This article was published in the Summer 1997 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
by Roderick T. Long

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The Problem
Spiritual Gains:  The High Road to Positive-Sum
Material Gains:  Positive-Sum Within Zero-Sum
A Concession

The Problem

This essay grows out of a discussion that occurred at our most recent FNF Forum. Phil Jacobson was describing how the state emerged out of stateless societies during the rise of civilization in ancient times [*].  I asked him whether there was anything our ancestors could have done to avoid this process—i.e., whether the transition from primitive society to civilization could have been accomplished without the creation of the state—or whether instead the state was a historically inevitable phase that humanity had to pass through.

Phil replied that the latter seemed more likely to him, because prior to the Industrial Revolution there simply were not enough resources to support everyone, and so human interaction had to be, on balance, zero-sum: some could gain only on condition that others lost out. Hence it was inevitable that exploitation would be seen as a more attractive mode of interaction than cooperation, and so the state, as an organized system of exploitation, became the dominant form of social organization. It is only modern technological developments that have made positive-sum society possible, and so have made the state obsolete.

If Phil's account is right, then our ancestors were caught in a nasty Catch-22. For if it is true that the absence of industrialization is what maintained the power of the state, it is also true that the existence of the state is what delayed the Industrial Revolution. There is no inherent reason that the technological developments that Phil sees as heralding the demise of the state could not have occurred in ancient times; the Greeks knew the principle of the steam engine, for example. As I see it, what prevented the seeds of industrialization from taking root in the ancient world was a pair of factors: a) the lack of sufficient free-market incentives for commercial development, and b) the dependence on slave labor; but both these factors were supported largely by state action. Likewise, the advent of the Scientific Revolution was delayed by the restrictions on free intellectual inquiry imposed by the Roman Empire and its successors (the Byzantine Empire in the east, the Catholic Church in the west). The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, when they finally came, occurred in spite of the state, not because of it. If our ancestors had been able to find an alternative to the state, humanity would have found its way to positive-sum statelessness a lot more quickly.

This problem is of more than historical interest; it has application today as well. Currently, human population growth is putting a strain on the earth's resources, threatening to return humanity to a zero-sum scenario. Libertarians like to say that free markets would both distribute resources more efficiently, and foster technological developments to create new resources, thus obviating this problem. I agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, as libertarians are all too aware, we don't have free markets; so the fact that we could be in a positive-sum situation if governmental restrictions were removed doesn't show that we are in one as things stand now. And if it is the state that prevents us from getting to that positive-sum ideal, and the absence of positive-sum society is what maintains the state, then by Phil's argument the present existence of the state might make its future continuation inevitable—an implication that bodes ill for the prospects of a free nation.

Phil's analysis also seems to pose a conundrum for libertarian economics. Our economists like to describe free markets as the most efficient way of allocating scarce resources. But if Phil is right, it seems to follow that freedom is practicable only in conditions other than those of scarcity—that when resources are scarce, free markets break down. If this is true, it seems to undermine the entire tradition of free-market thought.

I want to resist the idea that pre-industrial society was zero-sum in so strong a sense as to make gains from exploitation generally outweigh gains from cooperation. To do this I shall employ two strategies. First, I shall try to argue that the assumption that primitive economies were zero-sum depends on considering only material gains and not spiritual ones. Second, I shall try to argue that even if we restrict our attention to material gains only, and so concede that pre-industrial society was in some sense zero-sum, there would still have been powerful practical reasons for preferring cooperative modes of social organization over exploitative ones.

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Spiritual Gains: The High Road to Positive-Sum

When economic resources are sufficiently scarce, it may seem that there is no way for some to survive, let alone prosper, unless they take resources forcibly from others; and so, in such cases, exploitation seems to be more beneficial than cooperation. But this conclusion assumes that the person who coerces others in order to survive really is better off than the person who remains cooperative and dies. This is true enough if we think of well-being in terms of material benefits alone; but once we take spiritual benefits into account as well, this is not so clear. Suppose the following two claims are true:

1. Quality of life is more important for our well-being than quantity of life.

2. Taking a moral attitude of respect and cooperativeness toward others is a prerequisite of a high quality of life.

In that case, well-being would indeed be better served by refusing to engage in exploitation, even at the cost of one's life: the package {cooperation + short life} would be more valuable than the package {exploitation + long life}. And if this is so, then personal gain would not have to come at the expense of others, and society would no longer be zero-sum.

It may be objected that primitive societies living on the edge of survival could hardly be expected to adopt so high-minded an attitude (and any that did would be wiped out by those that didn't). But when one examines the moral creeds of the ancient world, one finds that they did indeed have (if not at the initial period of state-formation, then at least well before industrialization) the moral and conceptual resources to formulate and embrace just such a view. I shall consider four ancient cultures: India, China, Greece, and the Near East.


The three dominant religions of ancient India were Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Hinduism in its earliest phase seems to have promoted an exploitationist ethic, according to which the Aryan master race had the right to conquer everybody else; but as Hinduism developed, and interacted with the newly emerging Buddhist and Jaina systems, the old warrior ethic began to be questioned. All three religions adopted the doctrine of ahimsa, non-injury —an ethic that strongly favored cooperation over exploitation. Within Hinduism the anti-exploitation consequences of ahimsa were never developed very fully (until Gandhi's time); the Bhagavad-gita, probably the best-known sacred scripture of Hinduism, can be seen as a desperate (and unfortunately, largely successful) attempt to embrace and co-opt the basic outlook of the emerging religious consciousness while at the same time defusing its radical social implications. But the other two religions applied the doctrine of ahimsa more consistently, with Buddhism rejecting the caste system, and Jainism adopting a thoroughgoing position of nonviolence.


The most popular ethical movements of ancient China were Confucianism, Mohism, and Taoism. The Confucians advocated an ethic of reciprocity: treat others in the same way that you would want to be treated (the Golden Rule). The Mohists went further, advocating an equal and impartial love for all humankind. All moral systems have at least advocated cooperation within the dominant group, though not necessarily with the oppressed lower orders or with outsiders from foreign groups, but the Mohists were quite explicit in their rejection of such selectivity; moral concern extends to everyone. Finally, the Taoists advocated living simply and in accordance with nature, and rejected the attempt to impose one's will coercively on others as a sign of psychological imbalance; allow the natural forces of society to operate freely, the Taoists insisted, and order will emerge spontaneously (a sentiment echoed in the anarchistic rhetoric—though, alas, never fully in the practice—of the rebels who overthrew the tyrannical Ch'in dynasty to establish the Han).


The direct or indirect founder of most Greek and Roman schools of philosophy was Sokrates, who stated as the centerpiece of his ethic that one is better off suffering injustice than committing it (because committing injustice undermines the integrity of the self, a far more serious harm than such bodily ills as imprisonment, torture, and death). Against the popular Greek view that we should practice justice toward our friends and injustice toward our enemies, Sokrates argued that wisdom requires taking an attitude of benevolence and mutual aid toward everybody. The Platonic, Aristotelean, Stoic, and Epicurean schools all basically adopted the Sokratic position on this point. Plato tried to make room for exploitation of the masses by arguing that it was in the best interest of the ignorant to be ruled by the wise; and Aristotle tried to make room for exploitation of foreigners by arguing that non-Greeks are natural slaves who can be conquered with moral impunity; but the Stoics and Epicureans closed both these loopholes, arguing that we are all equal citizens of the Cosmopolis (universal city), and that the best social order would be a voluntary anarchy.

The Near East

Judaism, like Hinduism, began as an exclusivist religion, with one ethnic group enjoying divine favor and being authorized to conquer competing groups. But over time Judaism (perhaps under the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism) developed in a more universalistic direction, with strong support for an ethic of reciprocity ("love thy neighbor as thyself"); and it was from this strand of Judaic thought that Christianity emerged. Like the other religions we've been considering, Christianity emphasized spiritual gains over material ones ("what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"); and it advocated an ethic of reciprocity (the Golden Rule) and nonviolence ("turn the other cheek").


In short, then, we can see that moral views advocating cooperation as preferable to exploitation even in the face of severe material costs were plentiful and popular in the ancient world. It is true that the adherents of these views did not always draw the full libertarian consequences from their premises (though they did draw some of them); and even those movements that started out as anarchistic or nearly so (e.g., Taoism, Stoicism, Christianity) eventually made their peace with the state. Still, vast numbers of people attached sufficient weight to the precepts of these religious and philosophical viewpoints that they were willing to sacrifice material benefits and even life itself for their sake. So there is nothing impossible in the supposition that vast numbers of our ancestors could have been motivated to adopt a policy of non-exploitation even in the face of extreme material scarcity, and thus the state need never have been started (or, once started, could have been dismantled).

Now it might be objected that any society that did this would have been conquered by more aggressive societies, so that cultural evolution would favor exploitation (as the "nice" societies got selected against). But this is not obvious. Some of the anti-exploitation moralities I've described prohibited even defensive violence, but not all did; and the assumption that defensive violence can be effective only when it is centrally directed by a state is an assumption that market-anarchist theory questions. (For that matter, even strict pacifism is not without defensive resources, as theoreticians of nonviolent resistance have shown.) The Greek philosopher Xenophon, in his treatise Resources of Athens, argues that an economically self-sufficient Athens (with a strong military defense) could survive and yet dispense with the injustice of its imperialist policies, dealing with its neighbors through trade rather than conquest; the same argument seems to apply to anarchist communities.


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Material Gains: Positive-Sum Within Zero-Sum

But suppose we leave aside this question of spiritual gains, and assume that our ancestors were open to influence only by considerations of material gain. Even so, I am not convinced that they were driven by sociological necessity to embrace exploitation and the state.

Consider why there are gains from trade in the first place. There are, above all, two reasons. First, trade allows the division of labor; I don't have to produce everything I need all by myself. But division of labor and specialization open the door to improvements in techniques and technology, thus making everyone better off. (This aspect is emphasized by classical economics.) Second, even apart from any such improvements, the mere act of trade is inherently beneficial, because economic value is subjective; if I value your hamburger more than my fries, and you value my fries more than your hamburger, then we both gain if we make an exchange, even if no material improvement has occurred in either the hamburger or the fries considered in themselves—so voluntary exchanges increase the economic well-being of society. (This aspect is emphasized by Austrian economics.)

For both these reasons, then, trade is positive-sum. This was as true in the ancient world as it is today. Now Phil of course does not deny this; but he would presumably say that although trade itself was positive-sum, it occurred in context that was zero-sum. There is no point in two people trading their hamburgers and fries with each other if they are both clinging to a liferaft that can carry only one. If I am about to drown in five minutes, I might prefer to die having just eaten a hamburger rather than to die having just eaten fries, and to that extent I have reason to engage in cooperative trade with you—but it seems I have even more reason to grab your hamburger, keep my fries, and kick you off the liferaft so I can survive longer than five minutes. Now of course if I do this I run the risk of provoking a violent reaction in you, and under ordinary circumstances this might give me reason to refrain; but when I'm under the pressure of immediate death, I have little to lose. I take it that Phil sees ancient societies as being in something like this situation, where the cost of refraining from exploitation is so great that it outweighs the gains from cooperation.

I wonder whether pre-industrial societies were indeed so inherently close to the edge of survival as to be necessarily zero-sum societies (in material terms). Still, suppose that's right. We can still ask whether it follows that exploitation, and in particular the exploitative structure of the state, would have to be seen as superior to cooperation.

Most states involve the exploitation of a majority by a minority. Thus the maintenance of the state, while materially beneficial to the ruling minority, is harmful to the oppressed majority. Yet such states typically depend for their survival on the compliance of the oppressed majority. When we say that exploitation is attractive in a zero-sum society, we mean that it is attractive for the exploiters; the exploited would be better off with cooperation. (Compare: if you're the one who's likely to be kicked off the liferaft, you'd be better off savoring your last five minutes and negotiating for a hamburger.) Of course, one might consent to be exploited if the exploiter in exchange would agree to defend you against some even worse exploiter; but once again, the assumption that an effective military defense requires a centralized exploitative state machinery is not one that I accept (and Phil certainly doesn't accept it either). So even in a zero-sum economy, most people do not benefit from having a state—and are in a position to topple the state if they so choose. Arguably, then, the survival of the state has depended more on ideology and false consciousness than on genuine economic necessity.

Of course, there is the danger that those who have toppled the state will try to replace it with a new state in which they, the topplers, are the oppressors. But this is not inevitable; the risk that one's own faction will not be the one to head the new state is considerable. And the ancients certainly understood the hazards of state-making: the Hebrew prophet Samuel argued that a monarch chosen to lead his community in war against its enemies would eventually turn against his own people and oppress them with taxation and conscription; the Sumerians cried out against the omnipresence of the tax collector; the Greek Sophists analyzed states as oppressive class structures; Aesop in his fables warned about the preferability of King Log over King Stork; the Taoist Lao-tzu maintained that even well-intentioned governmental regulations cause chaos and misery; and the Christian St. Augustine dismissed earthly governments as "great bands of robbers." So our ancestors certainly had the conceptual resources to realize that their experiment with statism was not going to benefit most of them; for, in Thomas Paine's words, "when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer." In other words, even against the zero-sum background of pre-industrial society, positive-sum trade could have been seen as more attractive than negative-sum statism. (And mediaeval Iceland, for example, did manage to maintain a reasonably successful stateless society for over 300 years, under conditions of resource scarcity much more severe than in mainland Europe.)

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A Concession

In conclusion, let me concede a weaker version of the view I've been criticizing. Even if the state was not inevitable, the greater material scarcity of pre-industrial societies doubtless made it more likely. I'll certainly grant the truth of that—while at the same time fondly dreaming that history could have gone differently. D

 [* Web Editor's Note:  The discussion was based on Jacobson's "From Free Families to Statist Societies and Back Again", Formulations Vol .4, No.3.  Jacobson's reply to Long's comments here appeared in Formulations Vol. 5, No.1]

Roderick T. Long, who teaches philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, holds a Ph.D. from Cornell and an A.B. from Harvard. He aspires to the title of "Philosopher Anarch."

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