WHAT DOES THE STONE AGE HAVE TO DO WITH US? (from 2008)
This essay was originally published in the USBIG NewsFlash in June 2008.
What does the Stone Age have to do with modern justice? According to property rights advocates: everything; their arguments rely on two factual claims that can be enlightened by a look at prehistoric anthropology. (1) Property begins as individual property and then governments come along and impose taxes that interfere with the rights of owners. (2) A market economy with no restrictions on inequality makes everyone better off than they were befor the private property was created (i.e. when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers).
I have heard private property advocates make these claims many times, but I’ve never seen them support those claims by referring to anthropological studies of prehistory. How do we know that property began as private property? Are we sure that every single modern worker is better off than our hunter-gatherer ancestors? Recently I’ve taken a look at some anthropological studies including Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins, Bronze Age Economics and How Chiefs Come to Power by Timothy Earle, and The Evolution of Political Society by Morton Fried. I found out that the claims of property rights advocates don’t hold up very well.
To examine the first claim, we need to go back to the creation of fixed property rights in the Bronze Age. Property rights advocates like to imagine land being first appropriated by individualistic pioneers who tamed the wilderness by their own efforts. But that’s not what actually happened. The transformation from hunting and gathering to a settled agricultural life took the joint act of entire bands not simply one person. The rights of land tenure in primitive settled communities were extremely varied, but it seldom if ever looked anything like the neoliberal systems that property rights advocates suppose. In the earliest agricultural societies, every individual had a right of direct access to the land, which was usually owned (if at all) by villages or large extended families. In slightly more economically advanced societies where property rights have become exclusive, the original owners are not private businessmen, but chiefs. Ownership of resources was synonymous with ownership of the government.
The reason chiefs doubled as owners is obvious: the earliest societies were too economically simple to have separate spheres of power—such as government, religion, and business. All of these powers were vested in one person. The Hawaiian Islands were first settled by human beings around the year 600 and so they provide a very recent example of the first creation of property rights. For the most part by the 1400s, each island was run by a chief who owned the land and the irrigation systems that made everyone’s efforts to farm the land viable. Local lords were employees of the chief. They doled out land to peasants only if the peasants promised the interests of the chief. In short, the chief ran his island as a wholly-owned, for-profit business.
Property rights advocates sometimes claim that only recent history matters, but taxation and regulation of property are not new. Modern governments inherited their regulatory powers from medieval kings, who owned the right to regulate their domain in any way they saw fit. Modern landlords hold titles that derive from the medieval vassals of the king. Government taxation is simply the exercise of property rights that are as old as or older than private holdings of property. Some countries went through a brief laissez faire period in the Nineteenth Century, when governments chose to tax and regulate less than before. But I know of no government that signed an enforceable contract to alienate its rights over its domain. So-called property rights advocates simply want to interfere with the property rights of kings to promote opportunities for his vassals, which has about as much to do with “freedom of property rights against interference” as redistribution from condo associations to condo owners, from landlords to tenants, or from stock holders to middle management. If the property rights system the king set up is unjust, his rights should go to the people, not his lords. If the property rights system the king set up is just, we must respect his rights and not force him to cede power to his lords.
To examine the second claim, we need to go back all the way to the Stone Age. Studies of hunter-gatherer communities that survived into the Twentieth Century show that people worked an average of three to four hours per day (including time spent preparing food and commuting). They worked at their own pace and slept more than people do today. Researchers reported that they appeared to feel extremely secure about their ability to find food and other necessities, and they never had to answer to a boss. When a hunter-gatherer is in the mood to forage for food, she sees if anyone else feels like joining her. If not, she waits or goes out alone.
Modern capitalism is a very productive system with great potential to produce goods that could benefit everyone, but as we practice it, it has extreme inequalities. People live on the street and eat out of garbage cans. Others work long hours in sweatshops at the edge of their physical ability and still face the possibility of hunger and malnutrition. Most modern workers have more access to luxuries and better medical care than hunter-gatherers, and on the whole they live longer. But many work longer and harder; they have to follow the orders of a boss; they have less economic security; and do not forget the some individuals die young (and younger than many hunter-gatherers) because of malnutrition and other complications of poverty. In short, the transition from hunter-gatherer society to modern capitalism has not been an unequivocal gain for the working class. It has been a tradeoff. But a tradeoff is not good enough to meet the standards that property rights advocates set for themselves.
I am not the one who put forward the standard that the poor must be at least as well off as their Stone Age ancestors. Property rights advocates chose that standard because they thought it was easy to meet. It is. A society, as productive as ours, can easily make everyone far better off than they would be as hunter-gatherers, but we have failed to do so. The minimum we can do to justify our property rights is to make sure that every single human being has more freedom and economic security our Stone Age ancestors. To make sure the standard it met, we only need to make sure that everyone can have some minimal level basic necessities without having to submit to a boss.
We don’t, I believe, largely because we, the better off, have convinced ourselves that we have the right to boss around the poor. We have property and they don’t; and therefore, supposedly, we have the right to make them do what we say 40 hours per week. Yet, studies of societies without property rights show that our property rights are the only thing coming between the poor and their ability to meet their own needs with less effort and without following anyone’s orders. It is we who owe them, not they who owe us. Perhaps we can make the poor work for us if they want to share in the luxuries of capitalism, but we have no right—even by the standards set by property rights advocates—to force them to work for us just to meet their basic needs.
-Karl Widerquist, New Orleans, LA, May 2008