Art Carden  

Kling on Clans, North on States

"Most Economists?" Really?... Recent Reading...

I just read Arnold Kling's Featured Article on Mark S. Weiner's The Rule of the Clan. On the strength of the review I bought the book. Here's Kling's summary of Weiner:

1. A decentralized order is possible. Indeed, it is natural for human societies to achieve such an order, rather than degenerate into the Hobbesian war of all against all.

2. The natural decentralized order is, however, highly illiberal. It requires a set of social norms that bind the individual to the clan. Under the rule of the clan, peace is broken by feuds, commerce is crippled by the inability to put trade with strangers on a contractual basis, and individual autonomy is sacrificed for group solidarity.

3. In the absence of a strong central state, the rule of the clan is the inevitable result. In order to graduate from the society of Status to the society of Contract, you must have a strong central state.

Like Kling, I'm willing to believe 1 and 2, but I find 3 unpersuasive (again, I haven't read Weiner's book yet). I'm reminded of the following from chapter 3 of Douglass C. North's Structure and Change in Economic History, titled "A Neoclassical Theory of the State":

"The existence of a state is essential for economic growth; the state, however, is the source of man-made economic decline." (p. 20).

"For the economic historian, the key problems are to explain the kind of property rights that come to be specified and enforced by the state and to explain the effectiveness of enforcement; the most interesting challenge is to account for changes in the structure and enforcement of property rights over time." (p. 21)

"The essence of property rights is the right to exclude, and an organization which has a comparative advantage in violence is in the position to specify and enforce property rights." (p. 21)

North offered a powerful explanatory theory of the state, but even in spite of the fact that chapter 5 of Structure and Change in Economic History is titled "Ideology and the Free Rider Problem" and in spite of North's later work (especially his 2009 book with John Wallis and Barry Weingast, Violence and Social Orders), we don't have a complete understanding of what Daniel Klein called "The People's Romance." Co-blogger Bryan Caplan is right that people exhibit anti-foreign bias and that these biases are rooted in our tribal past, but I look forward to a more complete explanation of how these rules and norms have translated into not just a willingness to obey but an outright love for one's government.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Glen S. McGhee writes:

I'm glad to see some neo-institutionalism seeping it, via Douglas North.

Klein's article too, swerves toward the sociological. Even his Table 1 clearly compartmentalizes social cohesion forces -- which Bruce Schneier (in fig 6 of Liars and Outliers) expands: personal, small group, medium-sized group, large group, very large group, and global.

My big problem with democracy, as established by the Founders, is that it is primarily geared for the micro-sized groups, and completely overwhelmed by mega-institutional forces that take on a life of its own (ex., legal system, tax system, etc).

Glen S. McGhee writes:

This short argument for state power (#3) -- the monopoly of violence -- is from Randall Collins' review of Congedarsi dal mondo: Il suicidio in Occidente e in Oriente, by Marzio Barbagli. Bologna, IT: Il Mulino, 2009. 526pp. NPL. ISBN: 9788815127853.

"Barbagli points out suicide rates were very low in medieval Christian Europe, but homicides were very high. The church strongly condemned suicide, punishing the survivors by tabooing the place and ritually destroying the suicide’s property. Suicide and homicide rates flipped over around 1600–1700, coinciding with growing state monopolization of force and penetration into society. This explains the falling homicide rate, first in northern European, then in southern and Catholic regions, following the growth of state power."

Greg G writes:

Of course it is true that there is no way to prove that a peaceful and prosperous libertarian state (or a unicorn for that matter) might not evolve in the future.

The best evidence we have to go on in such speculation is past history and current trajectories. Both of those are good evidence that the rule of the clan that Weiner describes is, by far, the most likely alternative to the modern nation state.

Hazel Meade writes:

I depends on what is meant by a "strong central state". In a historical context spanning most of human history a "strong" state might simply mean a state that is capable of enforcing laws, not a all-encompassing totalitarian economic planner.

The terms "strong" and "weak" in reference to states might also mean different things. A state that is unchallenged in terms of it's monopoly on force might be considered "strong" because it has no rivals, even though it is strictly constitutionally limited. "Strong" could mean "well-established or "respected".

Meanwhile, a "weak" state could be a place like Somalia, which is a system of clan warfare, even though the "weak" government of Somalia is empowered to do all sorts of things (such as enforce prohibitions on depictions of the Prophet Mohammed).

I think it's fair to say that a libertarian system would require a "strong" state in the sense of maintaining a monopoly on force, enforcing people's rights and contracts equally, and maintaining the rule of law. A "weak" libertarian state would be one that isn't capable of actually enforcing the rights that it's meant to protect.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Elsewhere I have recommended as companion reading:

NBER Working Paper 12795 (2006)

A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History North et al.

As to number 3 in Kling's summary simply read Tocqueville and his references to civil associations.

DougT writes:

I believe that Robert Nozick covered this over 30 years ago in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. His critique of Rawls is devastating.

He also lays out the logic for the State having a monopoly franchise on force. Fukuyama says much the same thing, from an historical perspective.

Ca plus change...

Matt H writes:

The rule of the clan is inevitable, because throwing your lot in with others and acting like bullies is effective. Lets say only a few folks want to be clan members, that is all it takes to create an equilibrium where if others don't join a band they will be unable to protect themselves or positions. This is also why diversity is so harmful to liberal institutions because once one groups starts putting their collective interests above their individual interests, and above the larger groups interests, all groups eventually respond in kind.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Since a nation is not a material but a spiritual entity (St Augustine, also Chesterton in The Heretics), the naturalistic assumptions are never going to lead to a satisfying explanation.

A nation is a community of people united in love with the nation as their common object of love.

It has nothing to do with race (on this point, Chesterton in the Heretics). And this is where people like Sailer go wrong.

In Aristotle's Politics, the nation (or the polis in his language), the family and the individual are held to be three irreducible levels of social organization. A weak state may mean rule by families--i.e. a clan-dominated system.
Or it may mean libertarian utopia of self-ruling individuals with families and state being withered away.
A totalitarian state mean decay of proper sphere of families and individuals. So proper harmony between these three irreducible entities is necessary for human flourishing.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

State having a monopoly franchise on force.

How is this supposed monopoly consistent with the constitutional right of self-defense and the 2nd amendment?

david writes:

It's consistent because the US government takes responsibility for the force that you use on members of other states. As far as international relations goes, the US has its monopoly; it protects you from any direct retaliation from other states. The fact that the US graciously delegates somewhat more rights to its people is irrelevant. If you sneak into Canada and shoot a Canadian, the Canadian air force cannot bomb your house; Canada must go through the US state apparatus to seek justice. The state has the first claim to the rights and the responsibilities, not the individual.

This happy arrangement has merely become less obvious because Americans have run out of aboriginal nations outside their own nominal borders to attack, protected from retaliation by the aegis of the US Army. Now that there is no more native retaliation to worry about, you are taking your protection for granted.

Brian writes:

I think Weiner's Society of Status versus the Society of Contract distinction is more useful than his Clan versus centralized government dichotomy. What makes the clan illiberal is that one has no choice whether to be a member--membership is conferred by a biological imperative. There is no exit option.

By contrast, contract-based social organization is fluid and responsive to preferences. Though contracts are necessarily restrictive, in that they require certain actions in exchange for others, the restrictions are usually specific and short-term. This is profoundly liberal.

But the status vs. contract distinction has nothing to do with government per se, centralized or otherwise. Governments can have a clannish character to them as well, a character which is increasingly likely as they become MORE centralized (since exit options are reduced). The truly liberal approach to social organization favors decentralized government and nongovernmental organizations (like clubs, churches, events) operating at multiple scales.

Based on these observations, I would reject both #2 (the part that says natural decentralized order is illiberal) and #3.

Hazel Meade writes:

But the status vs. contract distinction has nothing to do with government per se, centralized or otherwise.

Contracts have nothing to do with government?
Say what? Who is to enforce the contracts if not the government? Where do you go to go to court when one is violated?

And perhaps equally important, how can you ensure that contracts are enforced equally? With a decentralized government and patchwork NGOs doing the enforcement, you can (and probably will) have groups that will unfairly refuse to enforce contractual obligations benefitting disfavored groups.

The reason why you need a "strong" (in the sense of unchalleneged and respected) central government to get to the contract-based society is to be able to uniformly apply and enforce the right to freedom of contract.

Brian writes:


You are correct that formal legal contracts require some form of government to enforce them, but I think the term comtract is being used more generally. Certainly, I meant it in the sense of social contract. At the most basic level, if you and I agree to meet for a picnic and I will bring the chicken and you the potato salad, we have made a contract. If I later decide to come and eat your potato salad without bringing the chicken, you get angry at me and perhaps never let me freeload again. Likewise, all private commercial exchanges involve contracts. None of these require the involvement of government. Government becomes increasingly necessary, certainly, as the contracts become more complex, but I would say that government is not required for contracts in general.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top