Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chronicle of an early social contract

In his new book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, Francis Fukuyama considers the origins of the social contract that formed the state, and speculates whether it could ever have been the product of a conscious decision on the part of a tribal society. He does not take this discussion where I thought he would:
     Thomas Hobbes lays out the basic "deal" underlying the state: in return for giving up the right to do whatever one pleases, the state (or Leviathan) through its monopoly of forced guarantees each citizen basic security. The state can provide other kinds of public goods as well, like property rights, roads, currency, uniform weights and measures, and external defense, which citizens cannot obtain on their own. In return, citizens give the state the right to tax, conscript, and otherwise demand things of them. Tribal societies can provide some degree of security, but can provide only limited public goods because of their lack of centralized authority. So if the state arose by social contract, we would have to posit that at some point in history, a tribal group decided voluntarily to delegate dictatorial powers to one individual to rule over them. The delegation would  not be temporary, as in the election of a tribal chief, but permanent, to the king and all his descendants. And it would have to be on the basis of consensus on the party of all the tribal segments, each of which had the option of simply wandering off it didn't like the deal.

     It seems highly unlikely that the first state arose out of an explicit social contract if the chief issue motivating it were simply economic, like the protection of property rights or the provision of public goods.  Tribal societies are egalitarian and, within the context of close-knit kinship groups, very free. States, by contrast, are coercive, domineering, and hierarchical...We could imagine a free tribal society delegating authority to a single dictator only under the most extreme duress, such as the imminent danger of invasion and extermination by an outside invader, or to a religious figure if an epidemic appeared ready to wipe out the community.
Leaving aside the obviously hypothetical question of how the "first" state was formed...to me, this speculation very clearly evokes a familiar chronicle. It's from 1 Samuel 8:

1 And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel.
2 Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abi'ah: they were judges in Beer–sheba.
3 And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.
4 ¶ Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,
5 and said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. Deut. 17.14
6 But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
7 And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
8 According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
9 Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.
10 ¶ And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king.
11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.
12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.
13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.
14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.
15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.
17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.
18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.
19 ¶ Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us;
20 that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.
21 And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the LORD.
22 And the LORD said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king

A couple of notes regarding this remarkable imagining of a social contract in the making. First, pace Fukuyama, there is no immediate military emergency -- though the people do say they want a military chief, and leading the people in battle is indeed subsequently a primary duty first of Saul and then of David.  Second, also contrary to Fukuyama, the primary impetus is economic in a sense: the country has been prey to bribery and a breakdown in the rule of law.  Third, the Lord is about as anti-monarchical as the American colonists.

Finally, the account is congruent with Fukuyama's broader thinking about the impetus to take on more complex forms social organization in prehistoric times and about the evolution of human political order generally.  The perceived need is driven by competition: " Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles."  One level further down the organizational chain, Fukuyama posits that pre-tribal communities organized in small bands, once faced with a society that has organized itself into more scalable tribal units, would be forced to do the same. More broadly, he argues that the evolution of human society follows a Darwinian dynamic, as illustrated by the band-to-tribe transition. 

I am sure that I'll be posting further about this book, which I am enjoying immensely so far.

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