Author: Arnold Kling

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What Overcame the Clan in England?

Mark Weiner writes,

One of the great stories of English constitutional history is the development of strong Anglo-Saxon kingship. Under the leadership of figures like Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon rulers were able to regulate and ultimately abolish the kin-based blood feud as a mode of dispute resolution.

There is an alternative explanation for English exceptionalism, rooted in culture.  This case is made in a recent book by James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus, called America 3.0.  They in turn draw on other works, notably Alan MacFarlane’s The Origins of English Individualism.  They take the view that the causality runs from the nuclear-family culture of the English to the path of institutional development that emerged in England (and later in America), more than the other way around.

For example, in a clan-based system, land can be owned collectively and allocated according to traditions as administered by the clan leaders. In a nuclear-family system, families need to be able to obtain their own land, which requires a system for exchanging land.  This leads to concerns with property rights.

Bennett and Lotus argue that our nuclear-family culture is not going to disappear, given that it has a thousand-year history behind it.  And they suggest that our central government has become so awkward and misaligned with the information age that a new era of decentralization is likely.  What they foresee is neither a libertarian quasi-anarchy nor the Washington-centric welfare state that we have now.

Anyway, the issue that you might address is whether the English and American cultures have embedded within them a strong resistance to the clan form of society and if so, whether that means that we could see a less powerful central government without the emergence of an order based on rule-of-the-clan.

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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.