Neolithic Public-Choice Theory

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Anomaly UK reads Filipe Fernández-Armesto’s Civilizations and explains Neolithic Public-Choice Theory:

He makes an interesting point, which I’d seen before, which is that hunter-gatherers appear to have better lives than arable farmers. What is significant historically, he argues, is not at what point farming is “discovered”, but at what point, and for what reasons, a society chooses to give up its easy gathering lifestyle in exchange for hard work in the fields.

My assumption was always that farming is inevitable because a farming society, with its high population density, will defeat any low-density gatherer society it comes into conflict with. But this can be seen as analogous to the erroneous group-selection arguments in evolutionary biology; a particular behaviour may be beneficial to a group, but if is detrimental to the individual, individuals without it will take over groups faster than groups with it will out-compete groups without. It is not enough for a farming society to defeat a non-farming one, if farmers can have a better lifestyle by abandoning their fields. My explanation needs a few gaps filled in.

What Fernández-Armesto doesn’t quite say, but suggests strongly, is that the change from gathering to farming particularly benefits leaders. By making underlings absolutely dependent on central infrastructure (cleared land, irrigation), the leader increases his control over them. Public choice theory, neolithic edition. (That sounds so good I’m putting it in the title).

Fernández-Armesto makes an analogy with 19th-century industrialisation. Landowners benefited, but workers didn’t. (Of course, in the long run we all benefited from both farming and industrialisation, but as Fernández-Armesto correctly points out, that could hardly justify them at the time if they made most peoples’ lives worse).

The point here is that central control is the mechanism for preventing “defection” back to more pleasant lifestyles.

This second explanation rings true to me:

There is a second explanation, which is randomness plus a ratchet — even if going from gathering to farming is unpleasant, going back, once population has increased, is likely to be much worse. So for whatever freakish reason agriculture starts, it’s likely to stay, and spread.


  1. James James says:

    Not only do rulers benefit from increased control, they benefit from increased wealth. Increasing the population might not increase per-capita GDP, but if it increases total GDP, this makes the rent-collecting class (landowners and the state) better off.

    However, I don’t think increased power or wealth for rulers explains the switch from hunter-gathering to agriculture. That would require that the switch be directed from the top, but in reality it wasn’t.

    The reason for the switch is more likely that

    1. sedentry peoples can exclude roving peoples from the land, thus forcing roving peoples to extinction. Roving Red Indians can’t hunt wild buffalo if there aren’t any wild buffalo left because the land has all been turned into farms.

    2. agriculture is more productive. This productivity gets turned into more people instead of higher living standards.

    For both reasons, sedentry agriculture Darwinianly outcompetes roving hunter-gatherers.

  2. James James says:

    “19th-century industrialisation. Landowners benefited, but workers didn’t”

    That doesn’t sound right to me.

    Clark says in Farewell To Alms that the Industrial Revolution was unique because productivity gains were turned into higher living standards for the common man, rather than just being used to produce more people. Productivity growth outstripped population growth for the first time.

    Industrial Revolution workers benefited in the sense that they chose to move to the cities, Highland clearances notwithstanding. The Highland clearances might be an example of a genuine directed plan to force people into the cities, but this is likely unnecessary, because poor people still flock to the cities in poor countries (and indeed in rich ones).

  3. Alrenous says:

    Farming can start gradually.

    First a few tucked-away bits of hidden dirt where seeds, usually trash, are planted. It’s nicer than hunting all over the forest for food, so they expand them. Eventually they get big enough to be found by enemies, but then they’re big enough to be worth defending. Plus, you gonna let the next tribe over insult you like that? If, around this time, the population has grown some, they’ll get lassoed by the fields.

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