society

Libertarianism and the State

The version of libertarianism that I address here is minarchism: the belief that the state — whether necessary or inevitable — is legitimate only if its functions are limited to the defense of its citizens from foreign and domestic predators. Anarchism — an extreme form of libertarianism — is a pipe dream, for reasons I detail in several posts; e.g., here.

Under minarchism, the order that is necessary to liberty — peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior — is fostered by the institutions of civil society: family, church, club, and the like. Those institutions inculcate morality and enforce it through “social pressure.” The state (ideally) deals only with those persons who violate fundamental canons of behavior toward other persons (e.g., the last six of the Ten Commandments), and also defends the populace from foreign enemies.

Though America is a long way from minarchism, something like it was possible under the Articles of Confederation and in the early decades under the Constitution, when the central government was relatively unobtrusive and most legal constraints on human action were levied by State and local governments. In those conditions, Americans could rid themselves of unwanted social and legal strictures by leaving one State for another or venturing into the relatively ungoverned frontier territories.

Having defined libertarianism (for the purpose of this post), I will now state the surprising conclusion to which I have come: Its adherents are unwitting statists.

Obviously, you will expect — and get — an explanation of that startling statement. I’ll begin with the central tenet of mainstream libertarianism: Individual persons may not be coerced by anyone — state or society — except as their actions may cause harm to others.

That seems like a reasonable position, until you ask what “harm” means. Here’s the author of the harm principle, John Stuart Mill:

[N]either one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without. In this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper field of action. In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should for the most part be observed, in order that people may know what they have to expect; but in each person’s own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise….

I fully admit that the mischief which a person does to himself may seriously affect, both through their sympathies and their interests, those nearly connected with him, and in a minor degree, society at large…. No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law.

But with regard to the merely contingent, or, as it may be called, constructive injury which a person causes to society, by conduct which neither violates any specific duty to the public, nor occasions perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself; the inconvenience is one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom…. (On Liberty, Chapter IV)

To begin at the end of the quotation, Mill arbitrarily places a higher value on freedom, as an abstract ideal, than he does on the harms that can occur in its name. This kind of mindless devotion to the abstract ideal of freedom, without regard for costs or consequences, is common among libertarians. But freedom means nothing if it can’t be described without reference to the real-world conditions of human existence. To appeal to freedom as an abstract desideratum — superior to whatever alternative is being rejected in its name — is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness and, simultaneously, the nirvana fallacy. Freedom, as philosopher Jamie Whyte would say, is a “hooray word”: “Declare you are in favor of” freedom “and everyone will cheer his agreement, even if he disagrees with you in every particular question of what” freedom means (Bad Thoughts, p. 61).

What about the harms that Mill (and his followers unto this day) dismiss as “neither violat[ing] any specific duty … nor occasion[ing] perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself”? Who is fit to make the judgment as to whether a particular action constitutes a “hurt,” the members of the society whose norms have been violated or “rational” observers, like Mill? Society — properly understood — is a tightly woven fabric, individual strands of which can’t be plucked without damaging the whole. Rationalists and “reformers” tend to focus on the parts of society that they want to change, without considering the effects of change on the well-being of society. (I will come to a salient example, below.)

Friedrich Hayek sees through Mill’s rationalism:

[T]rue individualism … began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke–the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them. In the nineteenth century I find it represented most perfectly in the work of two of its greatest historians and political philosophers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton…. [T]he classical economists of the nineteenth century, or at least the Benthamites or philosophical radicals among them, came increasingly under the influence of another kind of individualism of different origin.

This second and altogether different strand of thought, also known as individualism, is represented mainly by French and other Continental writers–a fact due, I believe, to the dominant role which Cartesian rationalism plays in its composition…. [T]his rationalistic individualism always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism. It is because only the first kind of individualism is consistent that I claim for it the name of true individualism, while the second kind must probably be regarded as a source of modern socialism as important as the properly collectivist theories….

What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them….

Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society … are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse… That the existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people will enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background, is, of course, a commonplace….

This brings me to … the necessity, in any complex society in which the effects of anyone’s action reach far beyond his possible range of vision, of the individual submitting to the anonymous and seemingly irrational forces of society–a submission which must include not only the acceptance of rules of behavior as valid without examining what depends in the particular instance on their being observed but also a readiness to adjust himself to changes which may profoundly affect his fortunes and opportunities and the causes of which may be altogether unintelligible to him. It is against these that modern man tends to revolt unless their necessity can be shown to rest upon “reason made clear and demonstrable to every individual.”

Yet it is just here that the understandable craving for intelligibility produces illusory demands which no system can satisfy….

The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning, is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement…. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan… They are the results of that same rationalistic “individualism” which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason. They are certainly not, however, a result of true individualism and may even make the working of a free and truly individualistic system difficult or impossible….

This cult of the distinct and different individuality has, of course, deep roots in the German intellectual tradition and, through the influence of some of its greatest exponents, especially Goethe and Wilhelm von Humboldt, has made itself felt far beyond Germany and is clearly seen in J. S. Mill’s [On] Liberty. This sort of “individualism” not only has nothing to do with true individualism but may indeed prove a grave obstacle to the smooth working of an individualist system…. [I]f people are too “individualistic” in the false sense, if they are too unwilling voluntarily to conform to traditions and conventions, and if they refuse to recognize anything which is not consciously designed or which cannot be demonstrated as rational to every individual. It is at least understandable that the prevalence of this kind of “individualism” has often made people of good will despair of the possibility of achieving order in a free society and even made them ask for a- dictatorial government with the power to impose on society the order which it will not produce itself. (Individualism and Economic Order, Chapter I)

Consider Mill’s defense of the drunkard. Mill speaks of “punishment” as if that were the only alternative, and he sets up dereliction of duty as the only kind of act stemming from drunkenness that ought to be punished. But an habitual drunk does great damage to those around him, by failing to provide properly for his wife and children, by performing his job to less than his ability, by causing accidents that can harm others as well as himself, and so on. When there was such a thing as society — before it was constructively eradicated by the state’s usurpation and suppression of traditional functions of civil society (e.g., education, charity, religious expression) — a drunkard would have been an object of scorn and opprobrium. Whether or not a particular drunkard would have changed his ways because of scorn and opprobrium, observant fellows would have seen in his treatment an object lesson.

In any event, social justice of the true kind — the reaction of society to those who offend against its norms — serves a civilizing function that the state simply cannot duplicate. The state is a rule-bound, reactive institution, unlike the kind of living institution that is found in true society: an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.

This brings me to the example that I promised earlier: abortion. At the time of the founding of the United States, abortion was widely prohibited under common law. Statutory prohibitions followed throughout the 19th century. Before Roe v. Wade (1973), only four States allowed abortions without restrictions; 16 States allowed abortions in cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother’s health, or fetal damage; abortion was simply not allowed in the other 30 States. The prevailing restrictions are consistent with the historical condemnation of abortion (at some stage of fetal development) by most religions. (It is irrelevant to this discussion that some faiths and denominations have, in the years since Roe v. Wade, changed their dogmas in an attempt to be “relevant.”)

In sum, the widespread proscription of abortion in the United States enjoyed broad and deep support for almost two centuries. One could reasonably call condemnation of abortion a social norm. Special pleading in favor of abortion, which led to the pro-abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade, contributed greatly to the division of America that runs along the fault lines of the culture war and the proper role of government.

Did the social engineers who foisted legalized abortion on America mean to weaken the already strained bonds of trust among Americans? Probably not, but neither is it likely that they gave the prospect of social division much thought, or if they did they probably didn’t care about it. (I have no doubt about the equally reckless and insouciant attitudes of the social engineers who put the full force of law behind reverse racism, and who are now trying to do the same for homosexual “marriage.”)

This is what happens when social norms are overturned by do-gooders. Which brings me to the do-gooders who call themselves libertarians. They claim to be against the intrusion of the state into social arrangements — except when those social arrangements don’t suit them. They are the false individualists of whom Hayek writes.

The widespread prohibition of abortion, by law, reflected a deep-seated social norm. The desire of most whites to avoid forced association with blacks reflected (and reflects) valid observations about differences in culture, behavior, and intelligence. The desire of most heterosexuals to preserve the traditional definition of marriage reflected (and still reflects) their rightful abhorrence of a perverse “lifestyle” and visceral understanding that redefining marriage will weaken it, and thus weaken its civilizing influence. But such truths matter not to a false individualist, who cannot see the forest of society for the trees of their individual whims.

And so, when a libertarian (really a pseudo-libertarian) wants to enact his particular anti-social social agenda, where does he turn? He turns to the state and implores it to intervene in social matters, without thinking of or caring about the consequences. Because the (psuedo) libertarian — like Mill — is bedazzled by “freedom” from social restraints. In that respect, it’s hard to tell a (pseudo) libertarian from a “liberal; both want to strike down social restraints that they dislike, in favor of state-imposed restraints that are to their liking.

Thus do (pseudo) libertarians (and “liberal”) shred the bonds of trust that enable a people to live in liberty, which is not the same thing as “freedom” from social restraints. As Hayek puts it:

[T]he existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people … enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background.

Or, as I have said, liberty is a state of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Such a state is unattainable where the “conventions and traditions” that underlie mutual trust are demolished willy-nilly in the name of “freedom.”

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Related posts:
Diversity
The Cost of Affirmative Action
It Can Happen Here: Eugenics, Abortion, Euthanasia, and Mental Screening
Affirmative Action: A Modest Proposal
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy
Affirmative Action, One More Time
A Contrarian View of Segregation
The Consequences of Roe v. Wade
The Old Eugenics in a New Guise
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
After the Bell Curve
A Footnote . . .
Schelling and Segregation
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
An Argument Against Abortion
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
The Case against Genetic Engineering
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy, Revisited
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
On Liberty
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
“Conversing” about Race
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
“We the People” and Big Government
Evolution and Race
The Culture War
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Getting Liberty Wrong
Surrender? Hell No!

The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

Here we go again, into “all men are brothers” territory:

“Morality can do things it did not evolve (biologically) to do,” says [Joshua] Greene [author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them]. How can it do this? By switching from the intuitive “automatic mode” that underpins our gut reactions to the calculating, rational “manual mode”. This, for Greene, means embracing utilitarianism, “the native philosophy of the manual mode”. Utilitarianism takes the idea that “happiness is what matters, and everyone’s happiness counts the same”, generating the simple three-word maxim, “maximise happiness impartially”.

Greene is not the first to think that he has found “a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share” and that those who disagree are simply not being rational enough. Many a philosopher will raise an eyebrow at his claim that “the only truly compelling objection to utilitarianism is that it gets the intuitively wrong answers in certain cases”.

At least one strong objection is suggested by what Greene himself says. He knows full well that the kind of absolutely impartial perspective demanded by utilitarianism – in which the interests of your own child, partner or friends count for no more than any others – “is simply incompatible with the life for which our brains were designed”. Greene takes this as a flaw of human beings, not his preferred moral theory. But when someone, for example, dedicates a book to his wife, as Greene does, this does not reflect a failure to be appropriately objective. A world in which people showed no such preferences would be an inhuman, not an ideal, one. A morality that values human flourishing, as Greene thinks it should, should put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as “species-typical moral limitations” to be overcome.

That’s an excerpt of Julian Baggiani’s commendable review of Greene’s book and two others (“The Social Animal,” FT.com, January 3, 2014).

Greene makes two errors. First, he assumes that it’s wrong to prefer those who are closest to one, geographically and by kinship, to those who are farther away. Second, he assumes that happiness can be added, and that what should matter to a person is not his happiness but the sum of all the happiness in the world. The errors are so obvious that I won’t dwell on them here. If you want to read more about them, start with “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” “Inside-Outside,” “Modern Utilitarianism,” “The Social Welfare Function,” and “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.” And by all means read “The Fallacy of Human Progress,” which addresses Steven Pinker’s rationalistic thesis about overcoming human nature (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).

Yes, human beings are social animals, but human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and there is no use in pretending that we are. Trying to make us so, by governmental fiat, isn’t only futile but also wasteful and harmful. The futility of forced socialization is as true of the United States — a vast and varied collection of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures — as it is of the world.

Despite the blatant reality of America’s irreconcilable diversity, American increasingly are being forced to lead their lives according to the dictates of the central government. Some apologists for this state of affairs will refer to the “common good,” which is a fiction that I address in the third, fourth, and fifth of the above-linked posts. Other apologists like to invoke the “social contract,” another fiction that Michael Huemer disposes of quite nicely:

[I]t is often said that the government derives its powers from a “social contract,” whereby the people have granted these special powers to the government. The only problem with this theory is that it is factually false—I have not in fact agreed to have a government, to pay taxes, or to obey the government’s laws.

A number of suggestions have been made as to how, despite my protestations to the contrary, I really have agreed to all those things. Here I will just mention one, because it is the one most often heard in conversation. This is the suggestion that I have “implicitly” agreed to have a government merely by residing in the government’s territory. (“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. In this case, the statist’s claim seems analogous to the leader of a protection racket claiming that his victims have voluntarily agreed to pay him protection money, merely by living in their own houses. There are other ways in which social contract enthusiasts claim that we have accepted the social contract, but as I explain in the book, each of them falls to equally serious objections, which show that the social contract does not come close to satisfying the generally accepted principles of real, valid contracts.

Another popular suggestion is that, in democratic nations (about half the world today), the democratic process confers authority on the government. The motivation behind this view is initially puzzling. Recall that the problem is to explain why the state may undertake actions that would be considered rights violations if anyone else were to perform them. Typically, if some type of action violates someone’s rights—for instance, theft, kidnapping, or murder—the action will not be converted into an ethically permissible, non-rights-violating one if a larger number of people support the action than oppose it. If you’re in a group of friends, and five of them decide they want to rob you, while only three oppose robbing you, this does not make it ethically permissible to rob you. Similarly, even if every law were directly authorized by a popular referendum of everyone affected by the law, it is unclear why this would render legitimate a law that would otherwise have been a rights violation. Matters are only more problematic in a society in which a minority of people vote, and they vote merely to select representatives who may or may not keep their promises, and may or may not do what their supporters wanted.

But doesn’t the government have to coerce us in the ways that it does in order to maintain itself in existence, so that it can provide law and order? And without government, wouldn’t society degenerate into a constant war of everyone against everyone? The first thing to note about this argument is that it could at most justify a tiny minority of all the powers claimed by any modern state. Perhaps the government must make laws against violence and theft and provide a court system to adjudicate disputes, in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all. But why must the government control what drugs you may put into your body, what wages you may pay your employees, how much wheat you may grow on your farm, and whether you buy health insurance? Why must they subsidize agribusiness, send rockets to Mars, fund the arts, provide college loans, and run their own school system? The question is not, “Why are those programs beneficial?” The question is, “How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?”

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to use coercion to prevent some disaster from occurring. But having done so, one is not then ethically permitted to continue using coercion beyond the minimal amount necessary to prevent that disaster. If we really stand in danger of some sort of all-out Hobbesian war, then the state would be justified in employing the minimum coercion necessary to prevent the state of war from occurring. This would not justify their continuing to employ coercion whenever it strikes their fancy, or whenever they think they can achieve some benefit by doing so. (“The Problem of Authority,” Cato Unbound, March 4, 2013)

A point that Huemer doesn’t make in his essay is to compare Americans with the “boiling frog“:

The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.

The metaphor is apt. Americans — or a very large fraction of Americans — have been “boiled” stealthily:

Power has been passing to Washington for more than 100 years, in defiance of the Constitution, because of … the Nirvana fallacy, unrepresentative government, logjams and log-rolling, fiefdoms and egos, and the ratchet effect and interest-group paradox. Thus Washington is able to exert its power on the entire country, bringing big government to places that don’t want it….

[G]overnmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have usurped social norms. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal adoption has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, liberty-loving Americans have discovered — too late, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water — that they are impotent captives in their own land.

Voice is now so muted by “settled law” (e.g., “entitlements,” privileged treatment for some, almost-absolute control of commerce) that there a vanishingly small possibility of restoring constitutional government without violence. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt. (“‘We the People’ and Big Government,” Politics & Prosperity, November 16, 2013)

And, no, “we” — that is all of “us” — don’t want it to be that way:

If there is an “American psyche,” it has multiple-personality disorder.

What do you think when a snobbish European generalizes about Americans — a bunch of crude, gun-toting, money-grubbers? Do you think that such generalizations are correct? You probably don’t. And if you don’t, why would you think (or speak and write) as if Americans are like ants, that is, of one mind and collectively responsible for the actions of government? …

There’s no need to look abroad for inapplicable generalizations about America…. [C]onservatives and liberals have been separating themselves from each other. Only a cock-eyed optimist — the kind of person who believes that living in the same (very large) geographic requires unity — would call this a bad thing. As if proximity yields comity. It doesn’t work for a lot of families; it doesn’t work for most blacks and whites; it doesn’t work for upper-income and lower-income groups. Why should it work for most conservatives and liberals? …

But aren’t “we all in this together,” as proponents of big and bigger government are wont to proclaim? Not at all. The notion that “we are all in this together” is just a slogan, which really means “I want big and bigger government” to “solve” this or that problem — usually at the expense of persons who have done nothing to create the “problem.” “We are all in this together” is a call for action by government, not proof of a mythical “national will.” If “we” were “all in this together,” we wouldn’t need to be reminded of it. Like a good sports team or military unit, we would simply act that way. (Op. cit.)

It’s true that most human beings crave some kind of social connection. But the gap between that craving and the faux connectedness of one-size-fits-all big government can’t be bridged by ringing phrases (“We the People”), by appeals to patriotism, or by force.

Government can take my money, and it can make me do things the way “technocrats” want them done — and it can do the same to millions of other Americans. But government can’t make me (or those other millions) love the recipients of my money or feel happier because I’m doing things the “right” way. It can only make my (and those other millions) despise the recipients and detest forced conformity. Only divisiveness can prevent the complete destruction of liberty in the name of “society.”

Social unity is found not in government but in genetic kinship:

[G]enetic kinship is indispensable to society, where society is properly understood as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” (“Genetic Kinship and Society,” Politics & Prosperity, August 16, 2012)

It takes overeducated dunderheads like Joshua Greene to denigrate the bonds of genetic kinship, even while openly prizing them.

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Other related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”

The Culture War

“Culture war” is a familiar term, but one that I hadn’t thought deeply about until a few days ago. I read something about abortion in which “culture war” occurred. The fog lifted, and I grasped what should have been obvious to me all along: The “culture war” isn’t about “culture,” it’s about morality and liberty.

Rod Dreher, in the course of a premature paean to Barack Obama’s “diplomatic” approach to ideological strife, gets it right:

The source of our culture war is conflicting visions of what it means to be free and what it means to be an American – and even what it means to be fully human. More concretely, as Princeton’s Robert George has written, they have to do mainly “with sexuality, the transmitting and taking of human life, and the place of religion and religiously informed moral judgment in public life.”

Because the cultural left and cultural right hold to irreconcilable orthodoxies on these questions, we find scant cultural consensus. That’s life in America. Unless we become a homogenous country, we will continue to struggle to live together, staying true to our deepest beliefs while respecting the liberty of others to stay true to their own.

But we do not live in a libertarian Utopia. We can’t have it all. If, for example, courts constitutionalized same-sex marriage, as gay activists seek, that would have a ground-shaking effect on religious liberty, public schooling and other aspects of American life. Without question, it would intensify the culture war, as partisans of the left and right fight for what each considers a sacred principle.

What irritates conservatives is the liberals’ groundless conceit that they fight from a values-neutral position, while the right seeks to impose its norms on others. Nonsense. Marriage was a settled issue until liberals began using courts to impose their moral vision on (so far) an unwilling majority. Who fired the first shot there? (“Obama Won’t End the Culture Wars,” RealClearPolitics, February 16, 2009)

And it doesn’t matter whether the unwilling are a majority or a minority. Just about everyone is a loser in the war against morality and liberty.

When social norms — long-established rules of behavior — are sundered willy-nilly the result is a breakdown of the voluntary order known as civil society.

The liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for the state to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism).

That is civil society, which the state ought to protect, but instead usurps and destroys. Usurping is one of the state’s primary (and illegitimate) functions. The state establishes agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions.

Worse, however, is the way in which the state destroys the social norms that foster social harmony — mutual respect and trust — without which a people cannot flourish.  As I observed some years ago, in connection with same-sex “marriage”:

Given the signals being sent by the state, the rate of formation of traditional, heterosexual marriages will continue to decline. (According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of adult males who are married dropped steadily from 71.1 percent in the 1960 census to 58.6 percent in the 2000 census; for females, the percentage dropped from 67.4 to 54.6. About half of each drop is explained by a rise in the percentage of adults who never marry, the other half by a rise in the percentage of divorced adults. Those statistics are what one should expect when the state signals — as it began to do increasingly after 1960 — that traditional marriage is no special thing by making it easier for couples to divorce, by subsidizing single mothers, and by encouraging women to work outside the home.)

“Thanks” to the signals sent by the state — many of them in the form of legislative, executive, an judicial dictates — we now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability.

The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda. Dreher calls them liberals. I call them left-statists. They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

*     *     *

Related reading:
Trevor Thomas, “The Laughable Liberal ‘Moral Imperative’,” American Thinker, December 1, 2013
Deborah C. Tyler, “Morality, Anti-Morality, and Socialism,” American Thinker, December 1, 2013

Related posts:
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values
The Consequences of Roe v. Wade
The Old Eugenics in a New Guise
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
Moral Luck
Consider the Children
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Equal Time: The Sequel
Marriage and Children
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
More on Abortion and Crime
Peter Singer’s Agenda
Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
Crime, Explained
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
The Left’s Agenda
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
The Left and Its Delusions
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
“Conversing” about Race
Defining Liberty
“We the People” and Big Government

LIberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

This is the fourth installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the second of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty in America.

If you have not read the first three installments, “Liberty and Society,” “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” and “Genetic Kinship and Society,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Am I Endorsing Moral Relativism?

In “Liberty and Society,” I argue that

liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.

Liberty, in other words, is a social construct, without a fixed meaning. Further, harm is not a single thing; it is many things, each of which is socially defined. Each harm refers to a right; the right not to be killed without (specified) cause, for example. The collection of rights (anti-harms) defines the scope of liberty in a particular society. Liberty is therefore divisible, to some extent; that is, a person might enjoy most of his socially agreed rights, but not all of them, because of this action by government or that action by a compatriot or enemy. (It is wrong, however, to assume that one can divide rights between social and economic categories; what is called economic activity is nothing more than a particular aspect of social activity, and the denial of certain economic rights is also a denial of social rights.)

Before you accuse me of moral relativism, consider the following. I am not endorsing a particular social construct, merely describing reality. The ugly reality is that in some societies there are barbarous acts which are considered to be moral, or to be justified because they are committed to enforce a moral code. One need look no further than certain Islamic sects, which endorse acts of terror against infidels, the stoning to death of adulterous women, and the imprisonment of homosexuals just because they are homosexuals. Are those acts justified by their broad acceptance within the Islamic sects that preach and practice them? Not in my view, certainly. But abhorrence of such acts does not negate the fact that they are accepted as normal within certain societies.

These facts will not dissuade moral absolutists, among whose number are deontological libertarians. Such libertarians like to believe that there is a “correct” moral code, and that it is known to them. This is a rather priestly pretension for a sect whose ranks are populated mainly by atheists. Persons who come to moral absolutism through religious conviction have the advantage of intellectual consistency.

By the deontological account, every human being is endowed with certain inalienable rights — “natural rights.”  What are those rights? One might assume that deontologists agree unanimously about them, inasmuch as deontologists accept the non-aggression principle and self-ownership as axiomatic. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Does the non-aggression principle preclude abortion? Some deontologists say that it does; others, that it does not. Does the non-aggression principle preclude a preemptive strike when it is evident that an enemy is about to attack? Again, it depends on which deontologist answers the question. I could go on, but that should be enough to tell you that deontology is no guarantee of moral certainty. In fact, deontology is nothing more than Mill’s harm principle in fancy dress And it has the same fatal flaw: It is a general statement into which one may pour a variety of specific meanings. (See “Liberty and Society.”) Efforts by deontologists to ground “natural rights” in evolutionary biology are equally fatuous. (See “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” and “More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology.”)

Then there are consequentialist libertarians, who claim that a regime of negative rights is best because it yields the greatest good for the greatest number. But the problem with that stance is its utilitarianism, that is, its presumption that the welfare of one person can be weighed against that of another person. (See “Enough of Social Welfare.”)

What about “progressives,” who are like deontological libertarians in the certainty with which they proclaim “natural rights,” which they (“progressives”) like to call “universal rights” and “human rights.” Unsurprisingly, “progressive” conceptions of rights are unlike those of most libertarians, who recognize only negative rights (“bleeding hearts” excepted). “Progressives” are champions of positive rights, that is, claims against the produce and property of others.

Who is to say that the “progressives” are wrong and hard-core libertarians are right? In other words, if there is a moral high ground, who decides who is standing on it? If a group of “progressives” were to form a cohesive society in which certain positive rights were agreed and accepted by all, without resort to coercion, would that not be a legitimate state of affairs? I have to admit that it would be.

That said, there is among “progressives” broad resistance to a pure share-and-share-alike ethos. In fact, “progressives” adhere to a share-this-much-but-no-more ethos. Though the “sharing” is not true sharing but redistribution by government edict. And the proper amount of “sharing” is always an idiosyncratic product of “progressive” attitudes du jour.

If you seek a good example of moral relativism, you can always find it in “progressivism,” with its ad hoc morality. Consequentialist libertarianism is no better, in principle, though when it comes to policy, consequentialists tend to be indistinguishable from deontologists. The latter, if they are nothing else, are demi-paragons of moral absolutism. If they were paragons, they would all discover the same operational code — one that goes deeper than an invocation of “natural rights.”

But I have wandered from the main point, which is whether variations in moral codes necessarily denote significant differences as to the nature of morality. Moral codes have two types of component: core values and instrumental values. Core values usually are expressed as absolutes: You shall not kill; you shall not steal; and so on. And those values may be held in common by many societies, even though those societies may have markedly different instrumental values.

The Amish, for example, subscribe to the core values that are enunciated in the Ten Commandments. But their instrumental values vary from sect to sect; thus:

Amish lifestyle is dictated by the Ordnung (German, meaning: order), which differs slightly from community to community, and, within a community, from district to district. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another. No summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally adequate, because there are few generalities that are true for all Amish. Groups may separate over matters such as the width of a hat-brim, the color of buggies, or other issues.

The last sentence of the quotation will cause “sophisticates” to smirk, though secular “sophisticates” are loathe to associate with persons who hold “mistaken” views about abortion, child-rearing, capital punishment, and the proper role of government — to name but a few examples. And yet, those same “sophisticates” will agree with their ideological enemies that murder, theft, and several other acts are wrong. The devil, as I say, is in the details.

Instrumental values may be as trivial (to the non-Amish) as the width of a hat-brim, or as consequential (to a large number of persons on the left and right) as the proper punishment for premeditated murder (i.e., whether it should be incarceration, perhaps with a rehabilitative aim, or execution).

Why are instrumental values so important? And do differences about instrumental values preclude common cause with respect to core values?

A society is much more than its core values, As I have said,

[a] society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence.

(On the importance of genetic kinship, see Genetic Kinship and Society.”)

But genetic kinship stretches only so far as a bonding material. When a person — even a person of the “right” race and ethnicity — flouts a society’s instrumental values, he signals disrespect for all of that society values, not just disrespect for the instrumental values in question. Take the predominantly white, flag-burning, rampaging, long-haired, bearded war-protestors of the 1960s and early 1970s, for example. Even though the United States is not a society and never has been one, it cohered in Old America because of commonalities among the societies of which it was composed. To be long-haired and bearded in the 1960s and early 1970s was (rightly) taken not just as a sign of one’s anti-war views but as a sign of one’s rejection of the values common to the societies of Old America. And so it was that to wear one’s hair long and to sport a beard (especially if the hair and beard were unkempt) was to risk a beating at the hands of white “good old boys.” (That the “good old boys” later adopted long hair and shaggy beards only underscores the role of signaling in social solidarity.)

It is nevertheless possible for societies that differ in their instrumental values to find common cause — as long as the differences are not too great:

Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.

Old America was a large and richly diverse nation, united as much as it could be — and as much as it needed to be for mutual self-defense. Much of that unity has been undone by the purveyors of “diversity” (i.e., state-imposed preferences), who are also the purveyors of “equality” (i.e., unearned entitlements). Those same purveyors are moral relativists who cannot bring themselves to keep Americans safe from violent sub-cultures, at home and abroad.

Which brings me to my criteria for judging moral codes:

1. A code must be socially evolved, not imposed by the state. (Though the state may enforce a moral code that reflects social norms.)

2. A code that fosters beneficent behavior must conform to the Ten Commandments, or to the last six of them, at least.

3. Those who dissent from the code must be able to voice their dissent; otherwise, the code ceases to be socially evolved. (Dissent does not encompass treason.)

4. Those who cannot abide the code must be able to exit society’s jurisdiction, without penalty.

There is more, if a society is part of a larger polity.

5. That polity is illegitimate if it overrides the otherwise legitimate moral codes of its constituent societies.

6. That polity is illegitimate if it honors inimical moral codes, either overtly or by making acts of obeisance to them. (A case in point: Obama’s support for uprisings in the Middle East — uprisings led by Muslim extremists, as Obama must surely have known.)

7. That polity is illegitimate if, in overriding those moral codes, it effectively negates voice and exit. (This has happened in America, where we are hostages in our own land.)

In closing, it is true that liberty is a social construct. But that is a realistic position, not a morally relativistic one. I am quite prepared to be judgmental of societies and polities. There is a “best” morality. It was widely practiced in Old America. Though it is still practiced in the remnants of Old America, it is vanishing from the United States, mainly because government has sundered social bonds and usurped the role of  society as the arbiter of morality. The government of the United States and the governments of most of its political subdivisions are illegitimate because their legal impositions are, for the most part, rooted in envy and power-lust — and not in Judeo-Christian morality.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Law and Liberty
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society

Genetic Kinship and Society

UPDATED (08/18/12) BELOW

This is the third installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the second of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty in America.

If you have not read the first two installments, “Liberty and Society” and “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Is Genetic Kinship an Indispensable Aspect of Society?

In “Liberty and Society,” I define society as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” Near the end of the post, I say this:

A society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence. If the foregoing description is correct, there is one aspect of society — and one only — that a society cannot “manufacture” through its social processes. That aspect is genetic-cultural kinship.

In the sequel, “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” there is this:

The United States, for a very long time, was a polity whose disparate parts cohered, regionally if not nationally, because the experience of living in the kind of small community sketched above was a common one. Long after the majority of Americans came to live in urban complexes, a large fraction of the residents of those complexes had grown up in small communities.

This was Old America — and it was predominant for almost 200 years after America won its independence from Britain. Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid.

The focus of this post is the indispensable contribution of genetic kinship to society. Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I do not use “society” in the loose way that politicians do, that  is, as a feel-good word for “nation.” The United States, as a nation, may comprise societies of the kind defined above, but the United States is not a society. It is a political convenience, held together by force, not by mutual trust, respect, and forbearance — which are the operational characteristics of a society.

Mutual trust, respect, and forbearance arise from the emotional force of genetic kinship. They may be mimicked in arrangements of convenience, such as economic ones. But those arrangements last only as long as they are profitable to all parties.

Arrangements of convenience may be facilitated by social bonding, but they cannot replace social bonding. For example, disparate peoples may trade with each other, to their mutual advantage, but they are not bound to each other emotionally. History is replete with examples of peoples who have turned against each other, despite their economic ties. Diplomatic ties are even less binding, because of their superficiality.

Whence the emotional bonds of genetic kinship? Are they found only in the nuclear family? (No.) Do they encompass the extended family? (Yes.) Are they enhanced by social relationships (e.g., church and club)? (Yes.) Do they extend to broad racial-ethnic groupings? (Yes.)

Emotional bonds may be reinforced (or not) by familial and social relationships, but they begin with racial-ethnic (genetic) kinship:

[S]tudies have demonstrated that relatedness is often important for human altruism in that humans are inclined to behave more altruistically toward kin than toward unrelated individuals.[22] Many people choose to live near relatives, exchange sizable gifts with relatives, and favor relatives in wills in proportion to their relatedness.[22]

A study interviewed several hundred women in Los Angeles to study patterns of helping between kin versus non-kin. While non-kin friends were willing to help one another, their assistance was far more likely to be reciprocal. The largest amounts of non-reciprocal help, however, were reportedly provided by kin. Additionally, more closely related kin were considered more likely sources of assistance than distant kin.[23] Similarly, several surveys of American college students found that individuals were more likely to incur the cost of assisting kin when a high probability that relatedness and benefit would be greater than cost existed. Participants’ feelings of helpfulness were stronger toward family members than non-kin. Additionally, participants were found to be most willing to help those individuals most closely related to them. Interpersonal relationships between kin in general were more supportive and less Machiavellian than those between non-kin.[24]….

A study of food-sharing practices on the West Caroline islets of Ifaluk determined that food-sharing was more common among people from the same islet, possibly because the degree of relatedness between inhabitants of the same islet would be higher than relatedness between inhabitants of different islets. When food was shared between islets, the distance the sharer was required to travel correlated with the relatedness of the recipient—a greater distance meant that the recipient needed to be a closer relative. The relatedness of the individual and the potential inclusive fitness benefit needed to outweigh the energy cost of transporting the food over distance.[26]

Humans may use the inheritance of material goods and wealth to maximize their inclusive fitness. By providing close kin with inherited wealth, an individual may improve his or her kin’s reproductive opportunities and thus increase his or her own inclusive fitness even after death. A study of a thousand wills found that the beneficiaries who received the most inheritance were generally those most closely related to the will’s writer. Distant kin received proportionally less inheritance, with the least amount of inheritance going to non-kin.[27]

A study of childcare practices among Canadian women found that respondents with children provide childcare reciprocally with non-kin. The cost of caring for non-kin was balanced by the benefit a woman received—having her own offspring cared for in return. However, respondents without children were significantly more likely to offer childcare to kin. For individuals without their own offspring, the inclusive fitness benefits of providing care to closely related children might outweigh the time and energy costs of childcare.[28]

Family investment in offspring among black South African households also appears consistent with an inclusive fitness model.[29] A higher degree of relatedness between children and their caregivers frequently correlated with a higher degree of investment in the children, with more food, health care, and clothing being provided. Relatedness between the child and the rest of the household also positively associated with the regularity of a child’s visits to local medical practitioners and with the highest grade the child had completed in school. Additionally, relatedness negatively associated with a child’s being behind in school for his or her age.

Observation of the Dolgan hunter-gatherers of northern Russia suggested that, while reciprocal food-sharing occurs between both kin and non-kin, there are larger and more frequent asymmetrical transfers of food to kin. Kin are also more likely to be welcomed to non-reciprocal meals, while non-kin are discouraged from attending. Finally, even when reciprocal food-sharing occurs between families, these families are often very closely related, and the primary beneficiaries are the offspring.[30]

Other research indicates that violence in families is more likely to occur when step-parents are present and that “genetic relationship is associated with a softening of conflict, and people’s evident valuations of themselves and of others are systematically related to the parties’ reproductive values”.[31]

Numerous other studies pertaining to kin selection exist, suggesting how inclusive fitness may work amongst peoples from the Ye’kwana of southern Venezuela to the Gypsies of Hungary to even the doomed Donner Party of the United States.[32][33][34] Various secondary sources provide compilations of kin selection studies.[35][36] [from Wikipedia, "Kin selection," as of 08/14/12]

*   *   *

[E.O.] Wilson used sociobiology and evolutionary principles to explain the behavior of the social insects and then to understand the social behavior of other animals, including humans, thus established sociobiology as a new scientific field. He argued that all animal behavior, including that of humans, is the product of heredity, environmental stimuli, and past experiences, and that free will is an illusion. He has referred to the biological basis of behaviour as the “genetic leash.”[17] The sociobiological view is that all animal social behavior is governed by epigenetic rules worked out by the laws of evolution. This theory and research proved to be seminal, controversial, and influential.[18]

The controversy of sociobiological research is in how it applies to humans. The theory established a scientific argument for rejecting the common doctrine of tabula rasa, which holds that human beings are born without any innate mental content and that culture functions to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success. In the final chapter of the book Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argues that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture (if not more). There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior….

Wilson has argued that the unit of selection is a gene, the basic element of heredity. The target of selection is normally the individual who carries an ensemble of genes of certain kinds.” With regard to the use of kin selection in explaining the behavior of eusocial insects, Wilson said to Discover magazine, the “new view that I’m proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin.”[22] [from Wikipedia, "E.O. Wilson," as of 08/14/12]

*   *   *

Wilson suggests the equation for Hamilton’s rule:[19]

rb > c

(where b represents the benefit to the recipient of altruism, c the cost to the altruist, and r their degree of relatedness) should be replaced by the more general equation

(rbk + be) > c

in which bk is the benefit to kin (b in the original equation) and be is the benefit accruing to the group as a whole. He then argues that, in the present state of the evidence in relation to social insects, it appears that be>rbk, so that altruism needs to be explained in terms of selection at the colony level rather than at the kin level. However, it is well understood in social evolution theory that kin selection and group selection are not distinct processes, and that the effects of multi-level selection are already fully accounted for in Hamilton’s original rule, rb>c.[20] [from Wikipedia, "Group selection," as 0f 08/14/12]

The idea that social bonding has a deep, genetic basis is beyond the ken of leftists and pseudo-libertarian rationalists. Both prefer to deny reality, though for different reasons. Leftists like to depict the state as society. Pseudo-libertarian rationalists seem to believe that social bonding is irrelevant to cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior; life, to them, is an economic arrangement.

Leftists and libertarians like to slander the mutual attraction of genetic kin by calling it “tribalism.” On that subject, the author of Foseti writes:

People are – in general – tribal. Let’s take it for granted that we all wish that this were not so. Further, let’s take it for granted that some individual people are much more tribal than others.

The fact remains, however, that people are tribal. It’s one thing to suggest that people should not be tribal in their daily dealings with others. Let’s stipulate that this is moral. It does not, however, follow that it would be moral to organize society around the principle the people will in fact act anti-tribally….

Lots of progressives (especially those of the libertarian sort) are fond of saying that restricting immigration is tribal. They simply can’t support immigration restrictions because they oppose tribalism.

There is no better way of demonstrating your high-status in today’s society than proclaiming your anti-tribalism. You should therefore be skeptical of these proclamations. However, many people are indeed not particularly tribal.

Your humble blogger is not a tribal person. There is no sort of person that I see on the street and say to myself, “wow, I bet he and I have a lot in common – we should look out for each other.” Temperamentally, I’m very much an individualist type. But it’s wishful thinking to generalize from my personal preferences to population-wide-shoulds.

Tribalism is, has always been, and likely always will be a feature of human societies.

Occasionally, we get not-so-gentle reminders that people are tribal. We would do well to learn. Here’s a more light-hearted example. Here’s a reminder that democratic politics is always tribal.

You’re free, of course, to consider yourself above tribalism. However, if you do so, you’ll be an idiot when you try to describe geopolitics, local politics, national politics, and public policies in general. By all means, bury your head in the sand, just don’t preach while you’re down there.

James_G makes a nice analogy in this post. He likens anti-tribal beliefs to communist beliefs. It’s true that some groups of humans can function reasonably well under communistic conditions. It’s similarly true that many human beings are not particularly tribal. However, it’s dangerously immoral to generalize from these exceptions to the general conclusions that communism works on a large scale or that all countries should be rainbow nations…. [from "The immorality of anti-tribalism," July 25, 2012]

In America, the pursuit of happiness in the form of money has sundered many a tribal community. (See “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” especially the 11th and 12th paragraphs.) But tribalism nevertheless remains a potent force in America:


Source: Census.gov, Ancestry: 2000 — Census 2000 Brief, Figure 3. (Right-click to open in a new tab, then click to enlarge.)

I venture to say that the “Americans” who predominate in large swaths of the South are the descendants of the English and Scots-Irish settlers of the colonial and early post-colonial era. They are “Americans” because their ancestors were (for the most part) the Americans of yore.

Not represented in the graph, because it is based on county-level statistics, are the high concentrations of Jews in many urban areas (especially in and around New York City and Miami), the coalescence of Arabs in the Detroit area, and the numerous ethnic enclaves (e.g., Chinese, Czech, Greek, Korean, Polish, Swedish, and Thai) — urban, semi-rural, and rural — that persist long after the original waves of immigration that led to their formation.

If genetic kinship is such a binding force, why is the closest kind of genetic kinship — the nuclear family — so often dysfunctional? Nuclear families are notoriously prone to strife, or so it would seem if one were to count novels and screenplays in evidence. Novels and screenplays are not dispositive, of course, because they emphasize strife for dramatic purposes. That said, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the American nuclear family is a less binding force than it used to be. But that is to be expected, given the interventions by the state that have eased divorce and lured women out of the home (e.g., affirmative action, subsidies for day care, mandated coverages for employer-provided health insurance).

There are other reasons to reject the (exaggerated) dysfunctionality of the nuclear family as evidence against the importance of genetic kinship to social bonding:

1. Strife is inevitable where humans interact, and family life affords a disproportionate number of opportunities for interaction. (For example, conflicts between the members of a nuclear family — parent vs. child, sibling vs. sibling — often begin during the childhood or adolescence of one or all parties to the conflict.)

2. Blood ties have a way of overcoming “bad blood” when a family member is in need of help. (Thus, for example, children of middle-age and older often are supportive of needful siblings and aged parents out of duty, not love.)

3. Many a person compensates for tense or distant relations with parents and siblings by maintaining close ties to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

This is not to say that the bonds of genetic kinship in America are everywhere as strong as in years past. The state’s interventions, the search for greener pastures, and the inexorable force of cross-racial and cross-ethnic sexual attraction have led to a more homogenized America.

But genetic kinship will always be a strong binding force, even where the kinship is primarily racial. Racial kinship boundaries, by the way, are not always and necessarily the broad ones suggested by the classic trichotomy of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid. (If you want to read for yourself about the long, convoluted, diffuse, and still controversial evolutionary chains that eventuated in the sub-species homo sapiens sapiens, to which all humans are assigned arbitrarily, without regard for their distinctive differences, begin here, here, here, and here.)

The obverse of of genetic kinship is “diversity,” which often is touted as a good thing by anti-tribalist social engineers. But “diversity” is not a good thing when it comes to social bonding. Michael Jonas reports on a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century“:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings….

…Putnam’s work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.

His findings on the downsides of diversity have also posed a challenge for Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the pro-diversity camp. Suddenly finding himself the bearer of bad news, Putnam has struggled with how to present his work. He gathered the initial raw data in 2000 and issued a press release the following year outlining the results. He then spent several years testing other possible explanations.

When he finally published a detailed scholarly analysis in June in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, he faced criticism for straying from data into advocacy. His paper argues strongly that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied, and says history suggests that ethnic diversity may eventually fade as a sharp line of social demarcation.

“Having aligned himself with the central planners intent on sustaining such social engineering, Putnam concludes the facts with a stern pep talk,” wrote conservative commentator Ilana Mercer, in a recent Orange County Register op-ed titled “Greater diversity equals more misery.”….

The results of his new study come from a survey Putnam directed among residents in 41 US communities, including Boston. Residents were sorted into the four principal categories used by the US Census: black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. They were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of each racial category, and questioned about a long list of civic attitudes and practices, including their views on local government, their involvement in community projects, and their friendships. What emerged in more diverse communities was a bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties….

After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time “kicking the tires really hard” to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents — all factors that could depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.

“People would say, ‘I bet you forgot about X,'” Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. “There were 20 or 30 X’s.”

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes….

In a recent study, [Harvard economist Edward] Glaeser and colleague Alberto Alesina demonstrated that roughly half the difference in social welfare spending between the US and Europe — Europe spends far more — can be attributed to the greater ethnic diversity of the US population. Glaeser says lower national social welfare spending in the US is a “macro” version of the decreased civic engagement Putnam found in more diverse communities within the country.

Economists Matthew Kahn of UCLA and Dora Costa of MIT reviewed 15 recent studies in a 2003 paper, all of which linked diversity with lower levels of social capital. Greater ethnic diversity was linked, for example, to lower school funding, census response rates, and trust in others. Kahn and Costa’s own research documented higher desertion rates in the Civil War among Union Army soldiers serving in companies whose soldiers varied more by age, occupation, and birthplace.

Birds of different feathers may sometimes flock together, but they are also less likely to look out for one another. “Everyone is a little self-conscious that this is not politically correct stuff,” says Kahn….

In his paper, Putnam cites the work done by Page and others, and uses it to help frame his conclusion that increasing diversity in America is not only inevitable, but ultimately valuable and enriching. As for smoothing over the divisions that hinder civic engagement, Putnam argues that Americans can help that process along through targeted efforts. He suggests expanding support for English-language instruction and investing in community centers and other places that allow for “meaningful interaction across ethnic lines.”

Some critics have found his prescriptions underwhelming. And in offering ideas for mitigating his findings, Putnam has drawn scorn for stepping out of the role of dispassionate researcher. “You’re just supposed to tell your peers what you found,” says John Leo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank…. [from “The downside of diversity,” The Boston Globe (boston.com), August 5, 2007]

Putnam’s reluctance about releasing the study and his attempt to soften its implications say much about the relationship that anti-tribalist social engineers (like Putnam) have with truth. Here is more from John Leo:

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”…

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness….

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a big effect on the immigration debate. Last October, he told the Financial Times that “he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that should raise eyebrows. Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings…

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation…. [from “Bowling with Our Own," City Journal, June 25, 2007]

*   *   *

UPDATE (08/18/12):

I can do no better at this point than inject some passages from Byron M. Roth’s The Perils of Diversity: Immigration and Human Nature. The following observations, taken from Chapter I, are supported by the rich detail that Roth delivers in the following several hundred pages of the book:

…Multiculturalists … ignore the historical record that suggests that social harmony among different ethnic and language groups is at best rare, and where it exists, tenuous. The history of Europe, whatever else it is, is one long tale of religious and ethnic conflict, almost ceaseless war, and the slaughter and the destruction it entails. The enlightenment, and the scientific advances it engendered, did nothing to mitigate this tale of horrific and bloody conflict, with the twentieth century exhibiting the most lethal and unsparing carnage in European history. In addition, in the twentieth century, class conflict was raised to a level in Europe and Asia never seen before. Communist rulers in Europe and Asia effectively divided their societies along economic lines and managed over the century to slaughter even more people than the ethnically based World Wars I and II.

The breakup of the British Empire led to bloody civil strife throughout the former colonies among the disparate peoples held together by British force of arms. The civil war that led to the partition of India and Pakistan left an estimated one million dead in its wake. Similar terrible and murderous turmoil in Southeast Asia, in for example Cambodia and Vietnam, followed the withdrawal of the European Colonial powers. Among the former European colonies in Africa, even today, civil strife is rampant.

In the wake of the fall of Communism those multiethnic societies that had been held together by authoritarian dictators quickly fell asunder. Czechoslovakia divided in a peaceful and largely amiable way. Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was torn by vicious civil war and genocidal ethnic cleansing. Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, presents a similar case. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a different and bloody example of the difficulties of establishing harmony among groups of differing cultures and religions. Even Belgium, (the seat of the European Union Parliament) is in danger of splitting into its Dutch-speaking and French-speaking halves.8 Canadians of French and English ancestry are grappling with similar problems. In addition, there is a fundamental inconsistency at the base of the multiculturalist program, in that it applauds ethnic minorities who maintain their cultural traditions, but looks askance at majority populations who wish to do the same. Political elites in all Western societies take a negative view of those who wish to preserve their traditional values and patterns of living and question whether those patterns can be sustained in the face of large numbers of newcomers who do not share those values or are actually hostile to them….

…[T]he social science evidence that a harmonious society composed of identifiable ethnic groups with different cultural and religious backgrounds can be arranged is, almost without exception, negative. Has some new type of social engineering appeared which would allow this historic pattern to be broken? Has some new sort of human being been born who will not repeat the follies of his ancestors? Will the world find a way to emulate the example of the Swiss? Policy makers should be trying to understand how the Swiss have managed to preserve their experiment in multicultural harmony for so long, when so many others have failed so utterly. Perhaps Switzerland can be a model for the new multicultural societies? On the other hand, maybe Switzerland is a special case that cannot be copied. Switzerland, for all its ethnic harmony, is, in effect, a confederation of separate but closely related European ethnicities who reside in different cantons, who speak their own languages (French, German, Italian, and Native Swiss), and maintain their ethnic customs and tastes. It would be reasonable to ask if such an arrangement could be widely duplicated in very different settings, but few in the multicultural camp appear interested in such a question.

Similarly, the assimilationists who support mass immigration seem equally nonchalant about the evidence for their position. Clearly, the history of immigration to the United States has been fortunate and largely successful. But in the past virtually all successful immigration was from European cultures very similar to that of the original English settlers. In addition, those settlers usually came with similar skills and abilities, often better than those of the earlier settlers, and generally had little difficulty in competing with them. Once in America, they could easily blend in, there being few physical or social features which set them apart. Usually they came in small numbers over an extended period of time and were forced to acquire the language of their host country if they expected to thrive. This was because (except for German and French speakers in some areas) no one group could sustain communities sufficiently large as to be economically independent and thereby sustain their native language for general commerce. As a counterexample, the French community in Quebec did possess sufficient size and was therefore able to maintain its language as well as its ethnic identity.

The United States was so vast and the opportunities it offered so generous that group conflict was generally muted. Conflict among immigrant Europeans was generally limited to the crowded multiethnic coastal cities, and those who wished to avoid those conflicts could migrate to the interior, often gravitating to ethnic enclaves. Even in those less crowded settings, however, conflict was not uncommon, though it usually took the form of political differences over the place of religion in society and the nature of education. Is this an immigration pattern that could be replicated today in modern societies when the immigrant groups come in large numbers from vastly different cultural and ethnic backgrounds compared to the residents of their host countries? Can this model work in crowded Western Europe where land for housing is limited and where unemployment remains at chronically high levels? In other words, is the American immigration experience prior to 1965 an exceptional one? Can it be the model for future immigration cycles or are the conditions today so different as to make the model inapplicable? These are questions that need to asked, but rarely are.

A clear implication of Roth’s analysis is that conflict — political, if not violent — is bound to result from racial-ethnic-cultural commingling — unless the disparate groups are geographically separated and politically autonomous in all respects (except, perhaps, that they each bear a “fair share” of the cost of a common defense).

*   *   *

The idea that society– properly defined and understood — requires genetic kinship is nevertheless anathema to anti-tribalist social tinkerers of Putnam’s ilk. It is ironic (but not surprising) that anti-tribalists often seek connections with “kindred” souls. The leftist groves of academe are notorious for their exclusion of libertarians and conservatives, but an academic mistakes his like-minded colleagues for altruistic kinsmen at his own peril. (I speak from the experience of years in a quasi-academic think-tank, and as a former “friend” in many a work-based “friendship.”)

Libertarians, who are notoriously individualistic and aloof, also seek to bond with like-minded persons. Libertarians are responsible for the less-than-successful Free State Project and for seasteading (formally neutral in its ideology, but mainly attractive to libertarians). I expect such experiments in coexistence, if they get off the ground, to be as inconsequential as their anti-libertarian equivalent: the commune. Communes have been around for a while, of course, though none of them has lasted long or attracted many adherents. They are, after all, nothing more than economic arrangements with some “Kumbaya” thrown in.

So, yes, genetic kinship is indispensable to society, where society is properly understood as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” But, as I discuss here, not all societies based on genetic kinship are created equal. Trying to make them equal is a fool’s errand.

The fourth installment is here.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”

The Eclipse of “Old America”

This is the second installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the first of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty.

If you have not read the first installment, “Liberty and Society,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Is Society, as I define It, Impossible? Or, Isn’t This All Rather Romantic?

The answers are “no” and “no.” All that the existence of a society requires is the general observance of the Golden Rule. This is not difficult in relatively small communities.

You will have known such a community if you have ever lived or spent much time in a rural or semi-rural village, or in an urban enclave consisting of persons bound by ethnic or religious affiliation. Everyone may not know everyone else in such a community, but the circles formed by common bonds (family, church, etc.) are interlocking. (And a lot of the community’s members will “know of” almost everyone in the community.)

One result of this kind of living is less anti-social behavior and outright crime, but without a lot of formal rules and regulations or more than a token police presence. (Anonymity not only fosters crime but also rudeness, as is evident in comment threads, e-mail exchanges, and behavior on the highway.) Another result is genuine charity, based on direct knowledge of persons who are in need, or a sense of community with them.

Do such communities know unkindness, conflict, and crime? Of course, but to suggest or demand otherwise is to be deluded or to demand impossible perfection. It should be good enough that such communities — where they still exist — are better places in which to live than the mostly anonymous urban complexes that now dominate America.

The United States, for a very long time, was a polity whose disparate parts cohered, regionally if not nationally, because the experience of living in the kind of small community sketched above was a common one. Long after the majority of Americans came to live in urban complexes, a large fraction of the residents of those complexes had grown up in small communities.

This was Old America — and it was predominant for almost 200 years after America won its independence from Britain. Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.

It is now de rigeur to deride the culture of Old America, and to call its constituents greedy, insensitive, hidebound, culturally retrograde, and — above all — intolerant.  But what does that make the proponents and practitioners of the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s (many of whom have long-since risen to positions of prominence and power), of the LGBT counter-culture that is now so active and adamant about its “rights,” and of recently imported cultures that seek dominance rather than assimilation (certain Latins and Muslims, I am looking at you)?

These various counter-culturalists and incomers have not been content to establish their own communities; rather, they have sought to overthrow Old America. Intolerance is their essence. They are not merely reacting to the intolerance that may be directed at them. No, they are intolerant, and militantly so. They seek to destroy what is left of Old America. — and they have enlisted the power of the state in that effort.

Has Old America receded just because its enemies have enlisted the power of the state? Not entirely. There was (and is) also a collective-action phenomenon at work, and it began while Old America was dominant. Americans prospered with the rise of industrialization after the Civil War. But industrialization led to greater productivity in agriculture (thus fewer farm workers per unit of output) while demanding more workers in factories, and thus putting in motion America’s long march toward urban anonymity and away from rural and semi-rural communities. That march led to the New America, where governmental power, geographic displacement, and cultural intermarriage have diluted (and often destroyed) the social norms that bound Old America.

These changes, once put in motion, were bound to continue (unless interrupted by a shock or massive social change) because of path dependence: decisions made in the present are constrained by decisions made in the past. Quite simply, the possibility of quitting the urban scene for rural splendor — however attractive in theory — was closed to most Americans by economic reality, that is, the necessity of making a living and the perceived necessity of doing as well as the urban Joneses. And, worse, the values of Old America simply could not (and cannot) be replicated in New America, given its reliance on governmental power and widespread rejection of the values of Old America.

On that point, I interject a personal note: I have, in my adult life, lived in semi-rural splendor. And I can tell you that it has much to commend it as a way of life, especially as a way of life for one’s children. And I can tell you, also, that living in semi-rural splendor — despite the generally lower cost of living — does require the acceptance of a lower standard of living than that enjoyed by the urban Joneses. Most Americans who recognize and pine for the virtues of rural and semi-rural life, cannot realize those virtues except vicariously on vacation trips or upon retirement, when small towns, small cities, and retirement enclaves beckon.

At any rate, the eclipse of Old America owes much to the bad guys — especially leftist “educators,” so-called intellectuals, and politicians who have conspired with intolerant minorities in the effort to overthrow Old America. But Americans who long for the Old America must also blame themselves and their forbears for its eclipse because of urbanization — a (mostly) voluntary movement. Nothing could demonstrate more starkly the saying that “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

All of the foregoing might lead you to think that I am incurably pessimistic about the possibility of a resurgence of Old America. I am not. For what I have said, up to this point, is merely prologue. For one thing, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of Americans still live in rural and semi-rural places. (See the statistics and definitions on this page of Census.gov.) Nor has the core of Old America has shrunk; it is relatively smaller than it was in, say, 1900 — but it is absolutely larger. In fact, the number of persons living in a rural place (defined by the Census Bureau as having a population of less than 2,500), grew from 46 million in 1900 to 59 million in 2010. And in 2010, another 30 million persons lived in a so-called urban cluster (a place with a population of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000).

Of course, not all of the 59 to 89 million persons represent Old America. But surely a lot of them do; and a lot of urban dwellers long for Old America. Just look at the number of States that are Red and getting Redder, despite predictions of a permanent Democrat (i.e., leftist) majority. Have adherents of Old America been let down by Republicans? Of course they have. Have some adherents of Old America been tempted to join the statist brigade, and sometimes succumbed to temptation? Of course they have. But would Old America prevail, and attract new followers were those who preach its values to hold sway in Washington long enough and securely enough to stay true to those values? Of course it would.

Before I leave this topic, I must address the fallacy, propounded by “liberals” and libertarians, that a return to Old America would mean a return to the bad old days of Jim Crow and subservient women. Such a claim is nothing more than a smear on liberty-lovers. “Liberal” fascists have no shame and will resort to any distortion of truth and logic that might help them to retain their hold on power. Libertarians — I should say, pseudo-libertarians — have proved themselves no better. But they, at least, are powerless.

Would the resurgence of Old America transform America into a society? Of course not. A society, as I have described it, cannot be as extensive as a nation the size of the United States. But the resurgence of Old America would enable societies to flourish again in America, and those societies — with their many common values — would form the backbone of a nation that is far less fragmented and far freer than the America that arose in the 20th century.

The third installment is here; the fourth installment is here.

Related reading:
Arnold Kling, “Enrico Moretti on Mobility,” EconLog, July 28, 2012
Bill Vallicella, “Systematic Deracination,” Maverick Philosopher, August 5, 2012
Russell Nieli, “Religion as a Public-Bonding Fiction,” The Public Discourse, August 9, 2012
John Derbyshire, “Si Jeunesse Svait, Si Viellesse Pouvait,” Taki’s Magazine, August 9, 2012

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?

Liberty and Society

This is the first installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States.

The typical libertarian — like the one who commented on my post “Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism” — will say something like this:

Liberty is simply defined as “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others.”

This is just a restatement of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” which first appears in Chapter I, paragraph 9, of Mill’s On Liberty:

[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Mill himself reveals the emptiness of his formulation in paragraphs 11 through 13:

[11] …I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a primâ facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury….

[12] But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel. This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

[13] No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

The latter two paragraphs (12 and 13) would seem to satisfy the typical libertarian. But they are as empty of content as the bald statement of the harm principle in paragraph 9. What Mill does in paragraph 11 is to pour content into the harm principle — content that the typical libertarian would find abhorrent, for its statism if not for its utilitarianism. The discussion of liberty in paragraphs 12 and 13 cannot be understood without reference to Mill’s restrictive definition of harm in paragraph 11.

To put it another way, liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.

My goal in this post is to outline the social conditions that conduce to actual liberty, that is, a kind of liberty that could be found in the real world, given the nature of human beings as self-centered, quarrelsome, often aggressive individuals, as well as loving, cooperative, and generous ones. (Social behavior, in this context, includes what is usually called economic behavior, which is just a kind of social behavior.) I will try to be realistic (rather than pessimistic) about the degree to which liberty is attainable.

I begin with my definition of liberty, which is

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

That may seem just as vague as the harm principle, but it is not. The harm principle is meaningless without an agreed definition of harm. My definition is operationally meaningful, in itself. It says that liberty is found wherever there is peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. Why? Because a society which meets those conditions is a free society to its members, who (by definition) prefer it to alternative conditions of existence. Among other things, they must be agreed about what constitutes harm and how it should be treated.

It is now only(!) a matter of describing the kind of society in which there can be peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. Going from broad characteristics to narrow ones, this is such a society:

1. “Society” has many meanings. This one rings truest:

an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.

The “organized patterns of relationships” will include rules about behavior (a moral code). On the negative side, the rules will specify (if only tacitly) what is allowed, what is not allowed, how transgressions should be treated, and how certain mitigating circumstances figure into judgments about and the treatment of transgressions. On the positive side, the rules will specify (if only tacitly) expectations about how certain members of society should treat others (e.g., respect for elders, voluntary aid to those in need, mannerly behavior of certain kinds). A society, in other words, is inseparable from its moral code.

2. Mutual trust, respect, and forbearance allow differences within a society to be resolved through voluntary means, according to its moral code (1).

The means will include compromise; not every member of a society will agree with every rule, the way in which rules are enforced, or every resolution of differences, but every member of society will accept them. When a member of society can no longer compromise his preferences with the enactments of society, and has voiced his discontent to no avail, exit is his only option. Exit, at this stage, is exit from a society, as defined in 1. Unlike the situation that pertains when a person can no longer abide the rules imposed on him by a distant and unrepresentative government that controls a large geographic area, exit from a society need not require physical exile.

3. Mutual trust, respect, and forbearance (2) depend, in turn, on genetic kinship and cultural similarity.

Human beings are, at bottom, tribal creatures. This is a fact of life that cannot be erased by wishful thinking: “Why can’t we just all get along with each other?”

4.  The voluntary institutions of society (civil society) inculcate and enforce a society’s moral code (1), foster mutual trust and respect (2), and help to preserve cultural similarity (3).

The institutions of civil society include families, friendships, neighborhoods, churches, clubs, markets — and interconnected circles of them. Enforcement of the moral code, up to a point, is by voluntary observance (for fear of the social and physical consequences of non-observance. Where unacceptable behavior persists or is egregious, it is dealt with by civil institutions, including ad hoc groups organized for the purpose of controlling, confining, and punishing behavior is uncontrollable through the usual means. Those means include intra-familial punishment, physical retaliation, social signalling (ranging from expressions of approval and disapproval to ostracism, at the extreme). The means, themselves, are encompassed in the moral code.

5. A society’s moral code (1) and culture (3) evolve by trial and error, through the operation of the institutions of civil society (4).

The members of a society perceive that certain behaviors enable the society to thrive, and that others do not. Thriving is a matter of social and economic success, of the attainment of outcomes that the members of society find pleasing, and which they seek to promote by encouraging the behaviors that are consistent with pleasing outcomes and discouraging the behaviors that work against those outcomes. These signals — pro and con — are transmitted through the institutions of civil society (4) and thus become part of the society’s culture (3). Observance of the signals is essential to the maintenance of mutual trust and respect (2).

To summarize: A society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence.

If the foregoing description is correct, there is one aspect of society — and one only — that a society cannot “manufacture” through its social processes. That aspect is genetic-cultural kinship. To put it another way, it is unlikely that a society’s membership can be drawn from more than one genetic grouping (or cluster), of which there may be dozens. Throw in cultural differences, originating in the geographic separation of otherwise genetically close populations, and the number of distinct genetic-cultural groupings must be very large indeed.

Though it is possible that an occasional outsider can be accepted into a society through acculturation and acceptance, because of bonds that develop between the outsider and insiders, it is far less likely that a society will welcome significant numbers of outsiders. This contention is borne out by the checkerboard and tipping models of voluntary racial segregation:

[E]ven when every agent prefers to live in a mixed-race neighborhood, almost complete segregation of neighborhoods emerges as individual decisions accumulate. In [Thomas Schelling's]  “tipping model”, he demonstrated the effects which emerge when people have varying levels of perception as to acceptable levels for other ethnic groups in the neighborhood. The model shows that members of an ethnic group do not move out of a neighborhood as long as the proportion of other ethnic groups is relatively low, but if a critical level of other ethnicities is exceeded, the original residents may make rapid decisions and take action to leave. This tipping point is viewed as simply the end-result of domino effect originating when the threshold of the majority ethnicity members with the highest sensitivity to sameness is exceeded. If these people leave and are either not replaced or replaced by other ethnicities, then this in turn raises the level of mixing of neighbours, exceeding the departure threshold for additional people. Domino and tipping models were suggested to be explanatory factors for white flight in the 1960s US. Schelling also noted that in different societies, people have residential preferences, for factors other than ethnicity, such as age, gender, income levels.[41] In 2010 Junfu Zhang found support for both the checkerboard model of residential segregation as the only stable spatial arrangement (arrangement not subject to tipping effects), and for tipping effects, showing how these lead to integrated residential areas being irreversibly tipped into complete segregation.[40]

This is “wrong,” in the “liberal” and left-libertarian view of the world.  That view is not based on what can be, given the nature of human beings, but on what ought to be: a desirable but unattainable ideal (see nirvana fallacy).

I will next consider several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty. The first sequel is “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’ “; the second is “Genetic Kinship and Society“; the third is “Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?

Society and the State

Michael Oakeshott writes:

A modern state, as it emerged from a medieval realm, a patrimonial estate, a military protectorate, or a collection of colonial settlements, had three distinct features that it has never lost: an office of authority, an apparatus of power, and a mode of association….

…[S]ince a modern state has never ceased to be recognized as an association in the making, attention has always been directed to the sort of association it might be made to become no less than to what it may be perceived to be. But the exploration of this theme has been sadly hindered by confusion.

First, it is usually conducted in terms of the vocabularies of authority or of power, but in this connection these words are meaningless. To say, for example, that the conditions of association are or should be “democratic” is absurd…. [T]here are no “democratic ” rules of relationships…. Secondly, this inquiry has been almost obliterated by drivel about something called “society,” a fanciful total of unspecified relationships which only a simpleton would think of identifying with a state. (“Talking Politics,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, pp. 441, 450)

There can be such a thing as “society,” but only in rare circumstances. And Oakeshott is correct when he says that only a simpleton would identify society with a state. But, as I will discuss, it is not only simpletons who identify society with a state but also cynical politicians and leftist opportunists.

With respect to society, I begin with Margaret Thatcher, who often is quoted as saying that “there is no such thing as society.” When Mrs. Thatcher said that, she was arguing against the entitlement mindset, as in ” ‘society’ owes me a roof over my head and three meals a day.” As she put it, “people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor.”

There is, in fact, such a thing as society. But what is it? “Society” has many meanings. This one rings truest:

an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another

In other words, the state is not society. The state — in the guise of a nation, a city, a village, etc. — may compel certain behaviors, including the transfer of one’s income to strangers. Compulsion by the state is the antithesis of societal cooperation.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency — especially on the part of leftists — to claim that the state represents and serves society. The claim is wrong:

  • For the reasons given above, the identification of the state with society is nothing more than a rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which utilitarians, paternalists, do-gooders, politicians, and pundits justify the imposition of their preferences on the masses.
  • The specific acts of the state often are malign rather than benign. See, for example, any of the 140 issues of Regulation that have been published to date. Moreover, acts of the state generally involve regulatory and tax burdens that, at once, stifle prosperity and liberty.

The fact of the matter is that the state destroys society in two ways. First, it usurps the functions served by society, most notably the functions of charity and marriage. Second, it compels certain kinds of behavior instead of allowing behavior to evolve cooperatively.

Two of the stated aims of compulsion are the advancement of “social justice” and “diversity.” The former is redistributionism, pure and simple. The latter forces social and economic interactions between persons of dissimilar cultures, religions, and races — to no good end.

Social justice” is usually

code for redistributing income, either directly (through the taxing and spending power of government) or indirectly (through the power of government to require favoritism toward certain groups of persons). Make no mistake, there is no justicein “social justice,” which is nothing more than a euphemism for coercion by the state.

Social justice is possible only where there is a true society, not the bogus “society”  or “community” to which bleeding hearts and statists refer when they mean the United States or most of its political subdivisions — which have become nothing more than geopolitical prisons.

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

That “bargain” amounts to a delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior. The self-interested aspect of behavior is mutual forbearance — leaving others alone so that they will leave you alone. The voluntarily beneficial aspect is the commission of acts of kindness and charity. It is the latter that enables the former, because acts of kindness and charity help to build a true feeling of community by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

Purveyors of “social justice” say that the voluntary arrangements of true communities are inadequate for the purpose of meeting this or that desideratum. Whence the desiderata? From the preconceptions of the purveyors of “social justice,” of course. They would substitute their “wisdom” for the wisdom that it embedded in voluntary social and economic arrangements. And they usually succeed because their arrogance incorporates a good measure of power-lust.

In sum, true social justice  is possible only in a voluntary community that is founded on mutual forbearance, respect, and trust. It cannot be found in the kind of forcible leveling that is favored by advocates of “social justice.” There is nothing just about coercion.

“Diversity” — which encompasses and extends the state’s effort to force “equality” — is a case study in the state’s socially destructive power. In “The downside of diversity,” at The Boston Globe, Michael Jonas reports on a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century.” Putnam, according to Jonas,

has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

John Leo, writing at City Journal (“Bowling with Our Own“), first discusses Putnam’s findings; e.g.:

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”…

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness….

Leo then discusses the fact that Putnam had delayed announcing his findings:

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a big effect on the immigration debate. Last October, he told the Financial Times that “he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that should raise eyebrows. Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings…

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation.

Myron Magnet, also writing at City Journal (“In the Heart of Freedom, in Chains“), addresses “elite hypocrisy, gangsta culture, and failure in black America.” Magnet asks

how can there still exist a large black urban underclass imprisoned in poverty, welfare dependency, school failure, nonwork, and crime? How even today can more black young men be entangled in the criminal-justice system than graduate from college? How can close to 70 percent of black children be born into single-mother families, which (almost all experts agree) prepare kids for success less well than two-parent families?

And answers:

The legacy of slavery and racism isn’t the reason….

Beginning around 1964, the rates of black high school graduation, workforce participation, crime, illegitimacy, and drug use all turned sharply in the wrong direction. While many blacks continued to move forward, a sizable minority solidified into an underclass, defined by self-destructive behavior that all but guaranteed failure.What was going on in the mid-sixties that could explain such a startling development? Political scientist Charles Murray gave the first answer to that question: welfare benefits sharply rose just at that moment. Offering more purchasing power than a minimum-wage job, the dole, he argued, provided an economic incentive for women to have out-of-wedlock babies and for their boyfriends to live off their welfare payments, too.

A decade after Murray, I suggested that, though welfare was part of the answer, the real explanation was larger. It was cultural, not economic. Begun by the elites, vast changes reshaped mainstream attitudes in the 1960s. Sex became fine outside marriage, and illegitimacy lost its stigma. Drugs were cool; social authority and tradition weren’t. America was deemed a racist, unjust society that victimized and impoverished blacks, who could rarely better their condition and who therefore deserved generous welfare benefits as reparations for past and present oppression. If blacks committed crime, the system that drove them to it, out of poverty or as an act of protest, was at fault: we shouldn’t blame the victim, as the saying went—meaning the poor criminal, not his prey. Since people shape their actions according to the ideas and beliefs they hold, when these new attitudes reached the inner cities, what could result but an epidemic of social dysfunction?

“Diversity” — which was born of misplaced white guilt about slavery and racism — exemplifies the state’s long habit of adopting and magnifying the destructive, anti-social consequences of elite opinion.

“Social justice” and “diversity” — and the other leftist slogans that are meant to stifle resistance to statist oppression — have nothing to do with “society” and everything to do with the use of the state to coerce the many for the satisfaction of the few. And it does not stop there.

Read on:
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Democracy and Liberty
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Down with “We”
The Divine Right of the Majority
I Want My Country Back
An Encounter with a Marxist
Our Enemy, the State
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Social Justice
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
The Left and Its Delusions
Externalities and Statism
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
More about Merit Goods

The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”

Society cannot exist where the state interferes with and usurps societal functions.

What is society? In an earlier post, I quoted Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture:

…Ferdinand Tönnies … formulated a distinction between two kinds of society — Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft — the first based in affection, kinship and historic attachment, the second in division of labour, self-interest and free association by contract and exchange. Traditional societies, he argued, are of the first kind, and construe obligations and loyalties in terms of a non-negotiable destiny. Modern societies are of the second kind, and therefore regard all institutions and practices as provisional, to be revised in the light of our changing requirements. The transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is part of what happened at the Enlightenment, and one explanation for the vast cultural changes, as people learned to view their obligations in contractual terms, and so envisage a way to escape them.

Max Weber wrote, in the same connection, of a transition from traditional to “legal-rational” forms of authority, the first sanctioned by immemorial usage, the second by impartial law. To these two distinctions can be added yet another, du to Ser Henry Maine, who described the transition from traditional to modern societies as a shift from status to contract — i.e., a shift from inherited social position, to a position conferred by, and earned through, consent. (p. 24)

Note the important qualifiers that attach to modern, contractarian societies:  free association by contract and exchange; impartial law. What we have in the United States — and in most Western nations — is not society, not even Gesellschaft. That is because

Religion, community, and common culture have been displaced by the regulatory-welfare state, anthropogenic global warming, feminism, “choice,” and myriad other totems, beliefs, “movements,” and “leaders,” both religious and secular.

Freedom of association and impartial law, to the extent that they once existed in the United States, have been in decline for more than a century. Yes, yes, I know about the better lot of blacks and women, but those have been achieved to a large extent by forced association and partial law, which — in the long run — do more harm than good because they break the bonds of mutual trust and respect upon which civil society depends for self-enforcing, mutually beneficial behavior. Even a contractarian society cannot function effectively without bonds of trust and respect, lacking as it does the bonds of religion, community, and common culture.

Despite the almost complete destruction of society by the state, there are those who believe that society survives because it is embodied in the state. For such believers, society is not a network of personal associations built upon religion, community, and common culture. Rather, it is an abstraction of their imagining, and it consists of classes of individuals toward whom something is “owed”: the aged, the infirm, persons of color, Latinos, women, homosexuals, and — above all — the “poor,” who are always with us because poverty (in the mind of the “socially conscious”) is a relative thing.

It is this very urge to burden everyone with responsibility for everyone else that led to the growth of the state and the virtual destruction of society. The urge manifests itself, time and again, when the political classes (in and out of government) — claiming to act on behalf of “society’s victims” — invoke “social justice” as they make the case for the expansion of the state. The ultimate irony is that the expansion of the state commits injustice, undermines society, and creates more victims for whom the political classes can shed more crocodile tears.

Related posts:
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Society and the State
Undermining the Free Society
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Golden Rule and the State
Social Justice
More Social Justice
Evolution and the Golden Rule
We, the Children of the Enlightenment

Society and Culture

In “Social Justice,” I say:

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

This is but a superficial introduction to the concept of society. Deeper insights, as always, come from Roger Scruton, an English philosopher. I have just finished reading Scruton’s An Intelligent Persons Guide to Modern Culture (a birthday gift from my son), which — as always with Scruton — is densely packed with ideas and insights. Early in the book, Scruton makes these trenchant observations:

[Culture] is the life-blood of a people, the flow of moral energy that holds society intact….

…The ‘common culture’ of a tribe is a sign of its inner cohesion. But tribes are vanishing from the modern world, as are all forms of traditional society. Customs, practices, festivals, rituals an beliefs have acquired a fluid and half-hearted quality which reflects our nomadic and rootless existences…. Despite this … modern city-dwellers are as much social beings as were traditional tribesmen. They are unable to live in peace until furnished with a social identity, an outward garb which, by prepresenting them to others, gives them confidence in themselves. This search for ‘identity’ pervades modern life.  Althought it is a fluid thing, and may change direction several times in a lifetime, or even twice in a year, it has much in common with the tribesman’s attachment to a common culture….

It goes without saying that a common culture binds a society together. But it does so in a special way. The unity of a great society can be achieved by terror, by confronting people with a common danger or an ‘enemy within’ — by variously playing with the threat of death, in the manner of modern dictators. A common culture is an altogether more peaceful method, which unites the present members by dedicating them to the past and future of the community. Death is not a terror, but the benign catalyst of the social order, the transition which ensures that all of us, in time, will join the community of ancestors and become sacred and transfigured as they are….

…Modern people long for membership, but membership exists only among people who do not long for it, who have no real conception of it, who are so utterly immersed in it that they find it inscribed on the face of nature itself. Such people have immediate access, through common culture, to the ethical vision of man.

If you have to proclaim that a nation or other geopolitical entity is a “society,” then it isn’t one.

Down with “We”

Whenever a politician says “we,” I reach for my wallet to be sure his hand isn’t already in it.

Count me out of the “we.” I don’t expect the state to force others to take care of me, I don’t want the state to force me to take care of others. I’ll decide who is worthy of my help, thank you very much, and I will give them as much help as I can afford while taking care of myself and my immediate family.

Yes, there is a nation called the United States, which comprises the States and their political subdivisions. But none of those political entities is a family, a community (in the sense of a voluntary association of individuals with voice and exit), or a society bound by shared cultural traditions. Whatever their origins in history, the United States and its components are now nothing more than mere political contrivances, whose governments have usurped the functions of family, community, and society.

If there ever was a “we the people,” it was long ago and in a different America.

Related posts:
Is There Such a Thing as Society?
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, The Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Law and Liberty
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
A Declaration of Independence
Is Liberty Possible?
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars