Still catching up on my Google Reader perpetually-1000+ unread queue, I finally caught up with the Robin Hanson series of posts on “foragers vs. farmers” (click over there & read further dates, there’s more if you’re interested) that I had already seen responses to on other blogs. The basic idea is that ancient humanity were natural ‘foragers’, then with the advent of farming they became ‘farmers’, but with wealth allowing us to surpass farming we (well, some of us – i.e. lefties) are reverting back to our (more “natural”?) ‘forager’ ways. In other words, the lefty-righty divide is just a modern projection of the ancient forager vs. farming divide, and foraging is destined for a comeback.
It’s a somewhat interesting idea, if not all that original. Theories of how modern political fault lines trace back to some ancient fissure are a dime a dozen and have obvious appeal, if (usually) less obvious accuracy or usefulness.
Although it is meant to explain a different phenomenon, this one is actually quite similar to the “Mercurians vs. Apollonians” theory of Yuri Slezkine. That theory primarily addresses the issue of anti-Semitism and related prejudices, by telling a story of society that pits the more martial/real-goods-producing groups (“Apollonians”) against the peddlers/middlemen who support and supply them (“Mercurians”) – with Jews (and Armenians, Chinese in places) being examples the latter. That maps pretty well onto Hanson’s view of the world, since Apollonians are basically just farmers by another name. So in both cases we have theories of society’s dichotomies in which ‘conservative’ is linked to a farming tradition, which seems reasonable enough, and pitted against some ‘other’ tradition that they resent.
Now, Hanson’s view of society seems to lack “Mercurians” altogether, which is an interesting oversight. Does he think their influence is minor? Does he think the farmer-peddler split unimportant for the political fault lines he thinks he’s explaining?
There is a more basic problem with Hanson’s take however, which is that in outlining the traits of farmers vs. foragers – and congratulating himself for how miraculously well they map onto conservative vs. liberal – he (unless I missed it) actually seems to miss the main difference between farmers and foragers, one that is more fundamental than any of the other traits he mentions:
Farmers, by definition, have property.
They have property to protect. They have real assets to lose. They have put real capital – their blood and sweat – into this property. After all, while a ‘forager’ can grab some berries and carry them in his arms, and eat them on the spot, the one salient characteristic of a ‘farm’, any farm, is that it is a sizable plot of land on which incomplete/not-fully-realized work has been done, but whose boundaries and contents can’t be fully held/hoarded by one person alone at all times. And so farmers inevitably need force, or the threat of force, or a principle of property rights (preferably all three) to defend it. No one who is a farmer will lack this concern for property or the need for its defense. No one who is a forager, by contrast, will have an interest in property defense; almost the contrary, in fact.
So sure, there’s a natural conflict between ‘farmers’ and ‘foragers’. This is because people who are farmers respect property rights and by definition have a lifestyle whose very feasibility requires that others do, or are forced to do, the same, whereas people who are foragers, by definition, do not respect property rights, if they even possess the concept at all. Property rights and usage is practically the defining difference between foragers and farmers.
But wait a minute then. We’ve identified that Hanson’s “Type A” group has this trait: doesn’t respect property rights. And Hanson’s “Type B” group: cares about property rights. So lo and behold, has Robin Hanson just discovered the brilliant newsflash that the righty vs. lefty divide traces to whether property rights are respected on the one hand, or treated as malleable and ‘collective’ on the other? You mean right vs. left is about whether people get to keep more of their property or take more of others’??
Stop the presses!
Once you realize that property rights underlie, in a basic and fundamental way, both the forager/farmer divide and the modern culture wars of which it is supposedly the forerunner, it renders the whole ‘forager/farmer’ construct somewhat superfluous. Yet Hanson doesn’t seem to play up, or even mention, the property rights angle at all (or if he does, he touches on it lightly, as I missed it). So it’s as if he’s done a bunch of reading about sports and decided that the San Francisco Giants want to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers because of the resurfacing of an ancient deep-seated hatred between sports teams who have Black uniforms vs. Blue uniforms making them want to beat each other in games – which is true enough, sort of – rather than due to the more obvious, fundamental, and wholly overt fact that they are two groups who by definition have opposing goals that can’t both be achieved (=to win the game).
This blindness to the obvious, fundamental common cause between the culture war he’s trying to explain and the analogy he’s trying to use to explain it leads to further problems. Because private property rights are left out altogether (and “Mercurians”, i.e. Jews or any group that is metaphorically-Jewish, are left out as well), in Hanson’s storytelling, ‘forager’ sounds great and natural, whereas ‘farmer’ sounds like a backwards, retrograde aberration. The farmer is essentially stuck in the Middle Ages. It was just a necessary phase that humanity had to go through, but now can outgrow, because of the internet (or something). The basic story is that of the ordeal or the gauntlet: everything was nice and natural; but we had to go through an awkward ‘farming’ phase; but now we’re out the other side and can go back to everything being nice and natural. I can see the appeal of this story, I suppose. It is also preposterous and puerile, not to mention highly one-dimensional.
Because what if you instead told a story like the following – and let me bold the elements that Hanson seems to have omitted:
First, humanity mostly foraged. And they were very very poor, and it was bad for the ecosystem because foragers would ransack one environment for their food and then move on to the next. Then, farming was discovered. It was touch and go for a while due to the natural conflict between foragers and farmers, never fully resolved, but systems of property rights were discovered and defended, by necessity, and due to its obvious superior output, farming survived and dominated. This is in no small part because farming allowed for trade because done with care and intelligence it created surpluses. Trade, in turn, allowed for specialization which made everyone richer. With trade also came cities, and “Mercurians”, a class of people who could serve as knowledge-based middlemen; this lubricated trade and made it more efficient, allowing for greater wealth increases and specialization than previously realized.
I could just keep continuing, on up through The Enlightenment, and Science, and Liberal Democracy (with Better, More Efficient And Therefore More Eco-Friendly Farming showing up somewhere in the mix) – but it’s not really necessary. One can already see that instead of Hanson’s ‘ordeal’ or ‘awkward phase’ story of human society, if you don’t leave stuff out you can actually tell a more normal, plausible story involving society simply (in fits and starts, not always without setbacks) inventing stuff and getting better – one of those inventions being farming, another (related) invention being real property rights.
Yet Hanson makes farming sound like a retrograde aberration that (as a necessary evil at best) interrupted all the beautiful, glorious foraging. Actually, if anything the interruption in question was private property, and far from being retrograde, it was a very important technological advance, a prerequisite for much of the wealth explosion that has come since. The anti-’farmer’ (i.e., anti-production and property rights) vibe Hanson’s story gives off veers uncomfortably close to Marxian/socialist critiques of ‘capitalism’. But it is those who, like socialists, seek to reject or discredit private property who are the retrograde ones, for wishing to overturn what is (along with trade, and specialization, and cities, and communication, and the scientific method, and republican forms of government) a key milestone in human development, built on other milestones and on which those further milestones depended.
If you squint your eyes it’s easy to fantasize that ‘foragers’ might dominate future society if you pit them solely against the ‘farmer’ straw man (and forget that ‘farming’ serves as a metaphor for ‘being productive’ in the construction). After all, ‘farming’ does sound awfully retrograde and on a manpower basis we do indeed do less and less of it (and good for us!), so hey, maybe somehow technology and Craigslist and Starbuck’s free wi-fi hotspots (or something) will let us all just ‘forage’, blog, and whatnot, thus making the ‘farming’ component of society obsolete. But it’s far more difficult to defend a vision of the future, at least a vision of future human prosperity, in which the actual forager mindset – i.e. a basic rejection of property rights, of future-oriented planning, and of specialization, among other things – is widespread.
So I’m not keen to embrace this metaphor of foragers vs. farmers as explaining lefty-righty divides, and I think it leaves much out. However, if I must use it, I should warn: it is not at all flattering to whoever is meant to be the ‘foragers’ in the analogy.