States: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

Mark Weiner’s essay, and the brilliant and sprawling book on which it draws, raises one of the great questions of modern history. What, he asks (echoing Thomas Hobbes and many others since), is the function of the state? 

Weiner’s effort at an answer is one of the most distinctive of recent years. This is no small feat given the amount of intelligence that has been directed at the question. The state, he says, operates to protect us from the deep human tendency to clannishness: to the formation of tight-knit groups organized on the basis of family and kinship connections. The “rule of the clan,” as Weiner describes it, typically lacks the liberal values that most westerners both hold dear and take for granted: values like individual autonomy, racial and gender equality before the law, religious freedom, and merit-based opportunity. 

The fate of the state as a unit in world affairs is much-discussed these days, of course. In an era of rapid globalization, we seem to some to be headed toward a post-state world. But Weiner’s focus on the opposition of clan and state makes a distinctive contribution to the conversation. It reminds us that what is most striking about the state—what needs historical explanation and theoretical defense—is its fragility as a stopping point in the sliding scale between the family unit, on the one hand, and empire or even world government, on the other.  

What do I mean by the state as a stopping point? Human collective life has taken on countless formations over recorded history. Families, clans, tribes, villages, federations, leagues, city-states, principalities, states, unions, empires—the welter of alternative and sometimes overlapping formations is virtually as wide as the imagination of mankind. But the dominant feature of our modern history since the early modern period has been the rise of the state. The late Charles Tilly’s work memorably described this process when he observed that the story of the Europe we know is the story of how more than a thousand sovereign principalities at the end of the Middle Ages became the handful of states that dominated the map of Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. 

But why stop with the state? The historical existence of alternatives—not to mention the near certainty that the future will feature political units of a different order (perhaps super-states like the European Union)—means that the state is a historically contingent formation, and not an especially obvious one, either. As Weiner persuasively contends, tight-knit family organizations like the clan exert a powerful pull on human nature. We can understand the linkages that bind us together with kin; we feel them emotionally and intuitively. These are communities that are not merely imagined, as Benedict Anderson famously observed about the invented community of the nation state, but real, or at least largely biological. At the other extreme, we can also understand the prototypical political unit for more than a thousand years, which was not the state but the empire: the effort to organize vast spaces, perhaps even the entire planet, under a single vision of the right and the good is the legacy of Roman antiquity.

But the state can claim neither the small kin group’s intuitive appeal, nor empire’s seductively attractive vision of a unified model for the right and the good. It requires of us a much more intellectually demanding middle-space, one that forgoes the comforts of family and kin while recognizing the claims of different visions of the good life and the moral diversity that the world of states entails. The “us” of the state is neither the “us” of an intimate circle, nor the “us” of humanity as a whole. It is a fictive and constructed collective.  Of course, states often try to characterize themselves as carriers of the sorts of tight bonds that bind clans. In time of war, for example, states can seem like so many tribes. They can seem positively clannish in the regular outbreak of peacetime rivalry known as the Olympics. Similarly, few states can resist the imperial temptation to insist on the universality of the values they adopt. And yet for two and a half centuries or so, or perhaps even since as long ago as the end of the Thirty Years War, the compromise of the state as the signature middle space of modernity has more or less held.    

Weiner takes this middle space to be a fragile one. As we look around the world, the state is beset by a bewildering variety of enemies. There are resurgent clans, to be sure, of both ethnic and religious kinds.  There are latter-day imperialists who talk of cosmopolitanism and human rights, or the United Nations or the European Union, or even world government. There are global plutocrats who threaten to undo the capacity of any particular collectivity to regulate itself and to deprive states of their tax base. And, of course, there are internal critics of the state—groups that have been especially prominent in the United States for at least the past half-century, who seem to think that depriving the state of its sustenance would be a good thing.  

Weiner disagrees. His state is not only fragile: it is precious. He reminds us that the ideals of those who hold to one or another variety of liberalism, including libertarianism, have thrived in the political unit of the state. That is why the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism—men like Hobbes or John Locke and Hugo Grotius—wrote at precisely the moment in which the state as a political formation was taking hold. Weiner seems to be saying that the libertarian critic of the state wants to have his cake and eat it, too. The libertarian wants the autonomy that could barely be imagined prior to the formation of the modern state, but resists the costs that someone like Hobbes insisted on as an inevitable accompaniment to the only viable political formation.  

I, for one, am not quite so sure that the libertarian really faces this conceptual problem. I am no libertarian myself, though I take it to be one of Weiner’s insights that libertarians and liberals share a lot in common. But I don’t quite see why it’s a problem for a libertarian to accept the liberal state while taking aggressively libertarian positions about the proper (i.e., highly individualistic) organization of the collective life of that state. Perhaps there might be some obligation on those adopting such a libertarian politics to be more generous in acknowledging their reliance on and indebtedness to the state. But I don’t think they’re being inconsistent in their position. (I should be clear: as I understand it, there are strands of anarcho-libertarianism that reject the state altogether, and look forward to a future in which the state withers away. A libertarian need not embrace the state. My point is that there are coherent libertarianisms that may.)

Nor am I quite as sanguine as Weiner about the extent to which the state should be credited with great moral triumphs. Take gender equality, which Weiner cites prominently. For a generation and more historians have described the ways in which the rise of the modern state has actually had the effect of excluding women from public life. To take an example that Mark knows well, women were much more heavily involved in the collective life of colonial New England when it was a small, tight-knit community of religious fundamentalists than they were after its legal system became more formal and state-like. Similar things can be said for the state-making moment of revolutionary France. 

Indeed, many of the virtues of the modern state are remarkably late arrivals in it. Think of civil rights and civil liberties, to take only two examples, both of which can only be said to exist in any meaningful way in the United States beginning in the second third of the twentieth century. And it goes without saying that nothing about the state is necessarily aligned with liberal virtues. States, as the inevitable Nazi case shows, can engage in terrible wrongdoing. My Yale colleague James Scott—something of a left-libertarian himself—has spent much of a career documenting the damage done when communities begin (as he puts it) to “see like a state.”

If political units of any kind can do wrong, it is also the case that there are worthwhile virtues embedded in the rule of the clan, and not merely dangerous natural instincts to be resisted. There is much to be said for communitarian fellow-feeling after all, though perhaps it will hold little appeal here! Even a libertarian ought to love the ethic of care for neighbors that the clan model of collective life may be said to embody. 

The great challenge for human social life is that some kind of collective self-governance seems to be required in human social life. We need one another. And yet we are a threat to one another. The collective dimension of our experience is always fraught by this fundamental tension. We cannot live without collective self-organization. But sometimes we cannot live with it, either.

Mark Weiner has done the great service of focusing us on a feature of this problem of collectivity that we spend too little time really thinking about, and too much time theatrically reenacting. What are the bounds of the collectivities by which we govern ourselves? What is the community of the “us”? No matter what one’s political persuasion within the modern state, from libertarian to left, Weiner’s case for the state is bracing.  

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Paradox of Modern Individualism by Mark S. Weiner

    Mark S. Weiner argues that, while the state does often destroy individual liberty, an even greater danger lies in the rule of the clan. Clan-based societies have been found throughout the world, in many different times and places. In general they have been highly resilient, successful at replicating themselves – and markedly illiberal. Individual freedom may need a strong central state after all, one that can provide the rule of law, enforce contracts, and suppress clan-based feuds and prejudices. Without the state, we may find ourselves regressing from an egalitarian society of contract to a hierarchical society of status. Liberals of all persuasions, including classical liberals, should beware this outcome.

Response Essays

  • Human Nature vs. Libertarian Ideals by Arnold Kling

    Arnold Kling argues that human beings require institutions to interact on the basis of trust and cooperation. Kling argues that the resurgence of the clan is possible but unlikely in Anglo-American societies because the nuclear family rather than the clan is our distinctive form of non-state order. Kling concludes that the natural individualism fostered by the nuclear family makes prospects bright for shrinking the state without the risks of clannism. He calls on libertarians to advocate institutions that would accomplish this task.

  • The Paradox of Rule by Daniel McCarthy

    Daniel McCarthy argues that all political activity takes place in collectives and in the organizations they create. As a result, even liberal societies are never all that far away from the rule of the clan. Clannishness, rather than individualism, is the rule in politics, and it probably always will be. To McCarthy’s way of thinking, even voting is a clan ritual; his viewpoint gains credibility when we consider that individualist analysis of voting is hard pressed to explain the act at all. The paradox of rule is that, to secure one’s rights, one must participate in government, but that requires committing to a group, an act that necessarily has an illiberal dimension.

The Conversation