Irish Brehon: a legal system

I continually hear that the nation-state government must exist to provide security and justice. This in spite of the fact that we can find no example of real justice coming from the state; and precious little security. There are examples of the private production of law and my favorite example is Brehon, or Early Irish law which arose during the Irish anarchy of old. I have written about the Irish anarchy here and here.


Brehon, the Irish legal system lasted until the mid 1600s and was a fully developed system prior to any invasion by other peoples. Those invasions only weakened the system, and certainly did not improve it any. It is thought that the legal system dates back to perhaps 2,300 BC. The laws were concerned with property rights, contracts, inheritance, and so forth. The code formed a body of civil, criminal, and military law which regulated the various strata of Irish society from the leaders down to the lowest member of the land.

There were many rules. They concerned all aspects of life that might come into dispute, even down to the relationship of foster parents and foster children. The various industries, farming, trade, waterways, property management and so forth were regulated.

This legal code survived, it is thought, for about three millennia and that is testament to the sense of honor of the people; after all, the law was the people’s law. The law’s authority came from the acceptance and moral strength of the people who were governed by the Brehon Code. In ancient Ireland an individual’s word was his bond. We can find testimony to the moral power of the Brehon code throughout all we know of ancient Ireland.

Some of the unique features of early Brehon Law, compared to our modern law, included recognition of personal responsibility scaled to ones position in society, the priority of individuals over property, equal rights between genders, environmental concern and lack of capital punishment. Most importantly, it was a system that required restitution for wrong rather than punishment. The effectiveness of the body of law is reflected in the great respect given it by its citizens. The law was so revered and honored by the people that there were neither courts needed nor police forces required to enforce it. ~ Michael Ragan

In that portion of the Brehon Code corresponding to what is now known as criminal law, the various offenses such as murder, manslaughter, assaults, wounding, thefts, willful damage are specified with the amount of compensation for the guilty party to pay the injured. The amount of compensation is laid down in detail for almost every possible variety of injury one could imagine.

Since the law arose out of the people themselves through their experiences and real legal cases, the law could not be changed without public approval. It took a majority of “free people” in a public assembly of the people to change any portion of the code. This was a law supported by the people because it was their law. It was not ruler made law handed down from on top but rather it was people made law. This is real “democracy”.

All polices were decided at an annual meeting of one of the competing tuaths. The tuatha were voluntary associations and each one had a “king” elected by the individual tuatha who could be voted out at any assembly.  But law enforcement was not a function of the king in the Irish tuath, rather it was dependent on each party in a suit to provide themselves with sureties who would guarantee that the monetary judgment of the Brehon’s court would be honored. There was an elaborate system of surety-ship which formed the basis of the entire legal system. Hence, a man’s character, reputation, and property were highly important in this society. Honor was highly valued since the honorable would follow the code. The Brehons were essentially arbitrators rather than judges and the system was essentially non-violent with restitution rather than revenge being the goal of the system.

The durability of the Brehon legal system is amazing given that it dates back perhaps 3,000 years. Why was the code so durable? It had to be the people themselves. Irish literature shows a great respect for the code and its administration. There was no trace of state-administered justice but rather justice administered by the people themselves. Imagine no police, no state courts, no prisons, no bailiffs, and no wardens. This was justice provided by the “private sector” and property rights were protected in a jealous manner.

And what do we take away from this example after all? We can easily see that there is no need for the nation-State and its brutal, controlling, warlike force to have a legal system to provide for justice. In fact, we see that justice itself is impeded by the nation state and its ruling elitist class who makes “law” to dominate the masses. We can see that even in a society cursed with a state government the people would be far better off if they could keep the justice system out of the hands of the brutal and lawless rulers.

The idea of common law systems is one we need to resurrect.

The State versus Governance

The anarcho-capitalist or voluntaryist movement has been growing significantly over the last several years. There are many and varied reasons for that growth, and the anti-government speeches by Ron Paul during his nomination run were one of the many, many drivers of that growth. But I think we could do a better job of explaining anarchy.

One of the problems that gets in the way of many people understanding our position is that they confuse the ‘State’ with ‘governance’ or with ‘government’. As I have mentioned many times in the past, there is no one that I know of that wants total chaos. We all want there to be good ‘governance’. I want there to be a ‘government’ of individuals all cooperating with each other in a voluntary manner. There are many social clubs that have bylaws and methods of organizing their affairs in a voluntary way. All churches in this era are totally voluntary and yet have strict organizational principles. In other words, all nation-states are governments but not all government (or governance) is a state.

In a market anarchy there would be governance. The governance of the market anarchy would be by our peers though social and commercial ostracism and/or acceptance. Many people have written about societies that would be governed by competing courts and common law along with defense/security agencies and insurance agencies. These things would help us at the margin were the natural cooperative nature of man would break down and disputes arise, but mostly society arises by humans cooperating to make mutually beneficial trades that enrich our lives.

Of course business is governed by the customer satisfaction, supply and demand, the price signal, profit and loss, and the commercial ostracism of reputation, credit ratings, boycotts and so on. As individuals pursue their rational self interest in a free market there are costs for not being willing to abide by the prevailing group idea of how individuals should act. If you are unwilling to stand behind your product or service then the market can be brutal in punishing you for your lack of caring about your customers. In other words, there are many ways that a decentralized society can organize without a nation-state ramming its dictates down your throat.

Anarchism does not mean ‘no government’ but rather it means ‘no state’. The state is defined as that entity with the monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given geographical region. In a purely free market capitalist society there would be no coersive authority ruling over you and all social and commercial relationships would be strictly voluntary. If you had an employer, he would not your ruler but only the other side of a mutually agreed upon bargain.

Voluntarism or market anarchy is the only moral, practical and workable way to abolish the State and maintain our modern industrialized civilization. Not just maintain our society but to maximize liberty, justice, prosperity, and harmony far beyond what we have seen so far in any nation-state.

For most anarchists the conflation of ‘government’ and ‘the State’ is probably more semantic than anything and does not get in the way of our understanding each other, but for most non-anarchists this conflating of ‘the state’ with an ordered society can destroy any chance of understanding what we are saying to them. We end up talking past each other.

The mini-archists and statists are correct that there would be chaos if by ‘no state’ we mean no governance at all. But ‘no governance’ is almost impossible in human society. We even see society assert itself in one of the many  failed-state situations like Somalia. The drive of man to make his life better by cooperation with others drives us to cooperate without the need for coercion. The rejection of the nation-state and its violent, brutal coercion does not mean the rejection of voluntary authority or self-governance, but rather the very opposite.

Voluntarists or market anarchists do not advocate rejection of voluntary, private governing rules, nor do we think they would be rejected absent the State. Justice, moral behavior, and prosperity would be maximized by mutual cooperation unhindered by the coersive interference of the nation-state and its parasite class. I think that we anarcho-capitalists and voluntaryists could do a much better job of communicating that we advocate a well ordered, voluntary society and not some version of the movie ‘Mad Max’.

The ‘government’ we reject is the nation-State government that Proudhon railed against:

“To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.” — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

There is a large difference between the brutal, coersive state government that we all know and the voluntary governance that we wish ruled our society.

Can “America” be saved?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once observed that “You can only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power – he’s free again.” An old song once told us that freedom was just another word for nothing left to lose. So how close are we to nothing left to lose at the present time?


A few problems that we face just now:

1) We have a crushing debt burden of unprecedented proportions that will have to be acknowledged and dealt with.

2) We have a government-military-industrial-security-intelligence-bureaucratic complex that feeds on war and uses fear to get its meal. It is central to many of our woes and it will be difficult to erase. The alliance will not go gently into the night.

3) We have a militarized, out-of-control, police state that is increasingly murderous and brutal.

4) The continual wars both foreign and domestic (e.g. the “war” on drugs) has made the country insane.

5) We have become a fascist economy (or use “corporatist” if you prefer) and the elite have shipped the industrial jobs overseas which has crushed the “middle class”.

6) The country is hated around the globe by the majority of the humans on the planet. It is generally a bad idea to make enemies of everyone.

7) We face the specter of massive inflation. This is a civilization killer; see numerous historical examples.

So, what to do about all of this? Are we to wait for some leader to be elected president who will recognize our problems and fix them all? We have been trying to elect good presidents for over two centuries now and it has not worked out well at all. Perhaps we should stop doing the same thing over and over expecting different results each time.

The most difficult task that faces us is to overcome the state’s massive propaganda operation and get the masses to simply understand the deep hole we find ourselves in. I understand that moving from the present police state to anarchy is probably not going to happen in my lifetime, but moving toward a Classical Liberal state might be doable.

If we could find a way to convince the masses that the very small and non-interventionist state is in our best interests, what must be done to start the nation towards a more tolerable situation? What could be done to get from “here” to “there”?

What can be done? I have proposed the following:

1) We have to withdraw the military from the world and cut its size by at least 95%. Perhaps we could sell aircraft carriers to the Chinese.

2) The CIA (and other spook agencies) would have to go. We can not afford them starting more wars and destabilizing entire regions based on their internal logic. The CIA looks like some agency designed by Joe Stalin.

3) We cut the budget drastically. The cut of the military portion goes a long, long way but is not enough. If we honor the SS commitment to our elderly population we will need to cut out any other areas that we can live without.

4) We may have to repudiate the national debt. That is federal, state, and local debt.

5) We repeal almost all federal laws and regulations. Let the 50 states regulate as they will: and we honor the 10th amendment in the bill of rights. The power to regulate is what draws the businessman into the political realm seeking to control the government. We can not back away from a fascist economy until the government gets out of the business area. Many will scream at this because they are so unread in real economics — but honestly folks, could it get any worse than it is now? Could it?

6) We hold a constitutional convention. If we are to be a nation governed “by the people” then it is time to let “the people” have a chance to set the rules. 230+ years of “interpretation” by nine people in black ropes has destroyed the constitution. To hell with “original intent”; let us re-write the damn thing in modern English and have youtubes of delegates telling us what they mean by the words they use in the document.

7) We seriously consider if mob-rule is the best way to govern. Does no one look at the “tyranny of the majority” in college anymore?

Will any of this happening? I once would have said absolutely not. I would have said that we are slouching towards Gomorrah and are already on the outskirts of the city. After Ron Paul’s two runs for president and his enlisting of millions of young people to the cause of liberty I am now more optimistic about our future. How much more optimistic? Well, a bit more anyway. Even so, if I had to predict our future I would place my bet on the police state getting worse until it utterly collapses leaving a “failed state” situation for the people to clean up behind.