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Wild West in Streets of Cairo

In the absence of the police forces that were pulled from the streets of Cairo in the wake of civil unrest, citizens in the middle class districts of the Egyptian capital have taken matters into their own hands to protect their homes and stores from looters and rampage.

Even after thirty years of oppression, the Egyptian people are perfectly capable of fending for themselves. While policing should be undertaken by the state, because private law enforcement is arbitrary by definition, most people will act responsibly when they have to and invent private—as well as voluntary—security arrangements in the absence of official protection.

A textbook example is the American Wild West, which was not as wild as legend would have it. According to Terry L. Anderson and P.J. Hill, authors of “An American Experiment in Anarcho-capitalism,” published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies 3, 1 (1979), in the Old West, “private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflict were resolved.” In the absence of government, citizens regulated themselves. They associated to establish order in a given market and teamed up to defend their property against the inevitable bandits.

Land clubs were particularly effective in warding off squatters. “They established procedures for registration of land claims, as well as for protection of those claims against outsiders, and for adjudication of internal disputes that arose,” noted Bruce L. Benson in “Private Justice in America,” published in To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice (New York 1998).

The reciprocal arrangements for protection would be maintained only if a member complied with the association’s rules and its court’s rulings. Anyone who refused would be ostracized. Boycott by a land club meant that an individual had no protection against aggression other than what he could provide himself.

No one was forced to join any club but the benefits were obvious. As Anderson and Hill concluded, “people on the frontier invented institutions that fit the resource constraints they faced.” No man had to act against his choice or conscious. There was no one around to force him.

In an industrialized and populous country as Egypt, as in the modern day United States, uniformed police are preferable to private law enforcement. But the news of ordinary Egyptians organizing to protect their neighborhoods against the scoundrels that seek to take advantage of a precarious situation should remind us that people everywhere can rule themselves.

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