The great classical liberal sociologist Henry Sumner Maine theorized that societies progressed from status to contract: In a status-based society, one is born into a place in a hierarchy. That place may change, but typically it doesn’t change very much, and your place governs your rights and obligations. Societies of status are stable, rigid, and often deeply illiberal. They tend to be dominated by kinship groups, or clans, and those can be quite collectivist and hostile to individual liberty.
Contract-based societies are very different: In a contract-based society, individuals tend to be legally equal at birth. Family ties are affective and not quite so legally binding. Obligations tend to be voluntarily undertaken rather than assumed at birth. Societies of contract are flexible, may change rapidly, and will often act to protect individual liberty.
At Cato Unbound, this month’s lead essayist, legal historian Mark S. Weiner, argues that the state performs a sometimes unappreciated role in keeping away the status-based society: without a state that’s strong enough to break the power of the clans, then the clans will return, and individual liberty will suffer.
But how real is the danger? Do we really have the strong state to thank for our liberty? Economist Arnold Kling argues that other institutions, including the nuclear family and consensual transfers of property, make clannishness unappealing. The American Conservative’s editor, Daniel McCarthy, suggests that even liberal government is at times a very collectivist, and thus clannish, activity. Legal historian John Fabian Witt will weigh in on Monday, and we welcome your comments as well.