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Fair versus equal

September 2, 2012

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Categories: #OWS, musing, news
  1. dp
    September 2, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Is that another way to say that rich people invest in bonds and put their moneys in Swiss Banks instead of in the productive economy?


  2. None
    September 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    “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.”

    And yet when times improved they werent retrospectively found to have been “gaming the system” and ejected from society, “typically meaning death” ?

    Don’t you also think the driving force earlier was also individual self-interest, since apparently gaming the system meant death ?

    Maybe we just need to start killing people who try to become rich (like those damn preppers, who are clearly just saving food in the hopes of having better status by the time things get better) after all they had it so much better back then when everyone was just scraping a living off the soil, in brotherly equality – especially the women.


    • September 2, 2012 at 2:20 pm

      That is a good point; it was self-interest then too, but of the entire group rather than on the individual level. While I certainly don’t think we should kill people for being selfish, it interests me to think about how concepts of fairness and selfishness evolve. It might lead to a way to promote individual selfishness that also actually benefits the group, rather than just the promotion of the myth that it does.


    • dd
      September 4, 2012 at 7:50 am

      if money means absence-of-risk and richies take it all, then that means the entire group would starve on absence-of-risk and it would be fair to kill richies that don’t share. It is a matter of survival.


  3. Michael Paul Goldenberg
    September 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Funny, but I didn’t get the message that anyone was arguing for getting back to subsistence living or for killing anyone who tries to become rich. I did get a lot of other points that might be worth addressing minus the snark.

    One thing that I do believe bears serious consideration: is it possible for people to strive to achieve “more” without inevitably turning any success they gain into a way to disadvantage others: accruing power, gouging those in need, etc.?

    What’s hard not to notice is how wonderful human beings are at rationalizing power and wealth. The rage over “You didn’t build that” reflects the deeply held belief that wealth and power are ALWAYS earned (and if not earned, then deserved). So those born into wealth and power who then take the advantages that wealth and power bring and turn them into greater wealth and power manage to act as if everything they now have was all achieved by them as individuals starting level with everyone else on the planet and in a complete vacuum. It’s a very comforting fairy tale indeed. And then we can hear about the enormous generosity of Mitt Romney, who not only pays perhaps 13% in taxes!!! but (wait for it) gives another 10% to charity!!! (Of course, that’s actually the tithing he does to his Church of Latter Day Saints, which expects that 10%, and calling that giving to charity rather stretches the use of the term “charity,” as if he were donating to the local Red Cross, medical research, the homeless, etc.)

    In any event, I found this piece definite food for thought. Apparently, some found it food for being dismissive, but that’s no surprise.


    • ahuntingtonteacher
      September 3, 2012 at 10:54 am

      Thanks MPG for linking to this piece. It is food for thought. I guess I’m an outcast though, mathbabe, because I have nothing to offer in return except my appreciation for this article.


    • None
      September 3, 2012 at 11:54 am

      “One thing that I do believe bears serious consideration: is it possible for people to strive to achieve “more” without inevitably turning any success they gain into a way to disadvantage others: accruing power, gouging those in need, etc.?”

      Yes that really bears very serious consideration, the rich are only rich from generally gouging those in need. Gates, Jobs, Buffet etc, they only made it big by gouging the poor, and that’s clearly more or less true for all earning above median salary; if it wasn’t for everyone who earned more earning more, those who earned less would be earning more instead.

      Obviously noone can disagree with that, but here’s a question for you. Most of the super rich are only super rich based on their assets (ie companies they own in significant portion being run being successfully, usually by themselves (gouging the poor obviously)). Obviously these assets need to be distributed amongst the less well off. When they sell those redistributed assets and get their rightful fair share, who is doing the buying ? And what do you do when you’re back in the situation that the poor having sold their assets for the money, have no assets again ? Do we redistribute the shares then tell them they can’t sell them or something ?


  4. Rob
    September 3, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Interesting, individualizing control makes less sense with examples like these. 😛


  5. George
    September 3, 2012 at 8:09 am

    It reminds me of an interesting article on the creation of money a read a few months ago:

    “In primitive human societies, humans were all hunters, with no or little/simple tools, so there was no real specialization. These people barely had enough in order to survive – nothing more.This is why there was no private property, or trade transactions (some primitive races in places like the Amazon still live in such a state).

    But then humans began to improve their tools and weapons, and they also developed agriculture as well, which was a huge leap forward. It today’s terms, people become more productive, and “specialization” started to appear, as some people became “professional farmers”, some others were “professional craftsman” creating tools etc. For the first time in history, there were different “professions” – this “specialization” allowed people to become more productive in more and more tasks, and every “professional” (eg farmer, hunter, builder, craftsman, etc) was not self-sufficient, but also relied on others in order to live a better life.

    By increasing productivity, humanity could create more wealth than before, and by increasing specialization some people (eg the farmers) had a surplus of wheat, and some other people (eg the craftsmen) had a surplus of tools or clothes. So, this is when private property firsts appears, and trade starts to grow, as one person exchanges “something that belongs to him” with “something else” that belongs to “someone else”.

    This barter system had some problems however: For example, some products are not easy to carry, or they don’t last long (food is a good example, as it must be consumed within a few days). Furthermore, as specialization deepens, there are more and more trade transactions.

    This is why people turned to something else, a “super-product” that could be used as a benchmark for all other products: Money. All other goods have a value that could now be expressed through it.

    Mankind has used many different forms of money, but gold (and secondarily silver) is the form that dominated over all the other forms. The reason is that gold is durable, easily transferable from one place to another and rare. Many other forms of money where tried, but nothing could beat gold’s advantages as money.

    Today, specialization has grown to an incredible degree – capitalism has created an international system, where everyone is more or less dependent on others from around the world in order to live a good life. When such systems collapse, humanity suffers greatly”




    • Ashley
      September 3, 2012 at 1:15 pm

      As an archaeologist/anthropologist, blog posts (specifically the part you quoted) like the one you linked to at What About Marx absolutely make me cringe. The convenient summary about human history is not just completely oversimplified, but based on outdated stereotypes – as the work done by Hayden amply demonstrates, one does not need agriculture in order to have specialization or complexity. His work also clearly demonstrates that living as a foraging/hunting society does not mean that you barely have enough to stay alive (that myth was overturned a hell of a long time ago). The blog post is just a classier way of promulgating the mythology that hunters lives were brutish and short and agriculture was somehow a boon to everyone, and there is an “evolution” towards more complex (and better) systems. I realize that little introduction is not the point of the article, but it doesn’t make it ok to lie just to suit the author’s purpose, as plenty of readers will internalize that history with no questions asked. It’s too bad they stopped at implying that it’s only a certain level of complexity that becomes disadvantageous. The reality is that every system/way of living (“simple” or “complex”) has benefits and drawbacks.

      I’ll have to think on if there is a short, well written article that sufficiently communicates the real complexities of past life around the world, but for now the material that MathBabe links to (and summarizes) should be enough to point out that agriculture is not a prerequisite for much of anything – it happens in different ways, for different reasons in various places, and the forms of economy that can later be seen to arise from it are also different in different places. And in the case of private property, are not necessarily reliant on a master narrative of agriculture (as one example, some settled foraging societies on the Northwest coast of the U.S. also had private property – yes, before any Europeans traveled over).

      Ok, tangential rant over.


  6. Nikki
    September 3, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Thanks very very much for this particular posting as it pertains to another book I am reading– The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. Likewise, it uses cross-cultural anthropology and archaeology through time.


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