Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Chiefs Came to Power (2)

This is the second part of my review of Timothy Earle’s How Chiefs Come to Power: the Political Economy in Prehistory. The first part is here.

Warrior worries
Having started, in Chapter Three, with Sources of Economic Power, Earle then moves to, in Chapter Four, to Military Power: The Strategic Use of Naked Force. Since coercion would seem to be the basic element in rulership, one would think that is where one would start but Earle is determined to have economic power to be causally primary. (Note, this is not to be confused with the reality that a controllable surplus in excess of subsistence is needed for rulership to be possible: my point is that force is likely to be basic to control of such a surplus – a property right you cannot enforce is not much of a right, let alone a basis for rule.)

Earle starts the chapter with:
The military is a segment, group, or institution of warriors or other fighting specialists. They conquer, defend, police and intimidate (p.105).
The term ‘military’ has organisational implications I am uncomfortable applying to such early forms of rulership. Earle sees military power as basic to creating regional chiefdoms by conquest of other rulers and notes the ‘protection racket’ analysis of the creation of stratified and centrally organised society.

An approach Earle regards as insufficient:
Inherently warfare is limited in its effectiveness as a power for central control. Although military force may created a broadly integrated polity, it can as well dissolve it by intrigue, coup and rebellion. The power of force rips at the social fabric, the institution of society. To be effective as a power of centrality, coercive force must itself be controlled, a difficult task that is achieved by binding the military with economic and ideological tethers (p.106).
Well, warriors have to be paid, there has to be some basis for loyalty and giving warriors a vested interested in social stability greatly encourages said stability. But, again, Earle seems to have underlying his analysis a view of “natural” social processes that is not well grounded in actual social processes: particularly not the dynamics of specialist warriors.

Earle then takes us through the scholarly debate over the role of coercion in the development of societies and rulership. Earle identifies the key question as:
whether the warfare of chiefdoms represented the political failure of chiefs to organize stable regional systems or a successful chiefly tool to construct such systems (p.109).
Or both? Depending on local dynamics.

The point Earle wishes to make is that:
Only with the evolution of complex chiefdoms does the nature of warfare change fundamentally. It then ceases to be an outcome of unregulated competition and become a means of conquest. … Conquest warfare seizes control over the subsistence base in an emergent system of stable finance (p.109).
Which seems to be a way of saying that chiefs need access to sufficient surplus, sufficient military force and sufficient control capacity to achieve substantial regional power. That stable power must be broadly based. For:
the problems faced by elites who depend on tribute; when payments are withheld, costly and unpredictable punitive missions must be carried out. But the warriors are always a threat, whose demands quickly turn to treachery (p.110) .
Earle just does not like military force, or the folk who use it.

Yet plenty of societies manage to evolve quite stable systems of warrior loyalty. To the extent that, in early Central Eurasian societies, a ruler’s warrior band was expected kill themselves on his death and be buried with him. Even when that level of loyalty was not required, the notion that you did not survive a battle where your lord was killed remained a powerful idea for centuries. Warrior honour was not some invented figment, it has been a real and powerful force down the ages. Why is a fascinating question.

All societies need ways to distinguish warriors from murderers. But a warrior who cannot be relied upon is neither of use to his (or sometimes her) comrades nor attractive to a possible lord. Warriors have powerful reasons to communicate that they are honourable and to shun or reject those who are not. The commitment not to survive one’s sworn lord communicated that reliability in a very compelling way. Again, the notion of beneficial exchange, let alone social signalling, seems to pass Earle by.

In his analysis of the Andean highlands, Earle concludes that warfare was endemic, and there was a persistent failure to consolidate regional chiefdoms, because chiefly power rested solely on military power: chiefs were not able to extend their bases of power into broader and more enduring structures (Pp 113ff). By contrast, the Inkas were able to organise their state for war and conquer the squabbling chiefdoms with greater military force (p.122).
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After characterising the world of the Icelandic sagas as one of chiefs and their families living in constant fear, Earle traces the development of association of male status with weapons in Danish burials. The low population, the lack of evidence for fortified settlements and the pattern of weapons and barrows suggests a warrior elite focused on control of cattle to sustain prestige goods trade based on control of the craftspeople who produced the bronze weapons that dominated warfare (Pp124ff). Earle concludes that:
Warfare alone is an unstable source of power except where the very technology of warfare can be controlled and its spoils can be invested effectively in expanding the political economy (p.131).
Or simply dominated. The knightly class of medieval Europe did not depend on the control of the crafters that produced their armour and weapons for their position. Rather, their position was based on a high level of training being required to use the technology to maximum effect and that the combination of weapons, armour, trained warhorse was expensive. That being so, purchasing their weapons and armour from free crafters worked fine.

Earle then returns to the Pacific to illustrate the example of Hawai’i as warfare being part of an integrated structure of control. The evolution of warfare amongst the Maori as population strained resources (particularly after the Moa were hunted to extinction, though that specific trigger is not mentioned) resulted in endemic warfare with highly fortified settlements (pa) which provided excellent defence given the available technology and greatly impeded building large chiefdoms (Pp132-3). Until, that is, until potatoes and European military technology were imported, followed by an attempt to create a unifying figure to protect Maori interests.

By contrast, despite the histories being full of chiefly warfare where defeated enemies were reduced to food and utensils, in Hawai’i there was little evidence of fortified settlement or warfare affecting the pattern of settlement at all. The military technology was fairly egalitarian, with the canoes used to ferry troops being the only element with any inherent tendency to elite control. Like the Maori, the Hawai’ian chiefs attempted to adopt European technology as soon as it was available. Dying in bed seems to have been a rare event for a Hawai’ian chief. Those who reached any age were often greatly scarred while maintaining the support of one’s warriors seem to have been a matter of constant wariness (Pp133ff).

Yet even exemplifying Earle’s analysis of the inherently unstable nature of military power, the Hawai’ian chiefdoms still managed to construct complex structures of rule that hovered on the edge of being states by the time the Europeans arrived.

The structure and objects of warfare differed in the three cases – land and defence of settlements in the Andes, control of cattle in Denmark, control of commoners and the system of staple finance in Hawai’i. Earle quotes Machiavelli who contrasts strong rulers who can put large, well-equipped forces in the field with weak rulers who rely on friends and high walls. Earle interprets this to mean that walls are a sign of weakness: surely, Machiavelli’s point is that relying on walls is a sign of weakness (Pp141-2). Even the strongest of agrarian empires built fortifications, since they can be so useful for dominating a region.

Idea power
Which brings the analysis to Chapter Five, Ideology as a Source of Power. Earle defines ‘ideology’ as:
the proportion of cultural meaning that is used strategically to institute political domination or resistance (p.143).
Ideologies are thus associated with particular social segments. Earle has already framed consideration of ideas and culture such that it has elements systematically politicised and patterned to particular social groups. Why would ideology exist like that and did it actually conform to social segments in that neat way?

Earle argues that to be used strategically, ideology:
must be made concrete in forms such as ceremonies, symbols and monuments (p.143)
Certainly such activities can express power and send messages. An ideology:
as a view of the world, set forth an understanding of what is right, what is natural. It contains theories of the world and the place of human society and its segments within it …
An ideology also sets up institutional patterns of knowledge and meaning on which patterns of control are logically constructed and legitimized (p.144).
Which seems to be a way of not quite saying that rulership requires legitimacy based on some implicit (or even explicit) social contract to have any stability and the more complete and broadly based that legitimacy is, the more stable it is likely to be. Except that ‘legitimacy’ has implications that do not seem to fit into Earle’s analysis.

We then get a survey of the literature on ideology leading to an extended analysis of ideology and on to consideration of the ‘materialization of ideology’. The key question being:
how an individual’s motivations and worldview can be controlled and directed to work to the interests of one segment and potentially against the individual’s own interests (p.152).
There is a ‘delusion/false consciousness’ dynamic underlying this analysis which I am very uncomfortable with. But that rather goes with the discounting of human rationality and beneficial exchange that pervades the analysis.

One of the blessings of Earle’s analysis is that, with occasional lapses such as ‘materialisation’, he generally expresses himself in clear language and makes points of great simple sense:
Monuments convey a simple message of power and wealth. This elemental message comes regardless of the viewer’s language, age, gender or cultural affiliation. (p.156).
Quite so. Earle goes on to intelligently consider the utility and role of monuments for expressing and buttressing power (Pp156ff).

He begins his discussion of ideology in Denmark by reference to sagas such as Beowulf that, though they date from much later, do express the outlooks of a warrior elite. He notes that:
Dishonor is worse than death because it means loss of respect and the support on which all warriors depend (p.159) .
Correct, but a view rather lacking in his earlier analysis of military power.

For Earle, ideology becomes a way of building and reinforcing chiefly power through routines of compliance – rituals, common building processes and so forth. Thus the Inka had much more extensively articulated routines of compliance, monuments and material provision than the Andean chiefdoms (Pp188-9). In the three case study studies, the Andean chiefdoms were not able to expand their warrior leadership into the routines and practises of the society while the Danish chiefs were somewhat more able to gain some supporting symbols with the advent of bronze weapons. It was only in Hawai’i where chiefs were able to dominate and control key productive capacities (the irrigation channels and associated land) and to weave routines of compliance with supporting claims of divine connections into a system of power which verged on becoming states (Pp190ff).

Framework uber alles
Hence Earle’s conclusion:
To build political institutions, chiefs shape their positions from three primary power media – economy, military and technology.
So:
The consolidation and institutionalization of power depends on the systematisation of power strategies. Power strategies are the means by which ruling segments combine the sources of social power to pursue their political goals (p.193, emphasis in original).
Thus:
In the cases considered, the primary determinant appears to have been the nature of the developing political economy. The operationalization of one power strategy versus another rested on the ability to intensify and control aspects of the political economy and to use the mobilized surplus to develop power sources. (p.194, emphasis in original).
The nature of the power strategies adopted then deeply influence future social evolution. The Andean chiefdoms were never able to extend beyond specific walled-villages, the Danish chiefdoms beyond specific herds, so chiefdoms remain limited in both resources and territorial coverage (Pp194ff).

The Hawai’ian chiefdoms did much better, turning control over highly productive irrigation facilities into extensive social dominance. A small change in technology (the Western introduction of cannons and guns) was sufficient to turn rule of individual islands into a multi-island state (Pp 200ff).

Well yes. States originally evolved in river valleys, for they had the population density and surplus to support social complex societies with extensive social control structures. Pastoralist states evolved later and did so where there was enough trade with farming communities to provide sufficient surplus to support a dominant ruling clan and enough effective military mobility (chariots, then cavalry) to consolidate control over a sizeable area. This seems to be a long journey to get to a very unsurprising conclusion.

But Earle does not consider such wider patterns. His case studies are not enough of a basis to examine the origins of state-formation.

What he wants to draw from his case studies is a general analytical framework. So he identifies ease of control and the ways it might be extended to be crucial variable characteristics of power so:
The first critical variable appears to be how power may be restricted to (and controlled by) a few hands (p.203, emphasis in original).
Such leads directly to:
Economic power is the most easily controlled. The essence of the economy is its material nature (p.203).
Really? When we look around human societies, which is more centrally controlled: the means of violence or the means of production and exchange? Clearly the means of violence is almost always more centralised than economic activity (and then leads into control of the same). Earle is correct when he notes that economic activity can grow but such growth is often contra-indicated by highly centralised control.

Farmers are more easily controlled than foragers or herders, but that is a feature of being a stationary form of production. Indeed, binding peasants to the land is a classic way of extracting a surplus. The extractable surplus gives on reason to bind them to land, but it does not give the power to do so. (All these points apply even more so to mines, which often used slave labour.)

Control begins with control of violence. The question becomes how much one can embed that control within the society to provide stable control of a sufficiently substantive extracted surplus. But that does not provide the right answer, because it does not start with a Marxian ‘material basis’. A friend recently cruelly observed to me that Marxist academics’ notion of research is to look for footnotes, as they start with the answers. Earle’ concluding few pages are where that element in How Chiefs Come to Power is most obvious. (Particularly when he goes on about the features of the material nature of the economy Pp203-4.)

Earle agrees that military power is the essence of coercion, but sees it as hard to control. Hence the importance of:
Ideological power is the essence of social law. People act in certain ways because it is proper and necessary (p.205).
Which leads to:
The second critical variable of power appears to be how the media power may be used to co-opt and control one another (p.203, emphasis in original).
Each media of power has limits to intensification, so it is their interaction and mutual support which gives the most powerful effect.

So, in the three examples, the Andeans were hill-fort chiefdoms, the Danish were prestige-goods chiefdoms but the Hawai’ian were staple-finance chiefdoms, so had the most complete level of control and came closest to developing full states (Pp209-10). Earle’s conclusion being:
the sources of power are effectively co-opted by using the surplus generated from intensified agriculture to finance control over warriors and police, craft specialists and managers, priests and ceremonies. But if the political economy cannot be centrally controlled, the various sources of power also are difficult to control, and multicentric societies develop (p.211).
Sort of: the way I would put it is that turning power into authority is a matter of resources, coercion and legitimacy. The more broadly authority is based on these things, and the more it is embedded in patterns of life, the greater and more stable such authority is. Stationary intensive agriculture is easier to control, and provides more resources, so is a far easier path to state-building.

Part of my problem with Earle’s approach is that I do not see ideology as a separate “thing” to be managed. It pervades a society and is built on such things as the need for meaning, the need for rules, the operation of property and exchange that pervade social existence long before chiefly authority. Yes of course these are things that power-seekers have to pay attention to and seek to mould and use for their benefit. But the process is interactive, with resource possibilities, and what patterns and institutions exist or can be developed, playing off each other. Earle misses out those deeper connections, so starts his analysis at too reified a level.

This is also true in his consideration of violence. Why bother fighting? This is a basic question. Hunting wrests subsistence violently from nature: it is deeply part of the origins of our species. Hunter-gatherers are, by far, the most violent mode of human existence. For millennia, warrior elites emphasized their hunting prowess as way to display their effectiveness, virtues and utility as violence users.

Farming and herding are distinctly less violent modes of human life for the simple reason that they represent repeated interactions between individuals, families and groups with vulnerable assets. Farming is less violent than herding, since one is more tied down and so more vulnerable. If you are going to examine the origins of basic human social forms, they need to be connected to the basic patterns and frameworks of life, something Earle is very erratic at doing.

Not that there is any mystery as to why: it comes from the Marxian framework he wishes to use and vindicate. The problem is not from having an analytical framework. Far from it, economic historians and lawyers are often advantaged in their use of evidence precisely they have an analytical framework: it forces a useful analytical discipline – provided one remains grounded in the actual evidence (which economists do not always manage to do but the better economic historians are generally very good at). But they are analytical frameworks built up by prolonged engagement with reality: they represent distilled engagement with evidence, not deduction from first principles.

Marxism suffers from not being a framework built up in such a way. Its basic contours are pre-determined and Earle’s analysis is just another example of the common flaw of Marxist analysis of reality being forced into maximum conformity with the framework. The Marxist framework often does prompt people to ask good questions. Alas, it does not encourage answers anywhere near as good. As Earle's How Chiefs Come to Power demonstrates.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How Chiefs Come to Power (1)

Timothy Earle’s How Chiefs Come to Power: the Political Economy in Prehistory is a study sufficiently well-grounded in archaeological and anthropological evidence that the well-presented facts rather escape from the theoretical framework Earle wants to fit them in.

I originally was alerted to Earle’s work via a harsh review archaeologist Michael E. Smith had posted on Yoram Barzel’s book on the theory of the state. I greatly admire Barzel’s book on property rights but had not read this later work, so I was intrigued by the response. Having read a selection of Prof. Smith’s publications and finding them informative, very accessibly written and analytically sensible, his strong endorsement of Earle’s book was encouraging. Particularly given he also admired a book I had read and thought excellent.

How Chiefs Come to Power Earle is attempting to answer a straightforward question:
What allows aspiring leaders to be successful in one situation but fail utterly in another? (p.2).
In other words, since aspiration to leadership and power are part of the human condition, why does rulership (in its first stage of chiefdom) occur in some places and not others?

Earle distinguishes between authority, “the right and responsibility to lead”, power, “measured by the mastery a leader exercises over others” and control, “the ability to restrict access to the resources which are the media from which power can be fashioned” (Pp3-4). As Earle accepts a Lockian-Marxian notion of property and value coming from labour, his thinking about control gets a bit confused: all property is based on control—an act of trade is an exchange of control. Things are clearer if it is grasped how basic to human society the notion of property—of legitimate control—is, something that grows up and extends (pdf) well before the development of authorising authorities. But that requires some notion of spontaneous order based on a strong notion of beneficial exchange. For it is not labour that distinguishes the productive power of homo sapiens from other primates—all animals engage in mere labour—it is the notion of property and thus the power of exchange: ideas having sex in Matt Ridley’s vivid metaphor. How our species' distinctive creation of niches through discovery and transmitted learning generates its productive power.

Earle identifies the sources of power as social relationships (particularly kinships), economic power (being able to buy compliance), military might (coercing compliance) and ideology (routines of compliance). He holds that kinship, military might and ideology are, on their own, all weak sources of power while economic power depends on military power to defend resources and ideology to institute rights of unequal access (Pp4ff). The discussion is punctuated with references to various Marxist positions on the broad issues. (An Israeli archaeologist once explained to me that archaeologists tend to adopt broadly Marxian positions as so much of what they study is the product of the generation of economic surpluses beyond subsistence.)

The problem with political power is that it:
… must be inherently problematic, as it is contingent on multiple factors that can be used against central authority as well as being used by it (p.10).
Yet the long-term trend of world history has been for central power to expand and the number of independent polities to shrink: from maybe 100,000 at the time of the Neolithic agricultural revolution to about 160 now, the largest covering over a billion people (p.10). Clearly, the integration of the sources of power has become more effective over time: a selection process in favour of more successful techniques.

Earle holds that:
… the different sources of power are fundamentally intertwined and interdependent, but that they grow from a material base (p13).
Very Marxian, but surely somewhat dubious: after all, how does one get that material base in the first place? That they have to be sustained by a material base is clear, but that is not quite the same.
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Earle takes the view that the process of creating and stabilising power is multi-linear: different techniques win the process of selection in different circumstances. The key variable to success or failure is the chief’s ability to control and extend access to the sources of power (Pp12ff).

A chiefdom being:
a regional polity with institutional governance and some social stratification organising a population of a few thousand to tens of thousand people (p.14).
Making them intermediates between village-based polities and large, bureaucratic states. Hierarchies are used for coordination, granting advantages resulting in social stratification: the use of monumental constructions and prestige goods being used by archaeologists to document their evolution. All of which makes them emergent polities. Earle holds they have fundamentally the same dynamics as states, so are a good basis for studying rulership more generally, including the basis of modern states (Pp14-5).

The book is based around three examples, each covering about a millennia: Neolithic and early Bronze Age Denmark (2300-1300BC); Hawai’i from settlement to incorporation in the modern world (800-1824); and high Andes Peru to the Inca conquest (500-1534). By interweaving the analysis of the three examples, and how specific (particularly economic) circumstances affect choices and outcomes, Earle seeks to reveal the dynamics of rulership (Pp15-6).

Having established the framing, Earle sets out the long-term dynamics of the chiefdoms of the three regions one after another (Pp17ff). The Andean case has some puzzling population surges: the first likely due to the introduction of new crops. The second occurred without any noticeable technological change and during a period of glacial advance: the production of extra warriors for defence during a period of increased warfare is Earle’s suggested explanation (Pp54-5).

Though the chosen examples display different pathways to complexity, Earle believes that the comparison is still analytically fruitful: such as the complex interaction with population pressures. Earle writes of the animal herding in the Denmark case study:
Animal herding lowers the carrying capacity of a region and makes no sense in the logic of a subsistence economy. Its increase most probably resulted from the use of animals as a source of moveable wealth within a prestige good exchange system (p.65).
Really? Power can consolidate itself by reducing the productiveness of its area? Whether looked at in terms of internal dynamics or competitive interaction with other cultures, this looks deeply implausible. Earle's claim about carrying capacity is true in some areas but highly misleading and does not sustain his conclusion. In some areas, such as river valleys and plains with particularly rich soils, farming is the more productive activity in the sense that it can support more people. In other areas, not so much. What herding typically does is produce more value for less effort. So animal herding can increase the resources available to a culture: otherwise it would not have evolved in so many different cultures and would not be persisted with. That herding societies – which certainly had chiefdoms, even states – were freer and richer than agrarian societies was a perennial observation of visitors from agrarian empires. It does require trade with farming cultures, and clearly access to prestige goods from trade can consolidate a ruler’s position, but it does so precisely by increasing the access to goods from choosing more productive activity. Earle could do with more confidence in human rationality and the implications of beneficial exchange.

What animal herding also provides is inheritable and expandable assets. There is the resource base for social differentiation – something herding societies tend to display. Earle then points to evidence that expanded agricultural activity (such as through irrigation works) in Hawai’i and Peru supported expanded surpluses rather than expanded populations, surpluses used for elite purposes (Pp64-6). So why wouldn’t animal herding also represent expanded capacity?

In examining the sources of economic power, Earle begins:
The development of political systems must be based on an ability to lead and to have others follow. Leaders who provide rewards are accepted, but those who fail to do so lose authority. Leadership is always problematic; it requires an individual, family, community, or nation to relinquish and transfer autonomy and transfer loyalties. No individual or group does this joyfully, for it means sacrificing personal or group interests to a different, larger, or distant body (p.67).
This seems to rather preclude that people may see political leadership as some sort of exchange beyond direct rewards. Unless there is some sense of “return” for accepting leadership, why would not revolt be a permanent (or at least a permanently incipient) thing? Do leaders not provide public goods, for example?

Earle says of economic control that:
Control over the economy is a direct and material control over the lives of people (p.67).
He then asks if such control is possible in a subsistence economy, exploring two lines of analysis: voluntarist, adaptionist theories seeing chiefdom as a form of solution to social problems or way of expanding social possibilities and coercive political theories arguing that autonomy is not give up except in the face of power. (Why the answer cannot be both escapes me: coercion as a way of delivering public goods.)

Earle argues that the model developed by Marx and Engels “may have general applicability to the emergency of social complexity” (p.70). Since it is based on a false theory of value, an incoherent theory of exploitation and has a truly terrible track record when operationalised as a political theory or economic management approach, I am more sceptical. Particularly as one starts off with two deep problems for analysis: first, not grasping that all exchange is about swapping control (i.e. property is prior) and, second, that exchange results in mutual improvement (i.e. gains from trade).

Earle differentiates staple finance (payments to rulership, either in kind, goods or labour service) and wealth finance (objects such as primitive valuables, prestige goods or money exchanged within the ruling elite). For the former, he sees land tenure as vital:
The critical factor appears to be how the development of technologically intensive farming provides the opportunity for control by ruling institutions through a land tenure system (p.71).
First, what about herding? Second, land is stationary, therefore farmers are more easily controlled whether they are direct owners of the land or not. (We come back to pastoralist societies being freer and wealthier than agrarian ones.)

That Earle may be going for rather too much analytical complexity here is indicated by his partly perceptive, partly way over-egged analysis that:
Technological improvements of the resource do two things. First, they radically differentiate land in terms of quality. … Second, improvements evidently delimit and mark the resource in ways that can be easily represented and recognized within the cultural landscape. Improvements such as walls, terraces, and ditches materialise the division of the landscape and form the basis of a cultural system of land ownership (Pp 71-2).
I get that academics often like talking about ideas (their expertise) and not the niceties of production and exchange (their distance from which often feeds into their sense of status), but really. Farming makes people much easier to control, the creation of a surplus-to-subsistence allows the support of an elite, expandable and inheritable productive assets promote social differentiation. Clearer and simpler, surely? What’s more, it is also usefully extendable, yet differentiable, to the herding case.

Trying to build irrigation into some generally important factor in the development of rulership – a continuing theme in Earle’s discussion: his original PhD thesis, a critique of the irrigation management thesis of Wittfogel and Service, analysis Hawai’i chiefdoms as using ownership of irrigation as a form of economic control and extraction – strikes me as dubious. Irrigation is surely much more likely to have its largest (and most common) effects in establishing patterns and structures of interactions between farmers. (One of Elinor Ostrom’s anecdotes in this presentation goes to that.) But, as previously noted, notions of spontaneous order do not appear to figure much in Earle’s mental landscape: he seems to lack the necessary building blocks of mutually beneficial cooperation as a pervasive feature of human economic interactions.

The sense of rather too much missing the basic point continues:
In chiefdoms, wealth is the means of symbolising relationships upon which social ranking rests. Since the social structure is the most important determinant of cultural, political and economic values, substantivist economists define the economy as “institute process” (Pp73-4).
Wealth is not a social ranker in itself? Nor a benefit in itself? Does not any signalling effect flow from that? And, if the social structure drives cultural, political and economic values, what creates and drives the social structure? Human action does not seem to be causally gradable in such a way.

So Earle’s contention that:
control over the ideology of social ranking rested on control over the system of wealth finance (p.74)
rests on the same dubious causal ranking. Building on his original dissertation, Earle argues that the use of control over irrigation by Hawai’ian chiefs fails to conform the “managerial” “solution to problems” hydraulic analysis of Wittfogel. The control by the chiefs was the dominant factor, with land use rights of commoners flowing from provision of corvee labour: so a widow could only retain land use if she remarried, transferring the rights to the new husband (Pp75ff).

The structure is not so different from medieval serfdom, where a warrior elite protected serfs in return for labour and inheritance generated an interest in long-term investment in making the lands more productive. Clearly, the elite control has to be accepted, but military power, protection and access to land provide a potent combination to ensure acceptance. I see no need to reify ideology in quite the way Earle does, but then I have no problem with property and exchange being endemic to human society.

If, however, you do not see property as endemic to human societies (particularly in farming societies), nor the control relationship as in any way protective, then the basic dynamics of power and property does become more a mystery to be explained. Hence Earle discusses the differences in dynamics between irrigation and dryland agriculture in Pacific islands, and particularly Hawai’i, making rather more of a meal of what seem to be the practical dynamics of control and extracting a surplus than seems necessary (Pp84ff). Particularly as intensive irrigation seems to have grown up in a period of intensive competition between chiefdoms – which is to say, one where the value of providing protection and extracting maximum value from the lands one does control was maximised, while the production possibilities of irrigation may have also encouraged conflict – more surpluses to seize.

That Earle rather doesn’t “get” the protective role is indicated by this following passage in his discussion of the emergence of chiefdoms in Denmark:
during this period permanent settlements were placed prominently on the highest ground. Why would these settlements have been built on these exposed hills, where the winds bite mercilessly? Perhaps their high visibility declared the territorial rights of the community over the lands upon which the settlements looked (p.100).
And perhaps tops of hills were easier to defend and made it easier to see enemies coming? That would be my vote, given it was the normal reason people set up their homes on tops of hills.

As herding developed, so did chiefly power. Earle does note that cattle are controllable assets that permit social differentiation. Though he seems not to understanding pastoralism very well:
Cattle … would have difficult to control unless their pasturelands were owned. The open pastures were naturally unbounded, and it must have been difficult to define their ownership and rights of use (p.101).
Pastoralist societies did not find it particularly so: with techniques such as branding, regulated use of common lands, the considerable memory capacity of pre-literate societies, they managed.

Earle then makes a meal of arguing that trading for metal goods would have consolidated chiefly power (Pp100ff): metal weapons would certainly have increased warrior power and the connection between cattle-owning chiefs and their warrior bands.

The ability to control economic resources and to extract a useable surplus does seem to have a great deal to do with the extent and permanence of chiefly power (p.104): but Earle makes reaching this unsurprising conclusion much more analytically inelegant than he needs to, not because the cases are complex, but because he too much wants to have social causality to be structured in a particular way and is too ready to overlook enduring basic patterns.


This review will be concluded in my next post.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Stuck between mosque and military

This is based on a comment I made here.


The Arab world remains caught between mosque and military as their only sources of organised political power, since their sustained economic failure means there is a lack of the social bases that led to the liberal democracies of the West. They have huge youth bulges, have mostly been going backward economically, are technologically parasitic on the West, with poor levels of literacy. A combination of factors James Lacey makes much of in what he calls the impending collapse of Arab civilisation.

This combination of factors, as we have been seeing, creates revolutionary pressures. But having revolutionary results then lead to the slow, grinding work of turning their economies and societies around is another matter. Within the Arab world, the traditional monarchies (I do not regard the al-Saud theocracy as a traditional monarchy) have mostly done better as societies — and the Gulf monarchies are broadly economically successful, but they are not where the numbers are. These revolutionary outbreaks may break various regime-logjams but those regimes are a long way from being the fundamental problem: they are as much effect as cause.

As for how the revolutionary surge will reach, the Middle Eastern regimes with the combination of self-belief and brutality — Qaddafi’s totalitarian state, Alawite-dominated Syria, the Iranian mullahocracy — can likely ride things out. They have what ibn Khaldun would call asabiyya, common feeling or social solidarity.

Who has that in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Neither has remotely any solutions for Egypt’s problems, just different techniques for ruling and perpetuating them.

ADDENDA This post has been cleaned up slightly to improve clarity (but not change the argument). This piece on how Arab democracy leads to Islamist outcomes is another way of looking at the same point: the lack of alternative organised sources of political power other than mosque or military. The author's depiction of how things are going in Tunisia -- as the author points out the most educated, non-oil prosperous and secular of the Arab countries -- just emphasizes the point.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How do you measure the social power of monotheism?

By its ability to strip rights and moral protections from people. Whether it is women, other religions or denominations, intellectual or religious dissenters or queers, the social power of monotheism can be measured by its ability to strip people of rights and moral protections.

(Or, to put it another way, it never just stops with the queers.)

This is blindingly clear in Islam. We can tell the social power of Islam due to the repression of women, the treatment of apostasy, the repressed state of other religions, the persecution of queers, the intellectual restrictions.

But it is equally clear in the history of Christianity. After all, if we look back at Christianity in its C15th (given it is currently the year 1432 by the Islamic calendar) we would see very much the same pattern of behaviour. The main difference would be the legal treatment of women was better. The main reason for that being that Christianity does not have God’s law.

The progress of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire can be measured by the steady stripping of rights from pagans, queers, Jews and women.

In the Anglosphere, given Protestantism was the established religion, the retreat of the social power of Christianity can be measured by women getting back legal rights and status they had previously lost, religious tests being abandoned, discrimination against Catholics receding, Jews getting legal equality and (something still in progress) queers getting legal equality.

If one looks at the struggle for Jewish emancipation in the C19th, one of the clear patterns is conservative Christians (particularly Catholics) being enormously frustrated that this group that they have successfully repressed and denigrated for centuries, getting full legal rights. Indeed, that the issue was even being raised. The outrage, but also the frustration, was patent. If you do not have the social power to strip rights and protections from a vulnerable minority you have successfully repressed and denigrated for centuries, what social power do you have?

One gets exactly the same outrage and frustration from conservative Christians (particularly Catholics) nowadays about queer rights, that it is even being raised. If you do not have the social power to strip rights and protections from a vulnerable minority you have successfully repressed and denigrated for centuries, what social power do you have?

It is all about the burden of God as the absolutely trumping moral authority and the use of God to strip people of moral and legal protections. Which is why the best measure of the social power of monotheism is its ability to strip rights and moral protections from people.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Can Malthusian pessimism ever be disproved?

This question struck me after reading a group email from an Australian writer that cited various statements and recent events to attack cornucopian optimism and draw pessimistic Malthusian conclusions using this article as a "hook".

When the Rev. Thomas Malthus was writing his original Essay on Population – the first edition was published in 1798, the last in 1826 – the food riots which had proceeded the French Revolution would likely have loomed large in the consciousness of him and his readers. Let us consider what has happened in the world since that time, since 1810 in this splendid animation by Hans Rosling.

Does that count as evidence against Malthusianism? Apparently not. Why not? Because Malthusian pessimism is about the future, it is about what is going to happen. It does not matter how much success we have had in the past, the Malthusian pessimist insists it is all going to come crashing down, some time.

In doing so, the Malthusian pessimist has two great advantages. First, they can never be wrong. No matter how much their predictions do not come true, they can always be asserted to be a case of “not yet, but soon”; their predictions can always be moved off into the recesses of the as-yet-unknown future. It is like the Second Coming of Christ, the Ever Sharpening Crisis of Capitalism or the Looming Hyperinflation of (some) Austrian economists: being completely unanchored in any specific time, the prediction can never be falsified.

We can see this from the financial success, but persuasion failures, of anti-Malthusian bets. (Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Interest rates are NOT the price of money

This is based on a comment I made here.


The interest rate is NOT the price of money. The price of money is what you can get for it (in terms of goods and services). (I am talking here of the real price of money, the nominal price of money is one.)

The interest rate includes expectations about the future price of money. It is, at best, the price of borrowing money. (If you like, the price of credit.) If money is expected to get more scarce, the price of borrowing tends to go down, if money is expected to get less scarce, the price of borrowing it tends to go up. So the price of borrowing money does not operate as it would if it were "the price of money".

It is better to think of interest rates as the cost of holding money, including therein expectations about the future price of money.

This confusion matters, because you get people (even economists who should know better) speaking as if low interest rates are a sign that money is loose, when they are generally a sign of exactly the opposite, as Milton Friedman would point out.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Celebrating heterosexuality, ignoring women

It is an odd thing, misogyny that celebrates heterosexuality. Particularly if it privileges heterosexuality. (By ‘privileging’ I mean making it normative such that same-sex attraction is viewed as some form of perversion or deviation from proper human sexuality.) On one hand, one celebrates sex and erotic love between men and women as the proper path of sex and love, even as being sex and love at its most uplifting and spiritual. On the other hand, the status of women is something to, at best, ignore and, at worst, denigrate. It celebrates the complementary of sex with, and love for, the opposite sex yet conceives that complementarity as one of superior and inferior. Not only is heterosexuality normative, so is masculinity.

Two pieces on pederasty in the Islamic world by the Asian Times columnist Spengler managed to display the weirdness that is heterosexuality-privileging misogyny quite strongly. Not that he ever explicitly says women are inferior and masculinity is normative: his is the misogyny of silence, not of denigration, but silence in the face of profound subordination and denigration.

So a silence that is very striking.

The two pieces are a systematic attack on same-sex attraction to younger males – i.e. pederasty – in the Islamic world. Both are marked by a consistent refusal to make pertinent distinctions. Pederasty can involve paedophilia (sexual interest and involvement with pre-pubescent child: a boy, in this case), but need not. It can be ephebophiliac, or even involve someone in their early 20s. A ‘beardless boy’ is not necessarily pre-pubescent.

So, there is a profound intellectual dishonesty at the core of both pieces.

Also, a fair bit of psychological ignorance. In his first piece, Spengler tells us that:
As the psychiatrists explain, pederasty is an expression of narcissism, the love of an idealized youthful self-image.
That is wrong about both paedophilia and narcissism. First, being attracted to youth is hardly a homosexual peculiarity: ads in magazines and elsewhere proclaim the pervasively attractive power of youth. (Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Monotheism and queers

On the matter of monotheism and homosexuality: it is slightly more complex than monotheism is simply against homosexuality (although that is the dominant tradition in the Abrahamic monotheisms and in Zoroastrianism), in that if you take out the bits of St Paul that come from Philo of Alexandria, then gay Christians do not have much of a problem. Jesus never condemned homosexuality, even by implication. Indeed, given, according to the Gospels, Jesus fairly clearly cured a Centurion's young lover, any implication is rather the other way. (Translations are usually coy on the point, but if you go back to the original wording and context, it is fairly clear. Just as in Omar Khayyam's "a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou", the 'thou' was likely a pretty Christian wine serving lad.) Similarly, Jesus’s “nothing that goes in your mouth makes you unclean” teaching was an attack on emphasizing form and mechanics over intent and effect on others.

But if you accept all of St Paul as canonical and authoritative, then, yes, there is a problem for queer Christians. Though the "we reject all of the Holiness Code except that bit" should be a bit of a give-away.

The problem is that the sexual logic of monotheism sees sex as separating us from the divine, except in procreation. And using God to strip people of moral (and other) protections is an obvious path for priests to get power and authority. Orthodox Judaism and Islam are full of it.

It is particularly easy for Christian priests and clerics if you fail to notice how Jesus's favourite target of denunciation in the Gospels are priests and religious teachers. (About which Jesus could manage vivid rant. Though Jeremiah had his moments.) Jesus seems to have been fairly clearly against using God to strip people of moral protections. That would seem to be the burden of how Jesus summarised his preaching. Hence the effort subsequently put into means of subverting love thy neighbour, which Philo was particularly useful for, since he did not adhere to it in the first place.

The key bits of macroeconomics in 430 words

I have updated my recent post on Macro Supply and Demand so as to assume less background knowledge by the reader.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Means and Ends

The means we choose define us more than do the ends we seek. For the means we choose are how we directly affect other people and the world around us. Any given end that motivates our chosen means may never be realised.

Our acts usually have purposes, and there is the issue of whether any particular act are likely to achieve their motivating purpose, but such purely instrumental judgments are not about moral justification, but causal efficacy.

Morality is more about constraining and directing our acts than our purposes precisely because acts matter more directly. Injunctions such as do not murder, do not steal and do not lie constrain our actions towards others: they are all about what means are legitimate, when and where given that we do such things to achieve other purposes (even if only for the thrill). Any care we have for why you wish to do these things is usually either very general (was it accidental or intended?) or an extreme case (self-defense, avoiding starvation).

To proclaim “the ends justifies the means” is to demand release from some or all of the normal constraints of morality. (Read more at Critical Thinking Applied.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Macro supply and demand

This is a development of a comment I made here. It is my attempt to summarise, using my language rather than his, what Scott Sumner has to say on economic stimulus and why we need to focus on nominal GDP (i.e. GDP in ordinary dollar terms). It includes accepting his re-statement of part of my original comment in the second-last paragraph.



NGDP = nominal GDP = total monetary value of productive (as in ‘counts to GDP’) transactions. An excellent post on the patterns of NGDP in the US and the OECD since 1960 is here. (The astonishing fall in nominal GDP since 2008, its biggest fall since the 1930s, can be seen quite clearly.)

RGDP = real GDP = total production of goods and services (i.e. NGDP adjusted by some price deflator).

Money is how one makes and accepts offers. (“I am willing to spend x on this”, “I am willing to sell this for y”.) It is therefore the fundamental economic signalling device.

The more smoothly supply can respond, the more any rising level of money offers generates more output. The less smoothly supply can respond, the more any rising level of money offers generates higher prices. This is true in any particular market but also in the aggregation across all markets.

Inflation is the degree to which money offers increases systematically and persistently beyond the output response across all markets.

But if folk think their money will speak more loudly later than now (i.e. the value of money is expected to rise as prices are expected to fall), they will hold on to it more, leading to a lowering of aggregate money offers and so of the level of transactions/economic activity. (Hence the contractionary effects of deflation.)

If folk think their money will speak less loudly later (i.e. the value of money is expected to fall as prices are expected to rise), they will tend to spend it more, leading to an increase in aggregate money offers. (Hence the stimulatory effects of inflation.)

When considering (monetary or fiscal) stimulus, RGDP is misleading because stimulus doesn’t directly affect RGDP. It affects NGDP (aggregate money spent) with RGDP (aggregate goods and services produced) responding according to conditions on the supply side.

To put it another way, stimulus operates by raising money offers above what they otherwise would have been* but the effects of any such increase in money offers on total output depends on the supply response. Hence the concern with how far under existing productive capacity an economy is running and with the efficiency of its supply responses in responding to demand either within existing productive capacity or by expanding productive capacity.

* Even if the stimulus money is just saved, it can still have a stimulatory effect if increased confidence means that people spend at a higher level than they otherwise would have. I.e. money that would have been saved is spent instead. Of course, if the stimulus fails to improve people's expectations about their income prospects, then there will be little effect.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Demolish, do not exclude

This is based on a comment I made here.


Someone from a libertarian-conservative think tank publishes an opinion piece suggesting that same-sex marriage is a reasonable thing. As the piece concludes:
If marriage is so socially beneficial, why not encourage as many to join it as possible? The choice is between excluding gay people from the foundation of strong families or inviting them in.
This prompted a prominent Australian anti-gay activist, Bill Muehlenberg, to write a piece claiming that homosexual motive was to change marriage and that same-sex marriage would be a social disaster:
The truth is, homosexuals do not at all have in mind what most of us understand marriage to be. Indeed, they have something radically different in mind. Most seek to radically expand and alter the common understanding of marriage. Long-term monogamous fidelity is seldom part of this new understanding.
This is the standard “Homosexual Agenda” move: homosexuals have An Agenda and it's Baaaaad. After quoting various queer folk (six) suggesting that monogamy would not be part of same-sex marriage, Muehlenberg concludes:
The attempt to radically redefine the very essence of marriage is not a minor word change. It will be a major transformation of society as we know it. But the radical social activists know they have to weaken up the public to accept such massive social changes.
That is way it is a truism that social engineering is always preceded by verbal engineering. And there is plenty of this verbal sleight of hand taking place right now, even by so-called conservative social commentators.
This is the “Homosexuals Will Corrupt Anything They Are Allowed Into” move combined with the “There Can Be No Moral Truth To Their Claims, So It Must Be A Trick” move.

So far, fairly standard anti-gay activist stuff: if anything, a relatively mild version.

Muehlenberg’s piece was published on Online Opinion, a very open online opinion website. The organiser, Graham Young, had packaged his website with various other ‘high end’ Australian blogs in a common domain for advertising. After some activism against the site for running Muehlenberg's piece, ANZ and IBM decided to pull their advertising, as Christopher Pearson set out in an article in The Australian. This is a form of secondary boycott, as Skepticlawyer explains in a post which prompted the original version for the following.

So, my response is one of: good grief, where to start?

First, equal protection of the law is a good reason NOT to have hate speech laws and codes. These things are never equal in application or coverage. Some ‘hate’ or ‘offense’ always counts more than others.

Second, Online Opinion is precisely about that: a vehicle for expressing opinion. It does not have an opinion line and it is ludicrous to target it as if does so (or expect it do to so), let alone thereby penalising such a varied range of blogs.

Third, Muehlenberg is very intellectually low rent. A task I keep putting off is wading through his stuff and documenting how intellectually poor it is.

Muehlenberg has the same problem that anti-Semites had when granting Jews equality before the law was a fraught issue: invoking a large majority against a small and vulnerable minority can so easily be portrayed as the monstrous bullying it is (or seeks to be). So, anti-queer activists such as Muehlenberg use exactly the same tactics as anti-Jewish activists did:
(1) Claim there is a single view and purpose among said group (hence all homosexuals have the same purpose regarding marriage, according to Muehlenberg).

(2) Claim that they are actually powerful group, not a small and vulnerable minority at all (which the secondary boycott nonsense just feeds).

(3) Claim that they are fundamentally perverse by nature (so, gays aren’t monogamous: of course, lesbians notoriously have stable monogamous relationships, but we just ignore that, as we do heterosexual infidelity and the argument that promoting monogamy is precisely a reason to extend marriage).

(4) Claim that they have enormous corrupting power. Hence allowing same-sex marriage will profoundly change society. The historical evidence is that is nonsense. But Muehlenberg does not want to consider evidence that the endless war against human sexual diversity he advocates is a pointless and destructive war (except for the purpose of promoting the prime benefit of bigotry — selling effortless virtue and selling oneself as a “gatekeeper of righteousness”).
Arguments for equality for any group usually display two broad approaches:
(1) This society/institution is fine, it should just stop excluding us and will continue to work fine if we are included.

(2) That we are excluded shows this society/institution is deeply flawed and needs to be replaced/restructured, which our inclusion/liberation will be a lever to do.
Arguments against granting some group full membership of the moral community and equal protection of the laws regularly use advocacy of (2) to argue that (1) cannot happen, which is precisely what Muehlenberg is doing. The evidence is, again and again, that there is a great deal more continuity than profound change when exclusions are lifted. Giving Jews, Catholics, Protestants, blacks, women etc equal protection of the laws did not undermine the basic structures of society. On the contrary, it improved access to their talents and stopped wasting resources on exclusion. Giving votes to women made politics more responsive to their concerns, but the continuity in basic patterns and structures clearly far outweighed changes beyond such responsiveness.

But, since the entire argument for exclusion typically rests on “they are not adequate/proper versions of the human”, the opponents are bound to, in effect, agree with the radicals and deny the case of the just-includers. As the claim of the excluders is, in fact, profoundly wrong, the reality of common humanity again and again proves to trump claims of special identity and produce far more continuity than change.

As it will here, as the anthropological evidence makes quite clear. But Muehlenberg is not interested in evidence except when it is convenient.

The historical evidence about marriage in general, and same-sex marriage in particular, is much more complicated than Muehlenberg’s simplicities imply. Regarding the medieval evidence, for example, it took the Church quite a lot of debate to decide that consummation was necessary for marriage, which makes contemporary natural law theorists making such a big deal of penile-vaginal sex as an “obvious” defining feature of marriage amusing. While Saint Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx had this to say, in his Spiritual Friendship on Jesus and St John:
Jesus himself, is in everything like us. Patient and compassionate with others in every matter. He transfigured this sort of love through the expression of his own love; for he allowed only one – not all – to recline on his breast as a sign of his special love; and the closer they were, the more copiously did the secrets of their heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell of their spiritual chrism to their love.
Then there is the fun dispute over Orthodox rites of same-sex bonding.

Yes, of course Muehlenberg is pushing a bigoted line. Bigots ALWAYS claim to be defending moral decency, because bigotry is always and everywhere a moral claim: it is a claim about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, in the moral community.

Secondary boycotts just feed the notion that he and his are Heroic Fighters Against A Force of Great Corrupting Power which anti-queer activists make in the same way and for the same reasons anti-Jewish activists make. But it is easy to knock over Muehlenberg’s arguments, which makes feeding the noxious analysis of social dynamics his sort of activism feeds off all the more deeply stupid and self-defeating.

UPDATE Things get murkier: it appears has been alleged that it was a failure to police the comments on Muehlenberg's post which was the big problem. But that may be an exaggeration.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Why is imminent hyperinflation like the ever-sharpening crisis of capitalism?

This is based on a comment I made here.


There are folk out there who think the loss of value, since the Fed was founded, by rectangular bits of paper with the faces of Presidents on them is one of the great evils of our time. (A few months ago I listened to a young Austrian school economist describe the Fed as 'the most evil institution in the world' and he wasn't kidding – he also thought you could win economic arguments by playing games with definitions, a particularly irritating habit from a certain sort of Austrian.) My problem is that I look at those graphs of the loss of value of said rectangular bits of paper from 1913 to now and think how much life expectancy and income has gone up from 1913 to now and fail to get all outraged.

Particularly given the most reckless acts of the Fed have been to drive the value of those rectangular bits of paper sharply up and consequently economic activity sharply down.

But if you can only see the evil of inflation, and so the Fed as evil, then it has to be really evil and so be about to really drive the value of those rectangular bits of paper down. Or something.

It is not something you see in mainstream commentary much, but it is certainly not hard to find the possibility of hyperinflation being raised as a real threat. Including from an increasingly prominent member of Congress. Which shades into concern about inflationary outbreak being likely.

There is not much point getting such folk to look at the history of actual hyperinflations, and how they are associated with weak/deeply stressed regimes, because they seem to have an Apocalypse Looming mindset that is a tendency of deductive systems of analysis which think they have the secrets of history all worked out and get very frustrated when events fail to cooperate. So imminent hyperinflation becomes, to this mindset, the equivalent of Ever Sharpening Crisis of Capitalism to Marxism. The "proof" always imminent, but never quite arriving, that they were right all along.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Economics defines life

This is expanded from a comment I made here.


Economists have, quite unintentionally, come up with a defining characteristic of being alive. A living thing is something that has revealed preferences.

That is, a thing is alive if it acts to seek some states of affairs, is indifferent to some and avoids others. A living thing does not act merely according to outside causes operating on it but, within the wider causal framework, it seeks, ignores and avoids on its own volition and for reasons internal to it. It is thus an agent. It has preferences, it prefers one thing to another and acts accordingly. Anything that does that, is a living thing. Both the actions and the intent might be extremely rudimentary, but even a virus acts in a way a rock does not because the virus seeks things while a rock does not.

Computerised systems, for example, act according to reasons deliberately and specifically planted in them (though the deliberation is not always successfully executed). A computer or computerised system has functionality, but not intent, not purpose specific to itself. A computerised system is a product of revealed preferences it does not have revealed preferences. It is not alive. It has revealed function, but not revealed preference.

If a living thing does not get enough basic nutrients to consume and sustain it, it dies. This basic truth is one of great determining facts of the history of life on this planet, both human and non-human. It is a basic driver of revealed preferences, there being a general revealed preference to live. (Though even suicide is a manifestation of revealed preference.)

Getting enough to eat and drink typically involves eating other living beings. This complicates the existence of both eaters and eaten. If a living thing succeeds at breathing, eating and drinking long enough, it can have offspring. If they survive long enough to produce offspring, the process continues and whatever of their characteristics are inheritable get passed on. If they fail, they are not.

Which makes budget constraints useful for thinking about natural selection: because we are dealing with beings revealed preferences who require resources (typically by breathing, eating and drinking) to continue and so act according to, and are constrained by, available resources. A living thing seeks to occupy a sustainable ecological niche in a similar way that a firm seeks to occupy a sustainable commercial niche. Both engage in a process of action and discovery seeking to sustain themselves.

The existence of extinction events provides a dramatic example of why budget constraints are a useful way to think about natural selection. One can think of extinction events as being the most dramatic manifestation of an ecological equivalent of the business cycle.

An extinction event is when budget constraints shrink massively and suddenly such that whole species disappear because there are no available choices that will sustain their life. Their budget constraints become so constraining as to be unable to sustain life. (In economic jargon, extinction events are massive supply shocks.) After the event is over, budget constraints expand dramatically as available resources increase back towards what they were before the event. Many new "experiments in living" (known as 'species') evolve. So there is a surge in the number of species. This stabilises until one gets a fairly even pattern of extinctions and additions. Until the next extinction event, the next supply shock that massively reduces available resources.

So, any notion of 'adapted' or 'fitness' applies within some structure of budget constraints, within some pattern of available niches/resources. Something that was adapted just fine when resource levels were normal can prove to be insufficiently adaptive to survive the extinction event. This is all the brutal logic of natural selection cares about, but it does mean that ‘adapted’ or ‘fit’ applies according to a particular context, to a particular set of wider circumstances.

Moving from the sublime to something rather less, this is why I have problems with the Austrian economics notion of ‘malinvestment’. What’s a fine idea in downturn Houston may very much be “malinvestment” in Port-au-Prince. If firms go bust when economic activity drops significantly, what does that prove except the level of economic activity has dropped significantly?

Just as when species go extinct in a mass extinction event, that proves nothing about their adaptive fitness in general, merely that what worked fine in the previous circumstances does not work fine in the awful new ones.