One of my go-to quotes is Thomas Hobbes on life in the State of Nature being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The context usually has to do with countering extreme libertarian notions (or at least taking those notions to their logical conclusions) about government being useless or evil. However, I’m currently reading “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, and maybe Hobbes and I have it wrong. The average forager seems to have had it better than the average farmer. The agricultural revolution was a Faustian bargain with the average human working harder, for longer hours, at work that was less interesting, on a smaller patch of ground. Their diet became less varied and humans became more susceptible to plague and famine. However, it undeniably allowed humans to produce more food in a smaller space and live together in greater densities. Before too long, there was no turning back – and, in any event, no one really remembered what the hunter gatherer lifestyle was like.
Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.
To support agriculture, we had to invent the idea of property (a right that, the Founders’ declaration to the contrary, is a human construct, not something that exists of necessity in nature. Also, it’s demonstrably alienable.) In fact, we had to conceive a lot of things that don’t exist in the real world. Harari says that this ability to conceive of abstractions preceded the Agricultural Revolution — a Cognitive Revolution that enabled homo sapiens to emerge from Africa, cover the planet, and eliminate the non-sapiens humans of the time (Neanderthals and the like). Without being able to conjure up abstractions, humans could not have organized in large numbers. Some of those abstractions are laws, nations, corporations, religions, and cultural narratives.
But those organizing abstractions can be insidious. When they are at their most effective, we have convinced ourselves that these abstractions are not artificial. Harari talks about Hammurabi, his laws, and the classes (slave, commoner, and aristocrat) that the law created and/or reinforced. The conceit in Hammurabi’s Code was that those laws were handed down by the Gods — these laws weren’t man-made, they were divine. A division between slaves, commoners, and aristocrats wasn’t artificial, it was natural. We can look back on other cultures and see the man behind the curtain. Clearly Marduk wasn’t actually whispering in Hammurabi’s ear when he declared these laws. There is nothing preordained that makes a person into a slave — that’s an accident of the culture in which the slave was born and the will of the humans surrounding him or her. Recognizing the conceits of one’s own culture is a lot tougher — By accident of having been born to parents living in 20th or 21st century North America, we don’t have divinely ordered slavery (though we are dealing with aftershocks of ancestors who did). Rather, we have self-evident truths and natural laws; not to mention the invisible hand. The Market (if left uncorrupted by humans) will distribute wealth according to merit and other morally satisfactory criteria. Once acquired, that wealth will become a person’s property — to which he or she has an inalienable right because Natural Law. (Recall: property is not the tangible stuff – it’s not, for example, a chair or a house or a patch of ground. Rather property, properly understood, is the bundle of rights that we have or don’t have with respect to those things.)
If we look back to the beginning of the agricultural revolution, we can see how wealth was generated and acquired. Civilization was made possible by agriculture and its ability to generate a surplus. But that surplus wasn’t willingly generated and turned over to the civilized elite. Government, law, and civilization requires the use of – or at least the credible threat of – violence. Taxes have always been extracted by force where need be. Slave labor was compelled by force. Property becomes property – rather than merely stuff you are holding onto as long as you’re able – because the government will use violence on your behalf to protect your prerogatives with respect to those things. Law, at the end of the day, is potential violence wielded by the state. The Market rewards leverage, not necessarily merit (by which, in market terms, I generally mean labor, creativity, and socially beneficial risk taking). Merit can be a form of leverage that the market rewards, but it’s hardly the only form.
All of this sounds pretty negative. I understand that. But, even if you don’t agree with the entire case, I think much of it is ultimately true – and it creates a perspective that deviates from the mainstream – from the dominant cultural narrative of our times. It’s tough for me to unsee, even if I’m skeptical of pieces of this particular narrative. What’s tougher is how it affects my ability to relate to people who subscribe to the dominant cultural narratives about how property is an inalienable right commanded by natural law and necessarily acquired according to merit guided by the invisible hand of the market. I was raised in that narrative. But, sometimes, I forget what it’s like to accept those things as natural law rather than human choice. When I’m talking to someone who hasn’t questioned that narrative (let alone rejected it), we don’t agree on the ground rules. I’m playing basketball, and they’re playing soccer. There’s going to be conflict when I use my hands.
What’s my suggestion to make a better society? Communism? Anarchy? Totalitarianism? None of those, really. Or maybe a blend of successful pieces of all of them. I’m not saying I have a better way of making things work, necessarily. But, when I (or someone like me) suggests that we could choose to handle property or allocation of wealth in a different way if we wanted to, or that the Founders weren’t infallible oracles channeling the divine and eternal truths of Natural Law, they’ll look at me like I have two heads. I think merit and wealth may often be correlated. They think there is a causal relation, and – even more problematic – they think a view to the contrary is not only wrong, but probably immoral and against nature.
Because I have been exposed to a lot of history, despite the negativity that I may be projecting, I don’t actually see our system as all that bad. We have certainly had worse. I do, however, see the system as malleable. To the extent we choose not to make changes, that is a human choice – not mere adherence to natural law, self-evident truths, or the commands of Marduk.