Are we rational self-interested choosers?

The fact is that most of the people engaged in political violence today—from the Basque country to the Philippines—are not fighting for individual rights, nor for that matter are they fighting to establish an Islamist caliphate. Most are fighting for a national homeland for the ethnic nation to which they belong. For most human beings other than deracinated north Atlantic elites, the question of the unit of government is more important than the form of government, which can be settled later, after a stateless nation has obtained its own state. And as the hostility towards Israel of democratically elected governments in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon shows, democracy can express, even inflame, pre-existing national hatreds and rivalries; it is not a cure for them.

Michael Lind, ‘The World After Bush’, Prospect, November 2006

I’ve linked a nice article from the current issue of Prospect on the end of, what the author calls, the neo-conservative and neo-liberal dreams of the 1990s. Most of his analyses and predictions seem plausible and much of what he predicts seems ok. The unipolar world envisaged by neo-cons, with the US running the show, he predicts is not going to happen. I’m ok with that. Laissez-faire capitalism will not take over. I’m definitely ok with that.

It’s the suggestion that the ethnic-based nation-state will remain the aspiration for most human beings “other than deracinated north Atlantic elites” that sticks in my craw. Clearly this is currently the case. But one hopes that eventually it will not be so. At least the line I’m running is that deracination is the ideal for which we should strive so that, ideally, everyone will approximate the idea of this north Atlantic elite.

Now the question becomes: given that most of the world’s population has very different aspirations from us, the deracinated, cosmopolitan elite, on what grounds can we argue that they ought to become more like us? Why not de gustibus: they like ethnicity–we like deracination; we’re individualists–they’re communitarians; they say “tom-ay-to”–we say “tom-ah-to”? Here is an argument though.

There are no communitarians–at least not on the ground (as distinct from the Ivory Tower). Everyone is after individual rights. It is just that in most circumstances the only way people can secure individual rights is by getting a national homeland for the ethnic nation to which they belong. Most people are tribal: they live under a social contract according to which everyone takes care of their own and no one is expected to take care of anyone else. They expect their tribes-mates to provide hospitality, hire them, provide patronage when in power and charity if need be and recognize an obligation to do the same for tribes-mates. They don’t recognize any obligation to look after “strangers” in this way or expect “strangers” to look after them. Indeed, treating outsiders like family or putting the interests of others ahead of the interests of your own breaks the social contract. Once an individual breaks his contract he’s no longer trustworthy: his tribes-mates can no longer assume that he’ll meet his obligations to them and so no longer have any compelling reason to take care of him.

Among the north Atlantic elite, it doesn’t matter very much whether the nation to which we belong has its own state because we recognize an obligation to take care of everyone and expect others to take care of us through impersonal social mechanisms. The state will provide benefits to us, regardless of race, creed or color; employers will hire on the basis of merit–or at least this is the official view–and those who discriminate will be dealt with by the state. When it comes to patronage, politicians will take care of their constituents, whether or not they’re members of the same tribe so these days ethnic bloc voting has largely disappeared: we don’t have to vote for tribes-mates to insure that our interests will be promoted.

It is very different in tribal societies like Iraq, Kenya, or Northern New Jersey–at least when I was growing up. There, it is essential for your well-being that your tribe have turf or, failing that, power. If you are a member of a minority tribe on someone else’s turf you will not be taken care of by members of the dominant tribe who control government, business, unions, the Mob and other amenities. If your tribe is sufficiently powerful there will be log-rolling and deals will be cut–political positions will be reserved for your tribes-mates who will dispense patronage to their own. If members of your tribe own businesses you may be hired; if they control unions you may be apprenticed. If however your tribe has no power or if such deals aren’t cut on behalf of your tribe then you, as an individual, will not be taken care of because everyone takes care of his own unless deals are cut. Of course this means that you have to vote in and otherwise support your tribes-mates to see to it that they have the power to pull for you. However it’s best for you as an individual if your tribe has its own turf since, in the tribal system, only tribal power and turf can guarantee individual rights. Therefore as a rational self-interested chooser, in the interest of securing individual rights, you support your tribe.

The problem is that the tribal mechanism for supporting individual rights is inefficient. Unless we want to revert to a world of isolated hunter-gather bands, or at best, isolated self-sufficient villages, it isn’t practical for every tribe to have its own turf, the wheeling-dealing involved in tribal log-rolling is very expensive and lots of people fall through the cracks. Moreover, tribal warfare is always a real and present danger and demagogues can exploit it to gain power–like Southern segregationists in the bad old days turning working class whites against working class blacks, Kenyan politicians conjuring up “tribal clashes,” or nativists pumping up anti-immigrant sentiment to promote their own interests. Tribalism is self-perpetuating–people get caught in an evil net–but when people have the choice most prefer deracinated, cosmopolitan societies.

That last is an empirical claim and a claim about what most people prefer. There will always be Romantics, nostalgic for tribalism, especially for idealized versions of tribalism that never existed and the progress from tribalism to universalism is uneven–ratcheting up, and falling back–but overall, the trend is from tribalism to universalism, from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from smaller to larger social units. Very few people want to go back and and people who’ve had it both ways almost always prefer modernity to tribalism. I grew up in a tribal society and I can vouch for that. I can also vouch for the fact that of the many Romantics I know who fantisize about the joys of tribalism, not one of them has experienced it first hand from the inside as I did. It’s all very well to sentimentalize about “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” Samoa as misdescribed by Margaret Mead, the Middle Ages, the hunter-gatherers of the Amazon or any of the other tribal societies, real or imagined, that are part of the public mythos. Those of us who’ve known tribal societies from the inside and gotten out know just how completely awful they are and would never, never want to go back.

That is why, I argue, it would be better if tribalism were obliterated: if it’s feasible for people to live like the deracinated north Atlantic elite, ceteris paribus, that’s what they prefer. Modern societies, non-tribal arrangements, are just a lot better at getting people what they want.

This article was first published at The Enlightenment Project and is republished here by permission. H E Baber teaches philosophy at the University of San Diego; she is completing a book on multiculturalism to be published by Prometheus Press.

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