5 December 2014, 1624 EST

Rutgers University law professor (and bloggerMark S. Weiner has been awarded the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order for ideas set forth in his 2013 book, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom. The award includes a $100,000 cash prize and is administered by the University of Louisville.

The book makes a fairly complicated argument about clans, identity groups, liberal democracy, states, and national security. The press release ostensibly explains the highly readable book’s main argument: 

Clans, societies based on kinship, have existed throughout history. Often found in nations with weak governments, they exist today in many predominately Muslim countries, including those in the wake of Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.

Because these groups developed their values from tribal principles, they place collective strength above personal freedom – a clash that puts them in tension with liberal societies and causes them to resist “reform” by outside forces, Weiner says.

If clans and liberal societies are ever to share common ground, he argues, they first need to understand one another’s legal and political traditions.

I’ve read the book and wouldn’t say that this description is particularly helpful. It is accurate, but not especially informative. The publisher’s webpage — Macmillan — does a slightly better job of highlighting the main argument:

…true individual freedom depends on the existence of a robust state dedicated to the public interest. In the absence of a healthy state, he explains, humans naturally tend to create legal structures centered not on individuals but rather on extended family groups. The modern liberal state makes individualism possible by keeping this powerful drive in check—and we ignore the continuing threat to liberal values and institutions at our peril. At the same time, for modern individualism to survive, liberals must also acknowledge the profound social and psychological benefits the rule of the clan provides and recognize the loss humanity sustains in its transition to modernity.

The NY Times didn’t cover the award, but they did review the book in May 2013:

These “societies of ‘Status,’ ” based on kinship, provide a foil to individual rights by revolving around the group (explaining, for example, why a feud can be ended without direct restitution to the person who was originally harmed). But Weiner doesn’t simplify his argument by dismissing or condescending to the clan system; he engages with the very real benefits provided by one of the most durable political associations in human history. Weiner stresses the urgency of his subject for reasons stretching from national security (he attributes early missteps in the war on terror to ignorance of clan structures) to self-preservation (fighting against the rise of clannishness in our own societies). This erudite, quick-paced book demonstrates what the mix of modernity and clans can create: “medieval Iceland plus Kalashnikovs.”

The Wall Street Journal review published a fairly negative review of Weiner’s book. Perhaps this is because of the apparent paradox conservatives believe is embedded in the argument. One reviewer , MIT econ PhD Arnold Kling, says the book provides “a libertarian case for a strong central state.” If you want to understand the book’s argument, and I definitely think it is worth your time, then read it. For those trying to find out a bit more information first, have a look at Kling’s review and Weiner’s response.


Disclosure: I directed the Grawemeyer World Order Award from 1994-2011 and as Chair of the University of Louisville’s Department of Political Science currently serve on the Final Selection Committee. This year the Committee recommended the winning entry from a group of three finalists.