Universal Human Nature
By Arnold Kling
Christopher I. Beckwith writes,
Viewed from the perspective of Eurasian history over the last four millennia, there does not seem to me to be any significant difference between the default underlying human socio-political structure during this time period–that is, down to the present day–and that of primates in general. The Alpha Male Hierarchy is our system too, regardless of whatever cosmetics have been applied to hide it…the Modern political system is in fact simply a disguised primate-type hierarchy, and as such is not essentially different from any other political system human primates have dreamed upl.
That is from the preface to Empires of the Silk Road, a forthcoming book. More excerpts below the fold.
Of all the reductionist theories out there, my favorite is the one that says that most activities, especially those involving males, are hierarchical status games. I think that theory helps explain the drive for excessive compensation on the part of executives. I think it explains the excessive drive for power on the part of politicians.
Market-oriented economists are accused of merely crafting an elaborate rationale for extreme status competition among the rich. I think there may be a grain of truth to this.
I feel the same way about economists who trumpet market failure and support strengthening government. On some level, they are merely crafting an elaborate rationale for extreme status competition among politicians.
I believe that the economic status game usually has positive externalities. If A and B compete for wealth, they often have to create wealth for the rest of us.
I believe that the political status game has fewer positive externalities. In theory, politicians could do things to create wealth. In practice, they mostly take from some constituents and give to others.
All in all, I think it is best not to get too romantic about either the way markets or politics channel status behavior.Beckwith’s book is history with attitude. His goal is to improve the reputation of the steppe nomads of central Eurasia. They generally are considered barbarians. One thinks of the Huns or the Mongol Hordes as fierce and extremely warlike. Beckwith says that they were no worse than anyone else. He also resurrects the history of many other steppe nomad peoples, some of whom are extinct or nearly so.
How could a ruler remain alive in a world of ruthless hierarchical status competition? Beckwith says that the key was the comitatus system, in which a ruler recruited a cadre of trusted vassals who agreed to commit suicide upon the death of the ruler. In return, the ruler gave them a good life.
The reason trade was so important to nomadic peoples seems rather to have been the necessity of supporting the ruler and his comitatus, the cost of which is attested by archaeological excavations and by historical descriptions of the wealth lavished on comitatus members across Central Eurasia from Antiquity onward. The ruler-comitatus relationship was the sociopolitical foundation stone…until well into the Middle Ages. Without it, the ruler would not have been able to maintain himself on the throne in this life and would have been defenseless against his enemies in the next life.
The book is a tough slog at times, particularly when Beckwith recounts dynastic struggles among obscure tribes. It gets very lively near the end, when Beckwith rants against Modernism, which he blames for both the ideologically-driven massacres of Hitler and Stalin and the decline of classical art. He seems at least as angry about the latter as the former.
Throughout, Beckwith puts “democracy” in scare quotes. He probably would disagree with my “most wrong” view that the market economy is a recent development. But he would agree with the de-romanticized view of our political system.