Private Law in Iceland

Kurt Bouwhuis, Mackinac Center Intern

I recently read a piece by Roderick T. Long titled “The Decline and Fall of Private Law in Iceland.”  The piece does a great job of explaining the structure of the private legal system of Iceland during the Free Commonwealth period (930-1262).  I also read “Medieval Iceland and the Absence of Government” by Thomas Whiston, which offered a number of additional insights.   Both pieces help convey the message that a unique private law system can utilize market mechanisms, rather than a governmental monopoly of power, to provide the incentives to cooperate and maintain order.

Legal system’s structure:

  • There was no public property during the era of the Vikings in Iceland, all property was privately owned.
  • Legislative power was vested in the General Assembly (Made up of Chieftains)
  • Legislators were Chieftains representing Assemblymen (Assemblymen tended to be the head of the household).
  • Every Icelander was attached to a Chieftain, either directly, by being an Assemblyman, or indirectly, by belonging to a household headed by an Assemblyman.
  • A Chieftaincy was private property, which could be bought and sold.
  • One permanent official in the system was the “logsogumadr” or law-speaker. His duties included the memorization of laws, the provision of advice on legislative issues, and the recitation of all legislative acts one time while in office
  • Representation was determined by choice rather than by place of residence; an Assemblyman could transfer his allegiance (and attendant fees) at will from one Chieftain to another without moving to a new district. Hence competition among Chieftains served to keep them in line.  The ability to switch legal systems with out moving, is key to a decentralized system. It creates secession down the level of the individual, making all governance structures formed truly voluntary.

Legal system’s mechanisms:

  • The General Assembly passed laws, but had no executive authority
  • Law enforcement was up to the individual, with the help of his friends, family, and Chieftain
  • Disputes were resolved either through private arbitration or through the court system administered by the General Assembly.
  • Wrongdoers were required to pay financial restitution to their victims; those who refused were denied all legal protection in the future (and thus, e.g., could be killed with impunity).
  • The claim to such compensation was itself a marketable commodity; a person too weak to enforce his claim could sell it to someone more powerful. This served to prevent the powerful from preying on the weak. Foreigners were scandalized by this “land without a king”; but Iceland’s system appears to have kept the peace at least as well as those of its monarchical neighbors.

In short, it is possible to have a system in which individuals can evade the Hobbesian jungle and live in a cililized society in the absence of government.

* The information above has been paraphrased from the two articles linked at the beginning of the article.


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