Bring Back the Tribe!

Ok, so for about 6,000 years humanity has been running a little experiment in a kind of social order known as the “state”. In my opinion, it’s been an unmitigated failure. Time to give it up and go back to tribalism.

Why the State is a Failure

Note I’m talking about the State, i.e. large government bodies, not states like Rhode Island.

godswhisperWhat is the purpose of a state? Up to about a hundred years ago, the states of the world were justified by nonsense like the “divine right of kings”, but nowadays people usually have other justifications in mind. Some would say its purpose is to protect its citizens from aggression; others say it should also protect its citizens’ liberty, and provide a system of justice; others say the state should help out the general welfare with education, food or wealth redistribution, health care, etc. Does a state do a good job of these things, compared to a tribe? (And when I say “tribe”, I’m talking about a small unit, no more than, say, a thousand people, relatively geographically concentrated.)

  • Protecting citizens from aggression? The mass insane bloodshed on this planet has skyrocketed since states were inaugurated. There’s no mystery why: states thrive on war; they love it when the citizens give up liberty and power in exchange for perceived security. Certainly tribes went to war, but always in limited, ritualistic ways that never created mass bloodshed.
  • Protecting liberty, and providing public justice? You’ll never find a tribe with a Bill of Rights, because civil liberties are not violated in a tribe; the central authority of a tribe is never strong enough to restrict speech, assembly, religion, etc. A tribe can, however, provide public justice and dispute mediation just as well as a state can, and probably better (it wouldn’t be hard), since everybody knows everybody else and there’s more accountability.
  • Providing education, health care, food? In tribes, everyone is educated; no one is thousands of times richer than anyone else; and goods are therefore generally fairly distributed. Health care is provided for everyone, too — the tribe’s medicine man or shaman usually works for free, or small fees, because she is friends with or related to everyone in the tribe. So tribes definitely do a better job here than states do.

Quite apart from this, it’s horribly dangerous to concentrate so much coercive power in one organization. As I’ve described at length here, state power structures tend to act as a center of gravity for greedy, power-hungry individuals, and the state ends up gathering up more and more power for the sake of power. Plus, some studies I’ve seen in information theory show that a the state can never gather enough information to govern efficiently, and you end up with terrible things like shortages of certain types of food or goods because modern economies are just too complex for central planners to handle. Free markets, on the other hand, move goods efficiently by themselves, because the competing agents in it counterbalance each other; they act to create balance in the same way that a natural ecology does.

There is unarguably one thing that states do better than tribes, and that’s defend its citizens against other states. A state will almost always destroy a tribe in the end, simply because it has more people and wealth at its disposal. Plus, states act more viciously and inhumanely than tribes do; they are more likely to break treaties and use underhanded, dishonorable tactics, because they are impersonal organizations. Tribes that spend a lot of time in contact with states tend to become more state-like (heirarchical, power-centralizing, etc.) as a form of self-defense. To my mind, this is the only reason that states have gradually become the dominant social structure today.

Where did States Come From?

Why were states created in the first place? No one really knows, but certainly the earliest states involved collusion of the military and religious spheres to concentrate physical violent force into one small ruling class. Frequently (or perhaps universally) this occurred when one small group of people (tribe?) had near-complete control over some vital resource, such as water for irrigation. And once a state was established, other tribes around it would be forced to become more state-like for self-defense.

But Surely States are Good for Something!

It’s natural to associate all the benefits of modern life with modern political systems, since they’ve been so ubiquitous. How would we have roads, without the state? Schools? Money? The mail? Police? But if you think about it, all of these things can be provided by much, much smaller political systems, and my bet is that they’d work a lot better in smaller systems where everyone knows each other, and there’s more accountability and less bureaucracy.

But Is A Tribe Enough?

Is there any call for any social structure larger than a small tribe? Probably. In nature, you have two kinds of organization: free-market style on the ecological scale, and state-control style on the individual animal/plant scale. So it might be that some kind of mixture is called for.

I think something that might work is a sort of hybrid:

1. No state or government or company should control more than a thousand people. (Anything larger and it’s just too much information to handle efficiently.) Among those thousand people, there should be cooperative ventures, food & health & other essentials shared alike, etc. This is a tribe.

2. Between these tribes, you’d have free markets, so that non-essential, rare, or luxury goods and services can be traded and distributed across long distances efficiently and fairly. For example, you might have one tribe that produces a big excess of copper, and they trade that copper to other tribes who can use it for making computer components, etc. etc. You would want to have money at this level of organization, because that’s a lot more efficient than barter; but people wouldn’t necessarily own money — tribes would. There would be competition between tribes, but not between individuals. Kind of like sports teams…

Not every tribe can mine copper; and no one tribe would have all the expertise and natural resources available to, say, make a personal computer. But even today, states aren’t necessary to do this kind of thing: private companies do this. There is no contradiction between having private companies, and having tribes. In fact, a private company today could even be thought of as a tribe. Many companies provide housing, health care, dispute arbitration, and other “state” services to their employees.

Of course, modern companies tend to have quite hierarchical organizations, unlike most tribes. While hierarchy isn’t my favorite thing in the world, it works quite efficiently at small scales — this is why your brain is in charge of your body, instead of your body being some kind of lassaiz-faire free trade zone of cells.

Act Now!

So: we’re agreed that states are a Bad Thing. How do we get rid of them, and go back to tribes?

I have no idea. What do you think?

* * * *

Seven Random Things

Paula Kawal has tagged me with the “Seven Random Things” meme, which requires:

1. Link to the person’s blog who tagged you.
2. Post these rules on your blog.
3. List seven random and or weird facts about yourself.
4. Tag seven random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
5. Let each person know that they have been tagged by posting a comment on their blog.

So here goes…

  1. My favorite musicians are the Bothy Band (traditional Irish), Bill Monroe (bluegrass), Sting (rock/pop), Dead Can Dance (eclectic), Led Zeppelin (rock), David Sanborn (sax jazz), and R. Carlos Nakai (flute New Age jazz), not in any order.
  2. Every night I read to my wife before we go to sleep, while she knits. Currently we’re re-reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Before that, we were reading Pratchett’s the Last Continent; next up is the Princess Bride.
  3. My favorite food is pizza. Pepperoni and mushroom. I almost never get to have it, because my wife is allergic to mushrooms. (*sob*) But she makes fantastic whole-grain pizza.
  4. At lunchtime, our family’s main meal, we say the following ancient Irish blessing: Both man and woman, both wife and children; both young and old, both maiden and youth; plenty of laughter, plenty of wealth, plenty of people, plenty of health, be always here.
  5. I create languages as a hobby. You can read a description of one here.
  6. I play banjo and guitar.
  7. I have written a fantasy novel, a science fiction novel, and a half-dozen speculative fiction short stories. I’ve never published a word, but I’ve gotten some very nice rejection letters…

7 thoughts on “Bring Back the Tribe!”

  1. A familiar conversation!

    I have no answers to your questions. However, I do have this comment: in a Political Science class I took the professor made one interesting point: states are getting smaller both physically and in population. This makes sense to me. As you said, it’s too hard to control lots of people and from information getting to those people.


  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Michelle! Our facebook conversation totally inspired me, so as you can see, I punched it up to a full post. There’s a lot more to think about as far as the relationship between tribes (a much better name than my original ‘nanostates’, doncha think? πŸ™‚ ) and private companies… But it’s wonderful to think that the world is moving in this direction, even if it takes another 6,000 years.


  3. Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for playing along!

    We also gave up watching television…we still watch hand selected movies that we rent from Netflix but no more T.V. We find we do more together as a result…all of us (my kids, husband and I) settle in and read together every night…currently we are reading Little House on the Prairie.

    Other things we have in common are Led Zeppelin, Dead Can Dance, Sting, Harry Potter…and that stack of rejection slips πŸ™‚

    The fact that you create languages is so fascinating to me. I read someplace that Tolkien did that and I know for a fact that Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance Books) creates his own languages as well.

    Very cool to learn so many new things about you!


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