Polycentric Law and Ireland

For this throwback Thursday we are going back in time to a time before England invaded Ireland. In that time, there was no central authority in law and resolution disputes.

I don’t know how many times I have heard Statists say “Anarchy has never existed!” They then use this “truth” to say that anarchy would never work. But “Anarchy has never existed” is a pretty broad statement and requires a lot of historical knowledge in order claim that it is indeed true. Unfortunately statists went to public schools who would never teach them anything about societies that don’t have a central government with a monopoly on justice so we can’t blame them in overlooking complex societies that are different.

But Ireland is a perfect example of a society and culture that thrived for a really long time without a central authority on law. It is called Brehon Law and it is a form of polycentric law. Polycentric law is a legal system in which providers within the system compete and/or overlap each other. This is in opposition to the system we have with monopolistic statutory law in which there is a sole provider of law.

What makes this system amazing is that it created a culture where  “a king carrying building material to his castle had the same and only the same claim for right of way as the miller carrying material to build his mill; the poorest man in the land could compel payment of a debt from a noble or could levy a distress upon the king himself; the man who stole the needle of a poor embroidery woman was compelled to pay a far higher fine than the man who stole the queen’s needle.”1

Women could also divorce their husbands during this ancient time and they were entitled to a portion of the estate after the divorce too. No other western culture could come this close to a justice system that was this fair. But how did it work?

It is called “Brehon Law” because the law was administered by Brehons or (Brithem in ancient Gaelic) which means “judge.”2 The Brehon passed the law down verbally to their predecessors and they functioned more as interpreters of the law rather than creators of it. This meant that the law was highly flexible. Their system had no capital punishment and focused on restitution rather than punishment. Seeing as there were no police in a central government payroll there to arrest people who reneged on paying restitution and the system survived the many generations until England finally invaded says a lot about how amazing this society was. “Even after the introduction of Catholicism, Brehon survived. When the Roman Empire fell, Brehon survived. Even through war after war with neighboring England, Brehon survived. The innovative, free-spirited Irish continued to cope with changes while preserving their anarchic traditions. It wasn’t until the English finally conquered the island in the 1600s that Brehon was finally abolished.”3

This system of restitution over punishment and the competition between the Brehon judges creates a really amazing system. It’s the kind of system Anarchists (or voluntaryists because that’s a less scary word) advocate for. If you dislike the ruling of one Brehon you could appeal to another. If you refused to pay restitution to someone whom Brehon Law judged you wronged, you were ostracized from the community. No one would do business with you. This type of system encouraged cooperation and non-violence with respect to person-hood within the Irish culture. One also might ask “What made the Brehon judges want to be fair?” It’s simple. Reputation. Brehons took fees in order to judge disputes between individuals. If they wanted to stay in business, they needed to be fair in their interpretation of the law. This is why competition self regulates any product, including legal services.

So to recap, women were emancipated fairly recently, but in Ireland under Brehan law they were almost equal to men before modern woman was. They could even lead men into battle! So to say that government needs to be the only one in control over dispute resolution is a fallacy. Ireland had a progressive and complex society that respected the rights of the poorest individual. I don’t think we can say that our current justice system does the same. This is why a voluntary society (that is an anarchic one) is far better than what we have. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be better. Competition cause the producer to economize his methods of production. This gives the consumer the best product possible at the best possible market price. When it comes to justice, which is a commodity like any other, a competitive market means the best product will be given to those that consume it. This also means that a good reputation is needed in order to maintain business. In the case of law, a valuable product must be given, that is a fair judgment on the part of the judge. The Irish had this system and it made a society where disputes were, more often than not, solved peacefully and with non-violence. So to the skeptic that, for some crazy reason, wants a monopoly on justice, look to the Brehons. It worked for them, it can work for us.

1. “The Brehon Laws” by Loretta Wilson
2. “Brehon law” Courts Service Ireland
3. “Anarchy – Never Been Tried? Part II: Emerald Anarchy” By Daniel Hawkins

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