Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"In the beginning all the world was America": Political Evolution and Political Theory

I have argued that a true science of politics would be grounded in a "deep history" of politics stretching back to the Paleolithic age (2.5 million years to 12,000 years BP). To most political scientists and political theorists, this sounds silly, for at least two reasons. First, they assume that we can never know much about human political experience prior to the invention of writing, because in the absence of written records, any conjectures we might make about human politics in the Paleolithic must be wildly speculative, if not pure fantasy. The second reason is that most political scientists and political theorists believe that such speculative scenarios of prehistoric politics would add nothing important to our understanding of politics based on the recorded political history of the last few thousand years.

My response to the first point is that modern evolutionary science has been developing some ways for studying prehistoric politics that are both empirically and theoretically rigorous. This can't be dismissed as fantastic speculation. As an example, I will be writing a post on a new article surveying the evidence and reasoning for studying political egalitarianism during the last Ice Age.

In this post, I will respond to the second point by suggesting that a Darwinian deep history of politics continues a tradition of thought in the history of political theory, which should be taken seriously, therefore, by those political theorists who study that tradition.

At least since Plato, political philosophers have had to study the deep history of politics, because they have understood that political life is shaped by natural and social history. In Book 3 of Plato's Laws, for example, the Athenian Stranger attempts to trace the "original source of the political regime" (676a). He speaks about the ancient stories of disasters--like floods and plagues--that have destroyed most human beings and left only a tiny remnant living in primitive conditions. With civilization destroyed, they lived by herding and hunting. Without writing, there were no written laws, but only ancestral or customary laws. Here the first pattern for a political regime would be the paternal authority of older men in their families, which could lead to a patriarchal dynastic monarchy. Then, as population increased over long periods of time, human beings turned to farming, which supported the first cities. So Plato recognized the importance of the invention of agriculture as a crucial turning point in political evolution (680e-81a). He also saw that this evolution depended on the modes of survival and reproduction.

Living in small family groups, the first stories about the gods are told by parents, and children in their simplicity believe them, just as they adopt all the customs coming from their parents. Later, as various clans with different customs and beliefs come together, there must be lawgivers to select which customs and beliefs are best suited for the larger community (681a-81d).

The Athenian Stranger quotes from Homer as a source for his political history, because Homer "speaks somehow according to god, as well as according to nature." He speaks as a divinely inspired poet who sometimes will "hit upon many things that truly happen" (682a).

Plato's Athenian Stranger goes through the various kinds of political regime that have arisen in political history. His final aim in this political history is to support the conclusion that the best regime is a mixed regime that combines authority and freedom. The Persian regime represents monarchic authority, with too much slavery. The Athenian regime represents democratic rule, with too much freedom. It would be best to combine Persian authority and Athenian freedom under the rule of law (690d-702e).

Other ancient authors offered their own versions of the historical origins of politics. Perhaps the most elaborate account of political evolution in the ancient world is in Lucretius' On Nature (De rerum natura) (at the end of Book 5).

But it was the European discovery of the New World in 1492 that gave a powerful impetus to the study of political evolution in political theory. When Europeans discovered a whole world of human social life that had been unknown to them previously, this forced them into reformulating their traditional stories of human origins. In particular, they had to reconsider the Biblical account of human creation and social history.

Here was a turning point in human history as far-reaching as the invention of agriculture and the emergence of the first bureaucratic states. For the first time in human history, the entire earth was tied together in a network of economic, political, and intellectual exchange. One consequence of this was the thought that the American Indians might manifest the original condition of humanity.

That thought underlies Hobbes's conception of the state of nature (in Chapter 13 of The Leviathan). He describes this condition of human beings without government where "every man is enemy to every man," as a state of war where the life of man is famously described as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

To the objection that such a condition has never really existed, Hobbes answers that, on the contrary, the American Indians still live in this state: "the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner."

In such a state of nature, without government, or any common authority, human beings are naturally equal, Hobbes thinks. He recognizes that, of course, human beings are naturally different in mind and body. But these natural differences are not so great as to give anyone unchallenged dominance over others. He explains:

"Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself."

There is some confusion in this description of the state of nature. On the one hand, Hobbes speaks of it as a "solitary" life, which suggests no social life at all. Yet, on the other hand, he recognizes "the government of small families" as bound together by "natural lust," and he also sees that the weak can form a "confederacy" to overcome the strong. So it seems that even without formal governmental authority, human beings would have a social order based on familial ties and social alliances. If so, then Hobbes's state of nature conforms to the kind of social life lived by nomadic foragers in stateless societies.

Like Hobbes, Locke--in the Two Treatises of Government--describes the state of nature as a condition where human beings live with "no common judge with authority," which is a condition of natural liberty and equality, in that each person is free to live as he pleases without dependence on the will of another.

And like Hobbes, Locke looks to the American Indians as showing this natural state. "In the beginning, all the world was America" (II, 49). And, thus, the American Indians provide "a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (II, 108).

Locke lays out a history of political evolution based principally on two sources--the many books on the social history of the American Indians by Europeans who had travelled in the New World and the Biblical history of politics in the Old Testament. This evolutionary history of politics is crucial for his argument that human beings are naturally equal in their freedom and that governments arise by their consent.

Locke's evolutionary history is tied to three factors--property, parental care, and political power--corresponding to three natural desires: self-preservation, reproduction, and political rule

(1) PROPERTY. In his history of property, Locke sees three stages of appropriation corresponding to the foraging life, the agrarian life, and the commercial life. The American Indians live as foragers who gather wild plants and hunt wild animals (II, 26). Assuming that each man asserts a property in his own person, he extends his property through the labor of gathering plants or hunting animals that he consumes.

With the invention of farming, human beings appropriate land to themselves by cultivating it to produce food for consumption by themselves and their families. If land is abundant and the human population low, there is no conflict over land use.

With the invention of money and development of commercial exchange, farmers can produce for the market, which gives them the incentive to expand their land claims, so that soon all the land has been claimed. Now, conflicts over the property in land requires a government to regulate the right of property by legislation.

Like Adam Smith, Locke marvels at how commercial exchange creates a spontaneous order in which strangers cooperate to produce something like a loaf of bread (II, 43).

(2) PARENTAL CARE. Locke regards the conjugal society of husband and wife as the "first society," which shows that human beings are naturally social, because they are naturally inclined to sexual mating. From this conjugal society arises the familial tie between parents and children. Comparing human mating with the mating systems of other animals, Locke sees that human beings show a long period of childhood dependency on parental care, so that for human beings, it is natural for parents to provide extensive care that provides not just for the existence of their offspring but for their nourishment and their education. Thus does family life as the "first society" arise from the natural desires for sexual mating, parental care, and familial bonding (II, 77-84).

Children are not born in a state of equal freedom, because they are dependent on their parents. But as they mature and acquire reason, they naturally grow into their natural freedom (II, 54-63). It was natural, however, for children in "the first ages of the world" to give a tacit consent to being ruled by their fathers, which created patriarchal political authority (II, 74-76).

(3) POLITICAL RULE. Since all individuals are by nature free, equal, and independent, Locke argues, no one can be put under the political power of another without his consent. By their unanimous consent, individuals agree to join a community, and then that community by majority consent can establish any form of government.

Locke recognizes two major objections to his reasoning. First, it is said that there are no historical cases of people who begin as free and equal and then meet to set up a government. Second, it is said that all individuals are born under a government to which they owe obedience, and they are not free to set up a new one (II, 100).

To the first objection, Locke answers that there is very little historical evidence of the state of nature and the establishment of government by consent only because government first arose before the invention of writing. But even so, we can find some evidence among the American Indians and other foraging people that originally they lived without government. We can also see in the Bible and other records stories of how government first arose.

We can see evidence that primitive societies commonly put themselves under patriarchal rulers or others who seemed best suited to rule them. Typically, tribal chiefs were war leaders who exercised little authority in time of peace. Locke sees evidence for this in the books about the New World and in the Bible (II, 101-12).

To the second objection--that all individuals are born under the authority of a government to which they have not consented--Locke answers by pointing to the obvious fact of the multiplicity of governments as showing that human beings have regularly established new governments. Moreover, the history of colonization provides clear cases of where people have left the governments under which they were born to enter a new government. This indicates that when natural born citizens obey their government, they are showing their tacit consent (II, 113-22).

Locke recognizes that the history of government is largely the history of conquest, and in wars of conquest, popular consent is ignored (II, 175-96). But when government rules by force alone, without any authority from popular consent, that government can be overthrown whenever enough people are discontented and have sufficient courage and opportunity to rebel. In other words, people are naturally inclined to meet force with force, when they think they are being exploited by tyrants. People can always choose to rebel against their government. And when they do, they have "appealed to Heaven," which is to say, they have invoked the God of battles (II, 240-43).

As suggested by both Hobbes and Locke, the ultimate ground of the natural right to equal liberty is the natural inclination of human beings to use violence in retaliating against those who exploit them. Machiavelli makes the same point when he observes that a prince who is hated by his people is easily assassinated.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.


Troy Camplin said...

Your comments here on what Locke said about the Bible reminded me of something that recently crossed my mind, which is that the description of the judges system in the Bible sounds much like Hayek's ideal natural law spontaneous order, where the judges simply render judgement on disputes. More, when the Hebrews ask God to give them a king, God responds that they shouldn't want a king, because a king will enslave them, rob them through taxes, etc. When the Hebrews persist in demanding of God a king, he responds by saying that he will now punish them for asking for a king by . . . giving them a king! :-)

Larry Arnhart said...


I agree.

The "Hebrew Republic" had a lot of influence not only on Locke but on other modern republican thinkers. As you say, First Samuel 8 is a powerful statement of libertarian thought.