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How effective was Iceland's legal system?

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FlyingAxe posted on Wed, Mar 14 2012 2:58 PM

I was fascinated by David Friedman's article on the medieval Iceland and private law creation and enforcement. Wikipedia article on Icelandic Commonwealth states, however: "The Althing was only moderately successful at stopping feuds; Magnus Magnusson calls it 'an uneasy substitute for vengeance'".

David Friedman's article doesn't really provide any statistics on the crime rates, etc. I would be interested to looking at some, especially in comparison with the crime rates of contemporary Norway and England.

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Well, one could say the state has been a total failure at stopping/preventing feuds, so a moderate success sounds pretty good to me.

The wikipedia article gives it away because they aren't saying it was awful.

I'm sorry I wasn't able to find any info on crime rates for you, but I think had a thread on anarchy and they mentioned Iceland.  I'm not sure whether they mention crime rates.

Always remember that the state is the worst aggressor and that it's centralized aggression, so crime wouldn't be worse in any stateless society.  It pretty much depends upon the people in a stateless society as to how much crime there is.

Finally, they may not have done it right if they weren't a completely restitutional system (whether they were or not, I don't know; I'll read the links you posted some time)

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The system was set up in the 10th century. Do you know of any society that far back for which crime statistics exist? I don't.

One can try to estimate the murder rates for past societies, and I report one such estimate for the final period of breakdown in the article, based on the relevant sagas. I doubt even that much could be done for Norway or England. Who do you imagine was collecting and recording such numbers?

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I don't know. I was just wondering whether there is any evidence at all as to the effectiveness of Icelandic system in "preserving peace".

There is this statement from Roderick Long's article:

To keep Icelandic feud in perspective, one may contrast it with continental Europe, whose princes, blessed with "mutually exclusive territories," launched massive wars. As Solvason points out, Icelandic society was "more peaceful and cooperative than its contemporaries"; in England and Norway, by contrast, "the period from about 800 to 1200 is a period of continuous struggle; high in both violence and killings." Byock contrasts the prolonged and violent civil strife which attended Christianization in Norway with its relatively swift and peaceful Icelandic analogue.

Most of it has to do with wars and political strife, but statements like "Icelandic society was more peaceful and cooperative than its contemporaries" and "high in both violence and killings" suggest that the author (Solvason) had some sort of data to back this up. I mean, one could say: "Yeah, Iceland didn't have kings killing each other, but it had chieftains and everyone else killing each other". Which is what Magnus Magnusson seems to be suggesting.

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