21 Aug 2009

Limited Government In Post-Invasion Iraq

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In his last guest essay, Edward Gonzalez explained why post-invasion Iraq made him question the feasibility of Rothbardian free-market anarchy. In this post, Gonzalez describes a case where limited government–as opposed to brutal strongman rule–emerged out of the chaos after Saddam’s regime fell.–RPM


Limited Government in the al Anbar Province of Iraq
by Edward Gonzalez

In a deployment to Iraq, I served in a number of villages in the al Anbar Province of Iraq. All these villages were dealing in their own ways with the consequences of war. Organized crime, terrorism, murder and intimidation campaigns were just a few negative aspects I witnessed while on deployment. I also witnessed some very encouraging scenes in the form of communities uniting in order to provide for their security. Although there is obviously a very large difference between the modern day United States and a farming village in Iraq, I believe the actions I witnessed merit examination, for in my opinion they represent both community and government at its most basic level.

There was a village where I served that developed a system of limited government that I believed to be just. It was a small fishing and farming village along the Euphrates River. This village had a collection of honest, intelligent elders, the most senior of which was the Sheik. Although it was a farming and fishing village, the Sheik owned four rock quarries. He had been running the quarries since he was a young man. He was older; my best guess is early 70s, had four wives, seven children, over a dozen grandchildren, and was a natural leader and entrepreneur. This village was also thrown into chaos in the early months of the war. Al Qaeda cells had made a home in their small village and killed a great many people. I visited a mass grave site that used to be the favorite execution spot of the extremists. I don’t know at what point, but the Sheik did eventually take action.

He gathered the families together and convinced them it was time to retake their town. He outfitted every fighting age male with a rifle, and the Sheik’s eldest son, who was in his mid thirties, led the battle to throw al Qaeda out of their village. The town was retaken. Here, the community decided to take collective, violent action in order to protect their lives and property. That collective action was the birth of their government.

I arrived at this village almost a year later. The system the elders had set up was truly impressive. Every young man was a police officer. Once a week each man had the responsibility of one patrol which usually lasted three to four hours. Apart from that one duty, the rest of the week the young men did their normal jobs of farming, fishing, or working at the rock quarry. There were only three full-time police officers who manned the radio at the police station, a small building with no furniture at which the patrols met. The Sheik’s youngest son, who was 17, was the main radio operator. The people of the village paid no taxes, aside from the “time tax,” all the young men had to pay in a weekly patrol. The Sheik supported the only three full time police officers. The Sheik’s oldest son served as the Captain of the police, but his full time job was running the family rock quarries, and he only went to the police station to plan patrols and check in with his baby brother once in a while. However, in case of attack, every one knew he ran the show.

The elders of the village gathered at least once a week to discuss village business. In truth, they gathered almost every night to drink tea. During these meetings, if anything of importance needed to be decided all the men would give their opinion and a collective decision was made. There was no official vote per se, but the amount of people present made it easy to tell what direction the majority was leaning.

The Sheik was the village judge. When neighbors had disputes they went to see him. He was recognized as the wisest, shrewdest man in the village and people did accept his judgment. The Sheik did not accept money for the service he provided. He said it was his responsibility as an elder of the village. If he was away or sick, one of the other elders served as the judge. The Sheik had first established his leadership as a businessman and entrepreneur. He was certainly the richest man in the village, but people did not respect him for his money. They respected his judgment and decision making skills, which had as a great benefit also made him wealthy. Although the Sheik’s eldest son was Captain of the police force, I never witnessed nor heard any rumor of the Sheik’s judgments needing to be enforced. People abided by his judgments out of respect. Note that it was respect for his wisdom, not power.

This was their basic government: The elders of the community acting as leaders and decision makers, the young providing the brute force of police and military action, and the senior elder acting as judge.

The system had many great benefits. There was no divide between police and the people because everyone either was or lived with a police officer. Since every household had a police officer, if a stranger came to town, someone always noticed and notified the patrol. Although surrounded by violence on all sides, in my seven months in Iraq that is the only town where I could walk the streets without body armor and enjoy relaxing dinners without fear of being attacked.

There was a strongman directly to the north of the village who dominated his area as a tyrant extorting money from businesses and households. He never once made a move against this village. If he had attempted to extort money from one house or shop, every able-bodied man would have emerged armed with an AK-47 ready to fight.

As a result of the system in place, there was not a single attack while I was there so I did not see first hand how they dealt with murderers. However, speaking to the Captain of the police I learned how they handled it in the past. I also had a friend serving a few hundred miles away in a very similar village who witnessed it first hand. Two insurgents planted an IED that resulted in the death of a local man. The police captured the two insurgents immediately. The elders of the town and older police officers gathered in the center of town. They held court, had a vote, and the two insurgents were executed.

I also questioned the Sheik and his eldest son on how judgments were enforced and what repercussions a young man would face if he refused to conduct security patrols of the village. In both cases the answers were the same. All individuals were part of the community and had a duty to that community. This meant protecting the village in time of danger and abiding by the judgments of the elders in case of personal disputes. Those who chose to ignore this were shamed. Other individuals and families would look down upon them, refuse to do business with them, and give no assistance in case of need. Then the individual had one of two choices: Become completely self-sustaining and live outside the community or do his part. They both said that police enforcement in either of those cases would be a waste of time and energy. The Sheik also emphasized that forcing an individual to be part of a community that they did not wish to be apart of would be against God’s Law.

The village also had public roads. However, there were no taxes imposed on people for the construction. As security improved in and around the village, the market slowly started to see more people showing up for trade. One evening the elders decided it was time for a good road in and out of the village. The building of the road was decided on because it would provide a path for trucks to move large amounts of fish and crops from the village to the cities. The Captain of the police, the man running the rock quarries, got his trucks together and organized the construction of the road. All the men that stood to benefit financially from the construction of the road, which as far as I could tell was almost everyone, donated personal resources and lent a hand in the construction. It was finished in a single day.

This was also the time of the Awakening in the al Anbar province. Meetings were being called in the larger cities and representatives from villages were being asked to attend. I was not surprised that the Sheik was selected as the village representative. When representatives gathered for these types of meetings, the talks and discussions were on the overall security of the province and how security might be improved along the highways between the villages. The types of things discussed were: What tactics was al Qaeda using throughout the province? What police actions had been most effective in dealing with the threat? If an individual from one village commits a crime in another, how will he be tried? How will the police from one village coordinate with the police of another so there are not unintentional fights? What procedures will be abided by to make coordination more efficient? At no time in any of the meetings that I attended, were there laws established on how cities or villages were to handle their internal affairs. The focus was on coordination.

Although no taxes were collected from the villagers, tax money did come into play. American military personnel provided the towns with standardized police uniforms, a couple of ford pick up trucks painted as police vehicles, training and training ammunition for the young men.

From war and chaos this village, and many others like it, was able to emerge as a free society with a free market and an increasing quality of life. They were able to accomplish this not by treating the use of force and violence as a normal service to be provided by the free market, but by community decision and action. Please do not mistake my obvious concentration on the positive aspects of this village as an implication that everything was perfect. There were many hardships and problems both in the village and in the coordination with other towns and organizations. However, as a whole, this village I served in had the safest and happiest people I met in my time in Iraq.

I am certainly not saying that we should look to adopt this style of village government in the United States, but there are some elements in this style of limited government that I believe to be important to any free society.

First: The use of force was not treated like any other service in a market economy. Justice and police/military action were collective actions taken by the communities as a whole. The power of this government was not focused with a single individual but spread across the community. The process was intentionally inefficient so that no one individual would take hasty/emotional action that would have negative and dangerous repercussions for the community.

Second: Government only used force for community defense. They drew a distinction between what police/military needed to protect with violence and what community needed to enforce with shame. A violent assault on a person’s life or property was collectively defended by the use of force. A “crime” or broken rule of the culture was dealt with through shame and exile from the community.

Third: Government power was decentralized. When the Sheik, as the representative from the village, met with other representatives from other cities and towns, it was to discuss how the towns and cities might work together to deal with shared hardships. They established rules and procedures so that the individuals from neighboring villages and cities might deal more effectively with one another. There were no laws passed dictating to villages or cities how they must run their internal affairs.

Fourth: Government was not a money making, for-profit organization. They were all entrepreneurs who supported themselves. Government was a duty each individual had to his community. The fact that they were all entrepreneurs who supported themselves lent to decisions that were pro free market.

I will not launch into my full theory of limited government here. However, I do believe that certain fundamentals in a just society apply to all societies from a small farming village to a modern day nation.

Edward M. Gonzalez is a graduate of New York University and served on active duty in the United States Marines Corps from January 2004 to August of 2008. He is currently a Captain in the reserves and works for a private school in San Jose, CA. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily endorsed by the United States Marine Corps.

One Response to “Limited Government In Post-Invasion Iraq”

  1. Scott says:

    One problem that US society has compared to the communities described is that people in the US move around too much; it would be hard to exile/shame and unexile/unshame someone; they could simply move to another city — assuming that you could even identify the culprit. Globalization means that virtually every crime can be asssumed to have been committed by someone from another city, state, country, or continent.

    A community-based police force would seem to have good points, though; if you live in a community and you’re within a certain age range (of either sex), required to either pay tax or spend a day a week doing some government-related job that you’re qualified to do. Based on what I read recently about anti-bullying efforts, it might improve empathy and thus reduce bullying as well as crime in general. By becoming aware of what goes on behind the scenes, participants would also get a better feeling for why certain things are the way that they are.