Friday, April 3, 2009

Old Hop’s Paradigm

Taking a break from Rothbard’s economics epic, I stumbled across an article by Chandran Kukathas of the London School of Economics, entitled, “Two Constructions of Libertarianism.” Dr. Kukathas argues that in nature only two types of libertarian societies could theoretically emerge. One he calls “Federation of Liberty” (which I will call “Federal* Liberty”), the other, “Union of Liberty.”

The underlying premise of both theoretical systems is non-aggression. Respect for an individual’s self and property is paramount. However, the two systems have the potential to evolve toward different ends. Under the Federal Liberty model, non-aggression and freedom do not preclude the possibility of groups forming within the society that may not respect individual liberties. For example, religious cults that restrict or enforce certain behaviors on their members, or even groups that practice slavery, could arise. Under the Federal model, however, respect for libertarian rights is such that no group or individual can coerce other groups to alter or extend individual liberties to their members. At best, one can stand outside an “oppressive” group (my phrase) and beckon individuals out of it; or attempt to educate its members on the virtues of individual liberty. But no enforcement of liberty can be undertaken.

Under the Union of Liberty model, a similar coalescence of individuals into different pockets or groups would likely occur. However, within this system libertarian freedom is held on such an ideological pedestal that repressive or oppressive acts engaged in by separate groups cannot be tolerated by the society at large. Eventually, some committee or judicial authority would emerge that would enforce the rules upon the groups deemed outside the ideological mainstream. At that point, however, the fundamental premise of libertarianism is lost; coercion has been exercised, and its exercise empowers, perhaps permanently and detrimentally to the whole, the authority that brought that coercion to bear. For this reason, Kukathas concludes that the Federal model, all its potential perils notwithstanding, is preferable to the Union model.

In his study of 18th century Cherokee culture, anthropologist Fred Gearing describes a society that somewhat approximates Kukathas’ Federation model. While the Cherokees formed a tribal and linguistic nation, they were divided into over 60 separate and autonomous towns. No Cherokee town could impose its will upon a neighboring or distant town. No decision reached at a tribal “capital” like Great Tellico or Chota was binding upon an individual town or, for that matter, upon individual Cherokees.

At the individual level, Cherokee conduct was ruled by the principle of non-aggression. An honorable man was expected to walk away from potential conflict; he acted in self-defense only if his person or possessions were threatened.

Warfare among Cherokees was largely a matter of justice according to the tribal tradition of blood vengeance. When a member of the local town was slain by someone from another town (or different tribe) the member’s clan would form a war party to exact proportional retribution, i.e. “an eye for an eye.” But even here individual rights were highly regarded. Even to the point of attack, an individual warrior could decide that he wanted out of the enterprise and abort his participation without retaliation from his fellows.

Each town was ruled by a council of elders who upheld the tribal traditions. Tradition and family (clan) formed the glue that bound Cherokee society. The elders enforced tradition chiefly through their power to shame or to encourage the ostracizing of contentious individuals. But real coercive force they lacked. If an individual disagreed with a council decision, he was free to go his own way in the same sense that an entire town could ignore the decision of a higher, tribal council.

Tribal councils existed primarily for discussion of how to deal with foreigners, i.e. other American Indian tribes or European settlers. Councils arrived at major decisions only by consensus, at which point the appointed headman would speak, or have one of his representatives speak, on behalf of that consensus. Old Hop (d. 1761) was the headman at Chota when the Cherokee nation found itself sandwiched between the rival French and British colonial empires. Because of Old Hop’s physical infirmity (thus, his nickname) Attakullakulla, “the little carpenter,” served as his ambassador. But a reading of Anglo-Cherokee relations during the mid-18th century reveals how little coercive power Old Hop and the Chota council actually possessed. Retributive wars erupted between Cherokee towns and white settlers in the South Carolina upstate that Old Hop, from his seat in what is now southeast Tennessee, was powerless to prevent or stop.

The Cherokee nation was eventually overwhelmed by the expanding British and then American empires. But its polity left an indelible influence on the thought of some American Founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson. The defeat and dispersion of the nation should not be seen as a failure of its polity, especially given that the Cherokees lived in relative harmony and peace for centuries before European contact. For both paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians searching for historical culture examples that fall within their paradigms, the Cherokees of old are ripe for deeper investigation.

*I mean Federal in its original sense – the spreading of power over various constituencies; not to be confused with the present U.S. Federal government, which has become nothing if not authoritarian.

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