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How Conservative Policy Falls Short: A Historical Look at the American Nation State, Part 1

Updated on May 23, 2019

Most people would call me conservative. I’ve probably given out this impression by being married for 20 years to the same man, and mostly being a homemaker and mother of two, though I have a Masters degree. I support stable families, education, hard work, fresh baked apple pie and such American things. In general this makes people think I am a conservative, and I wouldn’t argue with it. However, I have a historical bone to pick with current conservative economic policy. I think the economic conservativism of our time, at least its American expression, displays an ignorance of the history of human societies, and leaves a gap in human needs. These hubs will explain what I mean. Part 1 traces the breakdown of the clan system and the rise of the Nation States. Part 2 discusses the ways the Modern States fail their denizens.

Current conservativism does not support, but rather seeks to weaken or even eliminate, programs such as social security, Medicaid, universal health care, health care for children, government aid for higher education (a conservative recently called Pell Grants for college tuition “welfare”), ect. Sometimes called Supply Side Economics, this approach works to keep taxes low, especially for wealthier citizens and for corporations, allowing them to retain control of large sums of money. The idea is that wealthy individuals and corporations will reinvest their money, creating more jobs and more prosperity for everyone, and improving all of society.

To follow my argument on why I think this policy, with its self defining emphasis on freedom and rewards for hard work, does not suit the needs of human beings, stick with me through a discussion of how today's conservativism works, and then a historical tour of human economic interaction.

Trailer for The One Percent

Conservativism of today

A recent documentary, The One Percent, illustrated the conservative fiscal approach. In an interview a billionaire businessman said, “It’s better for us to control wealth, because we will reinvest in the economy, creating more jobs and more prosperity. It’s better for us to have that money than for it to go into Social Security or Medicare.” He then paused a minute, perhaps reflecting on the fact that he had just said that even though he was already rather staggeringly wealthy, the tax structure should favor him becoming even richer, versus providing minimal living expenses and basic health care to elderly US citizens. “I don’t want to sound crass,” he said. And then he repeated, “I really mean that. I don’t want to sound crass.” The documentary, ignoring this hope, hung him out to dry by immediately switching to footage of him enthusing over his private yacht, just slightly smaller than the Love Boat, and his French château, just slightly smaller than Versailles.

The documentary The One Percent is so named because in the United States 40% of wealth is owned by 1% of the population, making us a culture of haves and have nots. I will argue in this hub that this structure was a characteristic of modern nation states from the beginning, and that the concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of a few was a major departure from the lifestyle lived by human beings in clan and tribe based systems. While the clan system had its drawbacks, I will contend that it served human beings better than modern nation states in two key areas: providing for individuals, and giving individuals purpose.

A brief history of clans

Before the rise of modern nation states, people lived in tribes and clans. Individuals without a clan, and what we call “nuclear families,” without the help and protection of a clan, lived a precarious life. Often they did not survive. For this reason, people who had fallen afoul of their clan, or who lost their clan to warfare, famine or illness, would sometimes band together and form a new clan.

People in clans took care of each other. A man fought the clan's battles, knowing that if he fell to the enemy, his widow & children would be cared for by the surviving clan members. Old people sat by the fire, doing what work they could and telling stories. Women helped each other birth and care for small children. Many clans had marriage customs which ensured that a widowed woman was remarried after her husband’s death, most likely to one of his relatives, to protect and provide for her and her children, and anchor her again in the clan network.

Clans by their nature were rather egalitarian. Individuals might have status, but accumulating more material possessions than others in the clan was generally more trouble than it was worth. In The Old Way, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes about the two years she spent living with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, and comments on how individuals were uncomfortable owning more than others in the group. Bushmen gave away surplus, rather than store it to be used another time. They relied on others in the group to do the same. The Long Exile, by Melanie McGrath, makes the same observation about traditional Inuit culture. When a need was perceived, someone in the group would give to the person in need. Storing resources up for yourself when another clan member needed something was considered morally wrong. People in these clans lived interdependently, and too much difference in wealth was avoided. Among other problems, the resulting jealousy might undermine the cooperation so necessary to survival. (Contrast this to our modern culture, where if anything individuals seek to stir up envy from their peers: many consider the jealousy of others a badge of success.)

The rise of the modern nations

In medieval times, when modern nation states first began to arise, they looked for ways to weaken the clan system. Individual’s first loyalty was to the clan, not this new idea of a “nation.” An Arab saying describes the tribal hierarchy of loyalty this way: “With my brother against my cousin, with my cousin against my kinsmen, with my kinsman against another Muslim, and with any Muslim against an infidel.” The problem for these new “modern nations” was that with clans intact, clan leaders would have too much power in negotiating with the state, and resources would be kept within the clans, and therefore not as available to national governments.

So nation states began to make policies to weaken clan loyalties. For instance, the marriage of cousins was outlawed. Today we think genetic problems make cousin marriage a very bad idea, but in European tribal society, these marriages were very common, as they still are in the Middle East today. Marriage patterns like this concentrate loyalties within a tight knit group. Requiring people to marry outside the circle of relatives divides loyalties and obligations. This broadening of loyalties served the purposes of modern nation states. Armies shifted from men fighting for and beside kinsmen, to men fighting for the king of a nation state, a person they had probably never met, certainly not a person they had grown up beside.

The institution of the medieval Church claimed its share of power from the clans also. Before the centralized Church, requirements about who could marry, and by what authority they could marry and produce legitimate children, were decided by clans. If the clan approved, the new couple was all set: if clan leaders did not want a particular match, they had the power to make life very difficult. The Church assuming the authority to proclaim legitimate marriages, and by extension to not sanction other marriages, represented a major power shift, though one we seldom think much about. The “wise men” and “wise women” of society were now also supplied by the Church, in the form of monks, nuns and priests, instead of the older more informal system where elder clan members earned the group’s respect with long life, service, and worthwhile advice.

And the clan system did in fact break down. Modern people identify themselves as Americans or Brits or Canadians, rather than as O'Malleys or Saxons. Now that nation states have rid themselves of clans and clan leaders, they become the locus for identity and loyalty. One great benefit of nation states is the rule of law. The clan system leaned so heavily towards loyalty to the kin network that people supported each other based more on relationship than on right and wrong. Remember the proverb “With my brother against my cousin, with my cousin against my kinsman, ect.” The proverb doesn’t mention the moral rightness of the brother or cousin’s cause: relationship counts more than righteousness in a clan. Another great weakness of the clan based world was violence. Human lived in a rather constant state of conflict between tribes. The modern world marches to war (particularly awful wars, it is true), but within the modern nations themselves, people live in a security unknown in the tribal world.

On to Part 2!

Part 2 will talk about weaknesses of the Modern Nation State - the situation we find ourselves in now.

I'm indebted to hubber Stump Parish for encouraging me to write these hubs. They began as an overly long comment on one of his hubs, months ago. He suggested the ideas could turn into an interesting hub of my own, and though it took a very long time, here it is at last.

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