Saturday, July 06, 2013

Liberty and Equality

I've been reading more of Christopher Boehm's books on hierarchy, egalitarianism, and the origins of our moral instincts (Hierarchy in the Forest and Moral Origins). It seems that the human race's political modes have followed a sort of U shaped trajectory. Our close ape relatives are all highly hierarchical, and quite likely we all had some sort of hierarchical society back before the divergence of our species. Modern human hunter-gatherer societies are the closest proxies we have for the way humans lived before the invention of agriculture, and it seems likely that for most of human history, or rather, the prehistory of our current species, we lived very much like them. These modern and recent counterparts seem invariably to be quite egalitarian in the sense that adult males of a band lack regular hierarchies. Since the delopment civilizations, however, we have all been stuck in relatively hierarchical societies. Even our most egalitarian democracies are pretty hierarchical compared to primitie societies.

One important point I've learned from Boehm is that this lack of hierarchy is neither automatic nor effortless. People in such societies compete for status, and their is a good supply of those who would be king, chief, or leader. The reason societies manage to keep these people at bay is that the other members of the society work quite actively against anyone who seeks to put himself first. Those who attempt to use their wits, strength, hunting prowess, magic or other powers to put themselves above their fellows are actively undermined, with a whole battery of group weapons: gossip, ridicule, shunning, banishment, or, if necessary, execution.

It's precisely our human capabilities to plot, plan, and cooperate that make this kind of leveling possible. So why does this appear to break down with the development of civilization? MY guess is that the techniques of leveling that work well in a society of 50 people start to fail when the group gets much larger. Sharing the results of a successful hunt with a dozen other families makes sense. Sharing with a couple of hundred other families makes for pretty small portions all around. Also, information becomes harder to share. Fifty people can know almost everything about each other - not so 1000 people or 1 million. Maybe it's not coincidental that liberty and equality have made some progress since the invention of print, and maybe even some since the internet.