2 May 2017

Reap what you sow: The impact of the early state

Jori writes:*
"Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place.” -- Douglas Adams
In their Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History" [pdf], North, Wallis and Weingast argue that life before the state was, in Hobbesian terms, nasty, brutish and short. A shift 10.000 years ago, coinciding with the invention of agriculture, towards “limited access order,” the earliest form of what we now recognise as the state, brought on a positive change which left every “member of society better off.”

When looking at the transition from pre- to post-agricultural societies from a pure economic growth perspective, this might be true. There was a clear increase in population and economic activity after the start of the Neolithic revolution. However, a village elder in one of these early settlements would probably recognize that growth is not the same as development. Did this increase in prehistoric GDP coincide with an increase in prehistoric HDI? His answer would most likely be no. He would notice that apart from economic activity, where his society was clearly superior, on most other measurements of development he would be doing worse. Skeletons show that early farmers had poorer nutrition than their ancestors. This could not be attributed to an easier lifestyle: according to Yuval Harai's Sapiens same skeletons exhibit signs of a “plethora of ailments” associated with hard, physical labour, like “slipped discs, arthritis and hernias.” At the same time they were unlikely to have had more leisure time while life expectancy dropped [pdf].

Now of course, the main thing that the early state was supposed to curb was anarchy and death. North et al. describe the starting point of human history as “a world of endemic violence.” However, it is questionable whether this is truly the case. On the hand a lot of the evidence that the sources they rely on to establish these high rates of violence have been disputed. Although the prehistoric world was no paradise filled with noble savages, it was not as deadly as is often asserted. At the same time, this misses the fact that the division of labour and the emergence of the most powerful organisation in human history, the state, made it possible for sustained large scale warfare to occur in the first place.

If agriculture was such a bad idea, then why did it spread? Just think of it as a prisoner’s dilemma: imagine two communities. If both are hunter gatherers, they live the healthier and more fulfilling lives associated with early agriculture. This is not to romanise the lifestyles of hunter/gatherers, but rather to recognise that on most indicators, they were better off than early agriculturalists. However, if one community switched to agriculture and the other remained hunter gatherers, the first group could use their economic surplus to train a band of rogues and dominate the other group. In order to prevent this scenario, both communities will end up switching to agriculture, despite the fact that they would have been better off as hunter gatherers.

Agriculture Hunter/gathering
Agriculture 5, 5 0,10
Hunter/gathering 10, 0 7, 7

Bottom Line In the long run, the choice to switch to agriculture might have paid off. Personally, I am certainly not giving up the myriad of advantages that the Neolithic revolution brought me. However, it is important to recognize the negative impact it had on the early adopters and their offspring. Now, I could of course tell the tribe elder from earlier in this post that in the long run, their switch to agriculture made it possible for me to spend my afternoon sitting behind a magical machine imagining his existence, while not even for a second worrying about hunger or death. But he would probably tell me that he didn’t care, because in the long run he and the many generations that came after him would be dead.

* Please comment on these posts by students in my growth & development economics course. It really helps if you highlight unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data, etc.