"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys; he may look dumb but that's just a disguise; he's a mastermind in the ways of espionage." Charlie Daniels, "Uneasy Rider" Jared Diamond: Those in stateless societies "enjoy" lives that are murderous and short - TT's Lost in Tokyo

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

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.

Published Wed, Apr 30 2008 9:50 PM by TokyoTom


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

Thursday, May 8, 2008 8:00 AM by jtucker

You know, his analysis here does indeed seem superficial. In fact, the impersonal state as we know is even younger: about 500 years ago, at least according to the neglected masterpiece Rise and Decline of the State by Martin van Creveld.

Also I once asked J.G. Hulsman about the problem of societies that don't seem to be prepared for what we think of as liberty, societies where violence rules, rights are not respected, and tribalism is the only pattern. His answer I found very compelling. He said that no matter how bad a society is, there is nothing that state can do to make it better. A state in a bad society is going to become the center of the evil, monopolizing it and spreading it.

Challenging! What do you think?

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

Saturday, May 10, 2008 1:59 PM by TokyoTom

Jeff, thanks for your visit.  Diamond touches on a number of interesting subjects, but he doesn`t make it very clear where he`s going.  He tangentially makes that point that our tribal predispositions haven`t changed (which is why we love stories about blood brothers, loyalty, and vengeance), but it seems peculiar for his main emphasis to be on what we lost - vengeance and related closure - when we gained more peaceful societies where violence was constrained by the state.

I`ll have to take a look at van Creveld, but I imagine that being impersonal is one of the chief characteristics of a state - codes are enacted or decreed, institutions are established, etc. - but this has a very ancient history that precedes writing.

I`m not sure I understand the cases that concern you and Hulsman.  History tells us that pre-state societies were very much like the one Diamond describes - with intertribal violence no doubt having the effect of keeping human populations within the bounds of food resources then available given existing technology and organization.  But these societies were still subject to very complex social rules.  It seems that our apparently relatively greater freedom to choose lifestyle, career etc. and relaxation of restrictive traditional rules reflect growing wealth and social needs for greater flexibility.  But we have given up very tight bonds of brotherhood and community for atomization and alienation - while still longing to immerse ourselves in close communities.

I am not sure that I would agree that a state cannot make a "bad" society better, but I`m also not clear I understand what you think a bad society is or how a state arises.  However, I do think the world faces very difficult problems of development due to ineffective or misgoverned states - and that these may require "developed" states to make concerted efforts to introduce better governance, protect property rights and establish capital formation institutions.

# Are Hayek's essential "market morals" breaking down? Hmm ... Is peace breaking out, or are things getting ugly?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 7:07 AM by TT's Lost in Tokyo

I wanted to post a few additional and somewhat scattered thoughts I have had relating to the 1986 essay