The great classical liberal sociologist Henry Sumner Maine theorized that societies progressed from status to contract: In a status-based society, one is born into a place in a hierarchy. That place may change, but typically it doesn’t change very much, and your place governs your rights and obligations. Societies of status are stable, rigid, and often deeply illiberal. They tend to be dominated by kinship groups, or clans, and these can be quite collectivist and quite hostile to individual liberty.
Contract-based societies are very different: In a contract-based society, individuals tend to be legally equal at birth. Family ties are affective and not quite so legally binding. Obligations tend to be voluntarily undertaken rather than assumed at birth. Societies of contract are flexible, may change rapidly, and will often act to protect individual liberty.
There are just a few small problems with Maine’s theory: First, the progress from status to contract isn’t a one-way street. Societies can and do regress. And second, many libertarians may still find that the role of the state is still too large in our modern, contract-based societies.
This month’s lead essayist, legal historian Mark S. Weiner, argues that the state performs a sometimes unappreciated role in keeping away the status-based society: If we don’t have a state that’s strong enough to break the power of the clans, then the clans will return, and individual liberty will suffer. That’s an outcome that no libertarian could want.
But how real is the danger? Do we really have the strong state to thank for our liberty? Joining us this month are panelists Arnold Kling, Daniel McCarthy, and John Fabian Witt. Each has a somewhat different perspective on the relationship among the state, the clan, and individual liberty, which we will discuss throughout the month.