Tribal Politics

This article appeared on, April 3, 2006
In today’s political discourse, the term “Nazi” serves no intellectual purpose. It is merely an epithet, used to indicate anger. Calling someone a Nazi is like calling someone a bleeping bleep.

For me, this creates a problem of terminology. I want to describe the beliefs of someone like George Bush, who worries about “national competitiveness” (fear the peril of Asian scientists!) and who wants No (American) Child Left Behind. I want to describe the beliefs of someone like Paul Krugman, who is worried about the wages of “our” unskilled workers, or who wants “our” health care to be paid for by taxes.

What should you call someone who wants government to provide for our education, competitiveness, and health care but whose concern about “us” stops at the border? The obvious label would be national socialist. But George Bush and Paul Krugman are not Nazis. So, I need an alternative term. Call their ideology statist-collectivist.

The alternative ideology that I would propose might be called transnational libertarianism. The ideal libertarian world would have no economic borders. There would be no problem of illegal immigration, because all forms of immigration would be legal.

If transnational libertarianism were to become sufficiently popular to emerge as the ideology that determines the world’s institutions, then governments would be local rather than national. Their main role would be to prevent outbreaks of violence among individuals or groups. In the nightclub of life, government would be the bouncer, not the owner or the manager or the dance instructor or the disk jockey.

Transnational libertarianism would be based on a system of individual rights, like our Bill of Rights. The purpose of individual rights is solely to protect individuals from abuse of government power. We would not have a “right to health care” or a “right to education.” We would have rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association. I would like to see these individual rights made fully portable, so that freedom of movement becomes a basic right. I would like to see Hispanics free to live and work in the United States, Palestinian Arabs free to live and work in Israel, and Jews free to live and work in Palestinian territory or other Arab lands.

Individuals would have the right to choose to live under strict religious law. However, no one could be forced to live under strict religious law. Any conflict between religious law and the basic rights of the individual would be resolved in favor of the rights of the individual.

Individuals would have the right to associate only with people who have similar ethnic origins, although I believe it is in one’s best interest instead to have an inclusive set of associates. What is important is that government not engage in or support ethnic discrimination.

Governments should be strong enough to protect basic rights, and no stronger. Today’s national governments are too strong. A “world government” that is even stronger would be a transnational libertarian’s worst nightmare. Local governments, with plenty of checks and balances, would be better. To improve accountability and reduce government over-reach, I have suggested breaking up the United States into 250 states.

I believe that people have a strong need for tribal identity. We want to belong to a group that has common customs and rituals that distinguish the group from other groups. One sees this phenomenon at work in all forms of human social organizations, from ethnic groups to sports fans to religions to corporate departments to professional associations.

Tribal identity motivates people to help others. People naturally join clubs, religious organizations, and other groups. In the absence of strong national governments, these associations could share resources in order to alleviate problems among their members, satisfying the needs that today are answered by the welfare state.

Tribal identity is a mixed blessing. For those people who belong to groups where norms include resistance to work, school, or responsibility, one could argue that tribal identity is a handicap.

Tribal identity is used to motivate people to engage in violence against outsiders. Tribal identity is one of the reasons that we need bouncers in the nightclub of life.

Politicians in nation-states attempt to use tribal identity to foster cohesion. In my view, they do this all too well. One result is that statist-collectivist ideology has a deep hold on most of us. Often, as in the case of Paul Krugman’s recent writing on immigration, tribal identity is mixed with folk Marxism.

Another consequence of tribal identity is war. Statist collectivism elevates tribal war to a colossal scale. However, pacifism is no refuge in a world where violence based on tribal identity is often unchecked and many individual thugs as well as mass movements are prepared to trample individual rights.

I do not expect the world to move toward transnational libertarianism in the foreseeable future. Right now, other ideologies predominate. Islamofascism, an ideology of tribal domination, is very prominent. Transnational progressivism, which favors world government and socialism, is the opposite of transnational libertarianism. And then there is statist collectivism, which is far more popular than transnational libertarianism.

I am cautiously hopeful that the trend might be away from statist collectivism and toward transnational libertarianism. This hope is based on the Internet.

First, the Internet itself serves to demonstrate the workability of an institution that relies relatively heavily on individual rights and responsibilities and relatively little on national government. On the Internet, borders tend to be highly porous, and in fact this is contributing to the increased porousness of borders in general, as is illustrated by the phenomenon of overseas outsourcing of service work.

Second, the Internet provides a medium that can be used to counter statist-collectivist propaganda. The mass-market media of the twentieth century were easily and naturally drawn into the service of politicians with statist-collectivist agendas. The Internet has allowed other voices to challenge the mainstream media, and perhaps some day this will challenge the hegemony of mainstream politicians.

My point is not that we can expect soon to see transnational libertarianism put into practice. However, I do think that it represents a more positive vision for society than statist collectivism. I think that with the medium of the Internet available, those of us who believe in transnational libertarianism are better able to articulate our views. As the Internet continues to take hold, it will become more difficult to dismiss libertarianism than was the case during the era dominated by mass media.

Back in the real world, the immigration issue raises some concerns. First, there is the issue of assimilation. My idea of an assimilated immigrant is someone with a strong commitment to the Bill of Rights, separation of powers, and federalism. My opinion is that immigrants who are fleeing from ethnic cleansing or political repression are more likely to assimilate, because with a first-hand experience of tyranny they can really appreciate American liberty and ideals. I would not want to see economically-motivated immigrants or guest workers crowd out the more desperate refugees from other parts of the world.

Another concern I have with either immigration or guest workers is reconciliation with our welfare state. We do not want immigration or guest work to be a way to extract benefits from the welfare state, such as Medicaid or public education. But I think we want guest workers to pay taxes. One approach, which is rather harsh, would be to tell guest workers that they have to pay taxes that help support Social Security, Medicaid, and public schools, but they are not allowed to obtain benefits from any of these programs.

If we lived in a transnational libertarian utopia, the issue of immigration policy would be simple. Open borders would be the right approach. There would be no concern with immigrants coming to take advantage of our welfare state, because we would not have one.

But we do not live in a transnational libertarian utopia. For now, immigration policy must cater to the inclinations of national socialists.

Arnold Kling is an adjunct scholar and author of Learning Economics.