No, Our Incorrigible Tribalism Is Not What's Driving Illiberalism Today

The source of our discontents with liberalism lies elsewhere

H omo sapiens have existed on the planet for about 250,000 years. But only in the last 250 have they lifted themselves out of mass poverty and experienced what Deirdre McCloskey, a brilliant economic historian, calls the Great Enrichment. This is the period when material abundance increased by 3,000 percent and large portions of humanity exited poverty, its default condition. “If the last 200,000 years of humanity were one year,” notes conservative pundit, Jonah Goldberg, in his incisive book, Suicide of the West, “nearly all material progress came in the last 14 hours.”

Moreover, human beings didn’t just get richer during this period, they also became far less violent, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has documented. They are living longer not just because modern technology has lowered the infant mortality rate and conquered many diseases. They are killing each other less. The murder rate in medieval Europe was 30 times higher than today, for example. Rapes and torture are way down (even if still much higher than acceptable). And of course it is no longer acceptable, Pinker wryly notes, for governments and churches to punish “nonconformists with mutilation, torture and gruesome forms of execution, such as burning, breaking, disembowelment, impalement and sawing in half.”

This has all been made possible by one political development: Liberalism. It started in England in the 17th Century after the Glorious Revolution constrained the powers of the sitting potentate (politely called a “monarch”). And it took off in the 18th Century in America after this country freed itself from its colonial master and embraced individual rights, free enterprise, and the rule of law (instead of men). Even though American liberalism was partial and flawed, within half a century it set off what the late Samuel Huntington considered the first global wave of liberal democracy.

But now liberalism is under assault. In an excellent essay, Institute for Humane Studies President Emily Chamlee-Wright, identifies three culprits. They are:

  • Tribalism: The tendency of humans to sort themselves into in-groups and out-groups and consider existence a zero-sum game in which one side gains and the other loses.

  • Scientism: The tendency of humans to seek top-down order rather than let order emerge bottom-up in a chaotic and complex world.

  • Forgetting: The tendency of humans to forget the reasons their institutions exist once these institutions get so culturally entrenched that they no longer need to be consciously defended.

Wright offers a rich account of all three phenomena. But I’ll focus first on “tribalism” since it is the one item on both her and Goldberg’s list of anti-liberal forces and touch briefly upon the other two at the end. Not to give away the punchline, but in my view, Goldberg, whose book I really enjoyed and recommend highly, massively exaggerates the role of tribalism in our current political travails because he thinks it has a far more central place in human nature than it in fact does. Hence he is more fatalistic about the future prospects of liberalism than is warranted.

W estern defenders of liberal democracy (who in America include conservatives like Goldberg) have long argued that Soviet communism failed because its grand designs went against human nature. Communism’s motto “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs,” they insisted, was fine and dandy for small, pre-modern tribal societies where the fate of all members was intimately tied. But making that the organizing principle of large, complex societies would mean using overwhelming force to coerce individuals to prioritize the collective good over their own, which ultimately proved not just undesirable but unworkable.

Free market liberalism, on the other hand, relied on voluntary exchange and individual self interest—rather than the “benevolence of the baker or the butcher” as Adam Smith, the great Scottish political economist put it—to provide for the material needs of society. Liberalism’s big boast was that it was much more attuned to human nature and therefore required minimal force against bad actors to deliver on its promise, which it did just as spectacularly as Communism failed.

But now Goldberg is suggesting that liberalism too is unnatural. Indeed, liberalism delivered the Great Enrichment—which he re-christens “the Miracle”—not by tapping human nature but overcoming it.  It is “both unnatural and accidental”—or it’s unnatural because it is accidental.

But what does he mean by “natural?” Essentially, as I understand Goldberg, he’s saying that natural processes and arrangements are those that arise automatically from the unfolding of their innate nature. So, for example, an acorn* grows into an oak tree, a caterpillar into a butterfly and a baby into a human. Left to their natural course, they could only take one path.

But that is not the case with human institutions. Contra Hegel, there is no arc of human history that makes the emergence of any particular social order inevitable. The only social arrangement that humans are naturally hardwired to develop, by this logic, is the tribe. The tribal instinct of early humans allowed them to band together to secure food and ward off predators and enemy tribes. And the more cohesive a tribe—meaning the greater its sense of “us”—the better its chances of survival against “them.”

But liberalism, Goldberg points out, is emphatically unnatural because it did not arrive along with homo sapiens, but only very recently. Its discovery was a total historical happenstance. Things could have easily gone some other way or humans could have lumbered along in some semi-civilized state forever.

What’s more, liberalism does not allow the expression of our tribalism, the only natural form of human relations. Its institutions treat people as “individuals” not as members of a tribe. The market doesn’t reward your product because your family-run company produced it and the law doesn’t protect you—nor society valorize you—if you loot an opposing tribe for the sake of your own. Such actions are crimes and taboos in a liberal society. Instead, such a society requires you to earn your material reward and seek justice in neutral institutions without regard to your caste, class, tribe, race, religion and nation (at least in theory).

However, repressed deep-seated instincts have a way of reasserting themselves, Goldberg fears. And the hyper-polarization of our times, the sorting of politics into warring, partisan tribes, is emblematic of that. Just as even the most lustrous protective coating can’t ultimately stop iron from rusting, a form of natural corruption, even the best constructed institutions can’t prevent tribalism from ultimately corrupting liberalism.

The striking thing about Goldberg’s story is that it is the obverse of Karl Marx’s critique of liberal democratic capitalism. Both emphasize that liberalism is unnatural because it turns against our tribal nature. Marx felt that the liberal system was ignoble because it blocked the development of the altruistic side of tribalism into the love of all of humanity as our true “us.” Goldberg, however, a defender of liberalism nevertheless believes that liberalism is doomed because it is too noble for it expects us to transcend our tribal commitments in the name of treating every individual equally.

The bigger problem with Goldberg’s account is not that his critique of liberalism is the other side of the Marxist coin. It is that his standard for assessing the naturalness of social institutions is essentially binary—they are either natural meaning by nature or unnatural meaning against nature. However, if the natural emergence of institutions is what makes them workable, then why would human societies ever have even tried to exit their tribal state? That, after all, is the only state that naturally emerges from the human condition. But the fact is that humans are not mere prisoners of some raw natural instincts like other animals. They have far more room to play.

Goldberg doesn’t see that because he conflates two distinct senses of natural. On the one hand, natural means what arises by nature, what grows automatically out of it. In this sense, the natural is defined against the artificial.  On the other hand, we call something natural not because it automatically emerges but because of how well it works once it has emerged.

Consider the Mediterranean diet. It is clearly not natural in the first sense because its discovery was accidental. It is a human invention and hence artificial. But it is natural in the second sense because it complements and enhances our nature, supplies our bodies with what they need, makes us strong and healthy and high functioning. Similarly, liberalism might be unnatural in the first sense. But that does not mean it is unnatural in the second, more important, sense.

Moreover, just because liberalism does not allow us to indulge our tribal side in public institutions does not mean it requires us to ignore it in our private commitments. Unlike Marxism, it allows us to distribute the fruits of our labor to our own before others. That, combined with its commitment to pluralism, as Wright notes, allows us to benefit from whatever tribal hardwiring we have without its damaging effect. “We enjoy the rich, intimate sphere of an ‘us’—family, friends and community—without the anxious sphere of ‘them.’”

Liberalism is not some bitter chemo pill that we need to pop constantly to beat back our incurable tribal instincts. These instincts are not a fixed part of us. Rather, they are sociologically contingent, becoming more salient in times of scarcity when survival depends on banding together and less so in times of abundance when individuals can survive and flourish independently.

One can debate whether Western liberalism has stuck the right balance between individualism and communitarianism. But the fact of the matter is that liberalism is more like a balanced Mediterranean diet that works with our constitution, not against it. It might not satisfy our itch for red meat but the explosion of flavors it offers is addictive in its own right. There is—and will always be—room for improvement. But it is hard to imagine that returning to the “natural” paleo diet can ever be an attractive option for anyone who has tasted the Great Enrichment —especially Americans who have feasted on it and become the richest people on the planet.

Incidentally, Goldberg’s confusion about liberalism as something unnatural is also reflected in his renaming of the Great Enrichment as “the Miracle.” A miracle allegedly occurs when something that is impossible by the normal laws of nature happens—as when a statue of a deity starts weeping or a virgin gives birth. The abundance generated by liberal societies might seem miraculous against the backdrop of eons of human poverty but there are perfectly rational explanations for it.  So calling it a miracle is taking your own metaphor literally.

B ut if Goldberg is exaggerating the role that tribalistic longings are playing in our current political malaise, then what is the real cause?

I think Wright’s other two explanations—scientism and forgetting— are far better candidates. Scientism stems from our need to order our world top-down. It is at the root of our desire for central planning and is a form of rationalistic conceit. But the urge for top-down planning is also present in weak liberal democracies that still have one leg in old, pre-rational traditions. The traditional mindset with its faith in paternalistic hierarchies has a hard time accepting order without an order giver. And so the allure for strongman politics remains strong in not yet fully modernized countries. That’s why F.A. Hayek called the urge to centrally plan advanced economies “atavistic.”

But in established liberal democracies, I strongly believe, “forgetting” is a big part of the current malaise. It’s something that early 19th Century French-Swiss liberal philosopher Benjamin Constant had warned would happen to us moderns. He pointed out that in ancient republics all free men were directly engaged in governance. That is what it meant to be free and that generated an attachment to their political institutions. But in complex, modern, commercial republics, individuals get too busy with their private projects and lives and so, over time, lose interest in politics. They become detached from their governing institutions and become more attracted to offers by authoritarians and demagogues to take the responsibility of governance off their hands as a form of division of labor. What’s more, as Wright notes, the more liberal institutions became culturally embedded, the more they are taken for granted.

There is an internal contradiction at the heart of liberalism, namely, that liberalism undermines the conditions for its own renewal. It’s not an easy problem to solve but it is not as hopeless as trying to beat back the alleged cancer of tribalism.

Constant, the 19th Century liberal philosopher, believed the cure to “forgetting” was repeated reminders about the importance of constitutional governance. That means making a renewed case for liberalism suitable for our times, which is exactly what The UnPopulist is about :)

* A very astute reader pointed out that an acorn grows into an oak tree and a chestnut, the original word, grows into a chestnut tree. Excellent point!

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