The Solution for Iraq: Toss the State Out the Window

When the United States invaded Iraq, it did so with the proclaimed goal of delivering the Iraqi people from dictatorship and helping them achieve a democratic society.

Now the dictator is gone, but instead of democracy, Iraq has civil war. What went wrong?

Well, more things than one, perhaps. But one in particular at least.

In any country torn by violent ethnic or religious conflict, what each faction fears most is that one of the other factions will gain control of the central state apparatus and use it to oppress, exploit, or crush its rivals. In such a situation, “democracy,” if understood as majority rule, offers no more security than dictatorship; to Iraq’s Sunni minority, for example, “democracy” simply means the threat of oppression by the Shi’ite majority.

Perhaps a better meaning of democracy is: the people ruling themselves. But in that case, mere majority rule is really no more democratic than dictatorship; whether the majority dominates the minority or the minority dominates the majority, either way it’s some of the people ruling others of the people, not genuine self-rule.

The real root of Iraq’s civil strife is the shared presumption that there must be a territorial monopoly of power — a centralised state exercising authority over the entire geographic region known as Iraq, and thus over all the different factions, Sunni and Shi’ite, Arab and Kurd.

As long as that presumption prevails, then given the mutual distrust among the factions, it is only to be expected that each faction will be desperate to ensure that it, rather than one of its rivals, gains control of the central state. A violent power struggle is thus only to be expected.

A chief cause of Iraq’s civil strife, then, is each group’s need to control the central state lest its enemies control it first. Replacing Saddam Hussein with a majoritarian constitution, then, is no move toward peace; it simply changes which groups get to be the dominators and which the dominated.

The obvious solution to this problem, then, is: eliminate the central state.

Some observers have suggested partitioning Iraq into three separate states: one Shi’ite, one Sunni, and one Kurdish. While this is a move in the right direction, it ignores the deep divisions, and potential for relations of domination, within each of those groups as well. Calling for three centralised states instead of one still leaves unchallenged the presumption that any given geographical area, large or small, must be under the aegis of some central state.

It is not inevitable that every society must organise itself as a state. There have been successful stateless societies in the past, and may be again. The nation-state’s day may well be passing, as absolute monarchy, chattel slavery, and other institutions once claimed to be essential to civilisation have largely passed.

Market anarchists like economist Dr. Bruce Benson in his book The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State have shown that institutions for resolving disputes and keeping the peace can be, and historically have been, successfully provided by private voluntary means, and need not enjoy a territorial monopoly or be funded by taxation.

Let Shi’ites live under Shi’ite law, let Sunnis live under Sunni law, let heretics and infidels live under heretic and infidel law; multiply legal institutions according to consumer demand, and resolve disputes among different institutions by arbitration. And thereby free each Iraqi from the fear that some one institution not his or her own will be the one to be imposed on everybody by state fiat.

If fifty people in a room are fighting to get hold of the one gun, in the fear that someone else will get it first and use it against everybody else, the solution is not to take sides with one of the contending parties, but to throw the gun out the window. In this case, the state is the gun.

The 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that life without a centralised state would be a war of all against all. He was wrong. In Iraq, at least, it’s the state’s presence, not its absence, that generates a war of all against all.

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