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]

  1. Travis Steward 13 years ago

    I think it's important to outline the different branches of "libertarianism." It seems to me you're referring to political libertarianism here. While I consider myself a libertarian, I am referring specifically to the Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist concept of the word, which doesn't really share any similarities to the above Libertarian mandate.____I also know that many Rothbardian Libertarians/Anarcho-Capitalists have found the Paleo movement through the writings of Karen De Coster at http://www.lewrockwell.com, myself included. This may explain the surge of libertarianism and paleo crossing paths these days.____I'd like to discuss the merits of anarcho-capitalistic philosophy and its compatibility with paleolithic philosophy, but as it stands right now I find most of the same qualms you do with political Libertarianism.

    • Travis Steward 13 years ago

      My apologies, I didn't see the sentence on addressing the Austrian branch of libertarianism in the future. Looking forward to it.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      It's hard to say the above has no bearing on "Rothbardian Libertarians" considering I quoted, and argued against, Murray Rothbard.

      Rothbard was a statist, or at least a de facto statist. He supports hierarchical coercion… as long as the coercion is on his terms.

      • Travis Steward 13 years ago

        If an individual chooses to follow a strong leader and no coercion is present, is this considered a coercive hierarchy? I need to understand the meaning of these terms. Is a social hierarchy coercive? Like an elder having the respect of a tribe who listen to their word for instance? Political hierarchy is obviously coercive, as politics itself rests on the concept of predation, but I can't see how social, non-coercive hierarchies like Rothbard spoke about did not exist in HG. (Seriously, no leaders in HG times?)

        Rothbard explicitly denounces all forms of coercion by emphasizing the non-aggression principle. To me, organization, leaders, and followers are not coercive arrangements.

        • Andrew 13 years ago

          It's fine to wax theoretical about denouncing coercion, but does Rothbard effectively reconcile any of the 5 points of incongruence I've outlined above? My answer is no, but perhaps you can demonstrate otherwise.

          It's sleight of hand to set up a scenario of political hierarchy vs. voluntary, temporary, non-contractual relationships. This is a complete false dichotomy, and it ignores the real question here… which is something like: corporate/economic/capitalist hierarchy (Rothbard) vs. voluntary, temporary, non-contractual relationships (HGs).

          • Author
            Clint 13 years ago

            Are contractual relationships not voluntary?

          • Andrew 13 years ago

            I actually do not think contractual relationships are strictly voluntary in current practice. I predict that contractual relationships would be less voluntary under laissez faire anarcho-capitalism. This line of thinking is partially driven by a lack of checks on monopolistic tendencies combined with wealth accumulation.

            My personal theory on the contract mechanism is not solidified. I'll work on it more, and I'm open to input/references.

          • @rnikoley 13 years ago

            The problem is that in current practice of contracts, disputes get adjudicated by an absolute arbiter (the state) . That foreknowledge gives advantage to the most clever lawyer in including clauses that the other party might just sign off on.

            Although, at least the terms don't change over the term of the contract, such as in marriage where what you may have bargained for 20-30 years ago is far removed from what you may be forced into accepting today.

          • Andrew 13 years ago

            I also think that it's a facade when libertarians claim that entering into contracts represents a voluntary act. This is easily exemplified by the monopoly represented by the DMV. If I want to drive legally, I'm forced to enter into a contract with absolute authority, and zero negotiation. Is this why I moved onto a sailboat and sold my Land Cruiser? Maybe.

            Now, it's easy for libertarians to say, "yeah, but that's just the nature of the state". Sure, but as I argued in the OP, libertarians tend to support the state, or a de facto sate. I haven't seen a compelling libertarian argument demonstrating the non-development of corporate monopolies that function the same way as state monopolies. When options granting access are limited, the concept of voluntary engagement is illusion.

            The rejoinder to all that tends to be, "well, you always have the option to not do business with them". This simply represents another illusion of voluntary engagement, mediated by control over resources.

          • Author
            Clint 13 years ago

            Honestly, I'm not sure using the DMV as an example is an apt comparison here. Most libertarians I know hate the DMV for the exact reason you mentioned – there is no ability opt out legally.

            Maybe a more appropriate comparison for a voluntary contract, as least the kind I think of when I hear the term "voluntary contract", would be a farmer leasing land from someone for a mutually agreed upon monetary value. Do you see coercion in that?

            And all resources can't be freely available to everyone or else, IMO, you inevitably risk the classic tragedy of the commons problem. Capitalism, in theory, is simply a way to distribute scarce resources that would be rapidly depleted in a collectivist, free-for-all society devoid of property rights.

            Or at least that's my understanding of the situation.

          • Andrew 13 years ago

            I don't think it's a matter of contracts being voluntary or not voluntary. It's a continuum.

            I do see coercion in your example because it relies on the concept of land rights. Land rights are nothing more than entrenched violence justified by the laws of the conquerors. They subject everyone born after the instantiation of the original contract to one of Thomas Jefferson's most hated principles, "the dead hand of the past."

            Everyone born into a world in which every piece of land is owned (a development less than 200 years old) is coerced by the "dead hand of the past" for their entire lives. Again, this is an argument Henry George articulates, but Jefferson's buddy, Thomas Paine wrote about it as well. See paragraphs [1-20] in this pdf for the argument in early form.

            While I think your example of farmland is particularly bad, I don't think it's hard to come up with an example of [implied] contractual exchange that doesn't suffer from significant coercion, and doesn't obviate private property. I'm sure hunter-gathers who were better at making arrowheads would exchange them with others who were better at making spear points.

          • Author
            Clint 13 years ago

            Of course my example of farmland is going to be particularly bad if you think that property rights are coercive. I happen to disagree. And that's cool. Even though your perspective is very different from my own on this issue (and it's mainly on practical grounds) I find it interesting to think about.

  2. NomadicNeill 13 years ago

    Don't know much about the Libertarian movement in the US… but do get a sense that there is an element of having your cake and eating it.

    Don't see Anarchism mentioned much in these discussions… does it get lumped in with Communism.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      As hbomb alludes to below, the term "anarchy" in the USA (hat tip) gets equated to post-apocalyptic violence and intentional chaos rather than the simple rejection of hierarchy justified by authority. The only way you can sort of have a conversation about it publicly is to bastardize the concept by claiming to be an "anarcho-capitalist".

      And yes, once you start talking about practical applications, it often tends to get lumped in with communism and socialism. Basically, those are scare words for anything that doesn't support nationalism and the status quo.

      • Richard Nikoley 13 years ago

        Andrew, I would go even a step further in that as you probably know, the Proudhonian anarchy of European origin — "La propriété, c'est le vol!" — is embraced by those we would consider communist. There's so many nuances, having discussed it all so many times with socialist Euro friends…

        So, not only do we risk getting tagged with nihilism, but even if we suggest private property as construed in the common law sense isn't all that, we get tagged as commies!

      • jane 13 years ago

        Sorry, but when was the last time you stepped inside a university or political organisation of the left or right? Nationalism and the 'status quo' are uniformly ridiculed, denounced and studied as past evils. No attempt is made to understand their roots and value. They are terribly unfashionable even amongst our oldest western institutions. Whatever you are reading bears no relation to the reality that exists around us.

        The dead hand of the past is a hand worth having, the reason for all of it, we do not exist in a vaccume of ever-present change, the past is now and we are the past. Our children's children will and should in a practical and moral sense bear the burdens of their genetic line.

        You repeatedly cite Bohem without actually explaining how he or anyone else has been able to come to the conclusion that HGs were egalitarian, were non-herichical and did not have authority in place for its own sake, You also fail to explain why these things might be inherently bad, but just assume they are, again the product of the culture you are apart of, it's so easy to denounce these things but far more difficult to publicly discuss their potential benefits. What evidence do we have for paleolithic HG social organisation? If it is anything like current HG populations, it will be blatently heirachical, or anything like every human civilisation that ever existed, or anything like any animal group that ever existed…

        • Andrew 13 years ago

          I repeatedly cite Boehm because I don't want to rewrite his book in every sentence. That's the whole point of citation. I also cited Gray, Scott, and Woodburn — who all basically say the same thing about HG egalitarianism. I can't do all of your homework for you. You don't get to question my use of the references unless you've read them. Sorry, but that's just cheap and lazy.

  3. Geoff 13 years ago

    Hey Andrew,

    This post is very timely as a result of Richard's post two days ago on Free the Animal. I imagine you've had it in the works for a while, given its thoroughness and the fact that it's a Part II of a series. Still, I'm surprised that you didn't make direct mention of Richard's post, at least in the introduction, since this post can be interpreted in many ways as a response to his, even if that wasn't the intent.

    You take a really interesting slant on this topic. While I share Richard's sentiment about collectivism infiltrating the paleo movement, which I see as inherently individualist, I felt that calling this rejection of collectivism "paleo" was a massive stretch. This post does a good job of staying within that framework while at the same time expressing some of the problems with the natural conclusions of those ideas put into practice.

    Attempting to synthesize libertarianism with an understanding of human nature; I'd actually prefer the term "individualism," it is more specific, with less dogma, and at its source, which is life as a standard of value, it remains the roots of the Declaration of Independence, and thus the United States of America; is precisely what I have been trying to do in outlining my views on morality and political theory. Would love for you to take a look if you get a chance, the below post may be particularly relevant to this particular discussion. http://www.armchairphilosophizing.com/2011/06/gov

    • Geoff 13 years ago

      Whoops, looks like you did mention Richard's post in the end there. I guess I jumped the gun a little.

      • Andrew 13 years ago

        This wasn't a direct response to Richard, but I moved it up the posting schedule when he asked for my thoughts on his post. The timetable was also influenced by Jason's post and the aftermath of me posting it on facebook.

        The reason it ended up the way it did (it wasn't originally focused on libertarianism) was that I can't say anything remotely political without getting flak from libertarians or quasi-libertarians (Tea Party types, in particular). You know, things like "Republicans are anti-science", or "Tea Baggers have a problem with science and light bulbs".

        • Geoff 13 years ago

          Haha those comments seem pretty fair to me. How did we manage to elect a black president before an atheist president?

          For the life of me, I don't understand how anyone even remotely intellectual could associate himself with the tea party. I've seen a number of examples on "Real Time with Bill Maher" of people who seemed sane and smart enough, and I actually agreed with them on many things, and yet still make this choice. Sorry homie, but what you supposedly stand for means nothing to me if the leaders of the party you self identify with are religious wackjobs who I could imagine mistaking price elasticity for a brand of rubber bands.

    • @rnikoley 13 years ago


      Unless I'm misunderstanding you, I did not intend to mean by my post that "…collectivism infiltrating the paleo movement […] this rejection of collectivism "paleo" was a massive stretch."

      My concern with Paleo isn't about collectivism. It's with not thinking about the mind and society in a paleo context but largely just the body (yea, they talk about sleep, stress, playfulness).

      Furthermore, I tried to draw a distinction between collectivism and centralization. It's centralization I was arguing against, which leads to authoritarian hierarchy and collectivism in the context of mass centralization.

      But I was also trying to usher in the idea of valid collectivism in small family and social units. So long as you're free to leave the collective or the collective is free to boot a leech or miscreant, I think it's what we evolved to be.

      • hbomb9000 13 years ago

        That's actually a really important point – In order to really be free, you have to be able to move between different social groups (if they'll have you).

      • Geoff 13 years ago

        Hey Richard,

        So I left out at least one word in that sentence, but basically what I was saying was that while I think that there are many logical grounds on which to reject collectivism, whether it is "paleo" is not one of them. I think that the idea of collectivism is valid when it's voluntary, it's coercive collectivism that is problematic.

        To the question of centralization, I think that centralization has a place. It's about economies of scale. As transportation and communication improve, the world becomes effectively smaller, and taking advantage of economies of scale has the potential to reduce costs (taxes) and increase investment. I elaborate here: http://www.armchairphilosophizing.com/2011/08/des….

  4. Hal (@primalfringe) 13 years ago

    I find it interesting that people are trying to assign any socioeconomic constructs to the concept of 'paleo' or 'primal' or whatever the hell it's called now. That some any form or method of government is trying to lay claim to our ancestral roots is somewhat asinine, isn't it? Living on the savanna in a small group of less than 30 is a far cry from even managing the smallest of towns. Even a "small town" now days has over a thousand people in it. Of course the needs, desires, and requirements of ANYTHING that looks REMOTELY like the current governing principles of the US will be all kinds of different from that of HG groups.

    What you outline, however, has always been the problem with the entire _concept_ of libertarianism (at least institutionalized libertarianism) – how do you force people to be free? The answer is that you do not. You cannot force your thoughts, opinions and world view on others and still legitimately consider yourself a champion of freedom.

    There is, of course, the whole anarchy slant (true anarchy, not a bunch of kids yelling "ANARCHY" as they kick out windows and burn cars), which is definitely has interesting potentials, but also quite a few drawbacks (since you cannot force your view on others, it's not hard to imagine some dictator/warlord sweeping in and starting up some sort of despotism and conquer scenario).

    • @rnikoley 13 years ago


      As I always say, everyone ought to be free to engage in The Great Cannibal Pot Lottery — who goes in, who gets to feast — if they want. Just leave me and those of like mind (_my_ society) out of it.

      • hbomb9000 13 years ago

        "Just leave me and those of like mind (_my_ society) out of it." Therein lies the problem, though. Your society respects another societies right to exist. They may or may not reciprocate that respect. In fact, their ethos may be one of absorption or conscription or submission via violence. Let's say they do this a couple of times before getting to your society. Now you have to fight, but you're fighting against a horde who has some sort of mandate to absorb you.

        It's about more than just having your society living with a live and let live mentality. All societies have to have the same mentality, or it doesn't work. Everything just devolves into some form of agrarian tribalism.

        It's a pretty fucked up situation, because it pretty much involves 10 billion people saying "You know what? You stay out of my business, and I'll stay out of yours," all at once. And then meaning it.

        Additionally, the ethos of some of these societies would actually require them to force you into whatever their form or designation of 'altruism' is – feeding the poor, clothing the sheep, whatever.

        • @rnikoley 13 years ago


          I've never thought I didn't need to see to me own defense (I grew up around loaded guns on each of my grandparents' bedside tables, not to mention their wonderful gun cabinet of wonderful rifles), or, far more importantly, to think on my feet and diffuse tenuous situations.

          But I do have blood lust in me. I really am the sort of person who could slit a throat, rub blood all over, and eat liver for dinner. Hell, I've done it enough times with deer.

          All societies are not created equal, and that's my point. _MY_ society is gonna be as peaceful and as friendly as you want, until time may come.

          And I care not a whit what other societies may do.

          You have not given me any reason to think that you're not just a collectivist, arguing about what one thing will be the best least common denominator for everyone.

          • Andrew 13 years ago

            These conversations are not immune to evolutionary theory and analysis more useful than hypothetical anecdotes. The entire field of game theory deals with these questions every day.

            Check out W.D. Hamilton's body of important work starting with his 1964 paper, "The genetical evolution of social behavior" (parts I & II) published in the Journal of theoretical biology.

            Also see Robert Trivers' body of work, starting with "The evolution of reciprocal altruism" in the Quarterly Review of Biology (1971).

            Long-story short, we've evolved in a way that allows us to deal with these things in a relatively cooperative way. The most evolutionary stable strategy in social animals appears to be something that can be summed up roughly as forgiving tit-for-tat.

          • Hal (@primalfringe) 13 years ago

            To your point, I am playing a bit of a devil's advocate here, as well. These are things that I've thought long and hard about, and had the same (or similar) conversations about.

            But I am not arguing for or against anything. I am simply posing a question I have been struggling with for some time now, a question that surrounds this space. It is not about how I live, but rather about how other people choose to live and how they may try to make me fit into their world view, even if I choose not to participate in their world view. In the end, it always comes down to a fight, I suppose. But that's the last, and generally very final, step.

            The truth is that I don't know the answer to the question 'How can a society (or a group of societies) defend themselves against a larger, aggressive adversary?'

            Take a situation from history such as the Persian Emperor Xerxes and his conquest of small, unaffiliated tribes, city-states, and kingdoms. His army was unparalleled and due to this, the majority of the world was conscripted and assimilated into the Persian Empire. These small societies (and these are not even close to HG societies) were unable to protect themselves against the might of the invading empire. Even the Spartans, known across the land as one of the most capable and unforgiving group of warriors in the land, were in the end no match for the Empire – they were eventually overwhelmed by volume and supply lines.

            Is that how it is to be for us, then? Do we live until we are encroached upon, then we strike out in vain at a vastly superior opposition, only to be snuffed out, with stories told about us around a campfire? There are always worse ways to go – a coward, or a thief in the night, for example.

            I am and will always be stalwart in protecting my interests and the interests of my family alone. I am not interested in controlling the lives of others, nor having them control my life. I am not interested in subjecting myself to the status quo, or to any sort of masters – be they political, secular, or religious, nor am I interested in subjecting others to the same.

            I am, I suppose.

            And that is enough.

          • Author
            @rnikoley 13 years ago


            I believe the 40 million Persians were never able to conquer the 8 million Greeks and their some 1,500 small decentralized republics, the largest of which was 160,000.

          • Hal (@primalfringe) 13 years ago

            Correct, they were not successful in conquering all of Greece, but individual groups/republics were overcome and conquered, at least for some amount of time (for instance the Ionians were conquered and ruled by Persian dictators for nearly 50 years).

            The loose federation of Greeks is very interesting in a lot of ways, and was very successful for a very long time (and their influence is still felt today)

            Can't wait to see Part 3.

  5. Author
    Clint 13 years ago

    Andrew, well written and you make salient points.. However, here is my criticism. You claim that libertarianism is guilty of establishing a utopian ideal that is incompatible with the way the world works today. Yet, you attempt to discredit libertarianism by comparing it with hunter-gatherer anthropology. The problem with this is that we don't live as hunter-gatherers. We live in a world of complex systems that would be absolutely foreign to HG tribes if they were somehow able to be transplanted into the modern era. So it seems that whatever societal, tribal, familial arrangements,etc. HGs lived in would also have to be incompatible with the "real world".

    IMO, it doesn't really matter how HGs arranged themselves. At least in regards to how we should arrange ourselves, because they're two completely different frameworks. It seems you're allowing yourself to fall into the line of thinking of "well if HGs did it, then it must be good." I'm all for critiques of libertarianism as I welcome challenges to my beliefs at all times. But it seems that you're taking the wrong path with this.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Are you referring to my comment about a libertarian state being utopian on Jason’s blog? If so, the context is important. He (or someone referenced in the original post, I don’t recall exactly) implicitly dismissed my views as utopian, and I was merely pointing out that purely speaking, libertarianism is just as utopian. This was simply to put both lines of thinking on equal footing. I don’t think pointing out that someting is utopian is a real argument — it was a rhetorical device.

      It matters how HGs arranged themselves in two ways. First, it gives us insight into human nature. In particular, how humans behave in the absence of coercion. Animals tend to behave very differently in zoos and in the wild. Knowing something about this behavior tells us something about their behavior, but it also tells us about the interaction between environment and behavior. If we harbor any delusions of improving how human behavior interacts with environment, we can’t just look at modernity.

      Second, what HGs did had a bearing on human evolution. Insofar as this influenced the evolution of human behavior and psychology, we can use HG behavior to answer the first point. In other words, HG political behavior is, to some extent, reflexively related to human nature.

      Human nature matters because it tells us something about maximizing human well-being. It also matters with respect to sociopolitical ‘organization’ if we hope to maximize their success and limit violence.

      I don’t ‘fall into the line of thinking of “well if HGs did it, then it must be good”‘. I have previously written about precisely how to avoid this logical fallacy.

      • Author
        Clint 13 years ago

        I guess my question is, is it possible for modern humans to gravitate toward a different political order than HGs considering human evolution does not occur within a static environment? In other words, wouldn't our present environment need to be essentially identical to that of HGs in order for your comparison to be an equal one? I'm rather new to the field of EP so I may be completely off base, but it seems to me that the whole basis for evolution is adapting to dynamic external forces and therefore our ideal political order would change depending on those same factors as well.

        • Author
          Clint 13 years ago

          And about libertarianism being a utopian ideal, I was actually referring to something you said in the comments of the Krugman post you made on FB a week or so ago. I should have clarified that.

        • Andrew 13 years ago

          It's easy to get mired in first-order analysis. In other words, making the political environment mirror that of HGs is impossible. The trick is to take the next step an analyze the psychological mechanisms that underpin the behavior-environment interaction, and see if there are other ways to change the political environment that will approximate optimal (in terms of individuals) behavior. It's possible that a combination of paleolithic and neolithic environmental cues would exceed the level of human well-being in either case. Answering that question is the endeavor. This post was to point out that, despite the claims of libertarians, that question remains unanswered and there is still work to be done.

      • jane 13 years ago

        Yes Andrew, but can't society over the last 10,000 years not also tell us something about human nature? Could consistent patterns of behaviour not be as a result of prior 'wiring' and not merely a product of agrarianism? A mother's self-sacrifice for her child has not changed in a million years, and yet has directly influenced agrarian culture and social values, i.e an evolved trait has expressed itself into modernity and helped SHAPE modernity. And as a result we can read patterns of behaviour and culture (ie the gender role of caring, unselfish motherhood) as an extension of human nature.

        The elements of civilisation haven't come out of no-where, we didn't suddenly change in the last 10,000 years as a result of a change in environment. Yes, a massive change and one with consequences on social organisation, but the very concept of organisation, of leaders being able to be leaders and lead, of following, headlong into battle and DYING for those you believed in, desire for power and power struggle, these are all things that surely did not spring up and stir within us as a result of settling into an agrarian life?? They influenced and continue to influence how we shape modernity. Heirachy and authoritarianism cannot not be as a result of a mere 10,000 years of a shift in environment, or at least it is unlikely. Because these things don't just pop up where they are needed, environmentally speaking, they occur in groups of children for example, even in academic circles whose sole aim is to denounce egalitarianism, for they see themselves as biologically (intellectually) superior to red-necks and nationalists. They form an inegalitarian heirachy in their own mind, before they even start.

  6. Author
    Clint 13 years ago

    Fair enough! I look forward to your subsequent posts on this topic. I've always been a big political philosophy geek and have just recently started delving into EP so it's interesting to see a synthesis of the two fields.

  7. daniel 13 years ago

    im with hbomb9000 on this one. trying to reconcile modern day politics with HG lifestyle whatever is a complete waste of time that only pseudo-intellectuals with nothing better to do would entertain. Life and death determined what people did and how they lived back then. that's it. anything outside of that would get you killed. today, we can have the luxury to play around with economics, banking systems(corrupt), gov't models(that solve nothing), and doing interesting things to the masses like reinforce a total dependency on the state (welfare). i used to consider myself a conservative, then a libertarian, then an anarchist (in the truest sense), and now i dont concern myself with all these "isms". there is no system of gov't that can help us or guide us and there is equally no system of anything that can really align itself with human nature(whatever that even means). religion fails because it addresses nothing real. gov't fails because it only addresses problems that arose AFTER agrarianism took hold. gov't and religion are symptoms of living out of accord with "human nature" and life itself (evolving). if we had stayed as HGs not only would we not be having this type of conversation but our population would never have grown (thankfully) this large to being with. overpopulation leads to many of the problems we have today. oh, and freedom is an illusion.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      "gov't fails because it only addresses problems that arose AFTER agrarianism took hold. gov't and religion are symptoms of living out of accord with "human nature""

      good perspectives.

  8. Ron Kelley 13 years ago

    “Libertarianism is NOT paleo.” So what? Neither is eating a steak, driving a car or writing a blog post. Just because HGs had no land ownership doesn’t mean that should be the model for modern societies. Land ownership is one of the foundational reasons why you can eat a steak (cut from a grass fed cow instead of from wild aurochs), drive a car, and transfer information from your brain into a computer processor. Try and do all that without property rights. It won’t happen and didn’t.

    From one of your comments: “First, it gives us insight into human nature.” Yes, but only a small part of it. “In particular, how humans behave in the absence of coercion.” So there was no coercion in HG arrangements? Government is coercive by nature, but none of the customs in a HG tribe are? Our judgment of HG violence is “overly harsh?” Murdering someone for some social violation IS coercive.

    I look forward to reading your successive posts, but you lost me at “enforcement of freedom.”

    (I am NOT a libertarian).

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Your first few sentences, while sort of true, play on the difference between the conceptual framework and historicity… and I don't disagree. As I said forever ago, "paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment."

      "Try and do all that without property rights."

      Read Henry George with an open mind. He was an economics genius and one of Darwin's contemporaries, but didn't apply Darwin's insights in ways we can now. There's a great deal of harmony between the two, but neither recognized it at the time.

      Despite writing one of the best-selling economics books of all time, George's ideas aren't well known. However, his ideas are partially applied in the economy that's consistently rated as the world's most "free", Hong Kong. The Alaska state dividend is also a Georgist concept. Some of his original ideas were supported by obscure economists like Nobel laureate Milton Friedman.

      Re: your second paragraph. As I argued in Part I, there is a significant difference between coercion among HGs and government coercion.

  9. matthewallenmiller 13 years ago

    Your critique of Rothbardianism seems to depend (to some extent) on Anarcho-Capitalism looking like the current system of hierarchy and organization (lots of big banks and corporations and factory farms) but without the government. I'm not sure if this was Rothbard's view, but even if it was, there a lots of libertarians ("left-libertarians", many of whom still consider themselves Rothbardian) who emphasize that, in the absence of the state, society would be much more egalitarian. (Despite its rhetoric to the contrary, the state makes it hard to start and maintain a small business, and easy for big businesses to get bigger.) This still might not be egalitarian enough to be optimal for human nature; we'd just have to see. Either way, these libertarians would still accept the right of individuals and groups to simply walk away (and start an egalitarian commune, or whatever), even if they don't tend to emphasize this right.

    I'm not certain that I really disagree with much of what you've written (lots to still digest), but I guess my main issue is that you've chosen to discuss a conception of libertarianism that has too much built in (monetary "system", police, military). Libertarianism, as I understand it, is primarily a negative concept, as it's fundamental principle is the rejection of state violence. Whatever happens to emerge in the absence of the state will (probably) be acceptable to a lot of libertarians, even if it doesn't include property rights in the neolithic sense.

    Anyways, it's good to see more discussion about the application of paleo logic to our political and social lives.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Thanks, Matthew.

      I agree that the libertarianism I've discussed here does not accurately represent the scope of views. The scope of such an endeavor would be massive, but I'm not inclined to undertake it because my critique does not necessarily depend on whether I'm accurate about Rothbard et al.'s views. In general, I think many of the assertions and predictions used to support their views are based on flawed models, and will not have the results they intend or claim. I think they lack perspective and are mired in the myopia of the agrarian state, and go astray by building theoretical models from within their conception of this context.

      Chief among these criticisms is that my analysis leads me to (currently) conclude that even libertarians who object to the state (in principle) offer solutions that merely create a de facto state in which the power and hierarchy simply has different names. At that point, it's irrelevant to me whether or not they voice absence of the state.

      It's less important to me to get libertarianism right, than to demonstrate that there is another context of human behavior that we can use to draw additional insight. That the other context also happens to be relatively free of hierarchy and coercion is valuable. Because it's closer to what libertarians claim to strive for, I find it disingenuous that they are so dismissive of it. Thus, I am forced to remain somewhat suspicious of their entire program.

  10. Cal 13 years ago

    Uh libertarianism is a sophisticated political philosophy right now. There are hundreds of economists, political philosophers, etc. who you could have quoted and quoted more charitably. This post is rife with misrepresentation and false equivalence and complete irrelevance to the topic. Like… how you pretend Rothbard pointing out that "hierarchy" as such is not conceptually unlibertarian somehow means that libertarians have no objection to "hierarchical domination." That doesn't follow. At all. Rothbard, David Friedman, Carson… numerous prominent libertarians have argued precisely that "hierarchical domination" of the kind objected to by leftists is logically and empirically made more widespread by statism. Hence libertarianism is precisely the consequentialist answer for a less hierarchically dominated society. See *Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective* by the Rothbardian market anarchist Carson, for a recent and prominent example (free pdf here: mutualist.org/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/otkc11.pdf). However, individual liberty is *conceptually distinct* from "absence of all hierarchy" or "material abundance" or whatever else, and that is the distinction Rothbard is making there, and it has been made by many political philosophers before and since.

    Private property rights in land predate agrarian *states* and operated for thousands of years outside states. You are equating any agricultural activity with agrarian statism… Obviously, no property rights were extended to land when there was no benefit from doing so i.e. when you are a nomadic hunter-gatherer. Early fishing societies, intermediary swidden horticulturalists, animal domesticators, etc. extended the property instinct to land as soon as there was sufficient benefit i.e. as soon as they endogenously developed a more complex economy. Property rights in land are not contrary to some madeup hunter-gather "philosophy" — they were simply useless for H-G's… for painfully obvious economic reasons. And unless we revert to a hunter-gatherer economy, it will remain so, and will likely never morph into any crank Georgist-land-tax nonsense. Google "property instinct." And read some economists on Georgism.

    No libertarian is opposed to the usual egalitarianism of voluntary social units that are within the Dunbar range (<~150 people) like families or communes or syndicalist firms or whatever. It's misleading to argue as if they were. Libertarians are opposed to the ideological collectivism which is a legitimation ideology for the state, particularly collectivist states. The libertarian argument advanced by hundreds of economists is exactly that the state is not in fact a representation of the collective will. Google "collective choice," "public choice," go read the book Kenneth Arrow won the nobel for…

    I can't imagine what the hell point you think you're making by pointing out the tedious fact that hunter-gatherers didn't have banks or monetary systems. Duh. Nobody wants to regress to a hunter-gatherer economy. We want the incredible benefits of civilization attained through a functioning price mechanism – the gains from trade with thousands of people specializing in production beyond the Dunbar unit every day of our lives.

    I agree with a lot of your broad points. States (not just nation-states) are clearly suboptimal forms of governance. Being able to voluntarily opt-in and opt-out of groups leads to better groups. etc. etc. However none of that is in any way a cogent critique of libertarianism. Why you chose pop science new atheist writer Shermer of all people to centrally represent libertarianism instead of someone more prominent among libertarian political philosophers I don't know. Try David Friedman or Jan Lester or Jan Narveson or Roderick Long or Hayek or Vernon Smith or any of the many others who can actually be called libertarian political philosophers. I guarantee whatever insight you think you've come up with has already been covered.

    • Cal 13 years ago

      Looking back, that comment’s a bit to hostile. This is a much more well-thought attempt at a critique of libertarianism and, though it fails as such when considering academic libertarianism, it has a number of interesting points on other matters.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      There are hundreds of economists, political philosophers, etc. who you could have quoted and quoted more charitably. This post is rife with misrepresentation and false equivalence and complete irrelevance to the topic.

      Yes, this standard libertarian quasi-defense to everything is basically, “well, sure… but that doesn’t represent real libertariansim.” It’s a neverending game in which libertarians dismiss all arguments as applying to somebody else, but not them or anyone “they know”. That’s why i said:

      “There are almost as many conceptions of libertarianism as there are libertarians. Because it seems to represent the popular conception of libertarianism, I’ll be referring to [Shermer’s framework] in this piece”

      …under a fat, bold subheading about the “ground rules” of what I was discussing. Yet you still go off the ranch in hope that we can talk about some nebulous libertarianism that exists only in the mind of some hypothetical gas station clerk in Fargo. Talk about tedious.

      And yeah… for better or worse, Shermer’s conception of libertarianism is the flavor floating around in the ether that I get stuck dealing with on a daily basis.

      Private property rights in land predate agrarian *states* and operated for thousands of years outside states.

      Yes, it was a process. This process was analyzed by Moselle and Nozick and they have returned with a model we can use for the sake of discussion. However, your inability to consider any point contrary to your ideology has precluded this.

      Property rights in land are not contrary to some madeup hunter-gather “philosophy” — they were simply useless for H-G’s… for painfully obvious economic reasons.

      First of all, fuck your tone and attitude. This is my site, and this post consists of my thoughts. I’m laying the foundations for what I THINK IS A USEFUL HUNTER-GATHERER [POLITICAL] PHILOSOPHY by synthesizing how HGs behave in an environment novel to modern humans — one that modern humans can use and apply in their daily lives. This should be obvious in the context of my site in its entirety, and I’m not going to put a disclaimer to that effect in every other paragraph.

      Next, pointing out as obvious what I’d already pointed out as obvious doesn’t make you insightful, it just means you agree.

      and will likely never morph into any crank Georgist-land-tax nonsense… And read some economists on Georgism.

      I’ve read economists on Georgism. Notably, Murray Rothbard’s critique. Most critiques are on two levels. *Please not that I said “most”, not “all”. The first critique tends to be the one you immediately aligned yourself with, which is the supposed impracticality of implementation of George’s ideas. This usually indicates that the critic is working from 2nd hand information, and hasn’t read George’s main work in its entirety. It’s also a fallacy to argue whether a prescribed system has merit based on its ability to reach implementation within the confines of the current status quo.

      We always need to be aware of this conservative tactic as it does little more than serve entrenched interests. We need be particularly aware in discussions in which “libertarians” draw inspiration from Austrian economics. Not least of which considering its founder, Mises, was financed and supported by the William Volker Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s surely coincidence that he always comes out on the side of business in banking. Suuuurely. But I digress…

      The second standard critique of George’s ideas revolves around the single tax. Indeed, this is Rothbard’s primary criticism. In this regard, I’m not persuaded that George’s single tax is the panacea it’s made out to be. However, Rothbard (along with Friedman) does not argue convincingly that it’s a bad idea, merely that he’s not persuaded that George’s single tax is the panacea it’s made out to be.

      I have not seen, in Rothbard or others, a thorough critique of George’s central claim that land ownership (read: rights) is both unethical, and flawed with respect to a full accounting of economics (labor, capital, etc.). I’m less interested in the answer of whether George’s single tax will do what he claims. George’s analysis on land rights is powerful, and thus, mostly ignored by Georgism’s critics, who tend to assume land rights a priori (more correctly: divine decree, but that’s another story).

      Now, please don’t point out that hunter-gatherers aren’t Georgists. YeahIfuckinggetthat. The point is that the behaviors of hunter-gatherers align in interesting ways with the seemingly disparate economic theories of more modern thinkers. Your ideology doesn’t permit you to analyze this fact, but that’s a reflection on the banality of your current insight, not on the ideas themselves… which exactly why you’re able to “guarantee whatever insight you think you’ve come up with has already been covered” with a straight face. Which is why I replied to JS with a quote starting with “These experts who offer to do our thinking for us…”

      I can’t imagine what the hell point you think you’re making by pointing out the tedious fact that hunter-gatherers didn’t have banks or monetary systems.

      It’s called questioning assumptions that are stated as facts. And yes, I can see how your imagination would not permit you to discover this purpose or its value.

      • Cal 13 years ago

        The central conception of libertarianism shared by Shermer and most everyone else is pro-individual liberty and anti-state, to varying degrees of consistency. This is also how libertarianism is described, for example, in the OED. Many different schools of thought on libertarianism exist but virtually all share this common central point. You're the one who said libertarianism should be a sophisticated political philosophy and then didn't actually cite any contemporary political philosophy at all… and I'm talking about the libertarianism that exists at Harvard, George Mason, Oxford, and virtually every philosophy, polisci, and economics department in academia containing libertarians. I don't understand why you cited Shermer in particular, when there are many prominent academics who forward similar positions with much more sophisticated political philosophical arguments, which is what you called for..

        Your Rothbard quote on "hierarchy" is completely out of context and misrepresentative. The libertarians who talk about "hierarchical domination" are all opposed to what is usually meant by that phrase, and offer extremely thorough arguments for libertarianism being optimal, cet paribus, for reducing such hierarchical domination. If you care about the libertarian position on "hierarchical domination," you should probably read some libertarians explicitly on that subject, rather than a line from some anarcho-primitivist.

        No need to cite Nozick on the extension of property rights to land when you can cite empirical work and experimental work, see Vernon Smith (the Nobel laureate Harvard economist libertarian who founded lab experimental economics… yep just some Fargo gas station clerk), but yeah it was an endogenous process that preceded states, so your agrarian-statism equivalence is problematic.

        A central criticism of Georgist-type landtaxism dates back to Ricardo in response to a single land tax: http://www.econlib.org/library/Ricardo/ricP3a.htm…. Simplistically, if land rent is the thing taxed, the value of land will necessarily depend very much on political decisions. Land would tend to be held not by the people best able to make use of it but by the people best able to predict and/or manipulate the political system that sets the taxes. As there is no effective, easily determinable value of land except that which arises from a market… so the Georgist land tax has no operational basis. It is circular in addition to all the problems of taxation and top-down legislation in general. Furthermore, the central Georgist premise that unimproved land as a factor of production is exceptionally unique and important are quite clearly exaggerated in economic terms (unless we are talking about very large scale fiat land claims i.e. state territories, not private property). Access to productive capital and labor are much more important than land. And ethically, anything can be put in terms of "acquiring X initially not by an individual's productive labor, but by chance and exclusion" which George applied only to "land" (as opposed to, say, inheritance, genetics, etc.). In addition, private land ownership is empirically much less concentrated today than when George was writing.

        As far as fundamentally changing the way humans appropriate property rights in land to a more use-ownership Georgist bent, it also rubs against an immense empirical (and more recently, experimental) literature on the subject. Google "property instinct." Humans when they extend property rights to anything, as a general rule, assign perpetual property rights initially based on first personal possession and subsequently on voluntary exchange. This is limited by norms of abandonment and so forth.

        I'm not an Austrian economist… my work is currently in experimental economics, the more intellectually serious version of "behavioral economics" that is so sloppily cited by vapid sensationalist pop writers like Pink, however saying that Mises somehow "serves conservative interests" and should be questioned because he got funding from somewhere is blatantly fallacious and rather silly. I seriously doubt you understand the terminology of Misesian praxeological economics, not your fault given it's rather different from normal contemporary lingo. Mises doesn't "always come out on the side of business and banking." That's wrong. He famously and repeatedly opposed the entire banking system as it existed and always criticized business-state collusion. He refused a high position at the Vienna central bank precisely because he predicted the He was in favor of a free market. He didn't oppose banking as such or business as such… more likely because that would be an incredibly stupid position than because he got some grant from the Volker Fund.

        • Cal 13 years ago

          "Mises refused a high position at the Vienna central bank precisely because he predicted the central banking system would soon collapse into a great depression, which it did."

        • Andrew 13 years ago

          The main (and more obvious) reason I chose Shermer was that he purported to be the voice for how evolved human nature justifies libertariansism, and I found his narrative profoundly unsatisfying.

          The rest of my argument will have to wait until a later date.

      • Cal 13 years ago

        On the more ethical side of Georgism, this is an eloquent critique from Auberon Herbert way back in 1899, in 2 parts
        http://www.wendymcelroy.com/print.php?news.3436 http://www.wendymcelroy.com/print.php?news.3441

  11. J. Stanton 13 years ago

    I was wondering when I’d find someone else familiar with Bob Black – whose critique of libertarianism is both succinct and trenchant:

    “You can’t want what the state wants without wanting the state.”


    “Nobody wants to regress to a hunter-gatherer economy. We want the incredible benefits of civilization attained through a functioning price mechanism”

    Religious fervor as applied to prescriptivist pseudo-rationality is so cute!

    First, it’s interesting that you’re willing to tell everyone else what they want.

    Second, it’s interesting that you’re willing to ascribe “the incredible benefits of civilization” (by which I assume you mean iPhones and the Internet, but not the warfare, genocide, and famine that are far more closely associated with “civilization” worldwide than the prosperity you enjoy) to “a functioning price mechanism”.

    To the contrary, research clearly shows that monetary reward only improves performance on rote mechanical tasks. Performance on any task requiring more than rudimentary cognitive skill (i.e. that leads to any of those “incredible benefits of civilization”) actually decreases as incentives increase.

    [youtube u6XAPnuFjJc http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc youtube]


    • Andrew 13 years ago

      It is telling that Austrian economic theory is largely founded on the (accurate) insight that human behavior is improperly modeled by standard economic theory, but then itself proceeds to deny any and all new understanding of how humans actually behave. They realize it's important to recognize that individual humans act, yet don't seem to care how individual humans act. Rather, they retreat further into their hijacked Kantian nightmare of theoretical behavioral models they assert must be right (because Mises is infallible), and simultaneously claim they can't be questioned… because… oh yeah… did we mention this yet?… empiricism is the devil.

      Until the Austrian disciples replace Kant with Kahneman in their understanding of humans, they'll continue to work from the wrong map — just as the classical economists they criticize. I love behavioral economics, and that Daniel Pink video is a favorite of mine. It speaks directly to the fundamental questions posed by the Austrians by refuting praxeology in ten minutes.

      Bob Black is great. "The Abolition of Work" should be required reading for all elementary school children. I came into all of this hunter-gatherer stuff after reading folks like Vaneigem and Artists For a Work Free America. I think they, along with Black, arrived at something close to human nature by intuitive insight, and simply lacked an accurate explanatory framework. Upon digging deeper into Darwin, it became apparent that evolutionary theory was that missing framework. They recognized civilization for what it was, and managed to step outside of it with their thinking. This, in stark contrast to the libertarians and Austrians who were borne of the industrial age and the banking system — who continue to demonstrate a lack of insight and perspective.

      "These experts who offer to do our thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its saliency in the lives of all of us. Among themselves they quibble over the details. Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time of our lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don't care which form bossing takes so long as the bosses are women. Clearly these ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to power as such and all of them want to keep us working." – The Abolition of Work

      • J. Stanton 13 years ago


        I'd add Vaneigem's "Revolution of Everyday Life" to the required list. It's amazing how incisive his writing remains, even in translation, e.g.

        "In an industrial society which confuses work and productivity, the necessity of producing has always been an enemy of the desire to create."

        "Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?"

        And I absolutely agree: both the Situationists and Bob Black understand that human nature and desires have nothing to do with "civilization" – but they lacked the evolutionary framework to explain how they actually came about. Without that understanding, it's easy to fall down the other side of that slippery slope into Noble Savage romanticism, which is where a lot of modern zero-workism gets mired.

        As long as we're discussing the Situationists, Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle" is the only impenetrable French theory worth fighting through. The Situationists' realization that the commodification of experience (transformation of life into "spectacle") is the central problem of modern life is both correct and trenchant. It's clear that this commodification of real, lived experience is an inevitable consequence of a legal framework (libertarianism) in which the market is the ultimate and legally-enforced arbiter of value in all things.

        Of course, the Situationist problem is that, lacking evolutionary context for their ideas, many of them got sucked into Marxism.

        Moving on: I'm not as down on the Austrians as you are: Austrian Business Cycle Theory is, I believe, essentially correct — as evidenced by Austrians being the only economic school to correctly predict both the Great Depression and the current crisis.

        Furthermore, I don't think praxeology is wrong as much as it's a complicated justification for saying "the hell with it". The popular understanding of praxeology is basically "imagine people's reactions collectively and you'll be closer to a useful economic prediction than all the pseudo-mathematical economic models that claim to be 'laws' but fall apart because they're simply extrapolating past behavior into the future." In this case, I believe the popular misconception is actually closer to the truth than the real thing, whatever the hell that is (how many people actually made it all the way through Human Action?)


        • Andrew 13 years ago

          I also find Vaneigem's commentary on "roles" (in RoEL) to be insightful.

    • Cal 13 years ago

      What a bewildering reply… a functioning price mechanism does not mean proportional monetary reward is to be the sole manger-imposed motivator for individual workers within every firm… prices convey real-time, bottom-up, emergent information about the relative supply and demand for things between firms, between stages of capital structure, between consumers and producers, etc. A hunter-gatherer economy has no price mechanism, and thus very little division of labor, specialization, trade, and so on. This is basic and uncontroversial economics in every micro textbook.

      Your summary of "the research" (meaning a pop psychology book, and a youtube summary thereof by a Marxian socialist…) is outright false. I can't imagine you have even the read the book you're citing. Ignoring Pink's reliance in that book for his central claim on a small number of low quality studies, a number of which have since been discredited (e.g. Israeli daycare study), here's his summary of his book:

      What the research shows as I read it — don't want this to seem like it's a screed against rewards of all kinds or cry for everyone to do volunteer work and never be remunerated. Point is that research shows pretty clearly that you've got to pay people enough. If you don't pay people enough, you are not going to get motivation. But once you pay people enough – -and I would argue pay people more than enough — additional units of money have relatively little impact on additional units of performance or satisfaction.

      This not only has absolutely nothing to do with the price mechanism in the economy, he also says monetary reward is necessary up to a point within firms for motivation… So you're unambiguously wrong in citing Pink on the price mechanism as and quite likely have no idea what you're talking about.

      It's revealing that you praise an anarcho-primitivist's critique of libertarianism. I can't find a single substantive point in that critique. Yes, primitivists do say they want to regress to a hunter-gatherer economy. Their life choices don't usually reflect this desire. The benefits of civilization do indeed include iphones and internet, as well as things like science, philosophy, and medicine… your empirically vacuous noble savage mythology notwithstanding.

      • Andrew 13 years ago

        As usual, I don't think your critique of Pink's work is strong enough to warrant the tone with which you present it, but I do want to address this briefly:

        "Yes, primitivists do say they want to regress to a hunter-gatherer economy. Their life choices don't usually reflect this desire."

        This behavior is easily explained by the lack of frontier I outlined in Part I.

        • Cal 13 years ago

          Techincally, I was critiquing J. Stanton who was citing Pink. And J. Stanton's misreprestantion of Pink's conclusions (regardless of Pink's merit) is certainly enough to warrant a harsh tone impo. Unlike libertarians, primitivists do have plenty of places where they can at least attempt to live out their stated lifestyle preference. I know there are primitivists living in forests in the Northwest US and also with tribes in various places around the world. I've encountered some myself. Nation-states tend to leave stinky, bearded, eco-hippie primitivists alone as there's not much surplus to extract from them.

      • J. Stanton 13 years ago


        if you want to make a valid argument, you're going to have to do something besides cast aspersions on sources ("they don't agree with my ideology, ergo, they're unreliable and wrong"), construct straw men (you're making some comical assumptions about my own ideology), and make "everyone knows" claims.

        What I claimed, no more and no less, is:

        1- Greater reward does not necessarily produce greater productivity in the areas that actually produce the fun parts of civilization (i.e. technology).

        2- Therefore, it's silly to make the claim that "We want the incredible benefits of civilization attained through a functioning price mechanism", because it's clear that the price mechanism is not the fundamental driver of the technological discoveries that produce the benefits of civilization.

        Instead, you've gone on to make the claim that having a legal system entirely based on deciding everything via the price mechanism (and enforcing the results) doesn't preclude people from voluntarily not deciding some things via the price mechanism.

        That's technically true, but completely disingenuous. The entire weight of the libertarian legal system gives everything to the people who have decided to participate in the price mechanism, and takes it away from those who have elected not to participate.


        • Cal 13 years ago

          I am familiar with Pink (and more importantly familiar with the work underlying his pop non-fiction)… you bizarrely used his arguments as a response to my mentioning uncontroversial points about the necessity of a price mechanism for a productive modern economy. Your #1 has absolutely nothing to do with the price mechanism and neither does the behavioral economic research Pink talks about. I quoted Pink… you provided a cartoon by a Marxist summarizing his book.

          Market prices are necessary to convey information between firms, between stages of capital structure, between consumers and producers, etc. Without a functioning price mechanism, you have no economy because you have no real-time, bottom-up, emergent information to enable or incentivize coordination beyond personal interaction i.e. beyond the Dunbar unit i.e. beyond your hunter-gatherer band. This is the Hayek's key insight, what he largely won the Nobel for, and is today near-universally recognized among economists of all schools as the definitive argument against a centrally-planned economy. This Hayekian insight is precisely what James C Scott based his "Seeing Like a State" book on. Market prices = Hayekian metis.

          Pink largely accurately points out that, as a within-firm management strategy, monetary reward tends to be subject to diminishing marginal returns in individual productivity after some point regarding a few specific kinds of work, especially creative teamwork. So what? This is completely irrelevant to the price mechanism. Pink would never be deny the necessity of a price mechanism for a modern economy and he does not and his work does not at all imply such a conclusion.

          Your #2 doesn't follow. The "fun" benefits of civilization are not limited to "technological discoveries," which would be mostly useless if we didn't have modern production and markets, and those technological discoveries tend to require a modern economy which requires a functioning price mechanism. And while it's obviously true that individual monetary reward wasn't "necessarily" the "fundamental driver of technological discovery" in every case, it's also obviously true that it wasn't "necessarily" not a fundamental driver in any cases. See Edison, for unambiguous example of when it was. There is actually serious work on this subject out there, like The Economic Laws of Scientific Research by Terence Kealey, if you're interested.

          "The entire weight of the libertarian legal system gives everything to the people who have decided to participate in the price mechanism, and takes it away from those who have elected not to participate"

          I have no idea what you're talking about here. "The" libertarian legal system put forward is usually just common law, which empirically almost always entails property rights in any economy where people have moved beyond a nomadic hunter-gatherer-only subsistence. If you don't want to "participate" in the price mechanism… never buy or sell anything again. If you want to live in a hippie commune where everything is shared (or fought over or w/e), no problem, but that commune as a firm is still very likely going to want to be able to acquire goods and services from elsewhere which will practically mean prices. If it doesn't and you're complete economic-isolationist primitivist hippies, fine. So long as you initially acquire and retain your land according to common law just like everyone else has to, there's no problem. What more do you want?

  12. mem 13 years ago

    Here are the cultural values of the Inupiat Inuit, which have been handed down for thousands of years.


  13. Rob A. 13 years ago

    Enjoying the discussion- thanks for bringing it up Andrew. Always did jive with those Bob Black essays, and glad to see the topic get aired publicly, with the prominence of free-market libertarians in the paleo world.

    Wasn’t totally sold on his comments, but Ran Prieur had a little bit on this topic recently that I liked generally: ranprieur.com/archives/035.html#FREEDOM

  14. Jean 13 years ago

    I came here through Richard's site, so I confess I'm not familiar with your previous work. I'm not libertarian either. But I do have an anthropology degree, so I thought I'd comment on some of your assumptions of HG societies. It's been a long time since I was in the field, and I'm not digging into the garage for any of my text books, so this will have to be taken without references.

    1) The assumption that HG societies had no concept of property, or property rights. This is…incorrect.
    Your quotation of Woodburn is somewhat out of context. You have taken his notion of immediate-return and conflated this with all HG groups. That is not the point Woodward was making, nor is it true. Woodburn was talking about two separate types of HG societies. Delayed-return HG societies were both common and stable. In my own work, researching the native tribes of the pacific northwest, the tribes were nomadic, but returned seasonally or annually to specific locations depending on the type of food to gather or hunt (or fish, as the case may be). The area each tribe claimed was known to other local tribes. These societies were not specifically egalitarian. As Woodward notes, delayed-return societies were generally dependent on group organization to achieve results. Some of these societies made the transition to agrarian, but many did not.

    This error, of equating only immediate-return systems as "true" hunter gather societies, seems to filter throughout the rest of your article. Much of what you assert as true of HG systems is only true of immediate-return groups. This is not supported in the literature.

    2) Economic stability. Again, you are talking only of immediate-return groups. Delayed-reward systems involved various systems to provide for tribe members from stored resources, some egalitarian, some not so much.

    3) While modern (and recent historical) HG societies have certainly rejected the modern nation-state, it does not follow that they necessarily had no notion of place or other affiliation. As I mentioned above regarding coastal aboriginal tribes, the concept of "nationhood" long pre-date European contact. Language and geographical boundaries all denoted specific affiliations. Early land-claim treaties did not stem from the notion that land ownership was impossible, but from the idea that the natives already owned their land.

    4) Your assertion that HG societies never engaged in warfare is not supported by the literature. There is ample evidence of inter-tribal conflict throughout most hunter-gatherer societies that have been studied. Again, I will draw from my own area of study, since it's the one I know best. Warfare was commonplace in the PNW among coastal tribes. Slavery in particular, as a result of capture during warfare, was ubiquitous. I don't recall ever hearing an argument that since the fossil record does not show weapons that are uniquely designed for warfare, therefore inter-group violent conflict did not exist. That would be quite a leap from the fossil record, and from modern ethnographical studies.

    As a closing note, I should point out that many cultural anthropologists have long cautioned against using ethnographical studies of more modern HG societies, and projecting backwards. The truth is, the fossil record is woefully incomplete. It seems logical to assume that if a hunter-gatherer group seemed like it was stable for centuries, and depended only on resources that would have been available in the paleolithic era, then we can extrapolate paleolithic behaviour. But we simply do not know.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      First, a small request: If you're going to invoke academic authority/credibility, I'd rather the discussion not be anecdotal. I'm not interested in a quasi-debate in which you're free to attack me through my sources, while the rest of us are called upon to rely on your personal claims, which may or may not be backed up by research that we're not privy to.

      1) "You have taken his notion of immediate-return and conflated this with all HG groups… This error, of equating only immediate-return systems as "true" hunter gather societies, seems to filter throughout the rest of your article."

      You're reading me wrong. I didn't say that that delayed-return groups were uncommon, and I didn't (intentionally at least) say they weren't "true" hunter gatherers. What I said was that they "don’t represent ancestral populations". Thus, for the sake of discussion, I attempted to specify that I'd be talking about immediate-return HGs.

      Assuming the "out off Africa hypothesis", populations that weren't in Africa aren't populations that all humanity was shaped by. Therefore, no matter how correct you are above, you have to first refute the OoA hypothesis for these populations to have bearing on human evolution as a species.

      2) See 1

      3) Notion of place and land ownership are two very different ideas. Again, this is mitigated by immediate return and delayed return classifications.

      4) Again, we're talking about two different things: immediate return v. delayed return.

      We can say nothing about the common evolutionary context of humans as a species by looking at holocene populations. This is equally true for delayed-return bands in the PNW, New Guinea (and myriad other island populations), et cetera.

      What we can do, and where your input has thus far been valuable, is look at these populations from the context of ethology/behavioral ecology perspective. It is important to know how humans behave in the context of different ecological inputs. Indeed ,it is impossible to talk about "human nature" without respect to environment. Human nature will always be an interaction between environment and phenotype.

      Baker* has outlined a model that relates the question of territoriality to resource density and variability. While I think his model leaves out some important variables, we can use similar models to somewhat adjudicate the immediate-return vs. delayed-return question with respect to Homo evolution across the paleolithic.

      *Baker, Mather J. (February 2003). An Equilibrium Conflict Model of Land Tenure in Hunter‐Gatherer Societies. Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 111, No. 1 , pp. 124-173

      • Jean 13 years ago

        “What I said was that they “don’t represent ancestral populations”. Thus, for the sake of discussion, I attempted to specify that I’d be talking about immediate-return HGs.

        Assuming the “out off Africa hypothesis”, populations that weren’t in Africa aren’t populations that all humanity was shaped by. Therefore, no matter how correct you are above, you have to first refute the OoA hypothesis for these populations to have bearing on human evolution as a species. “

        This is an extremely limited view of ancestral populations.

        If we restrict ourselves to reviewing African hunter-gatherer societies, pre-diaspora, we have no direct fossil evidence that they were exclusively immediate-return. As I mentioned, it is extremely dangerous to view modern HG societies occupying the same or similar geographic locations, and extrapolate backwards. Especially given the differences in climate and food sources.

        Most estimates put the diaspora of modern H. Sapiens Sapiens at around 60,000 years ago, solidly in the middle Paleolithic era. There is some evidence of, for example, H. Sapiens populations in Brazil dated to ~55,000 YA. However, there is fossil evidence that previous species of hominids moved beyond Africa at an earlier date. Fossils of H. Erectus for example, were found on Java that dated to only ~27-50,000 YA. Certainly there are ample examples of Neandertalensis fossils found in Europe.

        But fundamentally, we have no proof that paleolithic HG societies living in Africa or elsewhere were immediate-return. While the first fossil evidence of food storage in the form of technology (pottery, jars etc.), did not appear until the Neolithic, there are food storage techniques such as drying that would most likely have been available to earlier societies, and would not leave evidence in the fossil record. Given the harsh climates that, for example, the Clovis populations must have endured, some food storage techniques must have been in practice.

        Your assertion that all early ancestral populations must have been immediate-return is, as far as I know, unsupported by the literature. I can’t cite that, because you can’t cite a negative. If you have some other information which wasn’t included in the original article that suggests otherwise, I would be fascinated to see it.

        • Andrew 13 years ago

          I’m interested in this article for different reasons, but…

          Among the… sample of foraging societies in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, over two thirds are classed as “nomadic” or “semi-nomadic,” and less than a tenth as “sedentary”.” – Current Anthropology. February, 2010)

          They also not that across the groups, the incidence of private land ownership is 8%. Factoring out the geographically isolated island populations (which present a huge ecological shift compared to Africa) would likely drive this lower.

      • Andrew 13 years ago

        Coincidentally, it does appear that some components of the out of Africa hypothesis have been refuted in the last few hours. That doesn't make us all descendants of delayed-return tribalists (in fact, it appears that most humans are less related to Australian aboriginals and New Guinea natives than previously suspectded), but it is interesting.

    • Nick Earls 13 years ago

      I recently had the pleasure of reading "Lost in Shangri-La" an account of American military professionals who became stranded in uncharted areas of Papau New Guinea during World War II. While their interactions with the natives were relatively peaceful, make no mistake war was integral to how their society functioned. In fact, they needed to constantly kill members of other tribes in a never-ending ritual of compensation for people that had died in their own tribe. Not only that, but they cut women's fingers off when a male relative passed. They were as hunter-gatherer as you can get in the 1900's considering their extremely limited contact with the outside world (note, they did practice agriculture and raised pigs but I can't imagine that drastically altered their societal structure. One interesting part of their culture was how they exchanged pigs for food as bonds of friendship and connection.)

      • Andrew 13 years ago

        This is good input. Thank you.

        I kinda hate to keep beating a dead horse, but HGs in New Guinea tend to be of the delayed-return variety.

        • J. Stanton 13 years ago

          Isn't that the Richard Wrangham technique? i.e. "I will conveniently and repeatedly conflate primitive agriculturalists and foragers in order to claim that foraging societies were extremely violent, while ignoring the obvious counterexamples of peaceful true foragers like the Hadza"?

          Practicing agriculture and living in a hut next to your crops, grown inside well-defined property lines, disqualifies you from being counted as a forager even if you put a bone in your nose and a gourd on your penis.


  15. daniel 13 years ago

    lmao! this is why i subscribe and continue to come back here. it's so funny sometimes. you write one article and it sends tons of people into a hysterical fit over what constitutes this, and what constitutes that. andrew, you have a very provocative voice that i really appreciate. i dont agree with you very often but when i do it's usually on something big so that's enough for me. i commented yesterday on this post in the negative and i just wanted to clarify that i was not pointing anything directly at you or what you're about. i'm just really tired of seeing all this "paleo" business get mired in modern day ramblings about problems that HG Man would have solved by hitting you over the head with a large stone. one thing i do agree with you on is that all this "paleo" stuff is in NO WAY viable as a reenactment. if anyone needs to be reminded of this, go to the archevore blog and ask him what he thinks of superimposing anything of the Paleolithic on this age. the only reason that we can look to that time period for diet and movement is because those are literally the only things we can recreate and study today. studying modern day HG's societies does nothing for our education because it's still just a snapshot in an impossible to fathom length of evolutionary time. we can amass all the data on earth and come up with a solid hypothesis for anything, but it means nothing in the face of results that state the opposite. that's what got this whole paleo movement started in the first place. and now, just like everything else that has ever been discovered or stumbled upon, we take it out so far as to render ourselves useless in its shadow. again with religion: all religions start out with basic, practical, and universally acceptable concepts. what does man do with all this? they take a fluid, easy to understand and communicate, well tolerated, unimposing value set and turns it into what? A SYSTEM. systems are fine to get us from point a to point b but when it comes to things of real value, they fail.

    i had seen another comment that said something to the effect of "nobody wants to go back to a primitive economical or political society" or something like that. umm, yeah, there are people that would gladly do it. i'm one of them. i'd gladly go back (or evolve) to a simpler time. the absence of Death lurking everywhere (or at least the absence of our immediate perception of it) has made humans fat, stupid, lazy, and really all around shitty. i'll take tribal violence and an earlier grave over modern man's overthinking-himself-into-obscurity type of world any day.

    fact is, it's simply not possible to observe or test what human nature is like without a governing body. we can't escape Nature. so if it isn't a douchbag president, your boss, your wife, your fucking dog, it will be reality and nature itself influencing your choices. nobody lives in a vacuum except those that are stuck in their head. morality was built around the direct experience of reality, not some system thought up by a guy in a gown. if you were a piece of shit lounge-about back in the day, you died because eventually your tribe would just kick you out. so all these people on welfare would be screwed. we need to have life and death in our face daily. only then can people really live honestly.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      one thing i find interesting is that so many people out there frame the "reenactment" thing as an either-or scenario — as if the only options are dichotomous between extreme primitivsm or absolute technophilia. it's all about looking at insights we might get from HGs, and recent knowledge, then choosing the best tools from among all of it.

  16. daniel 13 years ago

    i would also like to add that it is a joke to think we are any better than animals. we are animals. and we should act like them. enough ego and arrogance. lets get naked and dirty and kill our food and enemies and stop being pussies about the whole thing. if god wanted people to behave then he never should have handed out free will or made things like sex so awesome. not that i believe in a god (i dont) i'm just saying.

  17. Flare 13 years ago

    'Libertarianism is not paleo'. Agreed.
    'Egalitarianism is common and effective among hunter-gatherer (and probably paleo) tribes'. Agreed.

    What is the implication supposed to be? That we shouldn't be libertarian, because it was not paleo? This is what I infer, but I didn't see this explicity stated. I will respond as if you said we shouldn't be libertarian because its not paleo.

    "the hunter-gatherer ethnography is completely made up of bands characterized by egalitarian political organization"
    Are hunter-gatherers 'organized politically'? Hunter-gatherers don't have a government, so I would rather call their organization 'social' rather than 'political'. Its an important point. Political systems organize people by the threat of violence, whereas more 'social' systems organize people by inducing voluntary action via various social levers such as inspiration/leadership, debate/discussion, threatened ostracization/other lowering of social status, etc.

    Hunter-gatherers do not have politically-induced egalitarianism. They have socially-induced egalitarianism. Hunter-gatherer tribes are egalitarianism because they want to be, not because someone is threatening them with violence. Here's an excerpt from one of your sources (Bohem 2001):

    "Egalitarianism is not simply the absence of a headman and other authority figures, but a positive insistence on the essential equality of all people and a refusal to bow to the authority of others, a sentiment expressed in the statement: 'Of course we have headmen…each of us is headman over himself.' Leaders do exist, but their influence is subtle and indirect. They never order or make demands of others, and their accumulation of material goods is never more, and often much less, than the average accumulation of the other households in their camp.

    Lee makes it clear that it is fear of group opinion–and fear of active group sanctions–that keeps the more accomplished men at this level of humility… amungst these [foragers] arrogance amounts to a crime."

    This description is basically that of anarchy! All men have authority over their self, and no other. The egalitarianism arises from various social (not political) levers.

    These various 'social levers' can be succssfully applied only because the tribe's members all know and care about eachother (basically). If someone didn't care what you thought of them, then your opinion would hold no sway. But hunter-gatherers have to care or else they'll find no mates and be liable for ostracisation. In the hunter-gatherer world, ostracisation likely means death, if not in the physical sense then at least in the genetic sense.

    However, in a modern society of modern scale, these 'social levers' don't work! They can't work, due to 'dunbars number' ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number ). Humans of modern society are physically incapable of caring about everyone within their society. Even if someone could somehow legitimately care about all people, that person's survival (both physical and genetic) would still be divorced from their opinion-caring, so I doubt this mechanism would work well for controlling behavior. Social levers such as leadership are hijacked by politicians. Levers like discussion still have some sway, but its not really feasible for everyone to be talking to everyone.

    The social tools hunter-gatherers use to bring about egalitarianism break down on the modern-social level. They were built for the hunter-gatherer <150 tribe context. They work their, and not elsewhere.

  18. Flare 13 years ago

    The only way to possibly bring about egalitarianism in the modern context is to have a state/government go around threatening everyone into compliance. Threatening with violence! A state's primary means of organizes people is by threatening violence. This is very, very un-paleo! Paleo peoples did not have singular figures (like a state) as the sole administers of legitimate violence, and (at least according to the quoted excerpt) things like resource distribution are controlled non-violently, by social mechanisms that are dependent on everyone personally knowing and caring about eachother. Without state violence, egalitarianism in modern-scale societies can not come about because there are physical limits to how many people we know and can care about.

    I have not extensively researched the subject, but I imagine that the circumstance depicted in the above quoted excerpt (that of anarchy, defined simply as lacking a violence-wielding authority figure) is the default nature of human tribes. If true, then a liberty-embracing societey (even if it were not egalitarian) would still be more 'paleo' than any statist society. The egalitarnism of primitives is a PRODUCT of their voluntary social-structure. Voluntaryism (anarchy) comes first.

    "our psychology has evolved in such a way as to be sub-optimal under a libertarian arrangement"
    I agree. But its worth making the effort to mend our sub-optimal psychology.

    What our psychology is devestaingly ill-adapated for is statism. Statism equates 'us' (the tribe) with the state. So when people criticize the state, or if the state does something bad, or if people even posit that the state did something bad, people's extremely powerful 'Defend the Tribe!' mentality immediately kicks in. Its only natural! Statism is bad from an evolutionary psychology standpoint for many other reasons but this point is perhaps off topic.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Many of the points you raised above relate to the psychological stuff that I'll deal with in a future post.

      "This description is basically that of anarchy! All men have authority over their self, and no other. The egalitarianism arises from various social (not political) levers."

      That's kind of where I'm going with all of this.

      "What our psychology is devestaingly ill-adapated for is statism. Statism equates 'us' (the tribe) with the state. So when people criticize the state, or if the state does something bad, or if people even posit that the state did something bad, people's extremely powerful 'Defend the Tribe!' mentality immediately kicks in. Its only natural! Statism is bad from an evolutionary psychology standpoint for many other reasons but this point is perhaps off topic."

      Not off topic. You're just getting ahead of me. 🙂

  19. Nick Earls 13 years ago

    I wouldn't consider myself a political libertarian. Nor would I consider myself a proponent of implanting hunter gatherer political models on modern society as they are incompatible. For the record, I think you're right when you say the ideal political structure for humans is likely what we see with hunter gatherers, as it is natural. Nonetheless, as an individual I have zero desire to be part of such a structure. I understand the inefficiencies of such a viewpoint, but value my autonomy more than society's greater functioning (which I understand, is somewhat selfish. But I've only got 100 years at most to live my life, so I'd like to do it my own way).

    Best government would be one lacking in corruption, with robust social programs and infrastructure controlled by government, and libertarian-esque autonomy for citizens. Of course, I don't think that's an achievable goal. In fact, sorry to be a pessimist, but I think no matter what political system one is a fan of, you're going to have serious flaws. We're animals. Until we become machinistic robots society will never be ideal.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      "value my autonomy more than society's greater functioning

      this is a good perspective that i think many share. the trick, and why i go on and on about "the state", is that autonomy is somewhat of an illusion in our current system.

  20. Don Matesz 13 years ago


    Thank you for addressing this. Although I have identified with 'left' libertarianism a la Carson (mutualism), I have long understood the dissonance between H-G culture and agricultural states, particularly in the area of land rights and other key values (socially-enforced sharing, kinship systems, etc.) , and felt that typical libertarianism did not harmonize with human nature in some key respects, but did not take the time to think the whole thing through as you have.

    Your post reminds me to revisit a part of a book by Bruce Holbrook, called The Stone Monkey, wherein he discusses how traditional Chinese/Confucian/Taoist culture attempted to retain the H-G like kinship system of local self-governance and social incentives to sharing across economic strata, and local sharing of land for rice production, while retaining rights to rebel against the protection racket (government). He tells a story of a time in Taiwan when disparity between wealthy and poor became such that many people were starving. Government officials arranged a meeting with all the wealthy landholders and, if I remember correctly (don't have the book with me right now), told the landholders to set up free restaurants in their respective counties, pointing out that in this way the people would come to view the landholders as benefactors, rather than enemies; and that if the landholders did not take this advice, the government would not protect them from any losses incurred if the people took things into their own hands and started stealing from or attacking the wealthy. This is all inspired by Confucian philosophy, which, stripped of its degenerate ritualism aspect, appears to me to be an attempt to integrate the features of a kinship-based social system resembling that of H-Gs, that accords with these words you wrote:

    "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."

    The basis of the Confucian approach is outlined in the Da Hsueh, or Great Learning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Learning

    A 'bottom-up' approach to governance.

    I look forward to reading some of the references herein shared and following the rest of your blogs on this topic.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Thanks, Don. I have a feeling you'd dig Scott's work that's referenced above.

  21. js290 13 years ago

    I stopped reading at the ground rules. But, it's good that you set them otherwise we'd fall into equivocation fallacy. Nowhere in the listed ground rules did it mention "non-coercion" and "laissez-faire free markets." The libertarianism I'm interested in are bound by these two tenants.

  22. Ploink 13 years ago

    I think you read the wrong books – you should try Hayek's Fatal Conceit. It's late here but I'll try and paraphrase the important idea:

    Obviously paleolithic tribes were not libertarian, because they didn't need to be. The whole point of a market is economic calculation: trying to figure out how to work together in a way that more or less maximizes output. When you live in a tribe of 50, you don't need this, because you know everyone personally. Socialism/Communism works on this scale, especially when everyone is blood related. Remember, most of us grew up in the communist dictatorship known as the nuclear family.

    P.S. at least according to "before the dawn" paleolithic tribes were extremely violent.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      What I think is wrong about this is that it buys into standard economic fallacy — that humans are rational economic optimizers. This is industrial age thinking, and isn't the way humans really behave.

      Check out the video JS linked above, and the Bob Black quote in my reply.

      I like Hayek, but he's stuck in the context of 20th century capitalism and makes too many assumptions about humanity because of his lack of perspective.

  23. Evolutionarily 13 years ago

    Another plug for Hayek, this time his Nobel acceptance speech The Pretence of Knowledge: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/

  24. unfrozencaveman 13 years ago

    Libertarians, Anarchists, and Cavemen – my thoughts on this stuff

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      "If you fell off a cruise ship, landed on an island, and met a guy who claimed to own the entire island because he got there first, you might really have a problem with his further claim that you must either do as he demands or leave."

      i like this example. extending that line of thinking to its conclusion leads to some interesting places.

      keep me posted if you write more on the topic.

      • Cal 13 years ago

        LSE political philosopher (and libertarian) Jan Lester explicitly covered that exact hypothetical scenario in his 2001 book Escape from Leviathan (and it has been covered before). Here is an excerpt:

        If I had been washed ashore on the small and poorly resourced island (where productive division of labor is hardly practical) before you, then this need not much alter the situation. I would be using things that I did not create and which would have been there for you to use had I not been there. When you arrive by equally unchosen means, we are an imposed cost to each other in terms of scant natural resources, however they are shared. Being at liberty as far as possible entails that such costs be minimized. Because of the diminishing marginal utility of goods, which we value equally, and as we had no prior contract, I must (if liberty is to be observed) allow you about half of all the natural resources. I need not, of course, part with any benefits I am wholly responsible for, such as fish I might have caught and preserved. We cannot help imposing costs on (restricting the liberty of) each other, but minimizing these costs at least maximizes liberty. There is no libertarian claim to equal shares as such; it just works out that way in this strange context: sparse natural resources on a tiny island, equally valued by people without prior contracts, who did not choose to go or remain there. Again, none of this is due to defining liberty in terms of moral rights, or to asserting the equal moral right to liberty (or utility, or anything else). It is simply that this is what is entailed if the liberty policy formula is to be observed.

  25. jane 13 years ago

    Yes, but what if they value a person more than another person? What if one in their group is biologically superior in every way, one the others see in a more deserving light than their companions, and even themselves? What if they want to preserve that life, to further that genetic line, (for the benefit of the species, they know not), more than they do a genetically inferior person? What if the best, most productive, highest quality group came about as a result of that intellectually superior person making decisions, leading, and consuming the best resources. What if pure equality for its own sake made for an uninspiring, meaningless life where worship of exact division of value, without regard for worth of the receiver, was the best you could look forward to. Where resources and labour were not pooled into something greater – to go without some, that it might produce a higher state of housing, food, culture, art for at least a few, or else not physically be able to exist. What if inequality was the ideal?

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      You ask these "what ifs" as if you're the first person in the world to ever consider them. It seems that you hope the rhetorical style somehow constitutes an argument. All of these have been covered in the literature. Again, I'll refer you to Boehm, Scott, Gray, Woodburn, and the entire field of evolutionary biology — particularly the literature on group selection.

  26. Jane 13 years ago

    The more people that have considered them the better, if this were an argument. I ask the what if's to emotively conjure possibilities outside your little egalitarian box. So all expression of ideas should be confined to solid reasoning and backed up by the quoting of other people's interpretations? Or at least when poetical hypothosising doesn't suit your world view.

  27. Author
    Matt Johnston 11 years ago

    Wow. With the election coming up I have found myself arguing the same points with my Ron Paul supporting friends.
    In the wild, the truly wild of our ancestors complete with large predators, the individual standing alone, no matter how rugged he thinks he is, is lunch. Humans are weak and slow and the only defense is the group. Lions don't attack a group of animals. They single one out and split him off from the herd before they make a kill.
    I once read an account of a young Native American man of about 13 doing a vision quest in which he spent several days and nights alone fasting in a small circle of stones away from his village. He said he was terrified because it was the first time in his life he had ever been alone. Family, tribe, clan, are everything. What ever one accomplished in life is measured by the good it does for the group.
    Rugged Individualism and Libertarianism are based on American myths invented for selling dime novels in the nineteenth century.
    As someone who has practiced wilderness survival skills, the odds of surviving in the wild increase exponentially with the addition of a second and third able bodied person.
    We are social animals. The sooner we accept that fact, the better off we will be.

  28. Author
    Papa Harding 11 years ago

    I agree that Libertarian and HG view are very differing. Unfortunately for the HG there are no ( very few) areas where one can freely range. Population is the other issue….there are too many humans. We have extended way past our holding capacity and have circumvented many of nature's population checks and balances. I will disagree that HGs don't go to war (other than personal/social). Creatures in nature still go to war over natural resources. From ants to chimps, warfare can be observed when one group intrudes into another's territory taking resources. Granted…'territory' is not static and typically moves with the group. I can't imagine human tribes were any different.

  29. Author
    Amy Beth 10 years ago

    I get annoyed when people wrongly assume that libertarianism must mean individualism – they are not mutually exclusive. The key is volunteerism and free association. A libertarian society still has "tribes" through families, churches, neighborhoods, professional organizations, etc. but these tribes are voluntarily chosen by the participants, not forced upon anyone by the state. This is the key difference between libertarian ideals and progressive ideals. Progressives want to create a better world by telling everyone how they should live and spend their money. Libertarians want to create a better world by allowing people to choose those things for themselves. This does not mean you have a bunch of individuals running around tribeless.

Leave a reply

Evolvify ©2010 - 2024.


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?