The Trojan Horse

 

“Of course I can lend you the money, how could I refuse. After all, you are part of my family, and, in our family, if someone is in need, we try to help them,” says a man in his sixties to a younger one, probably his nephew. But we soon learn that there is no such thing as a free lunch: in the next scene, the lender explains how the borrower will make his money worth. It is a long list, which includes such things as taking care of the lender´s huge dogs (enter two mastiffs, panting) while Uncle Rich is on vacation and picking him up from the airport in the small hours when he is back. Moreover, we also learn, the loan will give the lender the right to interfere from now on with the borrower´s private life –his choice of job or girlfriend, his life style, even his hair cut. Apparently, Uncle Rich has strong ideas about all these things, and he is ready to enforce them. We thus come to realize that this family loan is in truth a Trojan horse; and that is, of course, the whole point of the story, since this is a TV commercial (now showing on Argentine TV) advertising a new type of bank loan which, we are told, is particularly convenient. Potential borrowers are invited to choose Contract rather than Status.

 

This, of course, is a biased and incomplete picture of what goes on in these situations, but let me focus on what is true about it. People may obtain from their extended family a type of economic or financial support they would hardly obtain elsewhere; but providing such support legitimizes and gives occasion to increasing family interference with individual autonomy. In this sense, it is not only the case that “supportive” extended families get leverage to interfere, as the bank commercial emphasizes, but also that such interference is based upon a genuine interest. The extended family now has an additional reason to be concerned about the decisions the borrower makes, and more often than not it will traduce such concern in concrete commands. When this happens, the price paid for family support is loss of autonomy.

 

Now the same could be true about the State. When citizens of the Soviet Union were denied the right to travel abroad, the Soviet Government alleged that it could not risk losing the huge investment it had made on those citizens, should they decide not to return home. After providing a first class education at no cost, the citizens in question, could –if allowed– now migrate to a country which did not actually make such an investment (neither on Soviet citizens nor, for that matter, on its own citizens) yet would reap the fruits. The Soviet Union, according to this argument, faced a classic free-rider problem.

 

There are a number of reasons why the above argument to deny the right to travel abroad is flawed, and should not be endorsed, but I hope the general point remains clear: providing support has implications on the supporter’s power, if not right, to interfere with the autonomy of the person who, whether by request or not, receives such support. Families –and States—have fewer or no incentives to provide support when they cannot guarantee that the beneficiary will pay back in some currency or other. (I am using “pay back” and “currency” in a very loose sense, of course, to account for the myriad of things extended families and States may expect to obtain in return for their support, even when that expectation is implicit).

 

Mark Weiner’s wonderful book The Rule of the Clan emphasizes the extent to which the absence of the State in any given area invites the emergence of clans instead. This applies to police forces and courts, of course, but also to economic support. Moreover, a State actively engaged in the provision of goods such as healthcare or education speaks to the egalitarian goal that Mark Weiner identifies as inherent in societies of status. In that sense, The Rule of the Clan can be read as an argument in favor of a State that honors the liberal ideal of respecting people’s autonomy, while guaranteeing the support –or some of the support— that in more traditional social organizations clans or extended families provide.

 

That, I believe, is the aspiration of liberal social democracies, i.e. societies that wish to be true to both liberty and equality. I find it an aspiration worth endorsing, and I would not call it Utopian by any means, but it is important to bear in mind the structural fragility of the project, and the likely trade-offs it involves.

 

It takes a very enlightened State to strike the right balance. Uncle Rich, of course, would not be the example to follow.

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