Best Books of 2019: Legal Systems Very Different from Ours


Review of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours by David Friedman, Peter Leeson, and David Skarbek. 

Many years ago at a Mont Pelerin Society conference in Reykjavik, I saw David Friedman give a talk on Icelandic law during the Free State period, roughly 1000-1300 A.D., when the island had no central government. As it turns out, Free State Iceland was just one of many times and places in history that had governance without government. Friedman looks at legal systems not just in Iceland, or in Somalia, where state institutions are either absent or almost purely predatory, but in Gypsy/Roma society, ancient China, medieval Ireland, Jewish law, Islamic law, today’s Amish, plains Indians such as the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne, and more.

Friedman finds endless ingenuity and creativity among people trying to solve a wide range of social problems, sometimes in very harsh conditions and in very limiting cultural situations. Many legal institutions evolve as ways to reduce transaction costs, to reinforce group identity, or to enhance respect for social customs—whatever they may be in a given society.

Leeson, a former professor of mine, and David Skarbek contribute chapters on laws among pirates and prisoners, respectively. Interested readers would also enjoy Leeson’s The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates and Skarbek’s The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System as well as Jess Byock’s Viking Age Iceland.