Five hundred and forty-one days is a long time to go without a government.
Today, Belgium ended its year-and-a-half of political stalemate – in which an unelected caretaker government ran the country, after the previous government resigned – naming an unwieldy six-party coalition government led by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo. The stalemate was the result of long-running linguistic disputes between the country’s poorer French-speaking minority and its richer Flemish-speaking majority.
That Belgium was able to go so long without a government is a kind of spiritual touchstone for those of the libertarian philosophy – such as Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who believe that smaller government is better. Some, but certainly not all, would argue that no government is best of all.
George Vernon, a leader in the British Libertarian party, argues that Belgium has weathered the economic crisis better than other European countries, if for no other reason than because it generally has smaller government budgets, and less debt, than other European countries.
The only lesson we can really draw from Belgium so far is that less government appears to be beneficial during a crisis (the same lesson can also be drawn from the [America] of 1920-21). Hopefully the UK and others will take note.
Taken to its logical extreme, the less-government-is-better philosophy has no better example than Somalia, which has gone without effective government since the fall of President Siad Barre in 1991. Those who have seen the movie “Black Hawk Down” will remember that the US briefly attempted to impose some military control in Somalia in order to speed the flow of food aid in that drought- and war-stricken country, and they’ll remember how much fun that was.
With no government, there is most assuredly no taxation in Somalia, no overweaning regulation, no troublesome rules to prevent Somali businesses from reaching their full potential. There is also, it must be added, no security, no rule of law, no stable supply of food, no repair of infrastructure, no sanitation service, no health care system, and if two businessmen have a dispute, there is no guarantee that it won’t be resolved without the smell of cordite.
So going without government for decades – as attractive as that notion may sound -- is a decision to be taken with great care, as this satirical video points out.
Mind you, Somalia is not entirely without government. Up north, the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland have their own governments that have managed to restore some sense of peace. In mid-October, Kenya sent in a military force into southern Somalia to help remove Islamist militia groups and to put in another regional government calling itself Jubaland.
And in Mogadishu, the country’s capital, a Transitional Federal Government ruled by President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has extended its control, with the help of African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi. But as the International Crisis Group points out, weak government, lack of vision, and corruption has kept that transitional government from making any significant impact on the lives of Somalis, the majority of whom now rely on foreign food aid to survive. But then Crisis Group would say that, wouldn’t they?
It could be argued … actually, it has been argued, and quite persuasively, by none other than Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society, that clan-based societies such as Somalia or tribe-based societies such as Afghanistan are perhaps not cut out for the standard nation-state model. Should they not, instead, aim for a looser model of unity similar to the confederation of Switzerland?
Somalis – unlike the Swiss but like most Africans – are stuck with a constitution that leaves total power in the hands of a president. Strong centralised states are the legacy of colonial rulers and unsurprisingly the inheritor governments have kept it that way. Terrible wars – such as those in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sudan – were fought to keep the countries together, but in the latter two they failed. In Somalia civil war began in the late 1980s and since then fragmentation has continued. Good. Leave it that way. It suits Somali society.
So where does this discussion leave a combative, linguistically divided young nation-state like Belgium? (Belgium only gained its independence from the Dutch in 1830). Well, the new government will have to catch up with its fellow European nations in making massive cuts and raising taxes in order to get its financial house in order. Standard and Poors, the bond-rating agency, recently downgraded Belgium’s credit rating from AA+ to a mere AA, which will mean that Belgium will have to pay more interest when it borrows money in the future.
Or maybe Belgium could just toss in their chips and mimic Somalia.