At My Real Job: The State, the Clan, and Individual Liberty
This month’s Cato Unbound discusses Mark S. Weiner’s book The Rule of the Clan. It’s been one of the most interesting ever, if I may say so myself.
Liberalism is usually premised on some kind of ethical individualism: Liberal polities tend to judge people, and usually let people act, as if they were autonomous, individual agents. Liberal polities may make exceptions, but these typically stem from an overriding concern for individual autonomy. Thus even apparent violations of individual autonomy (for some) are justified liberally, in that they are expected to provide a still greater or more fundamental individual autonomy (for others).
In many flavors of liberalism, including my own, our autonomy is the very reason why we have societies in the first place: Paradoxically, we become more self-authoring, and we get better at it, when we author ourselves in the presence of others, from whom we can learn, and with whom we can share our labors and joys. I think people who live in a relatively healthy society are commonly better at authoring themselves.
The above — which is fuzzy on purpose — encompasses both modern and classical liberalism. Both care about autonomy. I’m in the classical camp, of course, but I imagine most modern liberals will also be okay with what I’ve written above. At Cato Unbound this month, our lead essayist is a modern liberal, Professor Mark S. Weiner, who poses a serious challenge to (at least certain forms of) libertarianism. He writes:
Many conservatives argue as a basic tenet of their political thought that individual liberty thrives when the state is limited and weak. “As government expands, liberty contracts,” explained President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address, calling the principle “as neat and predictable as a law of physics.” This view is especially pronounced among libertarians, and for libertarians of an anarchist perspective, the opposition between the individual and the state is fundamental and irreconcilable.
I believe this view is significantly mistaken. From the perspective of comparative law and legal history, it represents a dangerous illusion characteristic of citizens who already enjoy the benefits of modern liberal government. Although the state can be an instrument of tyranny, robust government capable of vindicating the public interest is vital for individual autonomy.
Take away the strong central state, and what’s likely to emerge, Weiner argues, is a decidedly illiberal social structure, the rule of the clan:
In the rule of the clan, the individual is submerged within the muscular group and corporate associations that maintain the society’s legal and political order… These groups include associations dedicated to unlawful activity, such as petty criminal gangs, the Mafia, and international crime syndicates, such as the drug gangs of Mexico—which in their cultural markers of solidarity, their lack of opportunity for exit, and their feuding patterns look and act a great deal like traditional clans. Today racial identity groups and multinational corporations have the potential to transform into similar clanlike systems.
Getting to individualism is hard. But in a society with a strong central state, you at least stand a chance of being treated as an individual rather than just a family relation. Under the rule of the clan, you will first be asked questions like: “Who are your parents?” or “What tribe do you belong to?” or “What religion are you?” or “What’s your gender?” Or even: “Are you someone’s slave?” The clan stands squarely against the individual, and it even tries not to notice that she exists, at least not as anything beyond an agent of the clan itself.
In the terminology of the great classical liberal sociologist Henry Sumner Maine, clan societies are societies of status, while societies with a strong central state can aspire to something more: these can be societies of contract, in which as many as possible of our obligations are freely and individually undertaken, rather than being assigned according to immutable characteristics.
Outside the constellation of liberal states, many forms of “strong government” are possible, including of course totalitarianism. But totalitarianism is not the only danger that liberal individualism faces. Weiner makes the case that the rule of the clan is still very important not merely in tribal societies or in underdeveloped parts of the world, but also as a possible fate for our own society, if we let our central government get too weak.
How weak is that, exactly? I’m not sure. One of Weiner’s examples of a “strong” central state, which successfully crushed the power of a clan-based society, was 18th-century Britain, which broke the power of the Scottish Highland clans in favor of its own individualist, contract-based legal system. For both of us, this was a positive development.
But what’s wrong with this picture, for me at least, is that 18th-century Britain is basically nobody’s idea of a “strong” central state today. Indeed, its economic policies were so laissez faire that they immediately spawned the Industrial Revolution. (For which my sincere thanks, by the way. We are all in your debt, and we always will be.)
In short, Weiner’s argument isn’t necessarily for the welfare-warfare-surveillance state as we know it. It’s a plea for individualism, but not necessarily for modern liberalism. (In the comments to his essay, some actually presumed him to be a moderate libertarian. He’s not, but it’s an illustrative mistake.) Likewise, I would disagree with him that the state needs to provide the kind of economic equality that clans once (putatively) extended. They didn’t actually deliver, I don’t believe, and neither for the most part does the modern state.
But anyway. Weiner’s argument does weigh against certain extreme kinds of libertarianism, in particular anarcho-capitalism. If any social system is so governmentally weak that it will bring back the rule of the clan, anarcho-capitalism is it. And Weiner’s thesis strikes the hardest at certain traditionalist-minded anarcho-capitalists who, far from fearing the rule of the clan, seem rather to look forward to it. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Gary North, and their followers have the most to answer for here.
These are also the sorts of illiberal, antindividualist libertarians whom Jeffrey Tucker recently called out as “libertarian brutalists“:
There is a segment of the population of self-described libertarians… [for whom] what’s impressive about liberty is that it allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on “politically incorrect” standards, to hate to their heart’s content so long as no violence is used as a means, to shout down people based on their demographics or political opinions, to be openly racist and sexist, to exclude and isolate and be generally malcontented with modernity, and to reject civil standards of values and etiquette in favor of antisocial norms.
Tucker’s essay may be the most important recent polemic on the direction of libertarianism, if you’re into that kind of thing. (If not, I quite understand.) Either way, you’re either an individualist or you’re not, and that’s where Hoppe, North, and the like abandon both libertarianism and the larger liberal project — that is, they abandon it right from the start.
Common among libertarian brutalists is the assertion that exit rights are enough to maintain a free society: It doesn’t really matter if we set up a national socialism, or a patriarchal clan, or an Islamic theocracy. All that matters is that you’re perfectly free to leave. If we can guarantee that, then we, the founders of an illiberal-but-localized society, are maximally free to tinker.
Tinkering is an admittedly valuable freedom. And with exit rights, you are maximally free to do likewise, just as long as you do it somewhere else. So you are perfectly free to set up a Maoist collective, or a matriarchal clan, or a Unitarian Universalist theocracy. Just as long as we’re all on an equal footing, everything’s okay.
There are a lot of problems with this approach.
First, it seems to place altogether too much emphasis (to my mind anyway) on the liberty to govern others, whereas the liberty that I value is the liberty to be governed by others as little as possible.
The two don’t sit well together. The former, the liberty to govern others, is logically inegalitarian in its application, because exercising it absolutely requires that someone else submit to my governing them. I wouldn’t want any of the libertarian brutalist governments suggested above, and I wouldn’t want to see them inflicted on anyone else either. Why bother making a society that is illiberal, even if it’s just locally? Or: Why must freedom always live somewhere else? Why not right here?
Exit rights, the darlings of libertarian brutalism, also just aren’t very good at preserving liberty in practice. Paradoxically, the more a persecuted group exercises its exit rights, the more that those belonging to the group who remain behind may find themselves lacking in other rights, as the majority grows more numerous and more confident in its mastery. Even if the minority has good reason to leave, individuals who leave pose an awful collective action problem.
Exit rights further neglect the plight of those who can’t afford to move or who are under the personal dominion of someone else in the illiberal society — people like slaves, serfs, children, women, the disabled, and those who are declared mentally ill or incompetent. Such forms of personal dominion flourish in illiberal societies, and when they do, exit rights die.
I’ve nothing against exit rights, but posing them as the solution to illiberal government, and then cheerfully setting up an illiberal government, is an insult.
Image credit: Kahunapule Michael Johnson.