The Roots of Libertarianism in Norse Heathen Culture

Libertarianism is not a new idea, but a resurgence of ancient ideals. It was the organic form of government that arose among the Norse people, described in the Icelandic Sagas.

Before Popes began converting northern Europeans by the sword and imposing foreign totalitarian ideas on them, they had enshrined natural law into a voluntaryist political system that governed a prosperous society lasting longer than the United States has been in existence.


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5/29/18 By: Ryan Ramsey

Throughout history various people visited what we now call Iceland. A group of Celts, and likely others, had attempted settlements there and failed. The Landnámabók, or “Book of Settlements”, notes the first permanent migration there, by a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson, and 434 initial settlers that followed.

In 930 a body called the “Althing” was formed, establishing a libertarian government known as the “Icelandic Free State”, that lasted until a pledge of fealty to the Norwegian King in 1262. Much like the colonists who founded the United States, many of the settlers came seeking freedom by escaping life under monarchy, specifically King Harald Fairhair, who had unified Norway under his rule.

The first Anglo-Saxon expression of popular sovereignty, or the right to choose your own representatives, was the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Nearly 400 years earlier though, the Norsemen in Iceland had done so when they formed the Althing.

Many of those Scots were Norsemen who came with William the Conqueror, as my own ancestors did, and they undeniably influenced the similar system of Clans that would govern free Scotland after the defeat of the English monarchs. The Declaration of Independence was directly influenced by this Scottish document, so you can thank the Icelandic Free State for many of the founding principles of liberty that made America great.

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The Icelandic Free State relied on social contract, as our Bill of Rights would later emulate. The Icelandic Commonwealth had no law enforcement agency or coercive power. The way in which any free-man could participate governance has been compared with the Athenian system. The Commonwealth has also been described as quasi-democratic, insulated from the mob rule of pure Democracy by a code of law equally applied to all, and based on protection of property rights. Private enterprise lay at the root of the system, and chiefdoms could be inherited, sold, or given away. The period is remembered as “Golden Age” in Iceland.

The Althing was both court and legislature; there was no king or other central executive power. The structure was identical to the ideas of home rule and local control Libertarians advocate for today. The country was divided into numerous goðorð, essentially clans or alliances, and run by a chieftan chosen by the people known as a goðar, who would provide for defense and appoint judges to settle disputes between members. They would do so in public at the “Law Rock” and all members could attend. The goðar was required to explain his vote to the members. Since no property was being seized or distributed, it prevented anyone from having too much power.

There was no King or Chief Executive, instead a “Law Speaker” was chosen by drawing lots every 3 years. He would memorize the law and offer legal advice, and preside over the Althing. Adam of Bremen described it in 1075, as having “no king, only law.” This is the direct forerunner of the concept of the rule of law at the foundation of our Libertarian Republic founded in 1787, as opposed to a Monarchy or Democracy. It had a series of higher regional courts to appeal to, and the Althing acted as a Supreme Court.

If a person wanted to appeal a decision made by his goðorð court or if a dispute arose between members of different goðorð, the case would be referred to a system of higher-level courts, leading up to the four regional courts which made up the Althing. The Althing eventually created a national “fifth court,” as the highest court of all, and more goðar to be its members. There were no police to enforce the laws, which rested instead on the citizens’ free participation in a social contract. Cases were initially tried by a jury of peers, half of whom were chosen by the defendant, half by the plaintiff.

Fines imposed for crime went as restitution to the victim or to their family, not to the “state.” All law was civil, because the court system made no distinction between criminal or civil cases. Murder was punished with a fine, or exile.

The traditions of limited and decentralized government of the vikings lasted far beyond the end of the Icelandic Free State. Even in the mid nineteenth century only twenty-five full-time officials handled internal administration of the entire country.

The Icelandic Saga of Njal contains the story of Burnt Njal, which describes many aspects of the Icelandic Free State’s operation. THIS ARTICLE is a good aid for the reader unfamiliar with the combination of history and prose that make a saga.

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The collapse of the system is described in the New World Encyclopedia:

The commonwealth collapsed when external influence disrupted the social balance, leading to the emergence of fewer and wealthier chiefs.

The King of Norway began to exert pressure on his Icelandic vassals to bring the country under his rule.

The term “Sturlung” is derived from the name of one of the chiefs who in 1220 agreed to recognize the authority of the Norwegian king.

Encouraged by this the king tried to recruit additional vassals. This, combined with increased competition between the smaller number of chiefs, led to the civil war.

Finally, the Icelandic chieftains agreed, after about 45 years of war, to accept Norway’s Haakon IV as king by the signing of the Gamli sáttmáli (“Old Covenant”) in 1262. This effectively brought the Commonwealth to an end.

Despite what has been described as minimal government, hence the system is often referred to as an anarchy, it took 300 years before civil war broke out, which was caused by the challenge that Christianity presented to old beliefs and practices.

In other words, it was a type of external intervention that finally caused the end of the commonwealth experiment.

There narrative also suggests that the absence of war allows such a society to flourish.

It might also suggest that smaller units with minimal government function best.

The future of geo-political organization may not be the nation-state but smaller units linked globally through regional associations or within confederations, similar to the idea developed by, among others, Benjamin R. Barber.[3]

An old form of government may have lessons for contemporary political life.

The legacy of the commonwealth is undeniable proof that humans are capable of creating stable, just and equitable societies in the absence of big government.

Iceland’s national ethos is still wrapped in the idea of political equality for all Icelanders, which would express itself over a thousand years later, when the country stood out among the world for their handling of the 2008 banking crash.

The Icelanders put the bankers in jail. They crowdsourced a new constitution. They refused to bail out the banks, and held a national referendum on sovereign debt.

It is only natural that a heathen society like that of Iceland over a millenia ago would create an organic Libertarian government. Libertarianism is, at its root, natural law enshrined in politics.

It is the only form of government suitable for a people who respect natural rights, private property, and meritocracy.

Libertarians are not seeking to impose an unproven idea on the country. We seek to restore the liberty our ancestors enjoyed before corrupt and violent political and religious leaders robbed us of a natural and free way of handling societies problems that did not involve a parasitic state.

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