Arnold Kling  

Universal Human Nature

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Christopher I. Beckwith writes,

Viewed from the perspective of Eurasian history over the last four millennia, there does not seem to me to be any significant difference between the default underlying human socio-political structure during this time period--that is, down to the present day--and that of primates in general. The Alpha Male Hierarchy is our system too, regardless of whatever cosmetics have been applied to hide it...the Modern political system is in fact simply a disguised primate-type hierarchy, and as such is not essentially different from any other political system human primates have dreamed upl.

That is from the preface to Empires of the Silk Road, a forthcoming book. More excerpts below the fold.

Of all the reductionist theories out there, my favorite is the one that says that most activities, especially those involving males, are hierarchical status games. I think that theory helps explain the drive for excessive compensation on the part of executives. I think it explains the excessive drive for power on the part of politicians.

Market-oriented economists are accused of merely crafting an elaborate rationale for extreme status competition among the rich. I think there may be a grain of truth to this.

I feel the same way about economists who trumpet market failure and support strengthening government. On some level, they are merely crafting an elaborate rationale for extreme status competition among politicians.

I believe that the economic status game usually has positive externalities. If A and B compete for wealth, they often have to create wealth for the rest of us.

I believe that the political status game has fewer positive externalities. In theory, politicians could do things to create wealth. In practice, they mostly take from some constituents and give to others.

All in all, I think it is best not to get too romantic about either the way markets or politics channel status behavior.

Beckwith's book is history with attitude. His goal is to improve the reputation of the steppe nomads of central Eurasia. They generally are considered barbarians. One thinks of the Huns or the Mongol Hordes as fierce and extremely warlike. Beckwith says that they were no worse than anyone else. He also resurrects the history of many other steppe nomad peoples, some of whom are extinct or nearly so.

How could a ruler remain alive in a world of ruthless hierarchical status competition? Beckwith says that the key was the comitatus system, in which a ruler recruited a cadre of trusted vassals who agreed to commit suicide upon the death of the ruler. In return, the ruler gave them a good life.

The reason trade was so important to nomadic peoples seems rather to have been the necessity of supporting the ruler and his comitatus, the cost of which is attested by archaeological excavations and by historical descriptions of the wealth lavished on comitatus members across Central Eurasia from Antiquity onward. The ruler-comitatus relationship was the sociopolitical foundation stone...until well into the Middle Ages. Without it, the ruler would not have been able to maintain himself on the throne in this life and would have been defenseless against his enemies in the next life.

The book is a tough slog at times, particularly when Beckwith recounts dynastic struggles among obscure tribes. It gets very lively near the end, when Beckwith rants against Modernism, which he blames for both the ideologically-driven massacres of Hitler and Stalin and the decline of classical art. He seems at least as angry about the latter as the former.

Throughout, Beckwith puts "democracy" in scare quotes. He probably would disagree with my "most wrong" view that the market economy is a recent development. But he would agree with the de-romanticized view of our political system.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

Beckwith writes:

"there does not seem to me to be any significant difference between the default underlying human socio-political structure during this time period--that is, down to the present day--and that of primates in general. The Alpha Male Hierarchy is our system too"

Perhaps, but it's worth keeping in mind that the great apes each have quite different socio-political structures, which have analogs in different human societies. My 1999 National Review article "Chimps and Chumps" reviews the evidence:

So, generalizing from apes to humans is questionable because both have such variable social structures.

Jacob Oost writes:

Ditto on the last sentence, Dr. K.

As a Christian I do not like materialism, scarcity, poverty, selfishness, greed, arrogance, etc., but at the same time I fully recognize the positive benefits for all of the market system, all by accident.

I don't like seeing people who I otherwise agree with on economics and politics fall into the trap of thinking that the goal in life is to make as much money as possible, or that those who don't have high incomes have somehow failed at life, etc.

razib writes:

i think beckwith's assertion makes more sense in what are termed "small scale societies." the same general principles are not scaled up without adding a lot of social and cultural complexity. not that the status hierarchy is not at work...but it's a trivial observation.

Arthur_500 writes:

Indeed the study of Economics is the study of how people act when faced with choices. Let's look at wildlife and see what Mother Nature offers.
When predators kill off too much of their prey they can change an ecosystem even to their own detriment. Mother Nature kills indiscrimately.
When a fire destroys an ecosystem what replaces it is a new ecosystem and not suited to certain animals. Mother Nature tells those to move away.
In short, in the natural world sometimes all the systems fail. New plants grow. New species take up homes. The resulting ecosystem may be vibrant but it is not the same as what existed before. Mother Nature doesn't care about change.
Presently our economic system has had a catastrophic failure. Mr. Keynes predicted such an event and suggested that government could kick start things. This is not unlike planting new bushes to stabilize the ground and encourage new growth in an area hit by forest fire. You don't re-create the forest but just get some stability.
What makes us think that humans aren't opportunistic in order to survive or that this is some sort of a bad thing? Greed can be good.
Those with resources will buy the homes of those who are losing them. They will buy stocks from those forced to sell. They will create new business opportuniti3s out of the ashes of those that go under. Is this some sort of Alpha Male dominance? No. This is survival of the fittest and those who can capitalize on their present situation.

dearieme writes:

What happens to an alpha ape when he has proved himself to be - forgive the expression - an utter arse? Should our bankers be driven off, shunned by decent society, or killed and eaten? What are our ape-derived options?

Dave writes:

Oh dear. I second what Steve says: primate societies are diverse, and so are human societies. The alpha male thing, which properly applies to certain animals only, like wolves, is quite tiresome to hear about with respect to humans. (Note that in those systems *only* the alpha reproduces--humans are nothing like this.) It's like we're forgetting everything we actually know about humans and instead picking out a simplified, wrong version of a theory developed for a completely different species. Ewww. Reminds me of the way early English grammarians just picked random crap out of Latin to misapply.

rhhardin writes:

There's a long tradition of sotto voce remarks in hierarchies as well, to indicate that total compliance is not to be counted on.

Erving Goffman, _Asylums_:

The simplest sociological view of the individual and his self is that he is to himself what his place in an organization defines him to be. When pressed, a sociologist modifies this model by granting certain complications : the self may be not yet formed or may exhibit conflicting dedications. Perhaps we should further complicate the construct by elevating these qualifications to a central place, initially defining the individual, for sociological purposes, as a stance-taking entity, a something that takes up a position somewhere between identificaiton with an organization and opposition to it, and is ready at the slightest pressure to regain its balance by shifting its involvement to either direction. It is thus _against something_ that the self can emerge. This has been appreciated by students of totalitarianism ...

I have argued the same case in regard to total institutions. May this not be the situation, however, in free society, too?

Without something to belong to, we have no stable self, and yet total commitment and attachment to any social unit implies a kind of selflessness. Our sense of being a person can come from being drawn into a wider social unit ; our sense of selfhood can arise through the little ways in which we resist the pull. Our status is backed by the solid buildings of the world, while our sense of personality identity often resides in the cracks.


fundamentalist writes:

“Beckwith says that the key was the comitatus system, in which a ruler recruited a cadre of trusted vassals who agreed to commit suicide upon the death of the ruler. In return, the ruler gave them a good life.”

In the general outline, Beckwith agrees with Douglass North’s description of traditional societies: the ruler (usually king) maintains power by granting a select group (usually the nobility) the right to plunder the common people’s wealth. That is still the dominant form of government in the world, though many nations have a thin veneer of democracy to hide behind.

That sort of realism about human nature shocks those who think mankind is basically good and turns bad only because of some type of oppression, such as capitalism, or potty training. But that realism agrees very well with the basic theme of the Bible: man has a tendency toward evil. Man is evil, not various ways of organizing society.

“He probably would disagree with my "most wrong" view that the market economy is a recent development.”

I think that might be because historians see no difference between ancient markets and modern ones. The modern market system is very new, beginning as late at the 17th century and then in only small enclaves of Western Europe such as the Dutch Republic.

Ancient markets were like those of the modern Middle Eastern bazaars. There are no posted prices. You have to ask how much a vendor wants for an item and then proceed to haggle for a very long time. No laws exist to protect buyers, and even if they did, judges tend to be easily bought. There are no guarantees or return policies. As a result, people tend to do business with family members or friends of family members. If you don’t have those, then the search for an honest vendor is very time consuming and expensive. All business is personal. In North’s terms, transaction costs are very high.

North highlighted the main element that makes modern markets different from traditional ones: modern markets are impersonal. Law, contracts, guarantees, competition, posted prices, and many other aspects of the modern market make it impersonal. I don’t have to know a vendor well in order to know if he is going to cheat me or not. I can buy from a total stranger and be fairly confident that I will not be cheated. Transaction costs are low. Creating the new market system required new institutions to support it, such as the rule of law, equality under the law for all people, honest judges and police, etc.

In fact, the main difference between traditional and modern markets is that in traditional markets cheating isn’t viewed as a bad thing. It’s a sign of business acumen to be able to cheat a person in a business arrangement. Modern markets view cheating as a bad thing and a sign of moral degradation.

Finally, I think Mises pointed out one of the most important differences between traditional and modern markets: in traditional markets producers produced for the wealthy; in modern markets most production is mass production, that is, for the masses. Traditional markets retarded economic development while modern markets advance wealth creation for the majority of people by reducing the cost of living.

guthrie writes:

Keith Johnstone discovered this hierarchy when teaching improvisation to theater students back in the 50's and 60's. His book 'Impro, Improvisation and the Theatre' is a fascinating exploration of this phenomenon and how it may be exploited for an improviser on stage. It sounds like 'Impro' would be good ancillary reading to Beckwith. At any rate, I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject, even if you're not a theater person.

VangelV writes:

It is not important if the unhampered market allows competition for status among the 'rich' because in a free market where government's only concern is the protection of individuals from the initiation of force the only way to get rich is to convince consumers to purchase what producers are selling. The bottom line is that societies that protect individual rights and let the markets work are wealthier and healthier than those where governments meddle.

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