Despite all the death, misery and poverty that socialism has wreaked over the past century on all scales from Stalin to Detroit, one would think that a species capable of learning would figure out that socialism’s negatives eventually outweigh its positives. Worse, looking back across the history of humanity, we see the core socialist idea of forced redistribution occurring again and again across culture after culture.
Why do humans seem to have an in-built urge for socialism? Why won’t it die? I think socialism will not die because primitive humans lacked refrigerators.
Despite what many vegans may try to tell you, meat serves as the central critical nutrient for human beings. Without the fats and proteins in meat, pre-human hominids and hunter-gather humans could not get enough energy and raw materials to grow large brains. Therefore, hunting has been the central activity of humans for 99.75% of our four-million year long evolutionary history, long enough for behaviors related to hunting and the consumption of meat to become hardwired into our genes via natural selection.
Although vital, meats present challenges for low-technology humans. Hunter-gatherers cannot store any significant amounts of meat. Firstly, it is very hard to preserve meat with the tools that hunter-gatherers have. Cooking and smoking help some but without salt and cold, such methods preserve meat only for a few days. (Cultures that live in the tropics do not bother to attempt to preserve meats at all.) Secondly, hunter-gatherers must move constantly. They must circulate through a territory so that they don’t over-hunt any particular area, or they must follow the seasonal migration of prey animals. Without vehicles or beasts of burden, moving a lot of food takes more energy than it consumes. These factors force hunter gatherers to eat all they catch immediately and to rely on stored body-fat as their only food reserve.
Humans specialize in hunting animals as large as or larger than humans themselves. This creates a pattern of alternating feast and famine for individual hunters. On good days, a hunter will bring in far more meat than he or his immediate family can consume. On bad days, he may bring in nothing. The obvious solution is for several individual hunters (or groups of hunters) to pool their kills. When a hunter has a good day he shares his catch with everyone in his immediate community who immediately devours the entire kill. When a hunter has a bad day, he eats the catch of the hunter who had a good day.
In order to discourage parasites, i.e., hunters who eat but seldom contribute, hunter-gatherer cultures develop a sophisticated tally of obligations based on the sharing of meat. Since material goods mean little to hunter-gatherers, a “wealthy” hunter-gatherer is one to whom many others owe obligations based on that particular hunter-gatherer having provided them with food and other assistance in the past. Such successful hunters gain “wealth” in the form of status, i.e., a strong network of allies, who help the hunter when he needs it.
Over the past four million years, this behavior has become encoded in our genes. These genes program us to immediately share any “surplus” we receive. These genes program us to expect that sharing evokes a sense of obligation in the recipients. These genes program us to expect others to share their entire surplus with us, and they program us to resent and even to attack those who do not do so (in order to prevent hunter-gatherer parasites).
Our genes provide the basic template for all human societies. All societies expect those that have, to share with those who do not and to receive loyalty in return. We experience the effect of these genes in our innate since of “fair” and “just”. No one can really define “fair” because no such thing exists beyond a vague emotion evoked by our genes in order to prevent others from hoarding meat. The amount of effort that a particular individual put into producing a resource does not factor into our genetic sense of fairness because the algorithm the genes follow assumes that: all individuals produce roughly the same amount over time, that excesses of resources are transitory and that expenditures of resources now will be rewarded with loyalty and reciprocal resource sharing later.
(I think it important to note that our sense of innate fairness arises from our species particular adaptations to a particular environment. Had we evolved while able to, like weasels or polar bears, store meat or if we hunted smaller game, our genetic sense of fairness would be different.)
Our genetically programmed sense of a “just” economy, i.e., a system of exchange, is based on the assumption that resources are traded for obligations. We have no innate, genetically programmed sense,that resources should be exchanged for resources because hunter-gatherers do not routinely exchange meat-for-meat.
Most pre-industrial forms of human societies follow this pattern. Great rulers cement their right to rule by rewarding followers with gifts of resources, and the followers reciprocate with loyalty. In all human cultures, the highest-status individuals are those who affect not to care about material resources, but instead to care about “higher values” which in the end boil down to obligations. In most human cultures, military aristocrats, theocrats, philosophers and bureaucrats all affect not to care for material rewards. All human cultures hold in contempt those who do concern themselves with resources, such as merchants, bankers, artisans etc. (In most civilizations such occupations are the sole domain of a hated ethnic minority, e.g., Jews, Armenians, Bengals, expatriate-Chinese, etc.)
For 3,990,000 years (99.75% of our species’s existence), humans lived in a world where our genes created optimized behaviors for the circumstances of meat-eating hunter-gatherers. Less than 10,000 years ago (0.25% of our history), humans invented agriculture and started to settle down. For the first time in our species’s history, individuals could create surplus resources they could store. Individuals didn’t need to share any surpluses immediately or see them go to waste. Local populations grew so large that our intuitive obligation-accounting system began to break down. An individual could share with a stranger and never see any obligation in return. Parasitism became a serious concern. (Most parasites had horses and swords.) Our genetic sense of fairness collided with the learned behaviors developed to adapt to the new circumstances, and socialism was born.
The socialist exploits our innate sense of the “fair” distribution of resources, in order to enhance his own status. Our genes program us to reward with loyalty and status the individual who gives us resources and not the individual who creates those resources. When a socialist says that it is not fair that one person or group has more resources than others, our genes tell us: “he’s right, those others should share their meat with everyone else.”
Capitalism, especially free-market capitalism, is genetically non-intuitive. It requires that we save surpluses, something our genes (unlike some other animal’s genes) do not program us to do. Specialization of labor means that some individuals must have access to different resources and in different amounts when our genes tell us to spread all resources evenly. Specialization of labor means that individuals must trade resources for resources instead of resources for obligations. Capitalism operates in societies composed of millions whereas our genes program us to live in societies of a few dozen.
So, unless we genetically engineer a capitalist human whose genetically programmed sense of fairness incorporates the effort, skill and sacrifice that went into creating any given resource, we will always see socialism reassert itself in various guises again and again. People will always find ways to rationalize their genetic impulses.
A socialist will always be able to gain power and status by standing up and saying, “I will share the meat!”