About this Issue

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.

Lead Essay

The Paradox of Modern Individualism

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.

As I argue in my recent book The Rule of the Clan, among its important benefits, a strong central state provides the most effective means to ensure that persons are treated as individuals, not merely as cousins. In its absence, people are forced to look to other institutions to address their social and legal problems, and the most enduring such organization in human history is the extended family, the clan—for which group loyalty trumps individual rights.

Because the rule of the clan provides many vital goods that liberal societies deliver less effectively, and because it is based on the natural fact of genetic affinity, it represents an ever-present gravitational force in human affairs.

One of the objects of modern liberal government is to resist this gravitational pull.

If the goal of the liberal, critical tradition that grew from the Enlightenment is not the limitation of government power per se, but rather the fostering of individual autonomy, libertarians should seek to elaborate what Arnold Kling, sympathetically yet critically assessing my work elsewhere, has called “a libertarian case for a strong central state.” Moreover, they should join people across the political spectrum who are dedicated to liberal ideals in the shared project of building effective government institutions in the name of the individual.

The human experience with the rule of the clan is universal. It stretches from medieval Scotland to modern Libya, and it knows no bounds of race or geography. Clan organization is now capable of taking a variety of new forms beyond traditional kinship associations, which underscores the fact that individuals must claim their freedom not only against the state, but also through it.

When I refer to the rule of the clan, I mean three related contemporary phenomena. In each case, persons living within its system of governance lack what the Palestinian intellectual Hisham Sharabi in his book Neopatriarchy called “the individual’s claim to autonomous right.” 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.

First, and most prominently, by the rule of the clan I mean the legal institutions and cultural values of societies organized primarily on the basis of kinship—societies in which extended family membership is essential for social and legal action and in which individuals have little choice but to maintain a strong clan identity (the nuclear family, an agent of psychological individualization, is a substantially different social institution). Today these societies include Afghanistan and Somalia, but they have existed across history and throughout the world.

Second, by the rule of the clan I mean the political arrangements of societies governed by what the U.N.’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report calls “clannism.” These societies possess the outward trappings of a modern state but are founded on informal patronage networks, especially those of kinship, and on traditional ideals of patriarchal family authority. In nations pervaded by clannism, government is coopted for purely factional purposes and the state, conceived on the model of the patriarchal family, treats citizens not as autonomous actors but rather as troublesome dependents to be managed. Clannism often characterizes rentier societies struggling under the continuing legacy of colonial subordination.

Third, and most broadly, by the rule of the clan I mean the antiliberal social and legal organizations that tend to grow in the absence of state authority or when the state is weak, including in modern democracies where the writ of government fails to run. 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.

In this respect, the rule of the clan is a synecdoche for a general pattern according to which humans tend to organize their communities.

Across their differences, these three forms of the rule of the clan share a socio-legal structure that, for all its benefits, undermines personal autonomy. This structure radically decentralizes legal and political authority and institutes a culture of group honor and shame. Group honor and shame allow the rule of the clan’s devolution of power to work by promoting both internal self-regulation within extended kin groups and coexistence among them—but this structure comes at a substantial price.

Consider a financial analogy. In societies of group honor and shame, a person’s social worth, his or her honor, is bound to the honor of each of the separate members of his or her kin. Imagine, then, that your personal financial worth were structured on the same terms. This would mean that the funds in your retirement account or your ability to obtain a mortgage would be tied not only to your own personal earnings, but also to the investment decisions and reputation for financial probity of every one of your cousins.

In such circumstances, you surely would do whatever was necessary to ensure that your cousins maintained an unassailable reputation for fiscal trustworthiness. After all, your own financial power would depend on it. If one of your cousins were acting irresponsibly, you and your siblings and other cousins would use the utmost social pressure, and perhaps even physical force, to keep him or her in line and protect your interests. In clan societies, likewise, each member seeks to ensure that every other member of his or her clan acts honorably, generating powerful pressure toward social conformity.

The principle of group honor thereby strengthens the internal cohesion of extended kin groups, enabling their autonomy and independence and, in turn, fostering the rule of the clan’s decentralization of power.

Group honor also establishes rough harmony between groups by creating a regime of group liability. Whereas in modern liberal societies, if you do the crime, you do the time, under the rule of the clan, members of a kin group can be held responsible for one another’s misdeeds. Honor and shame form the cultural circuitry of such a collectivist system. Just as an injury to one is an injury to all, so an injury from one is an injury from all.

In our financial analogy, group liability would mean that if one of your cousins presented the member of another family with a bad check, the brother of the person to whom he presented the check would be entitled to attach a lien on your home. No doubt your cousin would think more than twice before perpetrating such a fraud, knowing the possible consequences of his behavior, including your wrath at being drawn into the mess he created.

Group liability thereby moderates infractions against other clans, enabling kin groups to coexist peaceably despite being autonomous and responsible largely to themselves alone.

This radically decentralized socio-legal organization offers many profound benefits. Most important, it fosters a powerful sense of group solidarity. It gives persons the dignity and unshakable identity that comes from clan membership, and it generates a powerful drive toward social justice—a political economy that prizes economic equality. This makes it attractive. Artists in modern liberal societies often romanticize the rule of the clan for this reason.

Moreover, because the rule of the clan is based on the natural fact of genetic relatedness (and on principles of fictive kinship that mirror the natural world), it is frankly more explicable in human terms than is the modern liberal state. People thus reflexively turn to it as a principle of social organization, especially when state alternatives break down.

Yet from a liberal perspective, the rule of the clan also possesses profound shortcomings. For one, as I discuss in my book, in the face of modern military technology, particularly automatic weapons, the socio-legal technology of group liability can quickly set in motion a cycle of escalating violence that can destabilize regions and create profound suffering: modern blood feuds.

More fundamentally, societies governed by the rule of the clan are structured around ineluctable status groups, not around the individual. As a result, the rights and obligations of persons are deeply influenced by their position within the extended kin groups from which they derive their honor. Clan societies are ascriptive societies of “Status,” in the words of the nineteenth-century legal historian Henry Sumner Maine.

In addition, compared with cosmopolitan liberal societies, clan societies offer a far more limited range of acceptable personal autonomy, especially for women. Indeed, across the world, the degree of women’s personal freedom is generally inversely related to the importance of extended family relationships to socio-legal organization—itself a predictable condition of decentralized societies.

Many thinkers and political leaders across the ideological spectrum and around the world have valorized such decentralization, often with a full understanding of its cost to modern liberal ideals. For instance, a deep antipathy to the modern state was a core principle of the United States’ longtime enemy Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, who sought, in the words of his manifesto The Green Book, “emancipation from the chains of all instruments of government,” and who looked specifically to the clan and tribe as the basis of socio-legal organization.

Likewise, guided by a compelling spiritual vision, Mohandas Gandhi advocated for a stateless society of local self-rule for postcolonial India, in which power would be radically decentralized to ancient village communities: panchayati raj. In contrast to the ultimately successful modern constitutional vision of B. R. Ambedkar, Gandhi and his followers campaigned for a minimal, decentralized state, whose consequence would have been the intensification of traditionalism.

In the West, however, the implications of decentralization or full statelessness for personal autonomy have been less frequently acknowledged. In criticizing the concept of “society,” for example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously asserted that “there is no such thing”—that, instead, there are only “individual men and women” and “families.” Whether or not society is in fact a fictional concept, without a government capable of vindicating the public ideals the concept expresses, power devolves downward with an illiberal twist.

For when there is no such thing as society, eventually there are only cousins and clans.

The individualism that libertarians justly value has a deep cultural history. The modern sense of self was forged only through centuries of literary, artistic, and religious transformation. These cultural developments form the typically unacknowledged background conditions of the ideal of individual autonomy that lies at the core of liberal democratic society.

In addition, the modern self is a creature of state development. In historical terms, the modern self is a legal and governmental achievement as much as a cultural one. It rests on an even less-typically acknowledged history of institutional growth embodying the political principle Hegel deemed “universal” as opposed to “particular” altruism. This institutional history is inseparable from the individual’s cultural development, and in many regions it helped transform clans from hard, ascriptive socio-legal regimes into soft, voluntary markers of cultural identity.

In this respect, modern individualism rests on a paradox. For persons to be treated as individuals, and for clans to become clubs, we require the state. If modern individualism is to survive, society needs effective government institutions dedicated to advancing the substantive end of personal autonomy. The state I have in mind need not be centralized (I am personally a strong supporter of federalism in the American context), but it must at all levels be dedicated to vindicating the public interest, defined as policies most citizens would rationally support regardless of their position within society at any given moment.

Equally, to maintain its legitimacy, government must seek to address the needs that the rule of the clan meets far more directly. It must pursue policies that moderate economic inequality; it must provide a space for the flourishing of voluntary civil society organizations that provide opportunities for solidarity; and it must ensure that individuals have fair opportunities to exercise their autonomy within the marketplace and that they can effectively navigate the host of bureaucratic state institutions that provide the conditions of modern life.

This is a liberal project in which people around the world are engaged, whether they live in Palestine, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, or the United States. With those people—liberals whose efforts to build effective government are essential to the future of individualism—I feel a profound kinship.

Response Essays

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. 

The Paradox of Rule

As Mark S. Weiner argues with great eloquence and erudition, the clan is a form of social organization ever present as a possibility within even the most liberal societies, and it’s a lived reality for millions of people in the developing world, where group membership all too often trumps individual rights. The security of liberal societies like our own depends on the success of liberal reformers in developing countries. And individualism at home demands strong, relatively centralized government to uphold the common good and provide for human needs that would otherwise be supplied by clan-like institutions.

In a nightmare scenario sketched toward the end of his book The Rule of the Clan, Weiner previews a future in which financial crises and anti-government ideology have combined to cripple the modern state, freeing racial gangs, blood-bound crime cartels, and even clan-like corporations to oppress the individual. Among his prescriptions for averting this Mad Max future are a renewed commitment to the voluntary institutions of civil society—as liberal substitutes for clannish groupings—and the use of imaginative literature to reconcile the clannish heart to the modern world of legal individualism. As the clan becomes a romantic literary ideal, in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for example, the emotions are satisfied while the harsh realities of kin rule may be abolished.

Last, but hardly least, Weiner calls on individualists to support strong government. This is the paradox of individualism, at least for those who have been educated to believe that smaller and weaker government means greater liberty. For Weiner, only the strong impersonal state can protect the individual and his rights against the demands of the clan. Yet the relationship between the clan, the state, and liberalism may be more complex than that. And there’s another paradox to be noted here, the paradox of rule.

The modern West is not the first political order in which legal individualism has prevailed against clan structure. The ancient world offers a few examples, including that of early imperial Rome. Under Augustus and his successors Rome was certainly not liberal—there were no guaranteed freedoms of speech or worship, for example—but the law did tend to treat citizens as individuals. Nevertheless, the historian Tacitus, for one, believed that his people had irretrievably lost their liberty when they came to be ruled by the emperor and his armies rather than by the senate—a far more aristocratic and clannish institution than any organ of our government today.

The historian was not just lamenting the loss of his own clan’s or class’s prestige, however. He recognized that with the rise of the principate, the people as a whole—the common populus as well as the noble senatus—had ceased to participate meaningfully in the activity of government. What individual legal freedoms Romans now enjoyed, they did so only as a gift from their master. And when at last emperors decreed that citizens could not change professions or leave their lands of residence, the citizen of the later empire became what we would call a serf.

The loss of Roman liberty under the empire, even in its earliest days when individual freedom in some senses increased, points to a refinement of Weiner’s paradox. It’s not only the case that a strong central government—today’s “state” or the ancient empire—can safeguard the individual from being subsumed into a constraining group identity, but it’s also the case that the active component of liberty, the exercise of self-government, has tended to be a matter of group expression.

In republican Rome, the good (self-government) was inextricably mixed with the bad (rule by clannish elites). But this is the story of self-government everywhere. The House of Commons in England, for example, did not begin as an institution to represent all commoners; it began as a forum to represent the wealthiest towns and localities. Well into the 19th century many seats in the Commons were effectively owned outright by landlords, who might themselves sit in the House of Lords. There was no secret ballot: a landlord could see exactly how his tenants were voting.

Reform of the boroughs, broadening of the franchise, and the introduction of the secret ballot were great struggles; at times they seemed almost revolutionary to Britain’s landed class. These struggles were fought and won not by individuals but by groups that were more than a little clannish and coercive. Clannishness was characteristic of the Catholic and Dissenting Protestant groups that also fought at this time—sometimes literally in streets—for their civil liberties. And in America, too, clannish groups, from racial minorities to religious and sexual ones, have had to battle for freedom. This was not at all an individualistic activity, either in its origins or its methods. The liberties we as individuals cherish today were largely won by clannish groups.

Such struggles, even when they are outlawed and cannot be conducted at the ballot box, are a kind of participation in power, as one institution of power—not the state, but the clan—compels another to recognize its demands and accede to at least some of them for the sake of peace. Even in ordinary politics at the level of Republicans and Democrats, clannishness rather than individualism is the rule, with religious, ethnic, and cultural blocs pursuing group objectives. Individualists tend to be blind to this reality; they are often at a loss to explain politics when, judged as a purely individual activity, even the act of voting is irrational. But it’s not an individual activity—it’s a clan ritual, one that bears some relation to the actual acquisition of power for the group.

Without groups, there is no participation in power—not outside of the tiniest direct democracy, at any rate. The ever present possibility of clan organization, well noted by Weiner, is a natural building block for group participation in ruling. As Weiner warns, the admixture of kinshp and government can lead to “clannism,” in which a kin group dominates the state and uses its machinery of power for selfish ends. Yet without strong clans, participation in power, for defensive as well as aggressive purposes, is forestalled. The result is Caesarism—the condition of the early Roman Empire, in which the citizen may have certain individual legal rights, but he has hardly any way of participating in government to safeguard or extend those rights.

Too much clan power within a state can lead to collapse of the state. Rome itself experienced this when it failed to assimilate the German tribes who were migrating into its territory. But too little clan power within a state is also dangerous—it deprives the people generally, and minorities in particular, of power centers that can protect group and individual rights alike through protest and participation.

The paradox of rule is that to secure one’s rights, one must participate in government, but participation in government means wielding power that can—and inevitably will—be used to oppress others. Participation in government necessarily has an illiberal dimension, even though it is also insdispensable for securing liberty. This would be true even if individuals could directly wield power; in the real world, in which power is always wielded by groups, the peril is amplified.

This is why decentralization and division of power—not only according to the legal framework of a written constitution but also as played out through the conflicts of competing clans—are as crucial for liberty as are a sense of the common good and a state strong enough to act as arbiter. Liberalism itself owes a great deal more, even today, to struggles between clans than is commonly recognized. Historically, liberal practices certainly did not emerge chiefly from reformist efforts on the part of benevolent leaders wielding power for the good of all humanity.

Weiner grasps something of the importance of group identities for liberalism, but the voluntaristic institutions of “civil society” that he commends may not be enough. Deprived of the clannish power to bind their members through force or shame, voluntary groups are weak barriers against state intrusions on their members’ rights, and they are even more feeble as instruments with which to participate in government.

This weakness on the part of civil society opens the door to another evil, an alternative to Weiner’s neo-clannish Mad Max dystopia: the ideological party-state. When clannish associations have been weakened to the point where they cannot challenge or wield power, a different kind of association may arise, one that is quite un-clannish in its mass scale and its ideological rather than biological connections. These ideological movements, built out of individuals who have been reduced to ants in a heap, have been known to grow to the point where they can challenge the state, seize its power, and erase the distinctions between party and government, ideology and reality—at an appalling cost in human life. Clans may feud, but the scale on which the party-state seeks to eradicate its categorical ideological enemies—whether Jews or kulaks or intellectuals with eyeglasses—puts all forms of clannishness to shame for sheer murderous potential.

Ideological movements, Caesarism, Road Warrior-style anarchy, all these evils may attend the collapse of the liberal state—and even conservatives must pause to consider how grim the probable alternatives to liberal government really are. But liberalism cannot cure its own disease. Neither libertarian anti-statism nor Weiner’s more Hobbesian statist individualism can succeed, not without the division of power and means of self-government that clan-like groups, above all, are apt to provide.

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.  

The Conversation

Reply to Kling and McCarthy

Thanks to Cato Unbound and its editor Jason Kuznicki for organizing this forum and putting together such an outstanding, intellectually diverse group of respondents. And thanks to my respondents for engaging so generously with my work, even while taking fundamental issue with parts of it. I’m grateful to them for their productive disagreements and for our conversation. I also appreciate those readers who posted to the discussion board and shared their thoughts on Twitter and other social media. Although I haven’t been able to respond to you individually, please know that I’ve eagerly followed your comments.

To start us off, I want to clarify the issue of my own political affiliation. A number of readers have asked whether I’m a libertarian, and the answer is no. In general, I’m sympathetic with various forms of social liberalism and the social market economy. But I’m much less concerned with staking out an ideological position than I am with trying to clarify the stakes of our current political situation and providing some legal and historical perspective on it. My argument is intended to unite people across many partisan and ideological divides.

What I share with modern libertarians is a concern for protecting and enlarging the scope of individual freedom. I view the expansion of personal autonomy, consistent with human dignity, as the proper telos of societies dedicated to liberal Enlightenment ideals. That’s why I was so taken by Arnold Kling’s characterization of my argument as “a libertarian case for a strong central state.” His description makes it clear that among the political positions consistent with my analysis, the anarchist or anarcho-capitalist view is excluded. It also underscores that I judge a state’s legitimacy in terms of the substantive goals the state pursues, and that I believe robust government, frequently described on both the right and the left in collectivist terms, in fact should be understood as serving individualist ends.

Indeed, I believe that strong government is essential to the form of life we broadly call modern, cosmopolitan liberal society—down to the very psychological and spiritual sense of self each of us possesses. When I write that “the modern self is a creature of state development” (this comment is for “Counsellor”), I mean that the individual whose freedom libertarians admirably seek to advance was the historical consequence of the growth of the modern state, and that it very likely is inconceivable without it. Kling is correct when he contrasts me with Bennett and Lotus in this regard.

I am not a political philosopher, but I would take this historical perspective as pushing hard against arguments for democratic government based on social contract. In the same light, I’d resist the terms of the question posed by Michael Huemer in the stimulating essay Kling cites: what gives government the “right” to behave in ways that would be wrong for non-governmental agents? As our most public institution, the democratic state seems to me the only agent capable of ensuring that the public interest on which modern individualism depends is vindicated within an “open-access order.” More fundamental questions are to what extent this modern self should be valued above other forms of personhood—I think we all agree that it should be—and what structures guarantee it (there Huemer and I clearly differ).

Notably, neither my essay nor my book consider precisely what government institutions are necessary to advance the freedom the historically-contingent liberal self. Recasting my argument in Hegelian terms, one could describe the historical process I endorse as the dialectical overcoming of societies dedicated to the “particular altruism” of the extended family by those dedicated to the “universal altruism” of the individual as such. But what are the specific legal institutions and government policies of universal altruism? What state structures are necessary to support what Kling describes as a “universal brotherhood” of individuals?

I’m happy to leave this critical question for another day. In fact, I hope it will be the subject of my next book. But I’m inclined to think that the scope of services that government needs to provide, and not simply to ensure, to keep the rule of the clan in check and to advance the modern self is more substantial we typically recognize. The legal and state structures we take for granted lie hidden beneath the surface of daily life. But one issue I should emphasize, unless I be mistaken for a state centralizer: I think that advancing modern individualism is perfectly consistent with a federalist system in which there are strong traditions of local government.

And what of human nature, and what of the Anglo-Saxon cultural inheritance? Kling raises these two questions in the course of his thoughtful comments, which very helpfully enlarge the circle of scholarly reference for my argument.

Regarding human nature, from a historical perspective, I see the sociological pressures to organize into ascriptive, hierarchical status groups as overwhelming without the strong countervailing force of government dedicated to the public interest. For this reason, I’m deeply skeptical of the peaceable vision of anarcho-capitalist society sketched by Huemer in the essay Kling cites:

In this society, the services now provided by governmental police would instead be provided by competing protection agencies, hired either by individuals or by associations of property owners. Protection agencies, knowing that violence is the most expensive way of resolving disputes, would require their customers to seek peaceful resolutions of any disputes with other individuals. Agencies would decline to protect those who either willfully initiated conflicts with others or refused to seek peaceful resolutions; any agencies that acted otherwise would find themselves unable to compete in the marketplace due to the soaring costs created by their troublesome clients. The services presently provided by government courts would instead be provided by private arbitrators, hired by individuals who had disputes with one another. Laws, rather than being made by a legislature, would be made by the arbitrators, in the manner in which the British common law actually developed.

In my view, such a privatized socio-legal order would result in a radical stratification of society under which persons would be subsumed within their status groups. It would subvert the interests of persons as individuals and turn them into cousins; it would transform citizens into corporate subjects. As Daniel McCarthy summarizes, I view such privatization as a recipe for “freeing racial gangs, blood-bound crime cartels, and even clan-like corporations to oppress the individual.”

As for Anglo-Saxon culture, there’s no question that the relative importance Germanic society placed on the nuclear rather than the extended family was essential to state development in England and much of Europe. And as a cultural matter, the modern nuclear family has been a profound agent of psychological individualization. But it’s worth noting that in ancient and medieval Germanic society, group feud nevertheless played an important role in socio-legal organization. The story of Germanic state development is partly one of overcoming the legal institutions of the clan even in the context of a relatively stronger nuclear family orientation. I thus see no reason why we couldn’t witness the development of new forms of group socio-legal life even in a society possessing a deep Anglo-Saxon history. Moreover, the United States is profoundly diverse in its cultural inheritance, and my argument for strong government institutions is meant to apply globally.

McCarthy is intellectually generous in treating so kindly an argument with which I appreciate he has significant disagreements. Kling and I have engaged in a conversation elsewhere on the web; I’m glad to have a similarly engaged interlocutor from the right. Plus, I’m always happy to be reminded of the dystopian legal vision of “Mad Max.”

McCarthy makes many excellent points, among them that politics is an experience significantly mediated by groups. I agree, and indeed I believe that powerful group attachments within civil society are essential for liberal citizens to obtain many of the goods provided more directly under the rule of the clan. Modern liberalism is inconceivable without strong civil society institutions. It’s essential for liberal government to provide space for them to thrive if liberalism is to fulfill its purposes. And groups are important not simply to electoral politics, but also to the grassroots organizing through which people likewise advance their interests.

But though groups mediate our politics, they are not its end. In the American constitutional tradition, I take this to be the essential meaning of the Equal Protection Clause. And while choosing between Democrats and Republicans when voting in the United States can be viewed as a clannish ritual, it is the clannish ritual of a liberal society. It inculcates important habits of mind that undergird liberal government—habits furthered by the great historical achievement of the secret ballot (one of the legal institutions of universal altruism). The same could be said of the various rituals announcing the peaceful hand-off of power between political parties affiliated with their multitude of civil society groups. The fact that liberal politics actively imagines persons affiliating with such groups is a sign of its strength as a historical alternative to the rule of the clan.

But there’s an important difference between the groups that McCarthy and I both think are important and the groups that under the rule of the clan form the constitutive units of society, politics and law. Under the rule of the clan, those groups are immutable, ascriptive, typically predicate a person’s rights and obligations on their position within the group, and offer little if no opportunity for exit. Liberal civil society groups are voluntary. They may provide points of pride, and materially advance a person’s perceived political interests, but belonging to them is purely a matter of personal choice.

In this respect, the historical development of modern liberal society could be understood as a transformation from clan to club. Begging McCarthy’s apologies, I’ll note for humor’s sake, but with a serious purpose, that it seems his own clan recently selected its clan chief on the basis, it’s true, of tanistry, but happily supported by primogeniture. I imagine he had no idea. I’m also confident that if I walked into the latest Clan McCarthy gathering and wanted to take part for the sake of fun and interest, I’d be welcomed with open arms.

My concern is that by weakening government structures and eroding the public, democratic institutions that support universal altruism, such groups—and a host of others—will transform from soft markers of cultural identity and become hard, socio-legal institutions. As a result, modern individualism will erode. I share McCarthy’s condemnation of an overbearing state. But I take the growth of the post-modern rule of the clan as an equal if not greater danger.

I’m writing this post just before John Fabian Witt’s response will be published, and because of my personal schedule I’ll be taking a few days to think about his essay in the context of Kling’s and McCarthy’s comments before I respond. In any case, I don’t want to extend this post beyond a reasonable length. So in the spirit of our “unbound” conversation, I’ll close here by including two videos I made some time ago that may be of interest for the discussion (I create short videos now and then for my blog). The first video leads me to wonder whether the perspective on individualism and the state that I’ve developed through my historical writing doesn’t implicate the difference between individual liberty in the American constitutional tradition and human dignity in post-war German law:


The second video is an exploration of some of the legal ideals of Argentina, a society being led down a different legal path:




Reply to Witt

Thanks to John Witt for his thoughtful response to my essay and book. It highlights and clarifies some of the issues I addressed in my reply to Arnold Kling and Daniel McCarthy. I’ll take that as a good sign we’re converging around a set of common questions and shared understandings. 

I like the way that Witt underscores my view of the liberal state as the “signature middle space of modernity,” and as a “stopping point in the sliding scale” between the extended family and empire. I consider that political space and its institutions to be valuable because of their capacity to protect and advance the substantive value of individual autonomy. I also view that political space to be historically contingent—as historically contingent as the modern conception of selfhood it makes possible—and therefore as fragile, especially in light of the many other illiberal ways of organizing human legal and political affairs that pull on our loyalties. For this reason, I’m deeply concerned about the various trends Witt catalogues that threaten liberal government institutions.

Just to be clear, I don’t wish to make a fetish of the state. The state is valuable to the extent that it helps vindicate certain fundamental liberal values and human needs, and when it doesn’t, it acts improperly or illegitimately. Yet I also view strong government institutions as essential for the project of individualist modernity. My work is intended to clarify these stakes. I take the characteristic libertarian position to be one—I’m speaking broadly here—that’s skeptical about the ability of government to vindicate liberal values without in the long run, and sometimes in the very short run, subverting them, except when the state is simply safeguarding the ability of persons to engage in the private ordering of their affairs. I also take it to condemn almost wholesale those government efforts to advance the solidaristic values of the rule of the clan. As for the anarcho-capitalist view, I do think history strongly suggests anarcho-capitalists want to have their cake and eat it, too. For me, the case for the liberal democratic state and strong public institutions is a case for Witt’s “middle space,” which is in the rare if not unique position to advance liberal values.

I want to stress one of Witt’s interesting formulations. He describes the middle space of the state and the “fictive and constructed” social world it constitutes as “intellectually demanding.” This is an issue I address toward the end of my book, where I characterize modern liberal government not simply as intellectually demanding but also as demanding in cultural terms. Just as the decentralized constitutional order of the rule of the clan depends on a culture of group honor and shame, so modern liberal government and its ability to advance the individual by vindicating the public interest depends upon a variety of underlying cultural values. Constitutionalism and culture are inextricable. As I discuss in my book, I believe this intellectually demanding constitutional culture is captured most clearly, though by no means exclusively, in the perspective of the nineteenth-century British novel and its navigation of the relation between the individual and society—in political terms, between the self and the public interest. There are aesthetic foundations to liberal constitutional freedom well beyond the role of aesthetics in communicating information about status and price. 

I’d also like to point us toward one of Witt’s questions. Witt asks us to think about the character of the community the state defines when we discuss the proper functions of the state. This leads me to raise a further query that Kling has posed: what are the features of the modern state that protect the individual as such? Kling’s question, which I raised in a somewhat different form in my response to Kling and McCarthy, underscores the point that for me the rule of the clan is not simply cultural “clannishness,” but rather an alternative way of structuring socio-legal affairs. I believe that radically diminishing the power of government would lead to a loss of personal autonomy as the rule of the clan as an alternate form of legal order invariably would rush to fill the vacuum created by the state’s retreat. But would it? To answer that question, we need to know the full range of functions modern states perform that undergird modern selfhood. Knowing those, we would be in a better position to assess the dangers of the post-modern rule of the clan, which I believe are substantial. Perhaps here we have, to borrow a phrase from common law, yet another interesting joinder of issue?


Neither Clans Nor Clubs, But a Bit of Both

The broad framework Mark Weiner presents in his work on clan and state is one with which many conservatives and libertarians can agree. Michael Oakeshott, for example, would concur with a good deal of what Weiner says about the state’s historical role in emancipating the individual from—as Oakeshott writes in “The Masses in Representative Democracy”—“the communal pressures of family and guild, of church and local community, which hindered [the individual’s] own development.” To achieve this, says Oakeshott, the state had to be “single and supreme,” possessed of “authority to abolish old rights and create new.” The state had to be “powerful—able to preserve the order without which aspirations of individuality could not be realized; but not so powerful as to itself constitute a new threat to individuality.” 

He and Weiner are on the same side so far as that goes. Things get difficult, however, as we consider where this analysis leads. For Oakeshott, writing in 1961, the danger to this historically evolved individualism lay not with a resurgence of clans but with what he called the “anti-individual,” the man of the masses whose resentment of inequality leads him to expand state power to a point where it chokes off the liberty to excel. Oakeshott was warning not only about Soviet-style state repression but also the soft despotism of the left-liberal paternalist state, whose circumstances Tocqueville memorably described about a century earlier: 

…an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. 

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. 

Weiner is much more worried about the danger to be found in the opposite direction, with the recrudescence of anti-individualistic blood ties. Whether he would even consider the scene Tocqueville paints as a dystopia is hard to say: tendentious language aside, this could be exactly what liberal individualism aims for—safety, pleasure, strictly voluntary ties and no others, all vouchsafed by a benign, supreme state. 

There are other possibilities, however, beyond the rule of the clan or the perfection of the tutelary state. The enervation of the liberal state may lead not to a return to blood rule but to a gradual economic and demographic decline even as individualism remains the dominant social ethos. This would be a scenario in which the liberal state gradually became a backwater in a world defined by more powerful non-individualist states—a world in which China occupies the role now filled by the Unites States, and the United States has a role analogous to that of perhaps Russia at present. Liberalism, capitalism, and British or American world power have historically so far coincided. If one pillar falls—or two—what becomes of the rest? 

I sketch these possibilities not to argue for the likelihood of one or another, but to insist that the danger Weiner perceives is not the only one that has to be borne in mind as we think about the interplay of clans, groups, individuals, and states. A smart approach will avoid all of these dangers, not rush into the arms of one in the hopes of escaping another. 

Avoiding the danger of the tutelary state requires that some institutions be capable of resisting the state and that at least the ethos of another form of social organization be preserved. Avoiding the danger of geostrategic eclipse requires both a strong state and strong families—the latter not only for population reasons but because the family is also the source of much economic impetus. It’s worth recalling Joseph Schumpeter’s insight into the non-individualistic social backdrop of capitalism: 

the capitalist order entrusts the long-run interests of society to the upper strata of the bourgeoisie. They are really entrusted to the family motive operative in those strata. The bourgeoisie worked primarily in order to invest, and it was not so much a standard of consumption as a standard of accumulation that the bourgeoisie struggled for and tried to defend against governments that took the short-run view. With the decline of the driving power supplied by the family motive, the businessman’s time-horizon shrinks, roughly, to his life expectation. And he might now be less willing than he was to fulfill that function of earning, saving and investing even if he saw no reason to fear that the results would but swell his tax bills. He drifts into an anti-saving frame of mind and accepts with an increasing readiness anti-saving theories that are indicative of a short-run philosophy

(One could say more: Britain’s early industrialists tended to be of particular families of religious Dissenters—and of course, the phenomenon of “market-dominant minorities” in many parts of the world is now well know. There is a clannish side to capitalism as well as a nuclear-family side and an individualistic side. Like the state, capitalism is historically a conjunction of several principles and forces.) 

Weiner suggests that voluntary clubs, rather than ascriptive clans, are the instruments through which social impulses should express themselves in a free society. The point I wished to make in my first response was that groups that are neither purely voluntary clubs nor purely blood-based clans are most often the drivers of civil society and of struggles for civil rights. This is true whether we speak of classes—noblemen extorting the rights of Magna Carta from King John; Chartists fighting in the streets for electoral reform—or of other groups, such as women and racial minorities, using non-voluntary identities as their organizing principles. These groups, in their different ways, are in several respects more clan-like than voluntary. But they aren’t clans: they don’t occupy either extreme on the club-clan spectrum. 

Weiner is right to call libertarians’ attention to a requirement of individualism that they have become apt to overlook: the presence of a state strong enough to break down kin groups into freed, autonomous citizens. Romantics of the right and left who daydream about “tribalism” might also learn a few things from Weiner’s book about the harsh realities of clan rule. But Weiner, similarly, could use a little more introspection about the limits of Enlightenment liberalism, especially as an “end” of politics. (Weiner is distinctly un-Oakeshottian in this respect—for Oakeshott the idea that politics can have an “end,” even one as seemingly capacious as “individual autonomy,” is always a dangerous notion, one that threatens to turn the rather aimless freedom of “civil association” into a mission-driven “enterprise association” with goals prescribed by rulers and intellectuals.)

The blind spot of Weiner’s outlook, which sees only the flaws of clannishness and not those of liberalism, is illustrated by the examples he gives in his book of Walter Scott and Salman Rushdie as culturally liberalizing writers. His use of Scott seems—although he may not have realized it—remarkably conservative, and a conservative like Peter Viereck would have agreed wholeheartedly with what Weiner writes about Scott, only Viereck would emphasize that Scott was a “conservative liberal” and not a liberal simpliciter

Rushdie, by contrast, is not a conservative of any kind, and a work like The Satanic Verses has none of the qualities that make Scott’s Waverly novels an effective bridge between the clannish imagination and modern liberal reality. Rushdie is seen to mock where Scott valorizes; a highlander could read Scott and come to love the English king as his own chief of chiefs; a non-liberal Muslim who reads Rushdie is outraged, even to the point of proscription. Rushdie is a man of the modern left writing for other modern leftists, the sort of people who like magical realism and view religion, if view it they must, though lenses heavily tinted with irony and absurdism. Scott was both a man of the law and a man of the clans in spirit, writing for the clans as much as for the English and drawing both together. He was a Tory. 

Liberals who hope to extend liberalism here or elsewhere must understand both the defects of liberalism as ideology and as a practice—failings which give rise to threats such as those of national decline and tutelary tyranny—and the ways in which liberalism can (and, as importantly, can’t) be imaginatively reconciled with non-liberal perspectives. The alternative is that the only way liberalism can advance is by crushing every non-liberal way of life—and as Weiner fears, it may just as likely be crushed by them.  

The Growth and Maintenance of the Liberal Order

Thanks to Daniel McCarthy for another stimulating response to my argument, and for broadening still further the scholarly frame of reference in which my work can be read.

Let me say from the start that I agree with him without hesitation when he writes: “The danger Weiner perceives is not the only one that has to be borne in mind as we think about the interplay of clans, groups, individuals, and states. A smart approach will avoid all of these dangers, not rush into the arms of one in the hopes of escaping another.” I’m especially sympathetic with his concern about an international scenario “in which the liberal state gradually [would become] a backwater in a world defined by more powerful non-individualist states.” For this reason, I think it’s essential for citizens in more fully realized liberal societies to make common cause with liberal reformers abroad. Liberals should support democratic reformers seeking to transform not only societies pervaded by clannism (a subject I take up in my book), but also overbearing states dedicated to collectivism or authoritarianism (a subject that I don’t examine).

In each case, what’s at stake is responsive, democratic government dedicated to liberal ideals. To build, preserve, and secure liberal democratic government, at home and abroad, as the signature middle space of modernity, ought to be the essential grand strategy of people dedicated to principles of individual freedom.

Just as liberals ought to be on guard against the deterioration of government institutions (the central concern of my book), and just as we should ensure that those institutions resist being captured by one interest group or another and so remain liberal (contra Argentina), so we also ought to embrace the institutions of civil society—mine is not a statist position. As McCarthy notes, one of those civil society institutions is the family.

There are many different types of families consistent with liberal society and politics. But one of the functions of the liberal state is to supplant those socio-legal institutions predicated on extended families—ascriptive, hierarchical, status-based—as constitutive units of common life. Thus while McCarthy surely is correct when, citing Schumpeter, he argues that the family creates an “economic impetus” by establishing a multi-generational time horizon for work, he surely also would support the common law rule against perpetuities and other doctrines that free up land and goods from the dead hand of dynastic tradition and power. In my view, modern government institutions simply extend these liberalizing ends of common law, understood now not only in the negative terms of liberty but in the positive terms of individual autonomy.

Would I view Toqueville’s scenario as a dystopia? Yes, in a moral rather than a political sense (though I suspect not as strongly as McCarthy would), and as a challenge that would require the response of social institutions. But what type of social institutions? In embracing the historical movement from the clan as an ascriptive, collective institution to the club as a liberal, voluntaristic one, I don’t mean to suggest that club-like associations ought necessarily to be psychologically or culturally thin. In the conclusion to a previous book, I’ve wondered about the ability of liberalism to survive without vibrant religious attachments. But in a liberal society, the ability of persons to secure a range of critical goods ought not to depend on whether they belong to such institutions. This would degrade the public ends of liberalism by making those institutions similar to traditional clans.

As for McCarthy’s point “that groups that are neither purely voluntary clubs nor purely blood-based clans are most often the drivers of civil society and of struggles for civil rights,” I would say, first, that what he describes are interest groups. Although the Chartists fought for the benefit of a class, the movement was both small and entirely voluntary. It was composed of clubs (I focus on the Chartists because they are especially dear for reasons of spousal pride). Moreover, in my view, the political goals of groups based on immutable characteristics can be described as “liberal” only when they are directed toward ending the use of immutable characteristics as a basis for the distribution of public goods, except under very limited circumstances. As I wrote in reply to McCarthy’s first response, groups mediate liberal politics, but they are not its end.

One final note on voluntary associations. In my book, I argue that civil society institutions are important in psychological and social terms, and I’m grateful to McCarthy for underscoring what I would have gladly added to the text in retrospect, if only in a note, namely that they are also important for their ability to offset state power. This omission should be read simply as pointing toward the balance of my concerns.

McCarthy’s argument raises for me a question that I think is critical not only to our domestic politics but also to foreign policy, a question that was raised insistently, for instance, by the war in Afghanistan, but which applies here at home, too. The question is: how can liberal ideals be advanced by aligning traditional, local, customary, informal institutions of governance with central, bureaucratic, liberal government institutions? What are the different ways—in practical terms—of connecting bottom to top, periphery to center, in the interests of liberal democratic government? And how can the various forms which this configuration may take help us to better understand the very definition of the liberal rule of law? I suspect that answering that question would clarify which differences between participants in this forum, including those readers following along, are of a fundamental philosophical kind and which represent policy choices along a continuum of liberal options.


A Follow-Up Comment

I hope that we do not lose one of the insights of Mark’s book, which is that the rule of the clan represents an alternative way to operate law. It is not just “clannishness.”

I may be wrong, but I think of it this way:

Consider two wrongs that John might commit.

     1.  John works on the Sabbath, violating a custom.

     2.  John assaults Fred.

Under a clan-based order, these two offenses are similar.  From the clan leader’s point of view, both of them bring shame on the entire clan.  

Under a modern state, they are different.  Whether working on the Sabbath creates legal jeopardy for John depends on (a) whether there is a written law against working on the Sabbath and (b) whether an agent of the state catches John working.

On the other hand, the assault on Fred is something that Fred can press charges and seek redress for.  It is not the shame brought on the clan, but the injury done to Fred, that creates legal jeopardy for John.  In that sense, the modern state is recognizing that Fred is an individual, with individual rights.

Mark’s claim is that without the state, individual rights are not recognized.  I can see that this would be true if without a state the society reverts to a clan-based order.  However, I am not convinced that if we were to take the Federal government out of the business of providing income security and extensive economic regulation that the U.S. would revert to a clan-based order.

When Clans Immigrate, Can Liberalism Assimilate?

When Clans Immigrate, Can Liberalism Assimilate?

There are not many precedents for legally and culturally individualistic societies returning to clan rule: once the way of thinking about extended family that is at the heart of the clan has changed, the habit is hard to reacquire. Greek and imperial Roman examples suggest that even once an individualistic order’s political power has been eclipsed or that order has merged with a community-focused religion like Christianity, the old population does not revert to clan structure. New populations, however, may bring clan organization with them as they immigrate to individualistic territories. This happened in the transition between the late Roman Empire and the Middle Ages.

Arnold Kling, in his first response to Weiner’s essay, says he’s not too worried about “modern democracies [falling] back on the rule of the clan” because scholars such as James Bennett and Michael Lotus have argued “that for nearly 1500 years, the Anglo-Saxon people have developed a culture centered on the absolute nuclear family.” Yet most “modern democracies,” of course, exist in countries not inhabited by “the Anglo-Saxon people,” and even a country like the United States, which does have a historical connection with that people, looks to have a more ethnically diverse future.

This need not be a problem, if the idea is that “Anglo-Saxon” forms of social organization will be adopted by other peoples. Such has often been the case: America’s own Scots-Irish or “borderer” population, vividly described in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, once had a distinctly clan-like way of life that ultimately assimilated to Anglo-Saxon standards. (I’ll drop the scare quotes, but let’s not take “Anglo-Saxon” too literally.) Various immigrant populations have come to these shores over the past 200 years with a greater sense of extended family than is customary among Americans themselves. Over time, that clannish character gives way to greater individualism. What Michael Novak once called the “Unmeltable Ethnics” do, in fact, melt down and assimilate.

This assimilation has not always been easy, however, and it has most often taken place within a framework of considerable social pressure—even prejudice—and state coercion. Immigrants, especially those with large families, had to be pushed to adopt Anglo-Saxon customs of sex, religion, patriotism, economics, and so on. State indoctrination (through public schools, for example) is part of the story; so too are sporadic popular crusades by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants for social regulation, population control, and eugenics. Other conformist pressures leveled against immigrants have come from the sheer majoritarian cultural power of the existing population, often amplified by the rhetorical power of the state—think of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson disparaging “hyphenated Americans.”

It stands to reason that if clans are as persistent and powerful a form of social organization as Mark Weiner’s book suggests, the measures to strip newcomers of clan consciousness must be quite strong. And in order for such strong measures to be taken, the majority must exercise a great deal of social control, whether through the instrument of the state or some other mechanism.

Weiner has said elsewhere in our discussion that anarcho-capitalists want to have their cake and eat it. This sometimes appears to be the case for libertarians in general, who want to have a non-coercive world very much like the world in which we presently live—with its nuclear families and individualism—without the coercive architectonic institutions that have brought about the American way of life as we know it. Non-libertarians might be forgiven for harboring some skepticism about this: it’s a rosy scenario, but it’s only one scenario among many others that seem at least as probable and much more problematic.

If assimilation—in part, the active process of dismantling clans and taming or eradicating clan consciousness—cannot take place without tremendous social pressure or state power, then we are looking at a very un-libertarian future. This will either be the future that Weiner fears, in which the state ceases to overawe and disrupt clans—leading not to the re-emergence of Scottish Highlanders among us but to ethnic crime cartels and other postmodern clans—or else it will be a future in which the state or majority again resort to illiberal means to achieve the end of liberal, liberated individuals. Anglo-Saxon folkways must have a vector, and if that vector is not to be the Anglo-Saxon people (which it need not be), what is it to be? The nice answer is that these folkways will be preserved by a voluntary mass of unrelated citizens who inhabit the formerly Anglo-Saxon states. The not-so-nice answer is:  in the absence of a majority with a will to assimilate newcomers, the state will assimilate them by force.

One need only look to certain hard assimilationist, anti-multiculturalist, anti-Muslim “liberals” of Europe to see what this might mean. How about laws prohibiting halal or kosher slaughter of animals? Laws against female genital mutilation are welcomed by every decent person; what about laws against circumcision of boys? The custom of the clan demands one thing—a ritual of induction—while the demands of individual autonomy and human rights demand another. Laws concerning what languages are to be taught in schools or used in official documents are another consideration, as are laws that directly touch upon the legal status and privileges of religious and ethnic groups.

Europe’s controversies in these areas are well known, and so far they are more acute than anything America has faced in the postwar era. But the basic problem remains: the pressure to assimilate to individualism must come from somewhere, and highly liberal states may either fail to supply that pressure or by supplying it may find themselves becoming less liberal in practice, if not in abstract ideology.

Kling is “not convinced that if we were to take the Federal government out of the business of providing income security and extensive economic regulation that the United States would revert to a clan-based order.” But reversion may be less of a danger than failure to assimilate. The welfare state and public schools, to name two frequent targets of libertarian ire, play an obvious function in weakening family dependencies and inculcating majority values. Weiner’s liberal, individualist welfarism is in effect a means to dissolve clan power and consciousness among newcomers; the reversion it prevents need not be one that the existing population would otherwise undergo, but one the country as a whole might in time experience if it failed to assimilate more clannish immigrants to Anglo-Saxon standards.

The way in which the welfare state substitutes for the clan is illustrated in a recent interview with journalist Michael Fumento about his experiences as an American expatriate in Colombia. Asked by interviewer Luke Ford how Colombian women can afford to have children out of wedlock when there isn’t so much of a welfare state to provide for them, Fumento answers:

It’s the extended families. Those who do work gladly support those who do not. What do the people who don’t work do? They babysit the out-of-wedlock babies. The nuclear family would have to get a babysitter. … [Extended families] have the same pernicious effect as welfare. You don’t have to work. Somebody will take care of your babies for you. Somebody else will put a roof over your head. It may be a leaky roof. Somebody else will put a floor under your feet.

There are trade-offs here about which libertarians cannot afford to be glib. Extended families in the developing world are also able to put talented young members through medical school—and of course, having benefited from the family, the young doctor or nurse is then all the more obliged to give back to the clan. Libertarian individualists may celebrate the absence of government loans and tuition subsidies in such cases, but is individualism advanced by having young people indebted to their extended families rather than to the state or its friends in the banking world? Conservatives, too, have to think carefully about just what limits there ought to be to the “family” part of “family values.”

Weiner endorses a gentle, welfarist approach to assimilation and decomposing the clan, and he encourages libertarians to join him. On the other hand, there are those liberals in Europe who have acquired a tint of ethnonationalism in their attempts to assimilate “clans” to individualist values. To assume that Anglo-Saxon notions about the nuclear family and individualism will be carried over to new peoples through the softest possible social pressures—the non-coercive libertarian ideal—may be wishful thinking.

But what’s the alternative? Welfare statism has plenty of dangers and dissatisfactions of its own, as every libertarian (and conservative) knows. Nationalist liberalism may be a contradiction, and even if it’s not, Europe provides ample grounds to fear that nationalist liberalism will quickly degenerate into nationalism illiberalism.

The position I’ve tried to sketch out in this discussion is one that attempts to balance clans, individualism, and the state. The rule of the clan must be avoided, but there’s also a danger in an excess of individualism and statism. Weiner notes that reformist efforts like the Chartists were club-based, not clan-based. But they were clubs built on class, and class was based on birth. The story of the rise of modern liberal individualism is not simply a story of central states overcoming clans; it’s a story of how clans, classes, and other non-voluntary groups claimed privileges and won rights in fierce contests with one another; those rights gradually were won by other groups, too, until they finally applied to everyone.

Today we’ve reached a very advanced condition of legal individualism, which makes the need for social solidarity all the greater. Clans, in a greatly attenuated way relative to their weight in much of the developing world, undergird the strongest institutions of our civil society, institutions that often—as in the case of labor unions and religions, ethnic minorities and even local communities—possess legal privileges. These groups are voluntary in the strict sense, but they depend in part on identities that are not freely chosen. The local union has, or once had, a class dimension that tended to correspond to intergenerational families and ethnic communities. Likewise, churches until recently had a strong ethnic character—even to the point of Italian, Irish, and German Catholics sometimes having separate houses of worship in the same town. The American nuclear family is itself something of a recent development in its pure form: Americans for much of their history, at the elite as well as demotic levels, had extended families that were not clans but were certainly not the modern ideal of two parents and 2.5 children. There have always been other alternatives to the rule of the clan besides extreme individualism.

An excess of individualism—promoted ever further through the welfare state—undermines itself, as atomized, weakly connected citizens find themselves unable to assimilate clannish immigrants and thus forced to confront the liberal Europe’s dilemma: state-enforced assimilation or acquiescence to the rule of the clan. A more restrained individualism, however, a social order in which legal individualism is combined with a cultural disposition toward faintly clan-based groupings, may be able to encourage partial assimilation while tolerating the spirit of the clan and preserving a few of its virtues, in newcomers as well as the native population. This is an unsteady balance, never a stable equilibrium, but it avoids the worst pitfalls of clan, individualism, and state alike.