Foundations for a Hunter-Gatherer Philosophy II: The Libertarianism Question




I’m just going to go way out on a limb here and assert that individual liberty is a good thing. I mean, it’s not good if you long to be a dictator, but Noriega doesn’t read this site. Now that we have the obvious disclaimer out of the way, I’ll make a few more claims that will be less than popular among many. I will argue that libertarianism is incongruent with the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers that have been observed and preserved in the ethnographic record, but also that our psychology has evolved in such a way as to be sub-optimal under a libertarian arrangement. Further, I will argue that, at its inception, a group coalescing under libertarian principles mirrors the early stages of an agrarian state. Beyond that, I will speculate that the emergent reality of a libertarian organization will bear striking resemblance to the world of agrarian states in which we live (but could be much worse).

Libertarians, please hear me out. I once considered myself among your numbers, but I got over it. The reason I got over it may be the very reason you were drawn to it, or cling to it now. For some reason, there seems to be a proclivity to chant the infallible virtues of libertarianism within the paleo community. This is likely influenced by many factors. Perhaps the paleo diet attracts a disproportionate number of individuals with low Agreeableness. This isn’t an unreasonable explanation considering the community’s general rejection of conventional wisdom and opposition of mainstream nutritional advice. While I think personality may be part of it, I suggest that much of the impetus springs from flawed conceptions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors — whether in popular conception, or in the anthropological literature.

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion… but you’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.” -Michael Specter (probably not originator)

As part as the certification course required to wear my kilt in the United States of America, I was forced to watch Braveheart no less than 5 zillion times. Thus, I am well versed in the emotional appeal of yelling “FREEDOOoooommm…” until the blood loss from disembowelment lowers one’s blood pressure to levels no longer capable of sustaining breath and consciousness. As this pertains to libertarianism, there are a number of assumptions that need to be addressed before identifying oneself with the political philosophy. Libertarians who haven’t put any hard-thinking into the full meaning and implications of libertarianism seem to gravitate to it because of the more superficial associations with freedom. Look, it even starts off with the Latin root for freedom, liber! Individual liberty here we come! Great! Wipe off your blue face paint.

It ain’t that easy.

<sarcasm>But! But! The government of the United States of America told me that freedom is a good thing, and it intuitively seems like a good thing, and libertarianism puts it right up there in the front for all the world to see and know and love. Hooray! I’ve finally found the political party of my dreams that will let me live with personal freedom in an environment where everyone’s freedom is enforced by…</sarcasm>

Wait… enforced? Enforced doesn’t sound like liberty. Since when does “America the Beautiful” end, “Let the fear of enforcement ring”? Who’s doing this enforcement of freedom? How did we get from ad hoc hunter-gatherer bands to enforcement? The scope of those questions is slightly bigger than this piece affords, but let’s work toward that.

I’m not saying that all libertarians are unsophisticated in their attempt to reconcile libertarianism with human-nature. For example, these are Jason’s words from a recent post on his blog, Evolving Economics

” [Libertarianism] is the preferred arrangement given human nature and the shape of the world today.” [source]

While I respect Jason’s thinking on many matters, I don’t find that libertarianism generally makes any sincere attempt to reconcile itself with human-nature. Saying “freedom is human nature, therefore libertarianism” is not enough. In a future post, I’ll outline improvements that libertarians could easily make that would bring it more in line with human nature AND the shape of the world today. In other words, libertarianism in its current iteration is burdened with sub-optimal and sub-accurate dogma. If libertarianism was a true political philosophy, rather than an ideology, it would self-correct in the face of new understanding.

Libertarianisms’ ground-rules

There are almost as many conceptions of libertarianism as there are libertarians. Because it seems to represent the popular conception of libertarianism, this is the basic framework I’ll be referring to in this piece:

“Libertarianism is grounded in the Principle of Equal Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. Of course, the devil is in the details of what constitutes “infringement,” but there are at least a dozen essentials to liberty and freedom that need shielding from encroachment:

  1. The rule of law.
  2. Property rights.
  3. Economic stability through a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system.
  4. A reliable infrastructure and the freedom to move about the country.
  5. Freedom of speech and the press.
  6. Freedom of association.
  7. Mass education.
  8. Protection of civil liberties.
  9. A robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states.
  10. A potent police for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state.
  11. A viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws.
  12. An effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.”

- Shermer (2011) [emphasis mine]

Libertarianism is incongruent with observed hunter-gatherers

First of all, the hunter-gatherer ethnography is completely made up of bands characterized by egalitarian political organization, or at least something that looks egalitarian in practice (Boehm 2001). This egalitarianism is mainly manifest as a tenacious unwillingness of the group to be dominated by any one individual. Political upstarts are subject to corrective “leveling” mechanisms exacted at the behest of the group. These tend to take the form of non-violent (physically speaking) mechanisms of social pressure (Gray 2009) that may escalate to banishment from the group, and in some cases, killing of the offender (Boehm 2001).

Libertarianism offers no protection from hierarchical domination, and differs from agrarian state capitalism primarily in its desire to simply swap out government officials with business officials (Black 1984).

“we are at least entitled to the acknowledgement that there is nothing in the slightest unlibertarian about organization, hierarchy, leaders and followers, etc.” – Rothbard (1981) [emphasis mine]

“[Conservatives' and libertarians'] articulation is not always harmonious but they share a common interest in consigning their conflicts to elite or expert resolution. To demonize state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst. And yet (to quote the most vociferous of radical libertarians, Professor Murray Rothbard) there is nothing un-libertarian about “organization, hierarchy, wage-work, granting of funds by libertarian millionaires, and a libertarian party.” Indeed. That is why libertarianism is just conservatism with a rationalist/positivist veneer.” – Black (1984)

“Authority is the very essence of social organization. Hence, it can not be absent from any single institutional organization.” – Malinkowski (1960)

While there may be nothing “unlibertarian” about oganization, hierarchy, and [authoritarian] contract-consecrated subservient arrangements, such principles are un-egalitarian and un-hunter-gatherer (Boehm 2001).

Referring to Shermer’s framework, at least five of the fundamental principles of libertarianism are contrary to what we observe in hunter-gatherer bands [in bold above]. I say at least because I am, for the moment, ignoring the gaping chasm between “laws” in their conception under a libertarian state (oxymoron much?), and social norms. This precludes the discussion of three further points which present further points of incongruence, though on a slightly different level. In the absence of codified laws, hunter-gatherer bands tend to shun physical punishment in favor of controlling social violations via social sanctioning mechanisms such as humor and play (Gray 2009).

I do not mean to fall into the fantasy “noble savage” trap by claiming violence does not occur among HGs. When social sanctioning of individuals remains ineffective after multiple transgressions, AND if forcing the individual out of the group does not work, then a coalition of individuals may decide to kill an individual (Boehm 2001). Our hunter-gatherer ancestors weren’t operating in a state of cerebral political enlightenment

I’m compelled to point out that the flip-side of the “noble savage” argument is also problematic. This occurs because the calculus for indexing violence among HGs involves a zillion data points consisting of songs and jokes and other social progressions levied against an individual, then all of the sudden, murder. In this way, the physical violence curve goes from flat to total violence in a way unfamiliar to our minutiae of legal gradations. Unfortunately for the fidelity of the picture, ethnocentricity leads to exclusion of things like jokes and songs from being recorded in the category of “violence”. Since hunter-gatherers have neither abstracted economic systems nor permanent land, sanctions such as fines and prisons are not available or practical options. From our perspective, this appears to result in what we might consider overly harsh punishments for social violations. Thus, HGs end up with a an apparently disproportionate level of violence because of errors in categorization of violence, and lack of alternative methods of sanctioning available to HGs.

Five Hunter-Gatherers V. Libertarian Incompatibilities

1. Property Rights.

For appropriate discussion of this principle, we must distinguish between two types of property: 1) Property made by individuals from natural resources, and 2) Property consisting of land (and the natural resources related to land).

An informal system of property rights does appear in HGs with respect to personal items such as tools. Such items tend to be fashioned from natural resources by individuals themselves. While the amount of property is almost trivial, there is some room for conversation on property rights in case #1.

However, by definition, hunter-gatherers have no ownership connection to land. The land ownership principle in libertarianism is an unfounded assumption of absolutely agrarian origins, and is completely unsupported by hunter-gatherer anthropology. Attempts to assert HG property rights must account for the fact that if a person moves several feet, the rights of the former space are immediately abandoned and flow to the new space. Thus, any ‘rights’ are more correctly described as rights of the individual’s body, which must at all times occupy some space, and not rights to the land per se.

It would be wise at this point to ask: “If not in hunter-gatherers, when do land rights arise?” We find the answer to this in what anthropologists refer to as delayed-return cultures (Woodburn 1982).

“Greater equality of wealth, power and of prestige has been achieved in certain hunting and gathering societies than in any other human societies. These societies, which have economies based on immediate rather than delayed return, are assertively egalitarian. Equality is achieved through direct, individual access to resources; through direct, individual access to means of coercion and means of mobility which limit the imposition of control; through procedures which prevent saving and accumulation and impose sharing; through mechanisms which allow goods to circulate without making people dependent upon one another. People are systematically disengaged from property and therefore from the potentiality in property for creating dependency.” – Woodburn (1982)

It is precisely at the shift from immediate-return to delayed-return societies that we see property (land in particular) rights arise.

Hunter-gatherers do not observe, and are not concerned with, land rights. HGs tend to reject land rights claimed by others (Scott 2010); point 3 below bears on this further. They do maintain personal property — to which we may ascribe some modern notion of rights — primarily in the form of tools. I do not advocate principles which would deny the right to the fruits of one’s labor, but a full analysis of this will have to wait for another day.

2. Economic stability through a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system.

We must parse this further and recognize that two claims are here implied. 1) Economic stability is sufficiently important to human individuals to warrant its optimization, and 2) Economic security is only possible through a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system. The term “economic” stability carries some assumptions that make it difficult to map to HGs. For the sake of discussion, this must be roughly understood to mean biological needs, as these tend to be the only concerns of HGs. Because of the mechanism of neo-Darwinian evolution, I will take claim #1 as true. In this, I include the biological drive to signal and display mate quality.

Hunter-gatherers do achieve economic stability, but not through banking or monetary systems. This is manifest by a psychology naturally focused on being in the present, and the absence of time conceptualization (lack of worry and planning for future events). Stability is gained primarily individual (and direct) self-sufficiency, and sharing (Woodburn 1982). This sharing maybe at times be considered voluntary, yet is also motivated by signaling and social sanctioning.

3. A reliable infrastructure and the freedom to move about the country.

This point implies some commonsensical, but problematic assumptions. These cascade into the incongruence of this and the remaining points about police and military. There are three issues: 1) Assumption of nationality (“the country”), and therefore, the legitimacy of a system of nation-states through which nationality may be attained, 2) The freedom to move about, 3) Infrastructure is required to enable movement, 4) It is the responsibility of the polity to provide said infrastructure. To remain withn the context of a hunter-gatherer political philosophy and libertarianism, we shall focus on issues 1 and 2.

“…we argue that the primitive state may have been a bad thing. To do so, we provide simple models of anarchy, of organized banditry, and of a state. We can think of the former as a “state of nature” and of the second as a society in which groups of raiders are relatively organized (the Vikings might be an example) but in which the settled population lack the kind of hierarchies or structures we associate with a state. By contrast, our state will have some minimal organization…” – Moselle (2001)

Nationality is a construct that has arisen directly from agrarians (Nozick 1974). It emerged out of the hunter-gatherer-incongruent concept of land rights on the small scale (Moselle 2001). Hunter-gatherers tend vehemently to reject assimilation into the nation-state system (Scott 2010), and there is more evidence of individuals attempting to escape the nation-state to join hunter-gatherer bands (Koehnline 1994) than the reverse.

The assumption of a system of nation-states may be the most ethnocentric and flimsy assumption made by libertarians attempting to formulate a political philosophy congruent with human nature. The notion of land rights is similarly poor and flimsy, but the nation-state concept builds on the land rights assumption with a mountain of other post hoc assumptions.

I already argued in favor of the freedom geographical movement in Part I of this series. However, limiting movement to one’s country of coincidental birth misses the point of that article.

4. A robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states.

This obviously relies on point #3. Since nation-states are assumed by default, but are already an incongruent construct, we can easily refute this point by simply remembering the fallacy of the nation-state system. However, hunter-gatherer anthropology (notably, the delayed-return or sedentary bands artificially created by geographical boundaries or modern property rights that don’t represent ancestral populations) is often used to demonstrate quasi-warfare and military action amount HGs. So let’s briefly look at hunter-gatherers’ relationship to the concept of military action.

In short, attempts to construe hunter-gatherer violence as warfare is a conflation of disparate categories of violence. As already described, hunter-gatherer violence leading to death tends to be a social leveling mechanism exacted when other options fail. However, family members of those being punished do not always take kindly to having their relatives executed. Thus, there is sometimes a tendency for retribution that will increase the death toll beyond a single individual.

Another sort of violence in hunter-gatherer tribes is that which is employed in service of mating opportunities. Again, when one man kills another man, family members may participate in retributive acts. In fact, this is one powerful scenario underlying the existence social sanctioning and other leveling mechanisms used in the preceding example of violence.

Note that the motivations of the violence in both of these scenarios is related to social/reproductive matters.

War is motivated by two primary factors: 1) Land, 2) Labor to cultivate the land — generally in the form of slaves — or provide other economic incentive based on said land (Scott 2009).

It is a testament to Homer’s insight into human-nature that he spun the Trojan War into a tale about the beauty of a woman and the jealousy of the men surrounding her. He demonstrates the power of reframing the context of armed group conflict as something personal and emotional, rather than the economic practice it always is. State propagandists have been capitalizing on this strategy ever since.

In other words, hunter-gatherers do not engage in warfare. We must not be lead astray by attempts to conflate violence motivated by personal/social conflicts of group members with violence motivated by land and the coerced labor needed to bring it into productivity. This act of decontextualization is commonly employed in misconstruals of hunter-gatherer violence.

There are zero examples of paleolithic tools designed for group warfare, or individual human-on-human violence in the archaeological record. Granted, tools used for killing animals for food may also be used for killing humans. However, human opponents are very different from non-human animal opponents. Throughout the neolithic history of implements of death, we see significant divergences in killing technologies used on prey, and those used to kill other humans. This is particularly true regarding groups of humans fighting other groups of humans. The dynamics of killing change, and this distinction drives differences in weapons accordingly. Thus, if humans were engaged in group conflicts with one another during the paleolithic, it would be reasonable to expect some divergence in weapon technologies for this purpose.

Primatology. Another common misconstrual of hunter-gatherer social behavior is the unsustainable generalization of other primate behavior to humans (Boehm 2001). Chimpanzees and gorillas both exhibit strong male-dominance hierarchies. This is often taken to indicate that humans have evolved in a way that justifies dominance hierarchies. While this question is complex, a brief examination of the chimpanzee and the gorilla will build our case against human warfare in the paleolithic.

Chimpanzees and gorillas both demonstrate dominance hierarchies. However, chimp violence and gorilla violence is characterized by many differences. While many of the differences are driven by their differences in mating strategy, there are two salient differences. Chimpanzee groups tend to consist of large numbers of related males living in a relatively fixed location. Gorillas tend to live in groups with one male and are relatively nomadic. Another difference is that chimps engage in group conflict with chimpanzees from other groups. Yes, chimps engage in land/territory based resource battles that resemble agrarian state wars in humans. Again, this is a complex topic, but I wanted to plant the idea that generalization from primates is not straightforward, and certainly does not support the libertarian notion of land rights (unless you’re a chimp?). See Boehm’s 2001 work for a thorough treatment of primates and hierarchy.

5. A potent police for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state.

Unpacking this statement reveals that many of the ‘freedoms’ requiring police protection within ‘the state’ are property crimes relating to the lack of “agrarian justice” in the modern nation-state system (Paine 1797; George 1879). Removing the assumption that ownership of land is a natural right alleviates many of the structural problems related to this. This is another good example of but one emergent property of the libertarian state that mirrors the current agrarian state.

Hunter-gatherers experience high degrees of personal autonomy/freedom without any form of police protection.

Human psychology guarantees sub-optimal well-being under libertarianism

As this article has run far longer than expected, I bridge this is-ought gap and cover this in a later post.

“the primitive state tends to result in lower levels of popular welfare than exist under organized banditry or anarchy. In some cases, our state can even increase disorder and decrease total output.” – Moselle (2001) [emphasis mine]

Libertarianism yields structures that mirror agrarian states

The following is Moselle’s account of the theories of the basic agrarian state. The specification of agrarian state is my addition. This is intentional — to show that these paragraphs lose very little of their meaning when also read through the mind of those wishing to justify the libertarian state. One must only change a few words for them to hold in both instances.

“In part, historians optimistic views of the state come, in the absence of evidence, from the theories of the state they have in the back of their minds. Theories of the state might address three issues. They might seek to explain the existence of the state, perhaps by some quasihistorical account of its origin. They might give a normative account of the state; that is, seek to legitimize the authority of the state. Finally, they might discuss the consequences of the state; that is, provide a model of the state. By far the most influential theory of the state, the contractual theory, does all three of the above.

In the typical contractual account, individuals live initially in a state of anarchy, and club together for protection. Economies of specialization lead to the hiring of agents to carry out this task, while economies of scale lead to the formation of (local) monopoly defense organizations. These “protective associations” can be identified as (minimal) states…

Contained in these accounts, however, is also an implicit model of what the state does. Typically the state provides certain services to its citizens, especially protection and the preservation of order. In return, citizens provide payments to their king or lord, perhaps in the form of taxes or feudal dues. Different contractual theories differ in the obligations both of the state and of its citizens. How good a contractual state is for the populace depends on the terms of this contract but, even in Hobbes’s least restricted of contractual states, life is preferable to that in his picture of anarchy. Indeed, if the supposed contract is agreed to by the populace as a whole, then they cannot be worse off under the state than under anarchy: their well-being were they to reject the contract places a lower bound on their well-being were they to accept.” – Moselle (2001)

Indeed, the libertarian account of the state is just another contractual theory of the state. It attempts to explain the state’s existence, to legitimize its authority, and provide a model of the state. Shermer happily jumps into this narrative by specifying specialized functions that lead to the hiring of agents to carry out the protection of individuals and contracts by way of military, police, legislators, and adjudicators. These “economies of scale” then lead to local monopoly defense organizations. Unfortunately for the libertarian contractual account of the state, the hunter-gatherer ethnography undermines the rationale for the state’s existence, its authority, and provides alternatives to its model.


A synthesis of hunter-gatherer political philosophy must account for the leveling mechanism of opting-out that was prevalent throughout the paleolithic, and the distinct change in behavior and mentality historically and invariably caused by the transition from nomadism (no land rights) to sedentism (enforced land rights).

Rather than account for either of these necessities, libertarianism begins its story with neolithic agrarians, and the land ‘rights’ (read: problems) associated with them. Thus, it cannot be considered to be in alignment with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Indeed, it is possible to root the entirety of libertarian philosophy firmly in agrarian assumptions. In other words, libertarianism is NOT paleo.

I have not had time to make the connection from hunter-gatherer social conditions to human-nature in this post. Among other things, a discussion is warranted on the reasons we tend to paradoxically find the drive to egalitarianism present among already free people, while libertarian impulses primarily exist among those living under [relative] coercion with a gnawing sense of fear and uncertainty. Such a discussion is forthcoming.

And yes, I have intentionally avoided explicitly discussing the Austrian economic theory that tends to get bundled with libertarianism… for now.

Before you get all excited and go McCarthy on everyone, the reconciliation I will present in subsequent posts doesn’t end in ism, and doesn’t start with a ‘c’ or ‘m’. And… I’ll do it all without the redistribution of any person’s wealth.

I welcome your comments. Please avoid ad hominem and keep the discussion reasoned. Oh, I’m not the only one among the authoritarian-averse paleosphere who’s already jaded by another U.S. election cycle. After you’ve left a comment, maybe check out Richard’s post from a couple days ago.


Black, Bob (1984). “The Libertarian As Conservative“. Eris Society lecture.

Boehm, Christopher (2001). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Harvard University Press.

George, Henry (1879). Progress and Poverty.

Gray, Peter (2009). “Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence“. The American Journal of Play, 1(4), 476-522. [full-text PDF]

Koehnline, J. (Ed.). (1994). Gone to Croatan: The Origins of North American Dropout Culture. Autonomedia.

Malinowski , B . 1960. A scientific theory of culture. Oxford University Press.

Moselle, B. (2001). “A Model of a Predatory State“. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 17(1), 1-33. doi: 10.1093/jleo/17.1.1. [full-text PDF]

Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books.

Paine, Thomas (1797). “Agrarian Justice“.

Rothbard, Murray (1981). “A critique of the New Libertarian ManifestoStrategy of the New Libertarian Alliance. [online from Ludwig Von Mises Institute]

Scott, James C. (2010). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.

Shermer, Michael (2011).  ”Liberty and Science“. Cato Institute (Cato Unbound).

Woodburn (1982). Egalitarian Societies. Man, 1(17), 431-451. [full-text PDF]