CALEB J. MILES, University of Auckland, New Zealand
A brief history of society. This is an historical account of socialinstitutions. We have many names for these institutions – law, rights, customs, norms, morality, tradition, culture, language, etc. I am going to be focusing on two institutions: property rights and the State.
Understanding these institutions is absolutely necessary for understanding politics.
Biologically modern humans have been living on Earth for at least 100,000 years. For almost the entirety those many millennia, human society consisted only of small bands living together as hunter-gatherers. Men hunted and women gathered.
In these hunter-gatherer bands, early forms of customary law (norms and rules for human interaction) emerged across generations in an evolutionary process we call “group selection.” This unwritten law usually had content along these lines:
- Men hunt as a team and help each other prepare weapons.
- At least some meat is shared amongst the whole hunt-gatherer band.
- Better individual hunters have first dibs on the best meat or any extra meat.
- Better individual hunters get more sex (with the women) and/or more wives.
- Individuals or households own any ornaments, trinkets, dishes, clothing, stones, tools or other items they make themselves, find, or receive as gifts.
That last law (#5) is the key one here, because the point being made is private property rights existed in pre-agricultural society. [Leave mouse pointer over links to see citations.]
Furthermore, the criteria for ownership was roughly first possession – whoever acquires the item first (including making it) is the owner. First possession as the basis for ownership has been shown in evolutionary theory and history and empirical psychology to be near-universal among humans on an interpersonal basis. Most interestingly, in child psychology, babies and young children have been shown definitively to infer ownership from first personal possession.
Hence private ownership based on first possession is called “the property instinct.” It has become largely instinctual, hardwired into the modern human brain, with cultural norms acting complementarily to this reinforce and nuance this instinct. Hunter-gatherers had such private ownership in certain items (including, in a sense, owning themselves i.e. having rights to their own body). However – with the exception of sedentary hunter-gatherers – private property did not extend to land.
Land was not privately owned. Modern economics explains why: nobody stood to gain from developing private property rights in land. Land was abundant and people were relatively scattered. Hunter-gatherers were mostly nomads who were always on the move. They did not have crops or houses or domesticated animals. In the terminology of institutional economists Coase andDemsetz, the transaction costs of internalization were greater than any perceived benefits. Therefore no property rights emerged for land in their customary law. Hunter-gatherers did have private property in other individual items because the reverse was true for those items.
So how did customary law actually work?
White circles = people and the lines are direct interaction between people. All the 5 individuals here directly interact with each of the other individuals in the group. This was how social institutions were defined and enforced within hunter-gatherer bands – through direct, personal interaction among all participants:
Customary law was not designed or enforced top-down by any centralized body. Rather, customary law was created gradually, arising from the bottom-up as individuals imitated the repeated interactions of other individuals who were successful at whatever they were trying to do.
Successful norms became part of the intergenerational culture of the band, and in some cases they even became instinctual (e.g. first possession as private property). The bands that were sustained and successful were the bands whose individuals followed customary laws that made the group more reproductively efficient. Groups that did not adopt as efficient laws would not be as successful, and could even potentially die out completely. Hence “group selection.”
Thus customary law evolved.
Customary law was enforced reciprocally by most everyone else in your band, primarily through threat of ostracism. If you stole something or took more than your agreed-upon share of the group-hunted meat or whatever, other people would scold you, you would face social pressure, and in the extreme case you would be completely ostracized from the band.
This worked because these hunter-gatherer bands were small –something around 150 people or less – and you practically had to personally interact with all the other individuals all the time. You personally, individually knew most all the other people in your band.
Now, again, hunter-gatherer bands were mostly nomadic. (Note however that the few hunter-gatherers who were not nomadic, like the ones who lived off fishing, did have private property rights in land.) Hunter-gatherers moved around all the time. Arrows represent migration:
However with the onset of the Neolithic Revolution around 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers began to store food, to farm agricultural crops, and to domesticate animals. Some of these early farmers engaged in swidden agriculture, which is where the groups were still small and moved around but individual families would periodically clear small plots, plant crops, and then let the plot regrow.
Staying consistent with the first personal possession criterion, a plot remained perpetual private property of the household that first cleared it and the same farmers would return to that plot. This is perhaps the first known instance of absentee ownership in land. Households and bands mutually recognized this private property:
Other hunter-gatherers eventually settled down permanently and built the first villages:
In these settlements, the foundation of human civilization rapidly developed – that is, division of labor. Technology emerged which allowed some individuals to specialize in doing things beyond hunting and gathering and then beyond farming and fishing. Labor was divided amongst individuals according to specialties.
We became toolmakers, miners, sculptors, carpenters, builders. We began to trade, to realize the incredible mutually beneficial gains from trade, and compete for these economic gains rather than merely for meat or status or women. We got better and better at our specialties.
For our whole existence as a species, up until this point, we’d been limited to small-group forms of social organization. We finally began to move beyond that. We went from small bands comprising only direct interaction with people we personally knew:
To ever-growing networks of indirect interaction comprising many more individuals than any one person could possibly know:
Mass indirect interaction meant long-distance trade. Trade triggered and co-evolved with other institutions: money, marketplaces, complex written language, arithmetic, commercial arbitration and multilateral contracting, common law with mutually-respected judges, and the extension of property rights to land and other capital.
This social order was (and still is) emergent or spontaneous, meaning it came about indirectly, arising bottom-up from the interactions of individuals acting on their own self-perceived interests and information. It was not designed or imposed top-down. To understand this, think of a flock of starlings in flight:
These birds have no leader, no single starling with special privileges to order the others. Yet we can clearly see some order in their organization—and it works: none of the birds run into each other. Order here is emergent from the interactions of individual starlings acting on their own simple information and incentives, not imposed top-down by any individual starling or subgroup of starlings. Complex order spontaneously emerges from the individual as basic unit:
Individual humans following the Neolithic Revolution were incentivized by self-perceived interest to interact, and thereby create and maintain the developing social institutions of civilization. Thus order in human society is emergent, a feedback loop which begins and ends with individual interaction and individual incentives.
Humans care primarily about themselves and the people they are personally aware of—as we have evolved to do. Participating in the newly expanding market presented enormous potential gains for defining property rights, trading, and so on. Motivated, we produced goods and services that other players in the market would consider valuable so we could sell and profit. These services included those of judges and other legal producers whodiscovered/created common law and adjudicated disputes.
Everyone was made better off by the growth of mutually beneficial market activity. Division of labor spread ever wider. We continued to specialize, to further improve our means of production. Resultant technological innovation and population increases spurred more growth. Market prices gave us real-time informationabout the relative supply and demand of different products, information we could use to optimally calculate, coordinate, and plan our own economic lives.
And all of this development was built on that age-old social institution of property rights.
As is the case for all human property rights, land ownership was broadly based on the human property instinct – first personal possession – that is, homesteading. Homesteading meant that individual(s) owned land if they, for example, built a house on it, grew crops on it, raised cattle on it, or were given the land by the person who did. Precise quantitative details differed as to how much property one was entitled to based on any such activity (and other factors) but the general principle was and is still today virtually universal on an interpersonal level.
We must limit this principle’s practice to the interpersonal level because of a new institution that emerged long after property rights and human civilization. That institution is the State.
The State is what most people today call “the government.” Today, almost all such governments are Nation-States. The standard empirical definition of the State in social science is given by Weber“a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Sometimes, this is shortened to “a monopoly on violence,” for instance by Barack Obama.
A more detailed empirical definition is provided in The Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (1996):
The State is an independent, centralized socio-political organization in a complex, stratified society living in a specific territory, and consisting of two basic strata, the rulers and the ruled, whose relations are characterized by political dominance of the former and tax obligations of the latter, legitimized by an at least partly shared ideology.
Key to understanding the State is an understanding of the central role of ideology in state formation and state power. Unlike property rights, the State emerged from an ideology projected upwards onto a single, centralized leader(s). Almost all States began as what we would today call religious cults. Cult leaders claimed to be gods or speaking for the gods and people voluntarily gave the leader some of their income.
Cult ideologies grew. The to-be State is the big circle at the top. The white lines going from other people to the State are projection of divine legitimacy and giving of funds:
Now at this last point in the early State’s formation, nobody is being physically forced to fund it. However the two dots in the upper right represent people who refuse to voluntarily give any of what they own to the cult leader. Perhaps they don’t believe that the cult leader actually is a god.
Those two resisters will be physically forced to fund the leader. Thus a State emerges. Because most other people do believe in the divine legitimacy of the leader, they will stand by and fund the proactive use of physical force against the two dissenters even if they find the coercion personally distasteful:
Any single individual knows that if she doesn’t pay the tax, the same will ultimately happen to her. Furthermore, the people who control the State use the funds they receive to build monuments, promote symbols, employ armies, and throw festivals in honor of the leaders. The State is now a positive feedback loop of proactive coercion and mass ideology; ideology enables the collection of funds by coercion, which in turn reinforces the ideology.
This is the essence of the State.
Over time, the State has become an intergenerational institution. The State’s legitimate ability to collect funds by proactive force is assumed by default without conscious consideration and reinforced by the State’s relatively recent top down monopoly on “law”-making. The vast majority of people today, throughout their entire lives, have never even thought of the question of legitimacy or morality or logic of the State as an institution. If anyone is interested in this question, I recommend The Machinery of Freedom by UC economist David Friedman or this youtube presentation on the subject by economics student Ryan Faulk.
Addendum: The State versus Property Rights
The State violates the emergent, common law property rights of individual human beings. We humans use “theft” and “extortion” and similar terms to refer to a violation of these “rights.” State legislation, conscription, and taxation are examples of violations, though many people aren’t consciously aware of them as such or else believe them to be an inevitable or necessary evil (“death and taxes” etc.). State actions are feasible precisely because of this mass cognitive dissonance.
Territorial claims by States are not at all logically or empirically analogous to private property rights. This argument is not frequently made because it is uncontroversially incorrect. One should be able to tell the difference after having read this post. See the last stick-dot figure. Just in case…
Individual property rights
- property rights are ideologically interpersonal
- property rights are assigned to specific people qua people based on standards applied to everyone else as well
- property rights function as mutually recognized commitment strategies to those standards
- property rights emerge from individual actions based on mutual benefit to self-perceived interests
- property rights are necessarily logically presupposed by legal/moral concepts like theft and are implied by fundamental human rights
- property rights are defined and reciprocally enforced by the real-time, indirect interactions of everyone around you
- property rights in land are acquired almost universally by something akin to the homestead principle or “first personal possession” (and the evidence indicates this is instinctual: the “property instinct”)
The territorial claims of States
- State territorial claims are ideologically suprapersonal
- State territories are assigned only to a centralized subgroup institution (via mass ideological projection onto a single suprapersonal entity) which thus has a static monopoly
- State territorial claims are second-order to property rights—private property still exists and functions within State territories and private property predates State territories
- States emerge bottom-up from mass ideological projection of legitimacy onto a single, centralized, subgroup institution which is then controlled by a few humans who imposes legislation and taxation top-down, denying the emergent order in human society… I.E. States are emergent (like everything), but not emergent from the relevant system of individual interaction based on self-perceived interests
- State territorial claims necessarily involve taxation by the subgroup of private property holders by empirical definition, private property obviously does not
- State territories are acquired by whatever means anyone can use to gain control of the mass ideologically created centralized State
- State territories cover masses of already-privately owned land and unowned land that the humans controlling the State at any given have never possessed
The State is the unspoken subject of almost all political debate.
Whenever someone makes a political argument for moregovernment intervention in human society, they are advocating replacing the bottom-up emergent order of individual human interaction with more top-down impositions by the State. This is problematic. The State is not in fact superhuman and the humans who control the State at any given time do not have the incentives or the knowledge required to order the rest of society efficiently.
In historical epochs when the State has succeeded in usurping significant property rights – under communism, for example – it has thus meant mass human suffering. But not even ideologically communist States like the Soviet Union, Maoist China, or North Korea which explicitly wished to “abolish private property” actually succeeded in abolishing property rights. Property rights emerged underground despite the State. And fortunately for us, they always will.