Archive for the ‘Jared Diamond’ Category

Jared Diamond: Those in stateless societies "enjoy" lives that are murderous and short

April 30th, 2008 2 comments

Jared Diamond has an interesting essay at the current issue of New Yorker, “Vengeance Is Ours“, that is worth considering.  

In the essay, Diamond not only describes the moral and political economy of cycles of personal and inter-tribal vengeance in one of the relatively stateless area of the Papua New Guinean Highlands – cycles of violence that very likely represent typical human dynamics throughout the course of our evolution –  but also, via a contrast with a family story regarding personal vengeance not taken, he presents various thoughts on:

• the evolution of the state,
• the mechanisms by which those who live in states repress and channel our latent tendencies towards violence, and
• the personal satisfactions of taking vengeance, and the personal costs incurred when the right to seek vengeance is surrendered to the state.

Diamond appears to assume the legitimacy of the state, and focusses in the latter part of his essay on the personal costs that each of us incurs by being forced to surrender our “thirst for vengeance” when we are injured or offended and to rely on an impersonal state for “justice”. 

This is interesting, but rather shallow, as it fails to discuss how our state-run justice systems themselves seem to be rather out of control, especially in the US.

Further, Diamond skates too quickly past important issues when he concludes that the evolution of states has been a good deal generally for those who find themselves in them.  Here are a few key quotes:

“State government is now so nearly universal around the globe that we forget how recent an innovation it is; the first states are thought to have arisen only about fifty-five hundred years ago, in the Fertile Crescent. Before there were states, Daniel’s method of resolving major disputes—either violently or by payment of compensation—was the worldwide norm. Papua New Guinea is not the only place where those traditional methods of dispute resolution still coexist uneasily with the methods of state government. For example, Daniel’s methods might seem quite familiar to members of urban gangs in America, and also to Somalis, Afghans, Kenyans, and peoples of other countries where tribal ties remain strong and state control weak. As I eventually came to realize, Daniel’s thirst for vengeance and his hostility to rival clans are really not so far from our own habits of mind as we might like to think.  …

Nearly all human societies today have given up the personal pursuit of justice in favor of impersonal systems operated by state governments—at least, on paper. Without state government, war between local groups is chronic; coöperation between local groups on projects bringing benefits to everyone—such as large-scale irrigation systems, free rights of travel, and long-distance trade—becomes much more difficult; and even the frequency of murder within a local group is higher. It’s true, of course, that twentieth-century state societies, having developed potent technologies of mass killing, have broken all historical records for violent deaths. But this is because they enjoy the advantage of having by far the largest populations of potential victims in human history; the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.

While I think Diamond’s observations here are largely fair, Diamond makes no effort to analyze the failings of modern states, and these failures are significant and cannot be ignored.  Neither, however, can the implications of Diamond’s observations for those who think we would be better off in stateless societies.  However, Diamond is primarily an ornithologist and anthropologist, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not examining more closely the problems of states in a rather short essay that is more concerned about cycles of violence and our modern repression of personal vengeance.

Further, Diamond’s essay only tangentially addresses, but is nonetheless seems a good jumping-off point for considering further, our evolved human nature and the heritage that such evolution has left us in terms of a cognitive system that is prone to suspicion of others, black and white views, self-justification and other characteristics that tended to reinforce our important tribal identities.  These are matters that I think affect each of us and are very much in evidence in the modern, “civilized” world – the world of impassioned disagreements between factions, racial divides, hostility towards “others” (those evil “Islamofascists,” gays, immigrants, liberals, envirofascists, etc.) and our fabulous ability to identify the mistakes and inconsistencies of others while ignoring our own.  As hjmaiere pointed out in a recent forum post (“Hermann Goering on Anthropogenic Global Warming” – naturally I disagreed with him in relevant parts), it is the powerful effects of our tribal nature that rent-seekers (and their political handlers) are so good at identifying and manipulating.

Bison and the Theft of the Commons

December 16th, 2007 No comments

[Updated, as noted]

[I now view this as my first “Avatar” post. February 15, 2010.]

My attention was drawn today to a letter to the editor published by The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), an organization of free-thinkers who pioneered what is now known as “free market environmentalism” and which is the nation’s oldest and largest institute dedicated to original research that brings market principles to resolving environmental problems.

The letter, by P.J. Hill, Professor of Economics at Wheaton College and a PERC Senior Fellow, addresses an interesting article titled “Bisonomics” by Brian Yablonski in the Fall 2007 issue of “PERC Reports” on the growing private market that has led to a remarkable expansion of bison herds in North America

[Update: According to the bison industry webpage, (i) bison producers can be found today in all 50 states, every Canadian province, and in several countries overseas, (ii) the Department of Agriculture reported in 2002 that approximately 4,000 private ranches held 232,000 head of bison across the United States, (iii) approximately 25,000 additional animals are kept in public herds, and (iv) the Canadian herd is estimated at 150,000 head.  This is an amazing comeback for a species that hovered on the brink of extinction in 1900.

However, in the lower 48, only the 4000-head Yellowstone herd is genetically pure.  While there are  no “domestic” breeds, ranched bison all carry cattle genes, largely as a result of efforts to make hardier breeds of cattle.  Efforts to further domesticate bison continue.]

In explaining the near extirpation of American bison herds in the late 1800s, Yablonski rather conventionally describes this occurrence as “one of the great environmental catastrophes in our nation’s history” and “one of the starkest examples of the tragedy of the commons. No one owned the bison. Those who were not the first to capture the economic benefits of a bison lost those benefits to someone else.”

Professor Hill challenges this conventional wisdom and offers what seems to be a new twist:

“Yablonski …  errs in saying “the tragedy of the bison is one of the starkest examples of the tragedy of the commons.” A tragedy of the commons occurs when a resource is consumed more rapidly than it would be if well-defined and enforced property rights existed. In other words, the institutional framework leads to over-use. The primary reason bison did not remain abundant on the Great Plains after 1880 is not because they were unowned, although that fact might have sped up their slaughter. But, bison were a costly way to convert grass to meat in comparison to cattle, and if there would have been rights to bison on the parts of nineteenth century ranchers most of them would have been killed and cattle would have replaced them.

In the 1880s, a buffalo hide (the only part of a bison that could be easily shipped to eastern markets) was worth $3 in Miles City, Montana. A cow was worth $20 to $25 (see The Not so Wild, Wild West by Anderson and Hill 2004). Ranchers understood the economics of bison ranching versus cattle ranching and hence made no efforts to stop the hide hunters.

(emphasis added).

But is this really a new insight, or merely stating the obvious, while ignoring the ethnic and natural resource war of which the bison slaughter was part and parcel?  What follows below is part of an email that I have sent to PERC, cc: to Mr. Yablonski and Prof. Hill (with slight editing):

I see that P.J. Hill has commented in a letter that the near extinction of the bison was NOT a “tragedy of the commons”; his paper on this [“The Non-Tragedy of the Buffalo Commons”] carries the argument even further:
This deserves a much more detailed response, but suffice it to say that Mr. Hill’s analysis suffers from the very curious omission of a blindingly salient issue – the conflict between a hunter-gather Indian society and a much more technologically advanced white society.  The Indians were simply incapable of protecting the land and the resources that previously they had unquestionably occupied and possessed.  The slaughter of the bison was part and parcel of the elimination of the Indians as the lords of the Plains.
Once an eastern/white market for buffalo skins was established, the Indians, like the bison, stood no chance, and the rest of Mr. Hill’s argument is also fairly obvious.  Bison are powerful animals, not tame like cattle, and can be ranched today only with difficulty, through costly measures not available 135 years ago.  Their hides had value, but they themselves were a nuisance and a competing grazer.  Killing them was a free-for-all on land that was not owned or protected by whites, and on land that was, the skinners provided a service.
Finally, of course, removing the bison also had a value to the white government and settlers in removing emphatically their competitors for the land, the Indians.
Wikipedia summarizes:
“In August 1867, Grant appointed Sheridan to head the Department of the Missouri and pacify the Plains. His troops, even supplemented with state militia, were spread too thin to have any real effect. He conceived a strategy similar to the one he used in the Shenandoah Valley. In the Winter Campaign of 1868–69 he attacked the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes in their winter quarters, taking their supplies and livestock and killing those who resisted, driving the rest back into their reservations. By promoting in Congressional testimony the hunting and slaughter of the vast herds of American Bison on the Great Plains and by other means, Sheridan helped deprive the Indians of their primary source of food.[39] Professional hunters, trespassing on Indian land, killed over 4 million bison by 1874. When the Texas legislature considered outlawing bison poaching on tribal lands, Sheridan personally testified against it in Austin, Texas. He suggested that the legislature should give each of the hunters a medal, engraved with a dead buffalo on one side and a discouraged-looking Indian on the other. [40] This strategy continued until the Indians honored their treaties. Sheridan’s department conducted the Red River War, the Ute War, and the Black Hills War, which resulted in the death of a trusted subordinate, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. The Indian raids subsided during the 1870s and were almost over by the early 1880s, as Sheridan became the commanding general of the U.S. Army.[41]
Sheridan’s said the following to  Texas legislature in 1875: “These men, the buffalo hunters, have done in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary; and it is a well-known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”
(emphasis added)
Far from a simple tragedy of the commons, we had a deliberate war, and a slaughter, driven by a white market demand, in a no man’s land from which Indians had been driven.
Dr. Hill simply addresses the question of whether those whites who established and could enforce property rights would prefer bison or cattle – and he hardly needs any firepower for that, as the comparison of bison to cattle for purposes of white markets is an open and shut case in favor of the much more docile (and less powerful) cattle.
One wonders whether Dr. Hill would venture similar arguments that the removal of native americans from their land in the Amazon and conversion of the “public land” to cattle ranches and soybean plantations (and palm oil plantations in Indonesia) is not a problem of the identification and enforcement of property rights, but is also simply a matter of economic efficiency.

(emphasis added)

[Update: I couldn’t stop myself from noting here a few thoughts]

P.J. Hill concludes in his paper that:

“There was no tragedy in an economic sense in the killing of the bison; it was simply a rational economic act by people who wished to maximize the value of the grass on the Great Plains.” 

Bison herds both consumed the grass and disrupted cattle production so their removal was an economic necessity, not a tragedy or a waste of resources.”

“The history of the American bison is one of rational individuals operating under an institutional framework that did not create a tragedy of the commons. It is true that property rights were not well defined and established for buffalo on the open prairies, but since they were not a valuable resource, property rights entrepreneurs put little effort into establishing rights, and if there would have been well-defined and enforced property rights, cattle would still have replaced bison as the primary converter of grass on the Great Plains.”

(emphasis and italics added)

P.J. Hill is right to say that the near-extirpation of the American bison was not a pure “tragedy of the commons”, but I disagree strongly with his reasoning. What occurred was NOT simply, as Hill describes, the replacement of a wild, open-access ecosystem with “more productive” individual cattle ranches, farms, towns and railroads inextricably tied to distant markets. Rather, what occurred was just as much the usual tragedy when an indigenous people with community-property systems encounter a more numerous and more technologically advanced society – namely, the prompt swamping of the native community-property system and outright theft of resources.

Once one accepts P.J. Hill’s premise that the Great Plains rightfully belonged to the white newcomers, then his conclusions naturally and logically follow.  But one is not seeing history clearly if a cold analysis does not also consider the the broader clash of peoples, which the Indians were fated to lose (a la Jared Diamond‘s “Guns, Germs and Steel”).

More than a little disturbingly, Hill’s references to “people”, “rational individuals” and “entrepreneurs” are references only to the white newcomers, and not those who were dispossessed.  Rather startlingly, one can get a clearer picture of how many in the much more powerful white culture contemporaneously viewed the subjugation and removal of the American Indian from what had once been their domain by simply replacing Hill’s references to “bison” in the quoted paragraphs with “Indians”.

I do not mean to attribute such a view to Dr. Hill, but I do think that his failure to consider the issue of a clash of owners is a fatal flaw in his apparently dispassionate, reasoned academic analysis.