The World’s First Paleo-Libertarians

Are human beings better suited for individualism or collectivism? The question seems highly relevant to issues of political economy, but it’s one that very few advocates of individual liberty have sought to answer by looking at the anthropological record.

This neglect is unfortunate, economist Thomas Mayor suggests, because the evidence indicates that for millennia before the agricultural revolution, man lived in a state of political autonomy and economic freedom, and acted basically as a self-interested individualist (“Hunter-Gatherers: The Original Libertarians,” The Independent Review, Spring 2012).

For evidence of individualism among ancient hunter-gatherers, Mayor cites the customs of existing primitive societies. The Yanomamo of the northern Amazon, for example, show a high level of individual autonomy in decision-making. Their nuclear family typically is sovereign on matters that affect it alone, and there is no centralized mechanism to coerce compliance on matters that affect others; families can choose to cooperate with each other or leave the band.

Mayor also argues that individual hunter-gatherers were free to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. They maintained the custom of “food sharing”—the offering of surplus food to those in need—not through coercion, but through reciprocity. Nonreciprocators—those who took food but never offered any when they had enough to spare—were unlikely to be tolerated. The importance of reciprocity helps explain why existing hunter-gatherers are known for their generosity: their gifts, Mayor explains, serve as premiums paid for “hunger insurance.”

If individualism characterized human societies for so long, why did people lose their basic freedoms when settled agriculture became the dominant mode of production?

Liberty receded because living in immobile settlements made individuals more vulnerable to predation. “The potential loss of [cleared land and stored crops],” Mayor writes, “provided powerful warlords with the necessary leverage to dominate settled agricultural communities, establish the first states, restrict individual autonomy, and abolish the individual’s right to his own production.”

Hunter-Gatherers: The Original Libertarians, by Thomas Mayor (The Independent Review, Spring 2012)

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott, reviewed by Thomas J. Thompson (The Independent Review, Summer 2011)

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[This post first appeared in the March 27, 2012, issue of The Lighthouse, the Independent Institute’s weekly newsletter. To receive The Lighthouse and other email notices from the Independent Institute, enter your email address here.]

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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