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Where and when did government start? It's quite a mystery. Given that human beings are basically harmless creatures, how did it happen that an inherently violent institution arose in human society, whose whole raison d'tre is always to destroy the fundamental human right of self-governance? The question is important not just to satisfy historical understanding, but to equip our descendants so that, after a free society has been established a few years hence, they will not repeat the disastrous error.

Human writing (on stones) began about 9,000 years ago, though wordsmiths didn't really get into gear until 4,000 years later; and unhappily, governors seem to have taken root before they began to carve and scratch. So the irrational arrangement whereby B finds himself ruled by A must have begun no later than soon after F-Day, i.e., the time 10,000 years ago when agriculture was discovered and farming was first practiced.

It may have begun much sooner, but I doubt it. My reasons are (a) it's an irrational, inefficient and unnatural practice, given the axiom that every human does truly own himself, and (b) such very slender evidence as we do have suggests that it didn't. No doubt some members of a wandering tribe were more influential than others, but the few decisions needed were made by consensus, and the weapons that were fashioned were there for obtaining food, not for killing other humans. About 17,000 years ago some of them painted scenes on the wall of a cave they lived in, in what's now southern France, and they showed pictures of hunting--but not of war.

Other evidence lies in the way primitive tribes today arrange their affairs. The minority of humans who didn't discover fixed agriculture but who remained nomadic, have survivor tribes today in the jungles of South America and echoes in the Indian nations around us, and they all arrange their affairs predominantly by consensus, not hierarchical rule. Certainly, that evidence from surviving primitive tribes is tenuous, but all this suggests that government as we would recognize it followed F-Day, but did not precede it. If so, how then did it arise? Let's check two current theories, and then I'll offer my own.

In The State, Franz Oppenheimer makes delightfully clear the only two possible methods whereby men can meet his needs: work or theft. Market or government. But he also speculates that the latter predominated shortly after F-Day when some community (probably of herders, rather than neighboring agricultural villagers) invaded and conquered one of the new villages raising crops, enslaving the survivors so as to live at their expense. That is, of course, a perfect picture of what governments have done, ever since and everywhere.

He may be right--but I wonder. It seems to me that the huge advance that agriculture brought was to produce, for the first time ever, a "surplus." Farmers began to enjoy spare time, which they could use to produce more food, contributing to improved nutrition, or dedicate to activities that went above and beyond those needed for simple survival: engineering, philosophy, medicine, art, eventually even writing. Now, if that surplus was the first ever, where exactly did their presumed aggressive neighbors find the resources to wage war?

In all war, I understand, an attacker normally needs a substantial resource advantage to prevail over a prepared defender. Notably today, the uniformed government thugs known as "SWAT teams" pounce on their victim with a large numerical advantage so as to disarm him at once. When preparing the Iraq invasion, the US tactic was to go in with massive force of which some was called "Shock and Awe." Two generations ago the same doctrine drove the German invasions of its neighbors--the equivalent term there being Blitzkrieg, or lightning war. It seems to be a well-proven technique of violence, so these hypothetical early attackers (who had no surplus resource to spare, over what was needed to survive day to day) would need to have perhaps three times as many warriors with weapons as would the defender (who did have, now, a significant number to spare.) So all the advantage lay with the defenders; the numbers don't add up. So I think Oppenheimer's speculation may be incorrect.

There's another reason to doubt the Oppenheimer theory: Its unstated premise is that humans are bad--that they will take an opportunity to steal whenever they see it. I don't agree with that, but in any case it begs the question; we're trying to find out how government (i.e., the imposition of will by one person or group over another) arose in the first place, and he's proposing it arose because one group set out to impose its will over another! It merely restates the question, and answers nothing at all.

This is comparable to the theological problem of the origin of sin. In a universe created exclusively by an omnipotent, perfect, omnibenevolent God, how could it possibly arise? The Judeo-Christian answer lies in the first chapters of Genesis, in Eden; the blame falls on a talking serpent. Sure. But allow a measure of allegory; the serpent spoke for Satan, they say. So how did Satan arise? He was a fallen angel called Lucifer, meaning Light, so he is also called the Prince of Darkness; and I hope you're still with me. How come God created angels capable of falling? He gave them free will. In fact, some would shorten this rather complex tale and say that mankind was created with free will, and we mustn't blame God when man uses that free will to chose evil. Whoa, wait a bit! How can we (or angels, for that matter, whether fallen or still upright) choose something unless it is first created? Words have been expended and myths woven, but get right down to it and all of them leave us exactly where we started; if God exists, he created evil. Incidentally for our purpose here, that's one excellent reason to conclude that He does not, in fact, exist; it's a fatal contradiction.

And so with Oppenheimer's theory of the origin of government; the aggression which allegedly caused the first village to be plundered had to come from somewhere, and to theorize just that such an attack took place does not tell us where.

In recent years Robert Carneiro has proposed an ingenious alternative to the Oppenheimer theory, which nicely answers the objection that to say that humans are evil does not explain how humans became evil. Carneiro, with some archaeological evidence, proposes that soon after F-day there were indeed raids carried out by some groups against others, but only when they were desperate--not merely because they were greedy or idle. He coined this "circumscription theory," which says that when a village or settled group of people between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago were unable for some reason to grow enough food, rather than starve to death, they raided their neighbors. Hence, they were not so much evil as importunate, and today it's often agreed that a starving man need not be blamed for stealing food. (I would concur, by reasoning that his rational, ethical motivation is always self-respect, which he'd reduce by stealing; but if he didn't steal, he'd lose his life and so be unable to enjoy any self-respect at all.) Carneiro proposed several different kinds of circumscription, and one of them was geographical: a community farms a valley bounded on three sides by mountains and desert and on the fourth by an ocean. It prospers and grows, creating new demand for food; terraces are built into the hillsides to squeeze more from the terrain, but eventually agricultural ingenuity is overwhelmed by the demand and an expedition is sent across to the next valley to kill the defenders and steal their produce--i.e., to be a government over them. Apparently there are actual examples of such valleys in Ecuador.

It's an improvement, but I don't buy the Carneiro theory, either. It seems to me that my first objection to Oppenheimer's is not answered at all: Weaker attackers cannot normally prevail over stronger defenders. If the desperate raiders were on the brink of starvation, how did they muster a 3:1 resource advantage to (a) cross a desert and then (b) overwhelm the defenders? I see a further objection: Overpopulation is a problem that corrects itself, in every species. The premise of his theory is that in Valley A, people bred so well that food ran short; but that process doesn't happen overnight, and while it was happening gradually, their ability to breed (and bring babies up healthy) would shrivel. Sad, but true: The newborn are the most vulnerable. Finally, I question the premise that farmers ran out of ways to produce more food, for (in that example, on which he relies quite heavily) the valley is bounded on one side by an ocean, and the ocean is an almost inexhaustible source of food and mankind knew that very well from his earliest nomadic days.

There's a further, possible fallacy in Carneiro's theory, though not a strong one. It is that for it to be valid, there would have to be a large number of circumscriptions around, so as to impel a large number of government-creating raids all over the world, all within a relatively short period (of a few hundred years, between nine and ten thousand years ago). The problem is that with a sparse human population, there really wouldn't be all that many. However, this objection is not a killer because once such raids took place in a few places, word of them could travel quite fast (just as the word of the benefits of fixed agriculture spread fast) and then it could have been just a matter of monkey hear, monkey do; gee, that's a neat idea, let's go rape and plunder. Anyway, I mention this one for completeness.

However if these are both mistaken, how did government arise? I don't know, of course, but tentatively offer this alternative theory, published for the first time here on Strike The Root, which I'm calling the Slippery Slope Theory.

Very swiftly after a group had succeeded in harvesting its food from prepared land with deliberately planted crops, that agricultural surplus would kick in and the number of its members who would be needed to produce enough food for them all would decline. Either everyone went on working in the fields but for fewer hours in the day, or else there was a division of labor--and we know that eventually there certainly was such a division and it made excellent sense. Now that there was a surplus, some could bring their talents to building better dwellings, devising smarter cookers, making better tools, fashioning prettier clothes, teasing metals out of ore, etc. Life's standards began to rise, and some kind of exchange economy started up. Money didn't circulate until much later--barter was the norm--but my point is that society would rather quickly divide into those who worked the fields and those who worked at something else.

I speculate that among the second category--call them "white feather workers"--there was one who thought that he could organize things better than could the unfettered market he saw around him. Perhaps he'd graduated from Princeton.

Maybe a crop had failed, or maybe a disease took the lives of some tillers or planters. Perhaps a flood had washed away some of the harvest. Very likely there was disagreement and difficulty about exchanges--who could compare the worth of a sack of barley with a fur coat or a new stone axe? Life is also uncertain and hard to predict. And instead of offering an insurance plan (by building a barn and inviting participants to store extra reserves by way of a "premium"), this thoughtful person and his friends proposed to the community that it hire them as its "managers", with each producer contributing 2% or so of his work product to their salaries. Notice, at first this could have been a perfectly rational, market-based transaction; even today, many companies bring in a "consultant" to advise on how to restructure or redirect their business activities.

Naturally, the terms of the contract would limit the powers exercised by the village managers, and they would be expected to give a regular account of their performance. It's quite credible that for a few years the performance would be good, with crop yields increasing steadily; and so contracts would be renewed regularly and raises awarded and perhaps (key point, here) powers expanded a little. Hey, as they've done so well, let's relax the limits a little, give them more latitude.

Gradually, over a generation or two and with nobody planning it that way, the managers would morph into governors. They would acquire extra powers so gradually that nobody noticed that after a few dozen years they were no longer just hired servants with a talent for strategic planning, they were in charge and no longer removable. And that is when government replaced the market. That's the stage at which the tail began to wag the dog, and how evil appeared as power was acquired.

Maybe you can craft a better one, consistent with known facts--but that's my theory. To me, it seems that government appeared unintentionally--but once in place, it spread like a plague and was extraordinarily hard to eradicate, and in fact that task still faces humanity today. Now that we understand the problem, however, I do think it can be solved --and rather quickly.

After it's been solved and a free society prevails, it will never need solving again; firstly because every member of that society will have learned what human nature is, what government's nature is, why therefore they are irreconcilable, what a free market is and how it provides the optimal and only rational way for people to interact; and now secondly because we have some idea of how government snuck in to human society way back when none of those things was systematically understood--hence, from now on, nobody need ever again be caught unawares. Eternal vigilance will still be the price of liberty--but from then on, that vigilance will be neither difficult nor expensive.

That said, though, it must never be relaxed altogether. If the Slippery Slope Theory is correct, it all began with a simple error--something that didn't seem foolish or irrational at first. After a generation or two of freedom, old-timers who can remember the horrors of the Government Era will be in your dotage, and suspicious minds like mine will be long in our graves, and you youngsters who are reading these things for the first time will be the prime exercisers of that vigilance, and if you drop your guard, the slope will soon get slippier. You'll be enjoying unprecedented prosperity, such as today we can hardly imagine, and wars will be a distant memory; but if you see some free-market company getting unusually large, be especially wary.

Based on the precedent of the Slippery Slope, my advice to anyone reading this in, say, 2079 is to be very wary of the word "we." In the context of a private company or family or social club, it is of course a perfectly respectable pronoun, but once it's uttered in the context of a whole community, it fairly bristles with danger. Its use may presuppose that "we" can or should do this, or that, for the good of the collectivized whole. That's a strong sign that once again, society is about to be hornswaggled by someone who thinks he can do better than the market. Run fast in the opposite direction; for if society has some need to be met, there is no known better way to meet it than for competing enterprisers to make offers to individual buyers . . . that are capable of being refused.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


AtlasAikido's picture

Jim makes an interesting point about defenders vs attackers which referred me to this article.

And following on Jim's "Based on the precedent of the Slippery Slope, my advice to anyone reading this in, say, 2079 is to be very wary of the word "we." I concur Do not discount the "I". Challenge the premise of "We". Oui!

There is *No We*: Challenge the Premise.