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14 August 2008

Public trust societies and kinship societies

Kenneth Anderson's Law of War and Just War Theory Blog

Public trust societies and kinship societies

Huntington famously argues that a clash of civilizations is underway, and locates it as a clash of religious traditions, Christianity and Islam. But it seems to me more correct to think of a clash, less of two universalist religious traditions, than of two fundamental organizational principles, kinship societies and those limited number of societies that have managed to establish, however incompletely, social organization on the basis of public trust that goes beyond ties of kinship. Those ‘public trust’ societies in one sense define modernity, but some of the core conditions predate modernity by centuries - monogamy and out-marriage, to start with.

Monogamy is a necessary, although obviously far from sufficient, condition of a society that is both egalitarian and free: a society in which a group of males has no real access to sexual reproduction is not an egalitarian society, by definition, nor a free one, and that inequality in reproductive access is tied to every other form of economic inequality. And that is to speak only of the men. From this standpoint, the fact that Christianity, for reasons that appear to me, at least, historically and even theologically quite contingent, favored both monogamy and out-marriage over cousin marriage, however much honored only in the breach, sets it apart as a form of social organization.

Modernity in some sense starts with those preconditions. The development of a social ethos that accepts the idea that individuals have fiduciary duties in the abstract, that do not pertain solely to those who are members of extended family groups - even where those extended family groups are as much or more socially, rather than genetically, defined - is what gives rise to the public trust necessary to modern Western society and the modern democratic state: that the state, and its officials, will treat people neutrally, without regard to kinship or other pre-modern markers of identity. Without that trust, the result is the form of the state, but an animating principle quite at odds with it. It is the marker of the rule of law and, it increasingly seems to me, the real line of division between societies today.

What gets the cultural cycle of public trust going in society? I have no idea but certainly it appears to be a long term cultural fact, rather than a short term political creation. Samuel Pepys, for example, wrote his diary at what appeared to be the beginning of a long term shift in English political culture: a time in which offices were still heritable and for sale, but also at a time when officials - in vital public positions such as the Royal Navy - were also beginning to be held to account for corruption and fraud. By the Industrial Revolution, the culture of the civil service was taking hold, and with it an ideal of neutrality in dealing with alternating governments and with the public. The very notion of “honor” and to whom it was owed had shifted.

The idea of equality before the law, in matters related to integrity of person, is a very old one and found widely across cultures. The idea of equality in the distribution of the largesse of state favor, and that it is dishonorable for me as a public official to favor me and mine over you and yours in the matter of state property and privilege, because it is a “public trust,” is a quite new one, and very limited in cultural scope. Yet it is the basis of legitimacy - even more the democracy - of the modern state worldwide. What we call a ‘failed state’, after all, is almost by definition that there is no concept of public trust, that it has been exhausted and depleted.

(Useful reading on this includes James Bowman, Honor; and Francis Fukuyama, Trust. Of course, if your view is that all societies are equally successful in their social and cultural arrangements, just different, but no one is better or worse, then none of this will make much sense.)

From: Kenneth Anderson's Law of War and Just War Theory Blog
Kenneth Anderson, a law professor at Washington College of Law, American University, Washington DC, and a research fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, blogs on topics related to international laws of war, international law, related human rights topics, international NGOs, and the theory of the just war. (Everything here is first draft and subject to changing my mind.)