Friday, November 28, 2014

Libertarian Fable Meets Human History

There is a certain libertarian fable, invented or popularized by Bryan Caplan, that goes like so:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day's work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day's work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can't produce any food at all.

Much of human prehistory resembles this situation in several critical respects. When hunters started killing large game, one or a few hunters out of a larger group might, on any given day, produce many more calories of available food than the whole rest of the group combined. Out of the ten or so adult male hunters in a typical band, one may be consistently quite a bit better than the others - almost an Able Able. Given the accidents of existence, there may also be a Hapless Harry in the group.

Caplan goes on to ask some questions:

1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

I think it's interesting to note how human hunter-gather groups have dealt with their (imperfectly analogous but realistic) situations.

Question 1 gets answered with an empathetic yes for large kills. Smaller scale food collection belongs to the collector. Fruits of cooperative activities are shared. Major cheating is punished drastically.

Question 2. Depending on the severity and permanence of Harry's haplessness, he will be either supported by the group he may be abandoned, humanely eliminated, or supported. If Able chooses to be stingy with Harry he will be punished but not likely executed or banished, but should he become injured, his stinginess will not be forgotten.

Q 3. The answer of history: hell yes for Hunter gatherers. Farmers, not so much.

Q 4. No for HGs. But farming led to slavery.