The “Freedom” Trade-Off, Part 1

In The Dawn of Everything, a heavily documented history of the human race by David Graeber and David Wengrow, the authors show conclusively that until the last two centuries or so, a range of human societies existed, ranging from hunter-gathers to socially complex and working societies that actually maximized freedom to the point where money and wealth were prohibited, and that the “progression” from hunter-gathers to agriculturally-dominated societal structures and then to commercial oligarchies or military-authoritarian societies is at best a misleading simplification and at worst a dangerous and inaccurate myth.

What Graeber and Wengrow fail to address directly is why, after tens of thousands of years of wide-ranging societal proliferation, present societies fall within a narrow scope, ranging from commercial authoritarianism to either religious or military authoritarianism. Their book certainly gives hints, in the fact that all too often societies that elevated individual freedom and severely restricted the power of elites tended to collapse after a time or were dominated and destroyed by societies that were more authoritarian and that could mobilize more force more effectively.

Money, in whatever form, is stored power. In effect, then a capitalistic society uses that stored power to force and/or induce people to follow the dictates of those with that power. And that power is in fact necessary to create a modern technological society. You cannot build anything complex without mobilizing, organizing, and directing large numbers of people and without obtaining large amounts of resources. The effective options are buying those people and resources or conscripting/forcing their use. And paying people for their skills and resources has proved to be more efficient and requires less governmental coercion than mandating work and confiscating resources.

Even so, the organization required by early capitalism – and the requisite loss of personal freedom – was totally unacceptable to most of the indigenous cultures of North America. It wasn’t unthought of. In fact, Wengrow and Graeber document detailed philosophical discussions between French and other intellectuals and wise individuals in indigenous cultures. But those cultures found the degree of individual oppression required by European cultures repulsive and unacceptable.

The reason why such cultures were subdued or obliterated is simple. Either commercial authoritarianism or military-political authoritarianism are far more effective at developing technology and at creating and mobilizing force than societies maximizing personal freedom. Although commercial authoritarianism is more effective at creating and innovating new products and technology, and allows a greater range of freedom than other forms of authoritarianism, politico-military authoritarianism can focus force more effectively… at least until commercial authoritarian societies decide to focus their efforts on the military sphere, which they won’t until the threat is clear, and sometimes not even then.

What seems never to be acknowledged is that compared to many earlier societies, we have sacrificed a notable degree of individual freedom of action in order to obtain better health and less infant mortality [at least in the industrialized world], greater comfort, and the mixed benefits of higher technology. Personally, I’m willing to give up some of that freedom, but it’s more than clear that, first, most commercial entities don’t recognize that the “system” requires most workers to give up a considerable degree of personal freedom for sometimes dubious economic and personal security, and, second, that most Americans don’t understand that, without that commercial authoritarianism, we’d be at best on a high stone age culture level.

7 thoughts on “The “Freedom” Trade-Off, Part 1”

  1. Darcherd says:

    While an admirable try at justifying capitalism as a force for civilization, it’s a bit facile when it comes to the plight of native Americans. There were a number of tribes, e.g. who attempted to fully assimilate into “European Civilization”, embracing an agricultural economy and attempting to use law and the courts to enforce their rights. But in nearly every case, when enough white men wanted something the native Americans had, the white men simply took it, using courts who would not respect the rights of the native Americans if they could, or simply ignoring court decisions when they couldn’t.

    1. Facile in the plight of native Americans? Hardly! I pointed out that their cultures were totally destroyed by the forces of commercial authoritarianism. And I have no interest in “justifying capitalism”, although in the light of history and the documentation provided by Wengrow and Graeber, I have strong doubts that higher technological levels of civilization can be attained without at least “commercial bribery.”

  2. Vadan says:

    Mr Modesitt, thank you for providing a succinct argument and explanation for capitalism as a form of social order. I have to say that it it sits consistently with the points I’ve taken from MANY of your works- that capitalism, and indeed authoritarian societies, represent a maximisation of a particular societal goal- namely the capacity to deploy power (either by ‘stored’ power in the form of accessible capital or ‘directed power’ in the form of an ultra-strong state.

    I wish that more people living in the West understood WHY capitalism is advantageous, as opposed to being inevitable, and of course, there is little teaching in the US system as to the DISADVANTAGES of capitalism.

    I would just add this, though- that a capitalist society, whilst trading many forms of freedom, tends to maximise both overall and DISTRIBUTED power in the form of capital. As such, the practical scope of the freedoms available to an individual are immensely greater in most cases- today’s minimum wage worker has more freedom than kings of yesteryear in many respects, and has more access to tools and more choices to make. Insofar as maximal freedom is concerned, capitalism makes a good case, even if it involves a trade-off.

  3. MRE says:

    A fascinating summary of an interesting book!

    I would add that there are a few more dynamics that could contribute to how empires/cultures clash. Domestic institutions matter to the extent that autocracies often don’t do well with free trade, being riddled with monopolistic behavior and institutionalized bribery. Therefore seizing and holding territory can be the only way they can really extract resources effectively. More democratic states have a bigger toolbox and during the 19th century had begun to believe that free trade was the way to go, so democracies might be more amenable to initiating trade relationships rather than seizing territory, at least if that was the only pressures governing their foreign policy.

    I would argue that there are two huge caveats that condition imperialistic behavior over and above domestic institutions. First, that rival nations often seize territory and exclude other nations from trade relationships (Spanish control of the Louisiana area for example excluded the US for much of the latter part of the 18th century–explicitly forbidding trade and travel along their section of the Mississippi). The explicit policy by the British to seize territory in the 18th and 19th centuries was partially in response to this scramble effect from rivals and the fear of being excluded from access to resources.

    Second, I’d argue that seizure versus free trade is also motivated by the ability to strike a deal and have that deal maintained with a centralized authority on both sides of the exchange. I think this dovetails with your argument in the sense that Native Americans didn’t have a centralized government that could rival that of the budding United States (and that giving up freedoms to form one was abhorrent to the Indigenous peoples of that era), and as a result any agreement between Native groups generally fell apart when it had to be enforced solely by the US–and if they were the only enforcing authority, why not subsume and supplant instead? In essence, bargains with Native groups were only binding so long as the Indigenous tribes had armies on the field or the credible threat of forming an army. But once the only cohesive authority left in play was the US government, the logic of expansion takes over. That being said, the competition between imperial powers for American territories could very well have been enough by itself to incentivize all those nations into trying to sweep aside any burgeoning government in favor of seizure–at least in the short term. Essentially, very few Indigenous groups, from Africa to India to the Americas, had much of a chance against all the institutional incentives arrayed against them–not unless they had a centralized government that could enforce contracts and the luck to encounter a democratic leaning imperial power.

    A good book that I’m cribbing some of this argument from is called Rational Empires by Leo Blanken (I actually helped edit in grad school, so it stuck in my mind). Anyhow, I’ll pick up the Dawn of Everything to see how it compares!

    1. Mayhem says:

      There’s been a modern day version of that land seizure by commercial means in the past 20 years by China, who has basically replicated US policy abroad in the 50s and 60s in setting up free trade zones, claiming ights to vast fishing areas, building vast amounts of infrastructure, and literally reshaping countries as people up and move from historical villages to areas closer to the new transport links.

      The big shift is in the past the roads went from town to town, nowadays the roads go from resource to port.

      And while the leadership of the countries involved are well rewarded, the Chinese free ports are full of resettled Chinese people – the locals don’t get a look in. It’s a modern take on the big English trade enclaves of yesteryear.

  4. Bill says:

    While systems can’t rely on individuals to have ethics, it definitely affects how the situations turn out. When there is balance between the major players and they are in some sense pitted against each other, it tends to work out for everyone. But when standoffs collapse the systems fall apart. When one party fully controls all the parts of government and business in the US, the system quickly becomes an autocratic kleptocracy. It isn’t just the US look elsewhere as well.
    The latest book by our favorite author discusses this in depth. I only wish the solution in real life was as straightforward as in his stories. We need a few more heroes.

  5. JakeB says:

    I was just reading about the collapse of the socialist (if I can put it that way) Teotihuacan that apparently happened from within around 550 AD, for no discernible reasons, but perhaps because of decay of the social contract. One of the things I like about this book is the authors’ willingness to say they have no idea why something happened (perhaps to balance out all the time they spend pointing out the erroneous conclusions of others).

    Anyways, I appreciate your analysis above and its observation that things don’t necessarily work out well along all dimensions. No reason that development of technology along the most successful lines — the authoritarianisms you mention above — won’t eventually lead us to a future where the vast mass of humans are technoserfs at best and dead at worst — those that survive the ecological cataclysms likely to come and that many of the most powerful — those on top of that commerical authoritarian pyramid — have no particular need to try to avert, except for maybe the clathrate gun, since, after all, ruling in hell is as good as elsewhere as long as you’re ruling (to paraphrase).

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