opposite from the trend of human history,”
      Well no, it’s a recipe for the minimum amount of violence considering what empowering the State has done. Notice how the most statist parts of the world are generally the most violent in almost all eras?

  2. You are interested in Irish history, I was reading about how a relative of King David was said to come to Ireland and there is a site yet to be investigated for artifacts, just Google words above, there is a group there who seek to find evidence.

  3. I wish there really were an actual libertarian state somewhere, so that world’s libertarians could all go live there and test out just how well their theories work in the real world.

  4. “(Random fact: Saint Patrick wasn’t Irish, he was captured and sold into slavery by pirates, which does sound like something that would happen in a libertarian society).”
    I think you forgot to add a “not” somewhere in that sentence.

      1. In an ancap society, maybe, but in practice only, if that. Certainly not in theory, or in minarchist theory or practice. Hong Kong is the closest thing to a libertarian society today, and it’s not crawling with pirates. I really do wish to see ancapism tried out in the real world. It’d be interesting, but would have to come about through an unlikely-to-happen gradual and orderly devolution of state power.

  5. Ireland was invaded by the Normans in 1167. Granted, their control of Ireland was never absolute, but the “untouched” ideal Rothbard is pushing doesn’t mesh well with reality.

  6. Anarcho-capitalists are not opposed to contractual communities having territorial monopoly over their legitimately owned property. What made Ancient Ireland anarcho-capitalist was the fact that the law was not legislated but customary. Anarcho-capitalists are not opposed to customray law as long as it is based on private property rights. Anarcho-capitalists never said that people have to consent to law for it to be valid, merely that the law should be based on private property rights and be implemented by a system of private arbiters and private enforcement, as was the case in Ireland. Rothbard was not the propagandist, you are.

    1. But law was not based on private property. Nor could people choose which laws they consented to. They had even less say in their laws than people nowadays. Nor were the laws enforced by a Rothbardian private system, there was no legal free market.

      1. //But law was not based on private property.// The law centered around re-compensating victims of injury which included assaults on life or property. The amount of compensation to be paid was different based upon the status, but the law was largely the same for all: if you hurt another person, you compensate. Also, the king neither made the law nor enforced it. Brehons were private arbiters who were voluntarily contracted for settling disputes, and naturally different brehons had different interpretations of the law, so the law wasn’t as monolithic; there was competition between different interpretations. Furthermore, there was no public system for enforcing the decisions of brehons, it was the prerogative of the injured party to enforce the compensation. There were a variety of contractual arrangements to accomplish this.

  7. “Rothbard is flat out wrong here. He makes it sounds as if túatha (the plural takes an a) were like political parties, where membership was purely voluntary and there was no territorial aspect. However, the word tuath comes from the Old Irish word túath meaning “people” or “nation”, in modern Irish it means “countryside”. So Rothbard is wrong on both counts, the túatha were really petty kingdoms or large families/clans that people were born into and with a monopoly over certain territory.
    Except you haven’t actually shown that. All you’ve done is say what the word allegedly means. The concept of “nation” was centuries away so even your translations are not accurate. Where is the evidence that the tuatha was territorial? Saying it means “people” doesn’t prove it, a “people” need not be limited to a particular territory.

    If this is you’ve got you’re clearly wrong and reaching.

      1. And yet you presented no evidence of that. You simply stated that he was wrong and that it was territorial, based only on a word etymology. If it was true that he was straight out lying, (and that’s what you’re saying, not that he didn’t do the research but that he made stuff up) why wasn’t he called out on it at the time?

        1. It was 40 years ago so maybe people did complain but we don’t have records. Plus Rothbard is kinda obscure and wrong about so many things that it’s hard to make a definitive list of all his errors.

          Either way, based on my knowledge of Irish history, I know that he is completely wrong.

          1. “It was 40 years ago so maybe people did complain but we don’t have records. ”
            Wow you really haven’t done your research at all have you?

            “Plus Rothbard is kinda obscure and wrong about so many things that it’s hard to make a definitive list of all his errors.”
            Not asking for a definitive list, just somebody who called him on it (or indeed anything) at the time.

            “Either way, based on my knowledge of Irish history, I know that he is completely wrong.”
            Except that you have no knowledge of Irish history, or if you have you didn’t use it to contradict him. You referred to no historical sources that contradict him on the voluntary nature of the tuath. All you did was say that the word meant something that is consistent with, rather than indicative of, what Rothbard said it meant. You didn’t even find a source that disputed what Rothbard said. If this is the best argument you have, you know you’re wrong.

  8. I just discovered Rothbard’s claims about Ireland today, and read your response here. I’m looking for some good books to provide more information on Irish history so I can better evaluate his claims. Are there any you would recommend?

  9. So many flaws:

    “An important point to note is that we shouldn’t try and impose modern concepts on ancient societies.”

    Why not?

    “The modern state, which aims to protect the welfare of its people through education, healthcare infrastructure etc has only been in existence for 100-200 years.”

    It doesn’t “aims”, it just “declares that it aims”.

    “The túatha were really petty kingdoms or large families/clans that people were born into and with a monopoly over certain territory.”

    That ownership over land depends on the claims justifications of the owners. A land ownership, doesn’t make it not anarcho-capitalist.

    “They also had a standing army (supported by taxes) that the local chieftain would call upon, something that goes against libertarian ideology.”

    There’s nothing wrong with paying taxes if they are agreed upon, if the ownership claims aren’t unjustified, like on our modern state.

    You just keep missing the point.. I think that should be enought.

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