This article was published in the Autumn 1997 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Aggression Is a Luxury, Not a Necessity
by Mary J. Ruwart

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In the last couple issues, theories about the possible origins of aggression have been discussed. One of theories, which appears at first to have merit, is the suggestion that early societies, without the wealth we now enjoy as fruits of the Industrial Revolution, needed to steal from each other in order to survive. Aggression, in this context, arises as a necessary evil in early society.

I find this theory incompatible with my understanding of libertarian principles. Aggression, in the form of taxes and regulations, is always "justified" with cries of necessity. If aggression were truly ever necessary, a nation’s freedom would always be conditional. A free nation could expect to eventually revert to aggression as the "need" arose. Once a government grows out of "necessity," it can be pruned back only with difficulty, and a free nation would eventually become enslaved. Thus, a free nation would be impossible to sustain and our efforts to achieve a stable bastion of liberty would be futile. We either admit defeat before we begin, or find a new understanding of how aggression arises.

Let me suggest an alternative viewpoint to the theory that aggression was a necessary survival tool of early civilization. First of all, most of the research I have seen on early societies (pre-agricultural) suggests that aggression was considered a most grievous offense. Injuring someone had serious repercussions, since broken bones rarely healed properly and teeth lost during fights could not be replaced. In a hunter-gatherer society, injury greatly impaired an individual’s ability to survive. Wounds that we consider trivial today often resulted in infection and death. Thus, people who harmed others were either ostracized from the tribe, paid a great deal of restitution, or were enslaved to support the injured individual.

Theft was unusual, since there was little to steal. In non-agricultural societies, stockpiling of food was limited. Personal possessions might include pottery, the skins one slept on, and the clothes worn by the individual. In a tribal society, stolen property was easily found and identified, so apprehension was almost certain. Running from the tribe’s wrath could prove life threatening to the thief, since an individual had a difficult time surviving when injured, ill, or without the division of labor that a tribe supplied. The threat of ostracism could literally become a death sentence. Thus, stealing simply was rarely worth the effort.

Pre-agricultural civilization discouraged tribal aggression as well. A tribe that prepared to steal their neighbors’ cache of winter food spent their time getting ready to fight instead of stockpiling their own food supplies. Since a hunter-gatherer society couldn’t preserve or store much for the winter, a large part of their seasonal sustenance came from continuous food gathering activity. Thus, stealing from another tribe had limited usefulness.

In addition, while the first such strike might be "profitable," because the victims were unprepared, the second strike was certain to be met with more formidable resistance. Thus, the cost of stealing would rise with time as victims became prepared or the warring tribe needed to travel to find less suspecting victims. In addition, thieving tribes would need to defend themselves against possible retaliation. Trade with other tribes, even those not attacked, might cease as a form of ostracism. While warriors were stealing, they couldn’t help hunt and gather. Usually, the cost of aggression far outweighed the benefits. Thus, in the poorest of societies (hunter-gatherer), aggression was largely (and rightly) viewed as counterproductive.

With the advent of agriculture, however, significant stores of food could finally be produced and set aside for winter. Harvesting began to replace hunting. Clothing and other goods could be accumulated, instead of laboriously relocated every season, once the nomadic clans turned to homesteading. Now, at last, enough wealth in the form of goods and food could be accumulated to making stealing it profitable. The stolen food or other wealth, of greater quantity than that taken from a hunter-gatherer, could keep the aggressor alive longer without assistance from a clan or tribe. Furthermore, farmers were less likely to have the expertise to track down the thieves as well as a hunter-gatherer. Farmers also were reluctant to track a thief if it meant leaving their wealth-creating land unattended. Thus, offenders were less likely to be caught.

Ostracism was not as much of a threat when wealth, especially in terms of food, could be accumulated. Instead of depending upon group hunting skills in times of scarcity, an individual or small group could depend upon their foodstuffs in storage. In summary, many of the costs that made aggression obviously unproductive in the hunter-gatherer society were substantially decreased in an agricultural civilization. Aggression appears to be a viable option only when wealth extends beyond immediate needs and can be accumulated.

I use the word "appears" in the preceding sentence because profit from aggression is largely an illusion (for a detailed treatise on this subject, see my book Healing Our World.) However, as wealth increases, the "wages of sin" experienced by the aggressor are often delayed and thus discounted by individuals and groups contemplating aggressive acts.

The Industrial Age created further temptation for would-be aggressors as wealth increased geometrically. However, in our upcoming "Information Age," the understanding of aggression as a lose-lose situation can spread throughout the world. Lies are more difficult to maintain when people have universal access to a variety of viewpoints. Radio, television, telephone, and fax machines were instrumental in making the Soviet Union obsolete. Let’s hope that government aggression, of all kinds, fares similarly. D

Mary Ruwart is a frequent speaker at libertarian conferences, a prominent force in the Libertarian Party, and author of Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle. She holds a Ph.D. in biophysics.

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