Arnold Kling  

Libertarian Tribalism

PRINT
Educational Testing... How More Immigration Can Save ...

In a thought-provoking post on what he calls the libertarian penumbra, Bryan writes,


Are there any [beliefs that fall within this penumbra] that make you cringe?

I am tempted to say that the question itself is an example of something that makes me cringe.

I often find it helpful to attempt to downplay the moral significance of tribal identity. As a first approximation, the morally significant unit is the individual, and the moral significance of each individual is equal. That is an admittedly vague statement, which could lead in a number of directions. For me, it connects to the doctrine of free trade and to the non-aggression principle. It connects to a view that there is no spiritual "we" that inhabits government institutions. It connects to a view that the democratic majority is not a righteous authority; rather, it is at best an imperfect check on concentrated power.

Somewhat paradoxically, discussions of libertarian philosophy often strike me as exercises in what I think of as tribalism. Tribalism is concerned with distinguishing the in-group from the out-group, excommunication of unwanted members, and establishing status within the tribe. So, for example, you might give a libertarian purity test.

I think that tribalism pervades our society. We are often hypocritical about it. The guy who informs you that circumcision or a head scarf is a primitive manifestation of tribal identity while he is wearing an earring. The guy who is proud of his racial tolerance while dismissing people over 40 as not not worth listening to. The guy who complains that Christians are dogmatic and intolerant while sneering at "global warming deniers."

Suppose that I express a belief, and you write a critical response. Consider two ways of framing the response.

1. Your belief has the following problems:

2. Your belief makes you a non-libertarian because:

I think that (2) smacks of tribalism. I would rather not care about whether expressing a particular belief makes me a libertarian. I would prefer to care about whether it is sound.

Bryan's question has both aspects to it. On the one hand, he is asking us about what beliefs we think are sound or unsound. On the other hand, there is a presumption that in this exercise we will search among the set of beliefs held by people who belong to a tribe called libertarians.


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture



COMMENTS (14 to date)
Phil writes:

But can't you think about the question without assuming tribalism?

There are beliefs among many in my peer group that make me cringe, but not because I consider it a "tribe". Rather, it might be because now I have to spend time explaining that I don't share that particular belief. It might be because I have a social bond to the group, and it bothers me that people I care about are so wrong. It might be because I feel the group can't proceed forward until they correct the mistaken belief.

I think Bryan's question is legitimate.

david writes:

You have to be overwhelmingly confident in your personal reasoning skills if you're certain that all of your beliefs arise from careful examinations of their soundness, rather than your own tribal associations.

Examining the penumbra should suggest where one might expend more effort thinking, lest one fall into a trap of tribal bias.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

re: "I think that tribalism pervades our society. We are often hypocritical about it. The guy who informs you that circumcision or a head scarf is a primitive manifestation of tribal identity while he is wearing an earring. The guy who is proud of his racial tolerance while dismissing people over 40 as not not worth listening to. The guy who complains that Christians are dogmatic and intolerant while sneering at "global warming deniers.""

I take the general point, but - one of these things is not like the other... one of these things does not belong...

Philo writes:

You write that "the moral significance of each individual is equal." Would you include individual *non-humans*--individual apes, mice, birds, frogs, fish, worms, ants, paramecia, bacteria, trees, stones? I would, but one has to admit it *sounds odd*!

If you limit your "moral-significance" egalitarianism to human beings, you should say something about fetuses, the mentally retarded, the demented, the permanently comatose, convicted murderers, and a few other hard cases. Since I'm including stones I'm not bothered by comatose human beings, but you might find them problematic.

Various writes:

Arnold, I think you hit on an excellent point. From a theoretical perspective, I think you are absolutely right. As our society and institutions have evolved, tribalism has become in so many ways an impediment to our evolution as individual people. But....I think most humans at the individual level have strong tribal instincts. Therefore, in a paradoxical way, it's important to not discount these tendencies when "libertarians" or "free market advocates" or whatever you want to label "us" try and market our ideas to others. To put it more bluntly, advocates of freedom need to band together (and therefore surrender some of their freedoms) if we are to effectively market our theories of non-tribalism to other. Personally I think this has to happen gradually, by progressively adopting greater and greater degress of "tribalism light" to make it work. You see this in revolutions. The disorganized "freedome lovers" often get pushed out by the strongmen (or bolshevics in 1917 or whatever). The problem often with advocates of freedom is that they get bullied about when the stinky stuff hits the fan. Therefore, as a practical matter, it would be better for freedom advocates to adopt some mild and opttimal tribal tendencies to push their agenda.

Matt C writes:

You can't completely get away from group identity thinking. The most you can do is try to recognize it and deal with it. Like the other guy said, you might discover something interesting by thinking about what you find in the "penumbra".

I have thought a bit on what creates a libertarian in the first place. Almost all of the libertarians I know were disaffected outsiders during their teenage years. For what it's worth, most of the greenies and lefties were also, but with a somewhat different inflection. I think I might have ended up in a different tribe altogether ("the system mostly works, quit bitching about it") if I had been a reasonably mainstream teenager.

I agree that political arguments should stand or fall on their own and not on the identity of the owner (though this, in practice, is in fact a pretty fringe belief). But there is no denying that there *is* a libertarian tribe, and it's interesting to think about its composition and origins.

Ray writes:

I agree with the post in its broader sense, but refraining from making observations about what traits a certain group possesses or does not possess doesn't change the fact that those traits exist.

There seems to be a bit of a leap required to get from the "hmm that's interesting" when observing shared traits and pondering on the human elements of a belief system and the active process of acting tribally as described above.

Luis H Arroyo writes:

Sometimes I think that libertarians are more tribal than either.
I think that their hiperationalism led them to critic all sing of tribalism. But Human is quite tribal.
We are no rationalist at all. In many case, we have not sufficient information, and/or capacity to manage it. We are profane in so many thinks.
So many times we get beliefs. Beliefs that fit more or less the reality, but in any case they
don´t murder us. And they are so comfortable: they save countless cost of information. In fact, a society is characterized by its beliefs. This beliefs can change, but slowly. That is the reason why so many society evolve so slowly. They don´t abondone their belief without huge trauma (French Revolution, for example).
Sometimes, beliefs led to libertaranism, or they comfort well with it.
I think that protestantism has had a great contribution to libertarianism, by the way of unnintended consequences.
but the key is not what says the dogma or the theology. The key is the capacity of a religion and its members to adapt to reality an evolve with it.

Ryan writes:

Making someone "cringe" and being on the "fringe" are not the same. It is a matter of perspective. If you use the word 'penumbra', then you're suggesting that whatever it is you're speaking about is on the fringe. The fringe from what, in this case? -- the views of the median libertarian?

In that respect, Arnold, you nailed it. And @Various does also -- highlighting why "libertarians" from a political perspective haven't gained much of a foothold in our current political stratification, unfortunately.

Floccina writes:

The guy who condemns the hijab but would be shocked at a woman walking around topless. It is a matter of degree.

Evan writes:
I often find it helpful to attempt to downplay the moral significance of tribal identity.
I am delighted to know there are kindred spirits out there. I realized that tribalism was the root of much of the evil in the world when I was a little kid and have tried my best to purge myself of it ever since.

@Ryan

Making someone "cringe" and being on the "fringe" are not the same. It is a matter of perspective. If you use the word 'penumbra', then you're suggesting that whatever it is you're speaking about is on the fringe. The fringe from what, in this case? -- the views of the median libertarian?

I think Bryan's use of the word "penumbra" was slightly different from the way you're using it. He referred libertarian values (small government, nonagression, etc.) as the "core" and beliefs that many libertarians have that aren't directly related to libertarian values as the "fringe." You seem to mean that the "core" is the belief of the median libertarian and the "fringe" is the unusual minority beliefs. The way Bryan was using the word, a belief could still be "fringe" even if most libertarians belief it.

twv writes:

Since no form of individualism of which I'm aware denies that groups exist, and can be distinguished from each other, it interests me that mere discussion of groups might strike an individualist as "cringeworthy."

This is not an attack. I feel it (or have felt it) too. But might not this moral qualm about identifying a group be over-compensation for disliking some group behaviors?

Various forms of political individualism — including classical liberalism, utilitarianism, and modern libertarianism — might be understood as ways of regulating or meliorating the propensity of behavior in groups to form stark "us" vs. "them" categorizations, and treat the outs as sub-human and the ins as the very children of God. What liberty, the rule of law, etc., amount to is a mechanism that regulates the placing of some people out of bounds of the relevant amicable human community. Essentially, the individualist project in politics is to make explicit, public and rational the defining of people as "out of the group" and thus susceptible to cruelty and even death. The grounds for treating someone in such a harsh way move from "what group does he belong to?" to "what has he done to merit harsh treatment?"

This was a major focus of the "Social Darwinist" liberals of the 19th century. Herbert Spencer referred to "the ethics of amity" and "the ethics of enmity." William Graham Sumner also contributed to such analysis.

But with the eclipse of 19th century individualism, this analysis never survived the dark period directly following, when collectivism held center stage.

So, today, political individualists treat groups as if they don't exist. Economists especially lean on methodological individualism to pretend that only individuals matter.

Perhaps I'm wrong. But this impulse to react to analyses of group differences as cringeworthy - quite common amongst collectivist liberals, who want all gene-defined groups to "be equal" - seems more evasive than rational. It looks like politically correct over-reaction to a central problem of human behavior: the in-group/out-group splits in standards and treatment.

Ryan writes:

@Evan


libertarian and the "fringe" is the unusual minority beliefs [within the spectrum of libertarian beliefs]

If what I've added to your statement above retains its original meaning then yes, that is how I interpreted Bryan. When analyzing a set of beliefs I find it worthless to look at the subjective questions like "cringe?". I gave Bryan the benefit of the doubt, I guess.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Kling:
"....the morally significant unit is the individual, and the moral significance of each individual is equal."

Significant or significance to whom.

And of what are "morals" formed other than through the sense of oughtness (the deontic) with both its positive and negative daemonics, that drive and limit humans in their interactions with others. Yet, in isolation of the individual may have no function at all; let alone significance to that one - alone with no others.

And when there is a commonality of oughtness we find what is accepted as "morals" among individuals, which may be quite different in Sparta from Athens; in Edinburgh from Khartom.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top