I reviewed Mark Weiner’s Rule of the Clan from a libertarian perspective.
Libertarians are impressed by order that emerges in an unplanned, decentralized way. No one knows how to make a pencil, and yet through the decentralized process of market trading, pencils are made readily available. If making a pencil does not require a central planner, then why do we need a strong central government?
The Hobbesian answer is that without a strong central government, we would have the “war of all against all.” The libertarian response echoes Karl Kraus. Kraus famously said something to the effect that “psychoanalysis is the disease which it purports to cure.” Libertarians point out that the state, which purports to be the cure for the war of all against all, is the leading cause of violent death and incarceration.
Weiner’s book contains a message for libertarians that is decidedly mixed. He argues, on the one hand, that there is a decentralized order that is an alternative to a strong central government. On the other hand, this order is not at all libertarian.
The decentralized order that Weiner describes is the rule of the clan. It is a cultural system in which individuals lack what we think of as liberty. Instead, the individual is subordinate to the extended family.
Libertarians have been known to use medieval Iceland as an example proving that a strong central government is not needed to maintain order. Weiner describes medieval Iceland as an example of the clan-based system of order, but from his depiction it is clearly not a model of a libertarian society.
Weiner uses legal historian Henry Maine’s distinction between a Society of Status and a Society of Contract. Rule of the clan embodies a society of status. Libertarians want to see a society of contract.
Libertarians see the “contract theory” of existing states as a fiction. I never signed an agreement giving authority to the people and institutions of my federal, state, and local government. Instead, those people and institutions have decided unilaterally what authority they can exercise over me.
Is it possible to extend the society of contract, giving less asymmetric power to the people and institutions that constitute the government? Libertarians believes that the answer is “yes.” However, Weiner claims that wherever the people and institutions of government lack strong asymmetric power, what we observe is the rule of the clan. Libertarians are faced with the burden of showing that while he may be correct in describing the decentralized orders that we have observed, there may yet emerge a more decentralized order that does not degenerate into the rule of the clan.