Human Nature vs. Libertarian Ideals

One year ago, Michael Huemer challenged readers with the Problem of Authority. He wrote,

what gives the government the right to behave in ways that would be wrong for any non-governmental agent? And why should the rest of us obey the government’s commands?

In other words, why are government officials entitled to rule, and why are citizens obligated to obey?  This is a fundamental question in political philosophy. 

In this month’s lead essay, Mark Weiner criticizes libertarians for wanting to strip government officials of their right to rule and to release citizens from their obligation to obey. According to Weiner, if such wishes were granted, then the ultimate result would be a loss of the individual freedom and autonomy that libertarians cherish. 

Behind any political philosophy, you will find, at least implicitly, a theory of human nature. For example, Thomas Hobbes evidently saw mankind as competitive and violent, which meant that without government there would be a “war of all against all.” 

In contrast, Huemer sees humans as sufficiently rational to recognize the futility of initiating violence. Elsewhere, I have described what I see as problems and inconsistencies in Huemer’s treatment of human nature. 

For me, a key issue in human nature concerns cooperation and trust. Our economic and social systems cannot function without trust and cooperation. Often, it is in our self-interest to “defect” rather than to cooperate. Yet we have the ability to cooperate to a greater degree than if we were solely acting out of individual self-interest. 

On the other hand, we do not seem capable of universal brotherhood. Instead, our ability to trust and cooperate with strangers seems to be an extension of a more natural inclination to trust and cooperate with people with whom we feel kinship. It appears that humans are most inclined to cooperate in small groups, in which everyone knows everyone else and repeated interactions are likely. The tribe strikes me as the social unit under which we are most naturally inclined to interact on the basis of trust and cooperation. 

Under skilled leadership, this tribal cooperation instinct can be harnessed to encompass larger social institutions, including religion, business, and political action. These larger social structures are held together by several forms of emotional glue. Our membership in these units is a precious part of our sense of identity, which we fear losing, just as a primitive member of a tribe fears expulsion into the wilderness.  Our social units develop rituals, which we come to love and to consider important. They reward loyalty in both tangible and intangible ways that help bind us to the larger group. 

However, in order to harness our tribal nature on behalf of large organizations, it seems necessary to have an enemy as part of the motivational structure. We demonize our opponents, attributing to them evil motives and repugnant qualities that they do not objectively possess. Red Sox fans demonize Yankee fans. Religions demonize unbelievers. Corporations demonize their competitors. Even within a corporation, it is not uncommon for animosities to flourish between, say, engineering and marketing. Certainly, political partisans demonize their opponents. 

The universal phenomenon of demonization leads me to hypothesize that it is important for group solidarity. Only if there are villains to contend with will we be willing to treat some members of our tribe as heroes and to grant them the sort of authority that enables them to maneuver large masses of people. 

Suppose that we take it as given that humans as social animals are tribal. If part of the glue that binds groups together is their hostility toward other groups, how can order be achieved? 

In their book Violence and Social Orders, Douglass North, Barry Weingast, and John Wallis say that the most basic way to create order is for groups to form a ruling coalition that extracts rents from the rest of the population. The key is to allocate sufficient advantages to each group within the coalition so that they would rather remain in the coalition as peaceful members than defect from the coalition and engage in violence. They call this sort of polity the “natural state.” 

North, Weingast, and Wallis use the term limited-access order as a synonym for this natural state. Only members of the ruling coalition have access to political and economic power. Equilibrium is maintained by differentiating the privileges enjoyed by the ruling coalition from the more circumscribed possibilities given to everyone else. Natural states do not tolerate a vibrant civil society, because any organized activity that is not controlled by the governing coalition represents a competitive threat to that coalition. 

In some countries, notably the Western democracies, limited-access orders have evolved into what North, Weingast, and Wallis call open-access orders. Opportunities for economic and political power have gradually been extended to formerly underprivileged groups within the population. At the same time, the rule of law has come to apply to those holding political power. 

Libertarians prefer open-access orders to limited-access orders. However, both types of state have tended to evolve to be much more powerful and intrusive than libertarians believe is proper. Is there an alternative, in which there is not a strong central state inclined to undertake a vast array of functions? 

Mark Weiner says that there is an alternative, decentralized form of social order:  the rule of the clan. However, this order is characterized by tight social control. Group honor is supremely important, while individual autonomy is threatening. Group norms are rigid, and conformity is required. 

For Weiner, rule of the clan is the natural state. Even the limited-access orders described by North, Weingast, and Wallis represent not much more than an advanced form of clan-based rule. According to Weiner, only when the state achieves a high level of power and legitimacy can it rid a society of the vestiges of clannism. 

Implicit in Weiner’s thesis is a presumption that humans naturally want the services that are provided by clan leaders or by large, modern states. What do clan societies and modern states have in common?  Both seek to provide physical security. Both offer mechanisms for fair resolution of disputes. Both offer help to individuals when adversity strikes. 

Weiner claims that in the absence of a strong state, those of us in modern democracies would fall back on the rule of the clan. In contrast, James Bennett and Michael Lotus in their book America 3.0, claim that there is an important cultural-historical difference between our society and clan-based societies. They argue that for nearly 1500 years, the Anglo-Saxon people have developed a culture centered on the absolute nuclear family. They write, 

Its features include: (1) adult children choose their own spouses, without arranged marriages, (2) adult children leave their parents’ home to form a new, independent family in a new home, (3) the parents do not have a duty to leave their property to any child, and they may sell it during their lives or leave it by will to anyone they choose, (4) children have no duty to provide for their parents, and (5) extended families are weak and have no control over personal decisions… the underlying Anglo-American family type was the foundation for all of the institutions, laws, and cultural practices that gave rise to our freedom and prosperity over the centuries. 

This social pattern creates a different mentality than the collective-ownership, extended-family culture of clan societies. Most important, the absolute nuclear family requires strong property rights, so that new families can establish themselves on an independent basis. 

Thus, for Bennett and Lotus, it is the strong central state that runs contrary to our nature. What Weiner sees as a necessity for individual freedom, they see as a temporary aberration resulting from the extreme capital-intensity of mid-twentieth-century production and warfare. Going forward, as the economy comes to be dominated by intangible sources of wealth, notably human capital, the role of large, centralized institutions, both private and public, will diminish. 

I believe that there is evidence to support the claim by Bennett and Lotus that in the future the United States is likely to experience a radical decentralization of power. I recently looked at the list compiled by the Fraser Institute that ranks countries in terms of economic freedom. It is striking how many countries near the top of the list, such as Singapore and Switzerland, are small in terms of population. Conversely, it is apparent that most countries with large populations are not near the top of the list. The same conclusions are apparent looking at the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which starts from a very different ideological perspective. As I read the data, good government is more likely to be found in countries with small populations than in countries with large populations. 

I believe that we do not face the false choice between a multi-trillion-dollar central government that recognizes no boundaries on what it attempts to control on the one hand, or a primitive clan-based society on the other. Libertarians should remind Americans that the security and social insurance that people want can be provided by much smaller-scale institutions, both private and governmental. If we want to avoid political structures that degenerate into Mafiosi, then we should radically shrink, not grow, the government in Washington. 

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • John Fabian Witt argues that Mark Weiner raises a fundamental question about the function of the state. Witt argues that a distinctive feature of the state is its fragility as a stopping point between the small kin group on the one hand and empire or world government on the other. The state seemingly forgoes both the primordial attraction of the kin group and the philosophically seductive vision of empire. While agreeing with Weiner about the state’s vulnerability, Witt is more skeptical of the claim that the state is naturally conducive to liberal values. Defenders of the state, Witt concludes, would do well to refocus on the precise character of the community the state defines.