“Populism” or “Neo-Fascism”?: Rectification of Names Blogging

The highlight of last week’s JEF-APARC Conference at Stanford https://www.jef.or.jp for me was getting to sit next to Frank Fukuyama https://fukuyama.stanford.edu, whom I had never met before.

Frank is a former Deputy Director of Policy planning at the State Department, author of the extremely good books on political order The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution http://amzn.to/2sEt4AI and Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy http://amzn.to/2sU0WZP, and a very sharp guy.

He has also been smart and lucky enough to have a truly singular achievement in his career. Prince Otto von Bismarck said that the highest excellence of a statesman “is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past…” For an intellectual, there is an equivalent and analogous excellence: to recognize what the powerful historical forces of the next generation will be, to grab onto their coattails, and so write an article that provides an incisive and valuable interpretive framework that makes sense not of the generation past so much as of the generation to come.

John Maynard Keynes, I think, accomplished this in 1919 with his Economic Consequences of the Peace http://amzn.to/2sTZdn7. George Orwell’s Road http://amzn.to/2sgiUZO and Homage http://amzn.to/2s4RK8h, I think, accomplished this in the mid-1930s. George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”—published as “Sources of Soviet Conduct” http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/coldwar/documents/episode-1/kennan.htm certainly ccomplished this in 1946. Perhaps Karl Polanyi accomplished this with his brilliant but annoyingly flawed 1944 The Great Transformation http://amzn.to/2rMsPDq. I really cannot think of anybody else.

And, of course, Frank Fukuyama accomplished this with his 1989 article: “The End of History?” http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm. (If you doubt that, go read the brilliant Ralf Dahrendorf’s brutal commentary on Fukuyama in his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe http://amzn.to/2sTXfTE: Fukuyama definitely struck a powerful nerve, and Dahrendorf’s animus springs not from Fukuyama’s shortcomings but rather from his insights.)

This is, for an intellectual, something that requires extreme luck and extreme intelligence. It is a righteously awesome accomplishment. And Frank Fukuyama did it.


I spent my time sitting next to Frank attempting to irritate him with respect to what he and many others call “populism”, for I do not like to hear it called “populism”.

The original American populists were reality-based small farmers and others, who accurately saw railroad monopolies, agricultural price deflation, and high interest rates as crippling their ability to lead the good life. They sought policies—sensible, rational policies in the main—to neutralize these three historical forces. They were not Volkisch nativists distracted from a politics that would have made their lives better by the shiny gewgaws of ethnic hatred and nativism The rise of those forces—of Jim Crowe and the renewed and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan and so forth—were not the expression of but rather the breaking of populism in America.

The post-WWII Latin American populists were also people who correctly thought that their ability to lead the good life was being sharply hindered by a system rigged against him. The problem with post-WWII Latin American populism was that the policies that it was offered by its political leaders were—while materially beneficial for the base in the short run—economic disasters in the long: price controls, fiscal expansion ending in unsustainable that burdens, and high tariffs were especially poisonous and false remedies because it could look, for the first five or so years, before they crash came, like they were working.

But what is going on today, whatever it is properly called, is not offering sensible policies people oppressed by monopolies and by a creditor friendly and unemployment causing monetary system. It is not even offering them policy cures that are apparently efficacious in the short run even though disastrous in the long. What Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, Teresa May, and Donald Trump have to offer is (a) redistribution of wealth to family and friends, (b) a further upward leap in income and wealth inequality via cutbacks in social insurance programs coupled with further erosion of progressive taxation, and, most of all, (c) the permission to hate people who look different from you—plus permission to hate rootless cosmopolites who are, somehow, against all principles of natural justice, both doing better than you and offering you insufficient respect.

That is neither the post-WWII Latin American nor the pre-WWI North American form of “populism”. I do not think we are well served by naming it such.

What should we name it instead?

There is an obvious candidate, after all.

When Fukuyama wrote his “The End of History?”—note the question mark at the end—his principal aims were twofold:

  1. To advance a Hegelian, or a Kojeveian reinterpretation of Hegelianism, as pointing out that history was ultimately driven by the evolution of ideas of what a good society would be like and consequent attempts to realize them: through Republican, Imperial, Christian, feudal, Renaissance, Enlightenment, rule of law, democratic, socialist, and fascist formulations, the world’s conceptions of a good society unfold and develop.

  2. To point out that it now appears—or appeared in 1989—that this Hegelian process of conceptual development had come to an end with the liberal democratic capitalist state and economy: private property rights and market exchange guaranteed by a government controlled by one person-one vote now had no serious challengers, and so this process of historical development—what Fukuyama called History-with-a-capital-H—had come to an end.

Most of Fukuyama’s “The End of History” is concerned with the crashing and burning of the idea that the Marxist diagnosis that private property was an inescapably poisoned institution implemented by a Leninist cadre that then set up a Stalinist command economy offered a possible way forward toward a good and free society of associated producers—an alternative to the system that was the reinforcing institutional triad of liberalism, democracy, and capitalism. But there was another challenger for much of the twentieth century: fascism. In Fukuyama’s words:

[Fascism] saw the political weakness, materialism, anomie, and lack of community of the West as fundamental contradictions in liberal societies that could only be resolved by a strong state that forged a new ‘people’ on the basis of national exclusiveness… [an] organized ultra nationalist movement with universalistic pretensions… with regard to the movement’s belief in its right to rule other people…

And, in Fukuyama’s judgment, fascism:

was destroyed as a living ideology by World War II. This was a defeat, of course, on a very material level, but it amounted to a defeat of the idea as well…

But is the current International—that of Kaczyński, Orban, Le Pen, May, and Trump—usefully conceptualized as “fascist”. Perhaps we should say “neo-fascist”, to be politically correct. It certainly believes in the right of its Volkisch core to rule other people within the boundaries of the nation state—or to expel them. It certainly believes that international politics is overwhelmingly a zero-sum contest with winners and losers. It has negative tolerance for rootless cosmopolites and others who see an international community of win-win interactions. A strong leader and a strong state who will tell people what to do? Check. An ethnic nation of blood-and-soil rather than an elected nation of those who choose to live within its boundaries and pledge their allegiance to it? Check. Denunciations of lack of community, anomie, and weakness? Check. The only things missing are (a) denunciations of materialism, and (b) commitments to imperial expansion.

Fukuyama made it clear last week that he greatly prefers “populism” to “neo-fascism” as a term describing what is going on. A fascist movement, he wrote back in 1989, has to be expansionist rather than simply seeking the advantage of the Volkisch national community. There have to be:

universalistic pretensions… with regard to the movement’s belief in its right to rule other people. Hence Imperial Japan would qualify as fascist while former strongman Stoessner’s Paraguay or Pinochet’s Chile would not…

And this test is one that Kaczyński, Orban, Le Pen, May, and Trump’s International fails.

But is Fukuyama right? I am unconvinced. I suspect that calling the movement “populist”—whether with reference either to the pre-WWI United States or post-WWII Latin America—misleads it. I suspect that conceptualizing it as “neo-fascist” might well lead to insights…

Against Alasdair Macintyre’s “After Virtue”

Alasdair Macintyre, at least in his After Virtue mode, believes that good civilizations are ones with moral consensus led by prophets, rather than ones with moral confusion managed by managers. It is Macintyre’s belief that we should hope for a civilization led by Trotskys (less preferred) or St. Benedicts (more preferred), but in either event it is to be preferred to managerial Keyneses.


If you step back, however, and inquire into the content of the this-world secular ideologies of the Trotskys, it then becomes very difficult to prefer the prophetic Trotskys to the managerial Keyneses.

Trotsky’s gospel, it turns out, is in reality little more than a managerialist gospel.

Trotsky says that History speaking through Marx and him knows how to build a Communist utopia. What is a Communist utopia? It is a society in which humans pull together and coordinate their activities. It is a society in which people are free to do what they want, within reason of what is not destructive for the community. It is a society in which people are prosperous: well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed, and well-entertained. Trotsky’s gospel is that Keynes’s market economy is incapable of even approaching such a utopia, while Marx and History have together told him how to accomplish it.

And here we have to bring in history: the regimes that accepted versions of Trotsky’s gospel in the twentieth century and tried to implement it range from Pol Pot’s to Fidel Castro’s, with Stalin’s and Mao’s regimes at the worst, and something like Erich Honecker’s Stasi-spies-on-everyone East Germany close to the best.

The whole point of saying that you would prefer Trotsky to Keynes is that Trotsky has a gospel which, if not true, is true enough to hold society together in moral consensus and produce a modicum of prosperity. But what if Keynes’s managerialism does better at fulfilling what Trotsky claims will be the accomplishments of Trotsky’s gospel more effectively than Trotsky does?

It does.

We can see that Keynes was totally correct in wanting to reduce the influence of a Trotsky in the public square, because a Trotsky’s ideas about good organization of the economy were seen immediately by Keynes as, and turned out to be a horrible disaster, even from the perspective of Trotsky’s values–especially from the perspective of Trotsky’s values.

In a similar fashion, many of the same conclusions follow if you step back and inquire into the content of the other-worldly gospels of the St. Benedicts.

Their lodestones swing from following the ethical teachings of Rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth to worshipping the Anointed Λόγος that is of a higher order of reality than we—with a certain tension between them. But whenever Rabbi Yeshua spoke of what the Anointed Λόγος commanded his followers to do in this world, his followers were commanded to successfully attain managerial ends:

Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.”

Then shall the just answer him, saying: “Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee?” And the king answering, shall say to them: “Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”

That is a very powerful statement that what is sought after is successful managerialism–a successful managerialism with a preferential option for the poor: one that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the sick, welcomes the immigrant, and visits the imprisoned. Right ritual, right moral orientation, right faith seem to be nowhere–at least in this part of The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Regional Policy and Distributional Policy in a World Where People Want to Ignore the Value and Contribution of Knowledge- and Network-Based Increasing Returns

Pascal Lamy: “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger…”

Perhaps in the end the problem is that people want to pretend that they are filling a valuable role in the societal division of labor, and are receiving no more than they earn–than they contribute.

But that is not the case. The value–the societal dividend–is in the accumulated knowledge of humanity and in the painfully constructed networks that make up our value chains.

A “contribution” theory of what a proper distribution of income might be can only be made coherent if there are constant returns to scale in the scarce, priced, owned factors of production. Only then can you divide the pile of resources by giving to each the marginal societal product of their work and of the resources that they own.

That, however, is not the world we live in.

In a world–like the one we live in–of mammoth increasing returns to unowned knowledge and to networks, no individual and no community is especially valuable. Those who receive good livings are those who are lucky–as Carrier’s workers in Indiana have been lucky in living near Carrier’s initial location. It’s not that their contribution to society is large or that their luck is replicable: if it were, they would not care (much) about the departure of Carrier because there would be another productive network that they could fit into a slot in.

All of this “what you deserve” language is tied up with some vague idea that you deserve what you contribute–that what your work adds to the pool of society’s resources is what you deserve.

This illusion is punctured by any recognition that there is a large societal dividend to be distributed, and that the government can distribute it by supplementing (inadequate) market wages determined by your (low) societal marginal product, or by explicitly providing income support or services unconnected with work via social insurance. Instead, the government is supposed to, somehow, via clever redistribution, rearrange the pattern of market power in the economy so that the increasing-returns knowledge- and network-based societal dividend is predistributed in a relatively egalitarian way so that everybody can pretend that their income is just “to each according to his work”, and that they are not heirs and heiresses coupon clipping off of the societal capital of our predecessors’ accumulated knowledge and networks.

On top of this we add: Polanyian disruption of patterns of life–local communities, income levels, industrial specialization–that you believed you had a right to obtain or maintain, and a right to believe that you deserve. But in a market capitalist society, nobody has a right to the preservation of their local communities, to their income levels, or to an occupation in their industrial specialization. In a market capitalist society, those survive only if they pass a market profitability test. And so the only rights that matter are those property rights that at the moment carry with them market power–the combination of the (almost inevitably low) marginal societal products of your skills and the resources you own, plus the (sometimes high) market power that those resources grant to you.

This wish to believe that you are not a moocher is what keeps people from seeing issues of distribution and allocation clearly–and generates hostility to social insurance and to wage supplement policies, for they rip the veil off of the idea that you deserve to be highly paid because you are worth it. You aren’t.

And this ties itself up with regional issues: regional decline can come very quickly whenever a region finds that its key industries have, for whatever reason, lost the market power that diverted its previously substantial share of the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend into the coffers of its firms. The resources cannot be simply redeployed in other industries unless those two have market power to control the direction of a share of the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend. And so communities decline and die. And the social contract–which was supposed to have given you a right to a healthy community–is broken.

As I have said before, humans are, at a very deep and basic level, gift-exchange animals. We create and reinforce our social bonds by establishing patterns of “owing” other people and by “being owed”. We want to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships. We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers.

We want to be neither cheaters nor saps.

It is, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being takers: that we are consuming more than we are contributing, and are in some way dependent on and recipients of the charity of others. It is also, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being saps: that others are laughing at us as they toil not yet consume what we have produced.

And it is on top of this evopsych propensity to be gift-exchange animals–what Adam Smith called our “natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”–we have built our complex economic division of labor. We construct property and market exchange–what Adam Smith called our natural propensity “to truck, barter, and exchange” to set and regulate expectations of what the fair, non-cheater non-sap terms of gift-exchange over time are.

We devise money as an institution as a substitute for the trust needed in a gift-exchange relationship, and we thus construct a largely-peaceful global 7.4B-strong highly-productive societal division of labor, built on:

  • assigning things to owners—who thus have both the responsibility for stewardship and the incentive to be good stewards…
  • very large-scale webs of win-win exchange…
    mediated and regulated by market prices…

There are enormous benefits to arranging things this way. As soon as we enter into a gift-exchange relationship with someone or something we will see again–perhaps often–it will automatically shade over into the friend zone. This is just who we are. And as soon as we think about entering into a gift-exchange relationship with someone, we think better of them. Thus a large and extended division of labor mediated by the market version of gift-exchange is a ver powerful creator of social harmony.

This is what the wise Albert Hirschman called the doux commerce thesis. People, as economists conceive them, are not “Hobbesians” focusing on their narrow personal self-interest, but rather “Lockeians”: believers in live-and-let live, respecting others and their spheres of autonomy, and eager to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships—both one-offs mediated by cash alone and longer-run ones as well.

In an economist’s imagination, people do not enter a butcher’s shop only when armed cap-a-pie and only with armed guards. They do not fear that the butcher will knock him unconscious, take his money, slaughter him, smoke him, and sell him as long pig.

Rather, there is a presumed underlying order of property and ownership that is largely self-enforcing, that requires only a “night watchman” to keep it stable and secure.

Yet to keep the fiction that we are all fairly playing the reciprocal game of gift exchange in a 7.4 billion-strong social network–that we are neither cheaters nor saps–we need to ignore that we are coupon clippers living off of our societal inheritance.

And to do this, we need to do more than (a) set up a framework for the production of stuff, (b) set up a framework for the distribution of stuff, and so (c) create a very dense reciprocal network of interdependencies to create and reinforce our belief that we are all one society.

We need to do so in such a way that people do not see themselves, are not seen as saps–people who are systematically and persistently taken advantage of by others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships. We need to do so in such a way that people do not see themselves, are not seen as, and are not moochers–people who systematically persistently take advantage of others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships. We need to do this in the presence of a vast increasing-returns in the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend and in spite of the low societal marginal product of any one of us.

Thus we need to do this via clever redistribution rather than via explicit wage supplements or basic incomes or social insurance that robs people of the illusion that what they receive is what they have earned and what they are worth through their work.

Now I think it is an open question whether it is harder to do the job via predistribution, or to do the job via changing human perceptions to get everybody to understand that:

  • no, none of us is worth what we are paid.
  • we are all living, to various extents, off of the dividends from our societal capital
  • those of us who are doing especially well are those of us who have managed to luck into situations in which we have market power–in which the resources we control are (a) scarce, (b) hard to replicate quickly, and (c) help produce things that rich people have a serious jones for right now.

All of the above is in some sense a prolegomon to a thoughtful, intelligent, and practical piece by Noah Smith:

Noah Smith: Four Ways to Help the Midwest: “When… Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio voted for Donald Trump, they… roll[ed] the economic dice…

It’s not clear yet whether President-elect Trump will or can follow through on his promises to revamp U.S. trade policy…

Note: given his hires, it is pretty clear that he has chosen not to. But let me let Noah go on:

It’s even more dubious whether that will have any kind of positive effect on the Midwest…

Let me say that it is clear that they won’t: a stronger dollar from higher interest rates and more elite consumption from tax cuts for the rich are likely to produce another chorus of the song we heard in the 1980s under Reagan, which was a disaster for the midwest and for the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County. But let me let Noah go on…

His promises resonated…. The Midwest needs help…. “The largest declines [in economic mobility have been] concentrated in states in the industrial Midwest states such as Michigan and Illinois.”… [The] Democrats[‘]… targeted tax credits and minimum-wage hikes is nothing more than a Band-Aid [because]it ignores the importance of jobs, for dignity and respect, for mobility and independence, and for a feeling of personal value and freedom. Handouts ease the pain of poverty, but in the end, Midwesterners–like most people–want jobs, and they went with the candidate who promised them.

Nor should we simply encourage Midwesterners to move to more vibrant regions. As economist and writer Adam Ozimek has noted, many people can’t easily abandon the place where they grew up, where their friends and family are, and where they often own homes….

Conor Sen has a big idea that I like–a bailout of public-employee pension obligations in the Rust Belt…. But that’s just a first step. I propose four new pillars….

  1. Infrastructure: Sick economies and shrinking population have left Rust Belt states and cities unable to pay for infrastructure improvements. As a result, many cities look like disaster areas. The federal government should allocate funds to repair and improve the Midwest’s roads, bridges and trains, and to upgrade its broadband….

  2. Universities:…. The Midwest has a number of good schools (I went to one of them for my Ph.D.), but more could be built, and existing universities could be expanded. Perhaps even more importantly, local and state governments in the Midwest could work with universities and local companies to create more academic-private partnerships and to boost knowledge industries in places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio. As things stand, Midwesterners tend to move away as soon as they graduate from college….

  3. Business Development: Some cities in Colorado have embraced a development policy it calls economic gardening. The program helps provide resources for locals to start their own businesses. It furnishes them with market research and connects them with needed resources….

  4. Urbanism: Tech hubs like San Francisco and Austin, Texas, are using development restrictions to keep their population densities in check. That gives Midwestern cities an opening to attract refugees from the high-rent metropolises of the two coasts. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland can work on creating neighborhoods that are attractive to the creative class, while allowing housing development to keep rents cheap. College towns like Ann Arbor can reduce their own development restrictions and allow themselves to become industrial hubs….

Governments — federal, state and local — can revitalize the long-suffering Rust Belt. Some locations have already begun this transformation — Pittsburgh, which is rebuilding a knowledge economy based around Carnegie Mellon University and undertaking various urban renewal projects, provides a great blueprint. Targeted regional development policy can prepare cities in the Midwest for the industries of the future, whatever those may turn out to be. And it can reassure the people living in these areas that their government hasn’t forgotten them.


Cf.: Musings on “Just Deserts” and the Opening of Plato’s Republic | Monday Smackdown: The Ongoing Flourishing of Behavioral Economics Makes My Position Here Look Considerably Better, No? | Inequality: Brown University Janus Forum | Noah Smith Eats Greg Mankiw’s Just Desserts

Musings on “Just Deserts” and the Opening of Plato’s Republic

Bradford delong com Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand

Musings on “Just Deserts” and the Opening of Plato’s Republic:

Greg Mankiw Defending the 1% proposes what he calls the “just deserts” theory of social justice:

What you have gained and hold by playing by the economic rules is yours: social justice consists in not cheating or injuring people, and not being cheated or injured in turn.

This is an old theory: we see it first in the western intellectual tradition nearly 2400 years ago, in the opening of the dialogue that is Plato’s Republic. It is advanced by Kephalos…

The other participants in Plato’s dialogue, led by Sokrates, conclude relatively quickly that Kephalos’s argument–taken up by his son Polymarkhos–is unphilosophical, and thus unworthy of consideration by those who want to gain a deep and true understanding of the subject. For the rest of the dialogue, Kephalos’s position–that justice consists of getting one’s just deserts: not injuring or cheating people, and not being injured or cheated–is abandoned. The live positions are, instead,

  1. That “justice” does not really exist: it is merely a rhetorical weapon with which the strong control the weak.

  2. That justice consists of the right arrangement of human society, because a rightly arranged human society is an instrumental virtue that produces many many benefits.

  3. That justice consists of the right arrangement of human society, a good and worthwhile thing both because of the other benefits it produces and a thing very much worth having in itself.

Ever since Plato, moral philosophers have followed his lead–or, rather, the lead of the characters in his dialogue–in this dismissal of “justice is neither cheating nor being cheated”. But, as Obama CEA Chair Jason Furman pointed out to me, that cannot be completely right. First, justice as what Mankiw calls “just deserts” has enormous psychological resonance for human beings. To the extent that moral philosophy exists to account for an help us understand the morality we human beings do have, dismissing a very large chunk of our moral intuitions as wrong simpliciter is not very helpful. Second, given that human beings have a strong tropism toward Kephalos’s “just deserts” position–that justice consists of not injuring or cheating people, and not being injured or cheated–anyone who tries to set out what a rightly arranged society is without taking account of this strong human psychological tropism will almost surely fail.

My tentative ideas on this are unfinished, and probably wrong.

But I would suggest that we might be thinking about the fact that humans are, at a very deep and basic level, gift-exchange animals. We create and reinforce our social bonds by establishing patterns of “owing” other people and by “being owed”. We want to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships. We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers.

We want to be neither cheaters nor saps. It is, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being takers: that we are consuming more than we are contributing, and are in some way dependent on and recipients of the charity of others. It is also, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being saps: that others are laughing at us as they toil not yet consume what we have produced.

And on top of this evopsych propensity to be gift-exchange animals–what Adam Smith called our “natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”–we have built our complex economic division of labor. We construct property and market exchange–what Adam Smith called our natural propensity “to truck, barter, and exchange” to set and regulate expectations of what the fair, non-cheater non-sap terms of gift-exchange over time are.

But we face a problem: How do we enter into a gift-exchange relationship with somebody we will never see again? And we have a solution: a cash-on-the-barrelhead exchange. We devise money as a substitute for the trust that in this transaction one is indeed in a gift-exchange relationship, rather than a sap being taken by a grifter.
And on top of this we have constructed a largely-peaceful global 7.4B-strong highly-productive societal division of labor, built on:

  • assigning things to owners—who thus have both the responsibility for stewardship and the incentive to be good stewards…
  • on very large-scale webs of win-win exchange…
  • mediated and regulated by market prices…

There are enormous benefits to arranging things this way. As soon as we enter into a gift-exchange relationship with someone or something we will see again–perhaps often–it will automatically shade over into the friend zone. This is just who we are. And as soon as we think about entering into a gift-exchange relationship with someone, we think better of them. Thus a large and extended division of labor mediated by the market version of gift-exchange is a ver powerful creator of social harmony. This is what the wise Albert Hirschman called the doux commerce thesis.

Now it is certainly true that economists do not talk about this once. For example, in Books I and II of his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith definitely does write as if self-interest mediated by exchange is at the foundation of the social order. But Adam Smith the moral philosopher (as opposed to Adam Smith the proto-economist attempting to disrupt the 18th century discipline of “political oeconomy”) does not believe that. And it is not true. People as economists conceive them are not “Hobbesians” focusing on their narrow personal self-interest, but rather “Lockeians”: believers in live-and-let live, respecting others and their spheres of autonomy and eager to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships—both one-offs mediated by cash alone and longer-run ones as well. In an economist’s imagination, people do not enter a butcher’s shop only when armed cap-a-pie and only with armed guards, fearing that the butcher will not sell him meat for money but will, rather, knock him unconscious, take his money, slaughter him, smoke him, and sell him as long pig. Rather, there is a presumed underlying order of property and ownership that is largely self-enforcing, that requires only a “night watchman” to keep it stable and secure.

This extended pattern of independence is a very valuable piece of our societal capital.

Thus, given these psychological and institutional facts-on-the-ground, in my view any rightly arranged society has to successfully do all of:

  1. setting up a framework for the production of stuff…
  2. setting up a framework for the distribution of stuff…
  3. creating a very dense reciprocal network of interdependencies to create and reinforce our belief that we are all one society…
  4. and doing so in such a way that:
    • people do not see themselves, are not seen as, and are not saps–people who are systematically and persistently taken advantage of by others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships.
    • people do not see themselves, are not seen as, and are not moochers–people who systematically persistently take advantage of others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships.

Achieving these results is complicated and difficult, for reasons related to [the water-diamonds paradox][]. But I am now far afield, and need to get back to my main topic…


Cf., also:

Communism and Really Existing Socialism: A Reading List for Post-Millennials

Manchester 1844 Google Search

What should someone coming of age in 2020 or so–someone post-millennial, who has no memories of all of any part of the twentieth century–learn about communism, and really existing socialism?

It is, I think, very clear by now to everyone except the most demented of the herbal teabaggers, and should be clear to all, that communism was not one of the brightest lights on humanity’s tree of ideas. Nobody convinced by the writings of Marx and his peers that a “communist” society was in some sense an ideal who then achieved enough political power to try to make that vision a reality has built a society that turned out well. All, measured by the yardsticks of their time and geographical situation, were either moderately bad, worse, disastrous, or candidates for the worst-régime-every prize. None attained the status of:

a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill…

Moreover, those who took Marx most seriously and fell under his intellectual spell either did first-class work only after they had liberated themselves and attached themselves to some other’s perspective (as Perry Anderson did to Weber via “modes of domination” and as Joan Robinson did to Keynes). Too close and uncritical a study of Marx is a mode of self-programming that introduces disastrous bugs into your wetware. The thinkers useful for the twenty-first century are much more likely to be along the lines of Tocqueville, Keynes, Polanyi, de Beauvoir, Lincoln, and (albeit in his intellectual rather than his political or personal practice) Jefferson than Marx. (And Foucault? Maybe Foucault–nah, that is too likely to introduce a different set of dangerous bugs to your wetware…)

Yet the ideas and the arguments for “communism” were (and are?) powerful. And they were very convincing to millions if not billions of people for fully a century and a half. How should post-millennials understand this? How much about this ought they to learn? And how best to present the subject so that they gain the fullest and most accurate understanding, in the short time that is all that they can afford to spend on it?

Here’s my first second take on readings, in the order in which I would put them a course:


More Scattered Things I Have Written: on and About the Subject:

What Thinkers Will Define Our Future?: No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate

Preview of Untitled 3

Over at Project Syndicate: Which Thinkers Will Define Our Future?: BERKELEY – Several years ago, it occurred to me that social scientists today are all standing on the shoulders of giants like Niccolo Machiavelli, John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim.

One thing they all have in common is that their primary focus was on the social, political, and economic makeup of the Western European world between 1450 and 1900. Which is to say, they provide an intellectual toolkit for looking at, say, the Western world of 1840, but not necessarily the Western world of 2016. What will be taught in the social theory courses of, say, 2070? What canon – written today or still forthcoming – will those who end their careers in the 2070s wish that they had used when they started them in the late 2010s? Read MOAR at Project Syndicate


Several years ago I had a thought: it seemed to me that the social sciences we’re still standing on the shoulders of giants—thinkers like Niccolo Machiavelli, John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and company. You can indeed see far when you stand on the shoulders of a giant. But, unless you adopt a twisty and undignified posture , you see best only in the direction that the giant is looking. And the giants of social science were all looking at the Western European world from 1450 to 1900–looking at its orders and disorders, its structures and changes, and its problems and proposed solutions.

We will very shortly be trying to understand the world of the second fifth of the 21st century. Attempting to do so using an intellectual toolkit that is really focused on 1840 or so seems hazardous. So I asked myself: what will be taught in the social theory courses of, say, 2070? What authors and what toolkits–written today or still unwritten—will those who will end their careers in the 2070s wish that they had focused on when they started their careers in the late 2010s? I started a file folder: “The Social Theory of the Late 21st Century”. I filled it with things when I found something I thought had purchase on something likely to be an important problem over the next couple of generations. I put things in. I took things out. I looked at the folder again last week. The bulk of it consisted of the writings of three people: Alexis to Tocqueville, who wrote in the 1830s and 1840s; John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s; and Karl Polanyi, who wrote in the 1930s and 1940s.

Now the fact that I appear to think that the cutting-edge social theory of the 2070s will then be composed of books between 125 (Polanyi’s The Great Transformation) and 235 (Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) may simply be a consequence of my own stupidities and biases. But maybe, just maybe, there is something more here.

John Maynard Keynes’s central concerns as he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s were five:

  1. The fragility of our collective prosperity.
  2. The grave tensions between the demons of nationalism and the rootless cosmopolite attitudes needed to support a peaceful and prosperous global society.
  3. The need to figure out how to organize our lives and utilize our prosperity to create a world fit for humans to live good lives in.
  4. The bankruptcy of the ideological nostrums—laissez-faire, spontaneous order, collective cooperation, socialist command-and-control—with which his world was faced.
  5. The delicate and technocratic problems of running a prosperous economy—and the economic, moral, and political disasters that would follow from failing to do so.

But after World War II the problems that had spurred Keynes’s concerns faded into the background. The Thirty Glorious Years after World War II allowed some to believe that they were permanently—rather than temporarily—solved. The subsequent inflation of the 1970s could be blamed on social democratic overreach, and the claim that the Thatcher-Reagan correction had been salutary and effective was highly credible to the moneyed classes that prospered thereafter, and to their tame ideologists who dominated the 1980-2010 public sphere.

But today the problems that had spurred Keynes’s concerns are back.

Karl Polanyi’s central concerns writing in the 1930s and 1940s was that a market society could indeed produce a great deal of material prosperity, but it did so by making people and the fabric of their lives puppets and playthings of mindless market forces, and that people really did not like that. The task was to grasp the prosperity that came with a market economy without suffering the risks of poverty, the destructions of enterprise, and the erosion of community and expectations that came with a market society. If the modern bourgeois order failed at this task, Polanyi warned, fascist and communist authoritarian or totalitarian forces would benefit.

Like Keynes’s problems, Polanyi’s closely-related problems faded into the background for the Thirty Glorious Years immediately after World War II. And in the subsequent Neoliberal Age the argument that the prosperity of a market society was great and worth the price paid was, again, highly credible to the moneyed class and to their tame ideologists.

But today the problems that had spurred Polanyi’s concerns are back.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s central concerns writing in the 1930s and 1940s were about the consequences of the destruction of caste—the big castes of supposedly Frankish nobles of the sword and supposedly Gallo-Roman villeins, bourgeois, and nobles of the robe; and all the little castes with all their little privileges and liberties that gave them autonomy and a measure of control over their lives—and that came, of course, with obligations attached that grew as social status declined. Tocqueville saw this ordered world of societal orders being replaced by societal democracy and formal social equality—in which everyone would be equally free, but would also be at the mercy of society. No privileges or liberties would protect you if you failed to find a counterparty in the market, or ran afoul of the tyranny of the majority, or simply sought some form of direction as you tried to decide who you were supposed to be.

Tocqueville’s concerns never went away. But in Tocqueville’s world the destruction of caste was partial only: Tocqueville wrote for white men who knew their nationality, knew what those caste memberships meant, and knew what privileges they brought. Now, however, the destruction of caste and caste privilege is taking another step forward. Who, we all now ask, are the inhabitants of Birmingham? And we are trying to deal with it and grasp the opportunities for human betterment thereby created.

So my answer is: No, we have not resolved the concerns that spurred Tocqueville, Keynes, and Polanyi to think and write. We and our successors face their problems and opportunities in a transformed and reshaped form. Mark Twain said that history rhymes. And right now it looks as though the rhyme scheme is very strict.

Must-Read: Quentin Skinner: Liberty Before Liberalism and All That

Must-Read: Quentin Skinner: Liberty before Liberalism and All That: “The Digest of Roman Law[‘s]… fundamental distinction drawn at [its] outset…

…is between the liber homo, the free person, and the servus or slave…. A slave is someone who is in potestate, in the power of a master. The contrast is with someone who is sui iuris, able to act in their own right…. Sallust, Livy and Tacitus… answer… that if you are subject to the arbitrary will of anyone else, such that you are dependent on their mere goodwill, then you may be said to be living in servitude, however elevated may be your position in society. So, for example, Tacitus speaks of the servitude of the entire senatorial class under the Emperor Tiberius, so wholly subject were they to his lethal caprice….

Hobbes changes his mind…. Freedom is not absence of dependence; it is simply absence of external impediments to motion…. The only sense we can make of the idea of human liberty is to think of it as the freedom of an object to move. On this account, you are unfree if your movements are impeded by external impediments, but free if you are able to move without being obstructed…. He maintains… that the main reason why people obey the law is that they are more frightened of the consequences of disobedience. But as he now argues, fear does not take away freedom. Freedom, according to Hobbes’s new definition, is taken away only by external and physical impediments to motion. But fear is not an external impediment. On the contrary, fear is a motivating force….

I am very stuck by the extent to which Marx deploys, in his own way, a neo-Roman political vocabulary. He talks about wage slaves, and he talks about the dictatorship of the proletariat. He insists that, if you are free only to sell your labour, then you are not free at all. He stigmatises capitalism as a form of servitude. These are all recognizably neo-Roman moral commitments…. We tend to think of freedom essentially as a predicate of actions. But the earlier tradition took freedom essentially to be the name of a status, that of a free person by contrast with a slave…. For a neo-Roman thinker, many of the situations that in a market society are regarded as free–even as paradigmatically free–would appear as examples of servitude. The predicament of de-unionised labour, of those who live in conditions of economic dependence, of those in particular who live in dependence on violent partners, and of entire citizen-bodies whose representative assemblies have lost power to executives–all these would appear to a neo-Roman theorist to be examples of being made to live like slaves.

A Plea for Some Sympathy for Repentant Left Neoliberals…

1848

As always, when the extremely sharp Danny Rodrick stuffs a book-length argument into an 800-word op-ed column, phrases acti as gestures toward what are properly chapter-long arguments. So there is lots to talk about.

Must-Read: Dani Rodrik: The Abdication of the Left: “This backlash was predictable…

…Hyper-globalization in trade and finance, intended to create seamlessly integrated world markets, tore domestic societies apart. The bigger surprise is the decidedly right-wing tilt the political reaction has taken. In Europe, it is predominantly nationalists and nativist populists that have risen to prominence, with the left advancing only in a few places such as Greece and Spain…. As an emerging new establishment consensus grudgingly concedes, globalization accentuates class divisions between those who have the skills and resources to take advantage of global markets and those who don’t. Income and class cleavages, in contrast to identity cleavages based on race, ethnicity, or religion, have traditionally strengthened the political left. So why has the left been unable to mount a significant political challenge to globalization?

I think that this paragraph above is largely wrong.

As the very sharp Patrick Iber tweeted somewhere, the usual response to economic distress in democracies with broad franchises is: “Throw the bastards out!” Consider the Great Depression: Labour collapses in Britain in 1931. The Republicans collapse in the U.S. in 1932. And in Germany… shudder. And it is now 1 2/3 centuries since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:

Alexis de Tocqueville: Recollections: “I woke very early in the morning…

…I heard a sharp, metallic sound, which shook the window-panes and immediately died out amid the silence of Paris. ‘What is that?’ I asked. My wife replied, ‘It is the cannon; I have heard it for over an hour, but would not wake you, for I knew you would want your strength during the day.’ I dressed hurriedly….

Thousands of men were hastening to our aid from every part of France, and entering the city by all the roads not commanded by the insurgents. Thanks to the railroads, some had already come from fifty leagues’ distance, although the fighting had only begun the night before. On the next and the subsequent days, they came from distances of a hundred and two hundred leagues. These men belonged indiscriminately to every class of society; among them were many peasants, many shopkeepers, many landlords and nobles, all mingled together in the same ranks. They were armed in an irregular and insufficient manner, but they rushed into Paris with unequalled ardour: a spectacle as strange and unprecedented in our revolutionary annals as that offered by the insurrection itself. It was evident from that moment that we should end by gaining the day, for the insurgents received no reinforcements, whereas we had all France for reserves.

On the Place Louis XV, I met, surrounded by the armed inhabitants of his canton, my kinsman Lepelletier d’Aunay, who was Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies during the last days of the Monarchy. He wore neither uniform nor musket, but only a little silver-hilted sword which he had slung at his side over his coat by a narrow white linen bandolier. I was touched to tears on seeing this venerable white-haired man thus accoutred. ‘Won’t you come and dine with us this evening?’ ‘No, no,’ he replied; ‘what would these good folk who are with me, and who know that I have more to lose than they by the victory of the insurrection—what would they say if they saw me leaving them to take it easy? No, I will share their repast and sleep here at their bivouac. The only thing I would beg you is, if possible, to hurry the despatch of the provision of bread promised us, for we have had no food since morning’…

It was in June 1849 that the depression-driven insurrection of the urban craftworker proletariat of Paris was suppressed—bloodily suppressed—by a largely spontaneous mass mobilization of those of the Ile de France who thought that they had something to lose from further revolution. They might see what little property they had confiscated and redistributed to the unemployed slackers of the city—to the urban “dangerous classes”. They might be taxed to pay for the reopening of the National Workshops that were to provide a guarantee of employment for those who could not find other jobs. They might see worse—their friends arrested for insufficient enthusiasm for revolution, or their priests and their hope of heaven taken away. For all these reasons they shifted rightward, voted for a firm nationalist authoritarian hand on the government, and voted for Louis Bonaparte first as President of the Second French Republic and then as Emperor Napoleon III of the Second French Empire.

The belief that economic distress leads democratic politics to shift left is, I think, in general wrong. It leads democratic politics to shift away from the establishment, whatever the establishment is. It can move left—as in FDR’s America and in France with Leon Blum and the Front Populaire. It can move right—as in France in 1849 and in the early stages of the Great Depression, as in Britain in 1931 and 2010, as in the U.S. in 2010, and as in, ahem, Germany…

Dani continues:

One answer is that immigration has overshadowed other globalization ‘shocks.’… Latin American democracies provide a telling contrast. These countries experienced globalization mostly as a trade and foreign-investment shock, rather than as an immigration shock. Globalization became synonymous with so-called Washington Consensus policies and financial opening. Immigration from the Middle East or Africa remained limited and had little political salience. So the populist backlash in Latin America—in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and, most disastrously, Venezuela – took a left-wing form…

Well, no: as I said, a form that was primarily antiestablishment. In Latin America, the establishment had bought into the relatively center-right Washington Consensus. In Europe, the establishment had bought into the relatively center-left continent-wide social market. Only where, as Dani says, the European establishment comes to be perceived as centered around Berlin’s ordoliberalism rather than around Brussel’s social market is their space for distress to push politics left.

Then, I think, Dani firmly grasps the correct thread:

A greater weakness of the left [is] the absence of a clear program to refashion capitalism and globalization for the twenty-first century…. The left has failed to come up with ideas that are economically sound and politically popular, beyond ameliorative policies such as income transfers. Economists and technocrats on the left bear a large part of the blame. Instead of contributing to such a program, they abdicated too easily to market fundamentalism and bought in to its central tenets.

In retrospect, who can disagree? We misjudged the proper balance between state and market, between command-and-control and market-incentive roads to social democratic ends.

But then I must, again, dissent in part. Dani:

Worse still, [Economists and technocrats on the left] led the hyper-globalization movement at crucial junctures. The enthroning of free capital mobility—especially of the short-term kind—as a policy norm by the European Union, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the IMF was arguably the most fateful decision for the global economy in recent decades. As Harvard Business School professor Rawi Abdelal has shown, this effort was spearheaded in the late 1980s and early 1990s not by free-market ideologues, but by French technocrats such as Jacques Delors (at the European Commission) and Henri Chavranski (at the OECD), who were closely associated with the Socialist Party in France. Similarly, in the US, it was technocrats associated with the more Keynesian Democratic Party, such as Lawrence Summers, who led the charge for financial deregulation. France’s Socialist technocrats appear to have concluded from the failed Mitterrand experiment with Keynesianism in the early 1980s that domestic economic management was no longer possible, and that there was no real alternative to financial globalization. The best that could be done was to enact Europe-wide and global rules, instead of allowing powerful countries like Germany or the US to impose their own.

And here I whimper.

Financial globalization was intended to take down barriers to capital inflows erected by rent-seekers in developing countries, and so speed growth in economies that had been starved of capital while also equalizing incomes. Financial deregulation was supposed to break up the cozy investment banking and other oligarchies of Wall Street and diminish their private-sector tax on the American economy. Financial deregulation was supposed to provide the poorer half of America with the access to fairly priced credit that it lacked and with the opportunity to invest in assets that would yield equity-class returns, which it also lacked. And, in a world in which central banks had the powers and the will to successfully stabilize aggregate demand, there seemed little downside to letting people who could not put together a 20% down payment buy a house, to forcing Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to deal with competition from Citigroup and Bank of America, and to allow entrepreneurs in Mexico to raise funds not just from a cozy oligarchy of Mexico City banks but on the global capital market.

And France’s socialist technocrats were right: in highly-open economies the task of managing aggregate demand has to be a global, or at least a North Atlantic-wide, or at least a continent-wide exercise. In a good world, large exchange rate changes should only take place in response to persistent fundamental disequilibria rather than being used as first-line tools for demand management.

It all did go horribly wrong. But the restriction of the ECB to an inflation-control mandate alone was never a policy plank of the left—and all on the left assumed that the technocrats of the ECB were not stupid enough to take the single mandate as more than cheap talk to reassure bond markets in good times. And the decision by money-center banks to use derivative markets not to diversify but to concentrate housing-price risk on their own balance sheets did not happen on our watch.

And then I must dissent again. Dani’s penultimate paragraph is, I think, much too optimistic:

The good news is that the intellectual vacuum on the left is being filled, and there is no longer any reason to believe in the tyranny of ‘no alternatives.’ Politicians on the left have less and less reason not to draw on ‘respectable’ academic firepower in economics…. Anat Admati and Simon Johnson have advocated radical banking reforms; Thomas Piketty and Tony Atkinson have proposed a rich menu of policies to deal with inequality at the national level; Mariana Mazzucato and Ha-Joon Chang have written insightfully on how to deploy the public sector to foster inclusive innovation; Joseph Stiglitz and José Antonio Ocampo have proposed global reforms; Brad DeLong, Jeffrey Sachs, and Lawrence Summers (the very same!) have argued for long-term public investment in infrastructure and the green economy. There are enough elements here for building a programmatic economic response from the left.

Here I agree, rather, with something Keynes wrote in 1933:

John Maynard Keynes (1933): On Trotsky: “We lack more than usual a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal…

…All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas and none more conspicuously so than the Marxists…. No one has a gospel. The next move is with the head…

The problem is that our current policy agenda is too much “do it again!”, where “it” is “Keynesianism, social democracy, the welfare state.” And I believe we need more I think Dani gets it right when he notes:

The right thrives on deepening divisions in society—‘us’ versus ‘them’—while the left, when successful, overcomes these cleavages through reforms that bridge them…

But when he says:

Earlier waves of reforms from the left—Keynesianism, social democracy, the welfare state—both saved capitalism from itself and effectively rendered themselves superfluous…

he is both right and wrong: the earlier waves did save capitalism from itself, but they only rendered themselves apparently superfluous during the Years of Global Convergence and the Years of the Great Moderation. They are not superfluous. We need them. And we need more. For Dani is right to close:

Absent such a response again, the field will be left wide open for populists and far-right groups, who will lead the world—as they always have—to deeper division and more frequent conflict.

Which Thinkers Will Define Our Future?: Live at Project Syndicate

Over at Project Syndicate: Which Thinkers Will Define Our Future?: BERKELEY – Several years ago, it occurred to me that social scientists today are all standing on the shoulders of giants like Niccolo Machiavelli, John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim.

One thing they all have in common is that their primary focus was on the social, political, and economic makeup of the Western European world between 1450 and 1900. Which is to say, they provide an intellectual toolkit for looking at, say, the Western world of 1840, but not necessarily the Western world of 2016. What will be taught in the social theory courses of, say, 2070? What canon – written today or still forthcoming – will those who end their careers in the 2070s wish that they had used when they started them in the late 2010s? Read MOAR at Project Syndicate

Agriculture the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race?: Today’s Economic History

Egypt tribute Google Search

Consider Jared Diamond’s 1987 paean to hunter gatherers. While I find his article provocative and insightful, I also find it annoying. It seems to me that it mostly misses the most important parts of the story.

For one thing, it misses the importance of the dominant Malthusian mechanisms. The invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals provide an enormous technological boost to humanity both in terms of the number of calories that can be harvested by an hour of work and in terms of the ability of a society to make durable investments of all kinds that further boost its productivity. It is an absolute living-standard bonanza for the generations that discover it, and the generations that come after.

So what goes wrong with quality of life among agriculturalists? Well, without rapid technological progress and before the demographic transition, human populations and living standards tend to settle at a point where, given nutrients, hazards of life, and societal institutions, every mother has on average one daughter who herself reproduces. The standard of living will be whatever standard of living makes that happen. And, for agriculturalists–without the hazards to adults of travel and hunting, and without the hazards a mobile lifestyle imposes on the very young–that standard of living is a lot lower than among hunter-gatherers. Lifespan looks about the same looking across hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. Biomedical and fitness indicators are much much higher for hunter-gatherers.

Whether this is a “disaster” or not depends on the answer to the old utilitarian conundrum of whether it is better to have a few people who live very well or a lot of people who live very poorly. This is an open question in philosophy, but Diamond appears to think that it is a closed one. And Diamond ignores the important consideration that only the density of population that comes with agriculture can generate enough human brains thinking to allow us to–quite possibly–transcend our Malthusian limits and create a truly human world in the long run.

As to inequality… violence… domination… In my view it is difficult to say on net. Certainly the agricultural epoch has many many more people reaping where they did not sow and gathering where they did not scatter. Nevertheless, taking all three together, I cannot judge whether there was either a positive or a negative change across the boundary of the Neolithic Revolution. More inequality and domination, certainly. But you also have many more interactions between humans that are not one-shot interactions: people have fixed addresses, after all. If we know anything about humans, it is that human males have a tendency to resort to violence–perhaps not as great a tendency as chimps or gorillas, but a tendency, and we make more deadly weapons. It is not at all clear to me that the hunter-gatherer epoch had less murder, rape, kidnapping and enslavement of women, and so forth than did the agricultural epoch.

The hunter-gatherer age was not a kumbaya-singing age. Where, after all, are the Neanderthals today?

Jared Diamond (1987): The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race: Discover (May), pp. 64-66: “Archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress…

…The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence…. For most of our history we supported ourselves by hunting and gathering: we hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants. It’s a life that philosophers have traditionally regarded as nasty, brutish, and short…. Our escape from this misery was facilitated only 10,000 years ago, when in different parts of the world people began to domesticate plants and animals. The agricultural revolution spread until today it’s nearly universal and few tribes of hunter-gatherers survive…. Planted crops yield far more tons per acre than roots and berries. Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly grazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep. How many milliseconds do you think it would take them to appreciate the advantages of agriculture?…. The progressivist party line sometimes even goes so far as to credit agriculture with the remarkable flowering of art…. Agriculture gave us free time that hunter-gatherers never had. Thus it was agriculture that enabled us to build the Parthenon and compose the B-minor Mass….

While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients…. The lives of at least the surviving hunter-gatherers aren’t nasty and brutish, even though farmers have pushed them into some of the world’s worst real estate…. The progressivist view is really making a claim about the distant past: that the lives of primitive people improved when they switched from gathering to farming. Archaeologists can date that switch by distinguishing remains of wild plants and animals from those of domesticated ones in prehistoric garbage dumps….

Usually the only human remains available for study are skeletons, but they permit a surprising number of deductions…. keletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’9″ for men, 5’5″ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’3″ for men, 5′ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors…. Burial mounds in the Illinois and Ohio river valleys… a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A. D. 1150…. These early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. ‘Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was bout twenty-six years,’ says Armelagos, ‘but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years. So these episodes of nutritional stress and infectious disease were seriously affecting their ability to survive.’ The evidence suggests that the Indians at Dickson Mounds, like many other primitive peoples, took up farming not by choice but from necessity in order to feed their constantly growing numbers. ‘I don’t think most hunger-gatherers farmed until they had to, and when they switched to farming they traded quality for quantity,’ says Mark Cohen of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, co-editor with Armelagos, of one of the seminal books in the field, Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. ‘When I first started making that argument ten years ago, not many people agreed with me. Now it’s become a respectable, albeit controversial, side of the debate.’

There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health… a varied diet… [vs] one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition…. Because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together… led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease….

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease…. Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure to produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more frequent pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer counterparts — with consequent drains on their health….

Thus with the advent of agriculture and elite became better off, but most people became worse off. Instead of swallowing the progressivist party line that we chose agriculture because it was good for us, we must ask how we got trapped by it despite its pitfalls. One answer boils down to the adage ‘Might makes right.’ Farming could support many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. (Population densities of hunter-gatherers are rarely over on person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 times that.)… As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution… outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter….

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering facade, and that have so far eluded us?


Diamond is broadly right in what he says:

Carles Boix and Frances Rosenbluth: Bones of Contention: The Political Economy of Height Inequalty: “Human osteological data provide a rich, unmined source of information…

…about the distribution of nutrition, and by extension, the distribution of political power and economic wealth, in societies of long ago. On the basis of data we have collected and analyzed, we find that the shift from a hunter–gatherer to a labor-intensive agriculture opened up inequalities that had discernible effects on human health and stature. But we also find that political institutions intervene decisively in affecting the distribution of resources within societies. Political institutions appear to be shaped not only by economic factors but also by military technology and vulnerability to invasion, leaving important questions for additional exploration.