Medieval Iceland and the Absence of Government
by Thomas Whiston
[Posted December 25, 2002]
Those who claim that government is the source of social order say that
in its absence there would be violence, chaos, and a low standard of
living. They cite civil wars in Africa, drug wars in South America, or
Gengis Khan in Mongolia. They claim that these things, which are
actually examples of competing governments, are what life without
government will produce.
Another common objection to stateless legal enforcement systems is to
ask for "just one example of where it has worked."
Medieval Iceland illustrates an actual and well-documented historical
example of how a stateless legal order can work and it provides
as to how we might create a more just and efficient society today.
Because of Iceland's geographical location there was no threat of
foreign invasion, so the demand for a national military force was
Icelandic settlers held similar ideological and philosophical ideas
the state and the law as where held by the founding fathers of the
United States, including distrust of a strong central government.
The main reason the Vikings moved from Norway to Iceland in the first
place was to avoid the feudal relationship between the king and his
and serfs and thus the Icelandic settlers developed a decentralized
system of governance.
Iceland did not have an executive branch of government. Instead of a
king they had local chieftains. One permanent official in their system
was the "logsogumadr" or law-speaker. His duties included the
memorization of laws, the provision of advice on legislative issues,
the recitation of all legislative acts one time while in office.
Instead of a judicial branch of government there were private courts
were the responsibility of the godar. To solve disputes, members of
court system were chosen after the crime happened. The defendant and
plaintiff each had the right to pick half the arbitrators. There was
level of courts called the Varthing. This was a Thing court in which
judges were chosen by the godar of the Thing. David Friedman has
found that these courts were rarely used and not much is known about
them.  Then there was the National Assembly or the Althing. Each
quarter was represented by their own Althing. If a dispute was not
settled by the private courts, the dispute would go up the ladder to
next highest court until the dispute was resolved.
There was no public property during the era of the Vikings in Iceland,
property was privately owned.
The settlers of Iceland divided the country into 4 regions. Each
had 9 godord and the godord were divided into three things. The godord
were divided into groups of three and each thing had three godord.
The word 'godord' has two definitions. Godord represented a group of
men. These men gave allegiance or alliance to a specific godi. A godi
the leader or chief who constructed a place of worship for his pagan
followers. The godord was also a collection of rights, the right to
represent the law making body of Iceland.
David Friedman states, ".seats in the law-making body were quite
literally for sale." These men who were law-makers did not have power
just because they held the title godord. They were powerless "unless
could convince some free-farmers to follow him."  This kept tyranny
and injustice in check.
Jesse Byock states in his book that, "leadership evolved in such a way
that a chieftain's power and the resources available to him were not
derived from an exploitable realm." This was because free farmers
change allegiance between godi without moving to a new geographical
location. "The legal godi-thingman bond was created by a voluntary
public contract."  The ability to switch legal systems with out
is key to a decentralized system. It creates secession down the level
the individual, making all governance structures formed truly
This unstable relationship between the godi and the thingmen in
helped to keep government out of the lives of its citizens fairly
effectively; law and arbitration were done justly.
How were people held accountable if they did commit a crime? In much
the same way as the current United States civil court system works
today. Criminals were forced to pay fines. These fines did not go to
state, but were restitution. If the criminal could not pay the fine
on him, then he could go to his godord or a group of family and
or some other alliance, and have them pay the fine for him, or if no
would represent him, he could work the fine off via slavery. The poor
were at no disadvantage. The poor could sell their right to justice to
someone, such as a chieftain or another respected peer, who could
collect or make right upon the victim. In this respect, the right to
restitution acted as an equalizer for the poor. In cases where the
did not want restitution, the guilty parties had no obligations
If a criminal would not pay his fine or submit to slavery, he was
outlawed or would possibly lose the support of his peers, depending on
the severity of the crime, eventually discrediting himself. 
Even in times of war, it was understood that every man that was killed
had to be paid for.  This kept feuds short, there were never any
wars, and the violence could be classified as either a family feud or
battle. Battles were short and lasted a couple of days at most. 
parties always had the incentive to compromise and make amends
because sustained violence is costly in this type of institutional
Iceland collapsed in the year 1262, 290 years after it was founded.
Roderick Long points out that it only took 85 years for the United
to have its first civil war. That Iceland lasted so long is
The collapse did not occur until after almost three centuries of
peaceful living had gone by. Roderick T. Long states, "We should be
cautious in labeling as a failure a political experiment that
longer than the United States has even existed."
When one truly looks at Iceland's history objectively, one can see
the real causes of Iceland's collapse was. The lack of competition and
the monopolistic qualities that eventually came about when five
cornered the chieftaincy market was one reason. These five families
bought the majority of chieftaincies. They controlled the court and
system to a significant extent. This meant that there were not as many
chieftains to choose from. This led to less competition, creating
opportunities for increased exploitation over the free farmers,
leading to a revolt against the 5 families.
Roderick Long also addresses the fact that the introduction of the
in 1096 may have aided in the collapse of Iceland. The tithe was a tax
paid for the upkeep of the Catholic Church and to pay church
The only stipulation was that the money appropriated to the upkeep of
the church went to the private landowner (usually a chieftain). It is
no surprise that the chieftains were exempt from paying this property
tax. Chieftains had expropriated earnings from free farmers and the
farmers had no way to keep the chieftains in check.
What are the implications of the policies in Viking Age Iceland and
do we apply them to the modern world? Sure, after so much
development in the last 700 years there could be difficulties in the
simplicity of Iceland's political system, but with great advances in
technology there is also a greater potential for coordination in a
decentralized market system.
The history of Viking Age Iceland has lessons to teach. One is the
importance of a decentralized enforcement power. Iceland's
decentralized legal system managed to keep its leaders on a short
for much of its history. Chieftains only had power if they could
people to follow them, without the use of coercion. This minimized the
principal-agent problem. Who wants to voluntarily follow an
or evil leader? And even if an evil leader did sucker a few free
into following him, in the long run he would lose credibility.
Another important lesson is to turn criminal into offenses civil
and make the victim's claim transferable. The victim should have a
transferable property right in restitution. This helps the poor
natural rights. It also helps to defeat the public good aspect of
enforcement, by giving the victim more of an incentive to bring the
criminal to justice.
Another important lesson is that private law enforcement agencies can
protect people in a free market. This will enable them to use economic
calculation. Public police forces do not have this guide. Rothbard
"Its allocations of funds are then subject to the full play of
boondoggling, and bureaucratic inefficiency, with no indication at all
to whether the police department is serving the consumers in a way
responsive to their desires or whether it is doing so efficiently."
In the public sector there is no economic indicator for success, but
private sector firms have profit and loss accounting.
Public law enforcement, assumes absolute protection . Police
protection is not an infinite good that can be consumed to no upper
The government police system has a limited budget derived from limited
taxpayer resources. Another reason private police agencies would be
more effective is the fact that private firms want to maximize profit.
can a firm maximize profit without fulfilling the consumers' demands?
government police agency gets its money coercively, so it does not
to satisfy citizen desires the same way. Any private firm that does
put profit as a top priority will be driven out of the market in the
Viking Age Iceland has much knowledge to offer on the privatization of
law, courts, and enforcement agencies. The Icelandic Free State lasted
longer than the United States has been in existence by 106 years.
Iceland did not have a civil war in the first 300 years of its
took only about 80 years for the United States to have its first civil
and after the war, arguably was no longer the same system of
government as it was before.
The public provision of law, courts, and police protection, encounter
the same incentive and calculation problems that any socialized
does. If these services can be provided in a market setting they will
able to be more efficiently provided.
Medieval Iceland provides evidence that they can be privately
without violating anybody's rights, and the results were not chaos.
was not continuous fighting. The "Hobbesian Jungle" didn't create a
state of nature that was a war of all against all, where life was
brutish and short. In comparison to many governments in the 20th
century, medieval Iceland could be a much safer place to live.
In a stateless society, men are selected according to their ability.
money, power, and greed, everything that the advocates for a strong
central government stand for are not prerequisites for leaders. The
are not selected to get on top. The men chosen in a stateless society
are chosen because they are entrepreneurs, and those entrepreneurs
who best satisfy consumer demands will be the ones whose agencies
grow. In a stateless society, the only person who is "King" is the