30 Apr 2018

The Tribal Fallacy


Jonah Goldberg, in connection with his new book, Suicide of the West, did a recent podcast with EconTalk host Russ Roberts.

Russ Roberts: And just to expand on the Hayek point, in The Fatal Conceit, he says: This micro-cosmos and macro-cosmos, we have two –we have to have two ways of thinking about the world. In our small families or our bands or our tribes or our communities, we have a more socialist–what you and I would call a Socialist–enterprise. We don’t sell stuff to our kids: typically, we share. It’s top down, not bottom up. In the family, the parents tend to run things. And, that’s very appropriate in a small group that’s held together by bonds of love, for genetics–whatever keeps it together. And, he says, we have to have a different mindset when we go out to the extended order–when we are traders and commercial actors. And he said, we have a tendency to try to take the beautiful and poetic ethos of the family and extend it into the larger order. And he says that leads to tyranny.

Jonah Goldberg: Right.

Russ Roberts: In a way, that’s–that’s what I want to–you might–it’s one of the things you are worried about in your book. Which is that the tribalism that we are hardwired for seems to be spreading beyond the immediate family.

Jonah Goldberg: That’s right. I think it’s worth pointing out: It is disastrous going both ways.

Russ Roberts: Hayek makes that point, yeah.

Jonah Goldberg: Right. Right. It’s disastrous to treat the larger society like a family or tribe. But it’s also disastrous–getting your g’mindschaft[?] and your Gesellschaft is always a problem. And treating your family like a contractual society destroys the family. And, both are really, really bad. And I agree that it’s not just that we are Socialist. I mean, the way I always put it is: We are literally Communist, in the sense that in my family it is: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. You have a sick kid, you don’t do any kind of calculus about what their contribution to the family is. You just do whatever they need. And, yeah. So, part of my argument is that–you know, the Roman philosopher Horus has this line where he says, ‘You can chase nature without–you can chase nature out with a pitchfork, but it always comes running back in.’ And, so, part of my argument is that human nature is always with us. Right? We are born with it. That is the preloaded software of the human condition, and you can’t erase that hard-drive. All you can do is channel and harness human nature towards productive ends as best you can. And when you don’t do that, human nature will assert itself. And I think of this in terms of corruption: That, just as if you don’t maintain their upkeep–a car, a boat, or a house–the Second Law of Thermodynamics or entropy or just rust will–you know, rust never sleeps. Eventually, nature reclaims everything. And that’s true of civilizations, too. And if we don’t civilize people to understand this distinction between the micro- and the macro-cosm, what inevitably happens is that the logic of the microcosm, the desire to live tribally which we’re all born with, starts to infect politics. And if you are not on guard for it, it can swamp politics. And this is why I would argue that virtually every form of authoritarianism, totalitarianism–whether you want to call it right-wing or left-wing–doesn’t really matter to me any more. They are all reactionary. Because they are all trying to restore that tribal sense of social solidarity–whether, you know, it’s a monarchy or treating the leader of the country as the father of the country or the Fuehrer or whatever you want to call it. Or whether you are just saying that the entire society is just one family. Whether it’s nationalism, or socialism, or populism–all of these things are basically the reassertion of human nature, which says: I don’t like your artificial constraints on my human desires and my desire for my group to be victorious. And that is the fundamental form of human corruption.


6 Feedbacks on "The Tribal Fallacy"

Seattle Sam

Then, there is simply the empirical evidence that collectivism doesn’t produce good results except sometimes in very small, homogeneous groups. It didn’t work well for the Pilgrims, and there were only 100 of them. It certainly didn’t work well for Russians and Chinese unless you were an elite Party member.



Good grief. Goldberg is asserting that authoritarianism is the only form of governing that will work!

“Whether it’s nationalism, or socialism, or populism–all of these things are basically the reassertion of human nature, which says: I don’t like your artificial constraints on my human desires and my desire for my group to be victorious. And that is the fundamental form of human corruption.”- Goldberg

And that is not the fundamental form of human corruption.


A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Schill McGuffin

That should be “Gemeinshaft” at the head of Goldberg’s last extended quote — the close community, as opposed to the broader society (the “Gesellschaft”, both terms coined by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies).

And Goldberg’s hardly asserting that “authoritarianism is the only form of governing that will work”. He’s saying that it has a natural appeal — wanting to project the security of the wise and benevolent idealized family unit over everything, in place of the insecurity and seeming chaos of government where competing interests are represented and compromises made, and over free markets where everyone has to prioritize their own desires and figure out how to obtain them.

Only the first part of that last extended sentence seems incongruous with all the rest of what he’s saying — The idea that tribalism says “I don’t like your artificial constraints on my human desires and my desire for my group to be victorious.” I think it’s authoritarianism — be it nationalist, socialist, or populist, that ultimately wants to artificially assert its desired constraints over the desires of others, in the name of “science” or “tradition” or “God’s will”, or what have you, to secure the victory of their tribal “family”/gemeinshaft.


The core of human nature is self will. The family unit tempers that nature with the benefit of selflessness, which is further tempered by the group or tribe.

The idea that we can “civilize” people to abandon these relationships and adopt humanity as the tribe is failing to recognize that the only unifying force will be authoritarian.

I have very little empathy with “humanity” rather than in the abstract, but I can empathize with members of my tribe.

I think you’ve got that backwards. There is nothing inherently authoritarian with nationalism.

It’s globalism that wants to “artificially assert its desired constraints over the desires of others.” And the only way that will occur will be a very strong dose of authoritarianism.


To achieve global unity, I have to give up my tribe, my country and now even my gender.

No thanks. Count me as one of the deplorables.


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