Fair versus equal
In this multimedia presentation, Alan Honick explores the concept of fairness with archaeologist Brian Hayden. It’s entitled “The Evolution of Fairness”, and it’s published by Pacific Standard Magazine.
It’s a series of small writings and short videos which studies evidence of the emergence of inequality in the archaeological record of fishing at a place called Keatley Creek in British Columbia. While it isn’t the most convenient thing to go through, it’s worth the effort. Here are the highlights for me:
When the main concern of the people living at Keatley Creek was subsistence, their society was egalitarian – they shared everything and it wasn’t okay to hoard. Specifically, anyone found trying to game the system was ejected from society, which typically meant death.
As fishing technology improved, the average person could provide for themselves in normal times quite easily, and private ownership became acceptable and common. Those who game the system were no longer ejected, partly because the definitions were different.
At this point, Hayden suggests, people began to do things in small groups that seemed perfectly fair (“I’ll give you 20 fish loaves if you let me marry your daughter” or “Come to my feast tonight and invite me to your feast next week”) and moreover seemed like a private arrangement, until it became sufficiently widespread so that two things happened:
- The guys who didn’t have or couldn’t borrow 20 fish loaves couldn’t get married, or similarly the guys who couldn’t afford to serve a feast never entered into the feast-sharing ritual, and
- The truly rich guys would sometimes have a feast for everyone, which meant the poorer would “get something for nothing” and everyone would gain. Another way of saying this is that the poorer people would allow themselves to be coopted into the unequal system by the price of this free food. Those people who didn’t give feasts or cooperate with the free feasts were outcasts.
An interesting thing happened when Hayden goes to villages in the Mayan Highlands in Mexico and Guatemala which has similar size and social structure as the one on Keatley Creek (see the video on this page). He interviewed people about how the “rich” behaved in times of starvation. Did they take on a managerial role? Did they share and help out in bad times? This is referred to as “communitarian”.
Turns out, no, they exploited the people in the village in the hopes of having better status by the time things got better. They sold maize at exorbitant prices, took outrageous amounts of land for maize, etc. The driving force was individual self-interest.
The overall narrative describes the shifting definition of fairness as things became less and less equal, and how eventually the elite, who essentially got to define fairness, didn’t need to listen to the objections of the poor at all, because they had no power.
The author Alan Honick concludes by looking at our society and asks whether campaign finance laws, and Citizens United, is that different in effect from what we saw happening on Keatley Creek. He also points out that, because we humans are so individually obsessed with increasing our status, we can’t seem to get together to address really important issues such as global warming.