Capitalism and Human Nature

godsheroesI am amazed that a frequent defense of capitalism is that it is the system that best reflects human nature. If it is natural, the argument goes, then it is good. The “natural=good” argument does not extend to actually caring for Mother Nature, however. Mother Nature should be overcome, tamed and forced to serve man-like a rebellious woman.

Thomas Hobbes, reflecting the cultural bias of his time (as we all do if not vigilant) said that man in a state of nature was vicious and his life was “nasty, brutish and short.” It was “war of all against all” and therefore humans needed a strong monarch to keep them from killing each other off. Capitalism reflects this natural order by setting humans free to pursue their own self-interest. As if by magic, this rampant selfishness supposedly benefits everyone. Adam Smith is misrepresented as promoting this idea by people who have never bothered to read Adam Smith.

“Has capitalism lost its moral compass?” is a question asked more and more frequently. To which I reply: “What moral compass?” It never had one. “But look at the USSR,” capitalists reply. To work without hope of getting ahead, to have your life controlled and manipulated by the State makes people lazy, corrupt and miserable. As if there were only two possible economic systems: American-style capitalism and Stalinist-style communism. There must be hundreds of possible economic systems and it is high time we started considering some.

What is mankind in his natural state? Except for the technology, mankind in the distant past was just like us. Our ancestors wanted to stay alive, have fulfilling relationships and find some meaning for their lives. They joked, fell in love, made music and art, got into conflicts and settled those conflicts in one way or another. Their economic system, for nine-tenths of human existence, was hunter-gathering in smallish kin-based groups.

They shared within the group because they wanted to live and they knew they could not live alone. They also shared within the group because they cared about each other. Healed fractures on old bones show that they cared for group members who could not contribute to the group due to injury. Sharing within a kinship group is perfectly understandable to us (think Thanksgiving, Christmas.) Leaders were informally chosen by consensus based on their character, but everyone had their say around the campfire. The occasional jerk was mocked and if he did not shape up, banished. Banishment under these conditions was tantamount to a death sentence.

What happened when one group ran into another? That depended on many variables, but probably the most common occurrence was a cautious sizing-up. Gift-giving was common and is still practiced today. A representative gave a gift to a representative of the other group. It was not trade. As a decent human being, the recipient would also want to give a gift to the other side, but to think of this as repayment was considered crass and rude.

A friendly group could become a source of mates, information and cooperation. The spread of DNA from the original group out of Africa all over the world implies our ancestors were more inclined to make love than war. A rude group could be avoided by simply moving away from them, a sensible approach if you wanted to stay alive. Over-mighty leaders could be impeached in the same way. While he or she slept, the group could simply move on. “Who are you leading now, big shot?”

About ten thousand years ago people began to settle down and grow crops and domesticate animals. They worked harder and had less freedom than the hunter-gatherers, but they also had more food security. It was a trade-off. Now, with surplus food, some were freed to make pots or weave cloth or protect the surplus from raiders. Sharing was still the norm, since granaries were large communal affairs.

Gradually the surplus-protectors became chiefs and somehow individuals began to “own” the land that had belonged to everyone. Proudhon said, “Property is theft,” but it has been a slow-motion theft carried out over many millennia. Capitalism as we conceive of it has only been around for a few hundred years and is no more the natural state of mankind than renting out your muscles and brain by the hour for wages.

I do not know if there really is such a thing as a collective unconscious, but there is definitively something in us from our ancestors that insists on freedom and fairness. We want to be part of a community, to be heard and to have the necessities to stay alive. We are suspicious of strangers, but if they prove to be friendly we will accept them. If not, conflicts will arise. We expect our leaders to have character and have an urge to abandon them if they do not. This is human nature and the hunter-gatherers on the commuter trains, deep in their hearts, are still the children of the savannah and rain forest.

History of the Rise of Commerce:

After the Ice Age by Michael Hudson


The World until Yesterday by Jared Diamond


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