08 May 2013

The Libertarian Case For Strong Centralized States

Mark S. Weiner's The Rule of the Clan makes a libertarian case for a strong central state. In it, he directly challenges what many libertarians currently believe. . .

How should Weiner's thesis be evaluated from a libertarian perspective? A terse summary of his arguments would be as follows.
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.
From here.

The implication is that a libertarian should want a strong yet minimal centralized state, putting it in a post-modern era of political progress, rather than simply hearkening to a past that wasn't as glorious as it is sometimes imagined to be.

Another way of conceptualizing the issue is that one can only get to a workable and just libertarian society from a set of initial conditions that we don't have at the moment, although we may be closer to attaining than we were in the Middle Ages, for example.  Making a society like that work in a modern society requires a rather elaborate set of well functioning private institutions and also a set of very widely held societal norms, that may not yet be present today. 

Regardless of how they are governed (public or private), you can't have a functioning modern society without well managed farms, factories, water and sewer and transportation and information exchange infrastructure, an educated populace that is adequately self-disciplined, people who can assure that buildings have sound workmanship and financial arrangements are honest, a widely enough shares lingua franca, adequate means of protecting a place from hostile foreign states, people with the skill set to stop violent individuals, and so on. You can't just decree a set of legal rules and minimal institutions for people used to living in some other kind of legal order and expect this alone to produce a good society.

I am not a libertarian, of course.  I'm just a plain old liberal.  But, the insight is a valuable rejoinder to those who would hobble the functioning of government entirely in the belief that it would produce an anarcho-capitalist utopia.  The reviewer responds with the following:
In The Machinery of Freedom, Friedman envisions a society of Contract without a central government at all.
I will concede to Weiner that many populations, today as well as in the history that preceded liberal democracy, are and have been subject to the rule of the clan. I believe that he is correct in highlighting the ways in which this is likely to hamper the ability of citizens of Western societies to understand, communicate with, and relate peacefully to those cultures that retain considerable clan-based norms. Because of this, I strongly recommend The Rule of the Clan to readers of all political persuasions.
However, if I were Weiner, I would stop there. The claim that only a strong, activist central government can maintain the society of Contract and keep us from reverting to the rule of the clan requires more evidence and analytical support.
Personally, the notion of a "society of Contract" is in my view both question begging when it comes to defining its boundaries, and a pipe dream for a variety of other practical reasons as a realizable form of political organization, as opposed to a heuristic against which public policy measures can be evaluated.  But, an acknowledgement of the risks present in every historically attested society without strong centralized states has considerable value of its own.

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