Brooks on hunter-gatherers and egalitarianism

Fitting nicely with my recent post on human nature and libertarianism (and particularly the comments), Rob Brooks has the following to say on the mega-rich and people’s sense of fairness:

Hunter-gatherers keep their neighbours and tribe-mates in line. When everybody depends on everyone else, then reputation rules. You simply can’t afford to be selfish, whether by failing to share or by freeloading, in a small community. Your allies will desert you. …

Where our early ancestors kept one another honest, elites in hierarchical societies tend to socialise with other elites who are equally self-interested in maintaining their own power. The mega-rich don’t hang out with wage-earners, preferring to mix with politicians, media moguls and millionaire televangelists. …

I would never suggest that flat egalitarianism is desirable, but societies in which wealth is spread more equitably experience less violence, better health, lower stress and greater happiness than highly inequitable societies. Which is why everybody has a duty to criticise opulence and ridicule greed rather than fantasising about making the BRW Rich Lists.

I’ll post some detailed thoughts on hunter-gatherer society and egalitarianism in the future (Andrew’s recent post at Evolvify also requires a post or two). In the meantime, I have one question – why should I care about these elites?

I care that the mega-rich influence government – Rob’s example of the mix of politicians and media moguls is particularly relevant. But from a hunter-gather perspective, the mega-rich are more like a distant tribe than part of any group of which I am a member. They don’t want to hang out with me, and they don’t form part of my circle of kin, friends or neighbours. It is only through modern media that I know who these people are. So should I want to cut them down to size just because they are rich? Or is it their ability to project that wealth that should be the subject of concern?


  1. Brooks is part right and mostly wrong. Hunter-gatherer groups have very little material wealth, and what they have they tend to share, especially plant food. Meat is another matter, as it is controlled by the hunters and parcelled out for influence and favors.

    However, every known hunter-gatherer group shows strong social dominance (by young men) and have well-developed social hierachies. In the absence of institutionalized elites, these hierachies are based on strength and aggression. Fertile women are often property in these societies, and their acquisition is the major source of violence. Murder is probably the most common cause of death in hunter-gatherer groups, typically being about 30% for men and around 20% for women.

    Brooks suffers from the Noble Savage syndrome. His science is driven by his ideology. Does anyone remember Gould, or Lewontin or Boas?

  2. 1) because we live in a finite world with finite resources. As they get exhausted/population grows an inequal distribution will affect the access to these resources for alot of people. (it is not as if the resources were conjured out of thin air by the super-rich)

    2) because the divide in society that requires us to ignore the extremely wealthy is preventing society from functioning as a superorganism. Besides, even if you ignore the powerful ones, why would they ignore you? Money is just proxy for power over other people. If all the resources are concentrated to a few, the rest will have to cater to their needs in order the get a share of those resources. You dont see any problem with that?

  3. Do you really not get it? The mega-rich make decisions that affect your life. You, in comparison, can’t do a thing to them. I remember reading about one high-volume oil speculator who got blackout drunk and started trading. When he was done the price of gas was up fifty cents. 93% of income gains in 2010 went to the top 1%. Seven of the ten richest Americans are heirs. When you make money with money, you don’t have to work for it, but someone else does…

    1. Why do you care that the rich can make money with money?

      Do you think that government actually curtails the rich? Or is it more likely to help them and bail them out with everyone else’s money when they are in trouble?

      1. “Why do you care that the rich can make money with money?”
        Because the only reason they can do so is because the rest of us work to create that wealth. Just because they don’t work for it doesn’t mean the Wealth Fairy creates it. Somebody has to actually be productive.

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