THE BLOG
11/02/2012 05:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Prehistoric Politics & Today's Teams & Taxes

Prehistoric politics can teach us how to prevent present-day errors. Human survival has been a team sport for 10,000 generations. It still is. But too many political ideas now hide that once self-evident truth.

A chain of team logic is anchored deep in our pre-history and runs through the historic writings of America's Founders, Abraham Lincoln, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Smith and Charles Darwin. They all understood two now under-appreciated principles. Firstly some redistribution is a rational response to needing your team to be in good shape. Secondly self-interest should never be allowed to damage the team you depend on.

Missing links in that chain are provided by Chris Boehm, a leading anthropologist. In his book Moral Origins he writes that our ancestors went through a "major political transition" about 250,000 years ago, developing from an "ape-like 'might is right'" species that "lived hierarchically" into one that was much more "devoutly egalitarian." Around then collaborative hunting became a more successful strategy than going solo. Teams that chased big game toward hunters could be much more productive -- but only if the required division of labor, went hand in hand, with a fair division of profits. However hunting success often depended on luck as well as skill. Both problems were solved, then as they should be now, by the logic of social insurance, which requires shared risks and some pooled profits.

This collective carnivores' dilemma was a game changer. All hunters needed their teammates to be fed well enough to be good chasers. And even the best hunters, when unlucky, benefited from rules that required redistribution of meat. Team players became more successful, as did those teams with the smartest sharing rules. These rules became tools as important as spears or big brains to our survival. And rules that tended to balance immediate selfish gain with longer-term or group interests made for fitter teams.

At this point you're likely wondering how on earth Boehm can justify such detailed and sweeping claims. He's spent 40 years studying present-day hunter-gatherers, who live as closely as possible to the way those team-hunting ancestors did. His deep data on their social practices shows for example that typically meat sharing isn't done by the hunter who made the kill. Instead it's redistributed by another stakeholder. (More details are available here or here.)

A crucial new insight Boehm provides is that humans are predisposed to use "counter-dominant coalitions" to "punish resented alpha-male behavior." For example, when powerful individuals hog more than a fair share of meat, they're punished by using ridicule, shaming, shunning, ostracism, and, ultimately, the death penalty. The result is a sort of inverted eugenics: the elimination of the strongest, if they abuse their power. Astonishingly, such solutions aren't rare, they're the norm. Our ancestors learned long ago, what Lincoln later would write, that all good government must be "of the people, by the people, for the people." Or the people will rebel.

The same team logic is built deep into America's founding documents. The Constitution defines the duty to "promote the general Welfare" as on a par with ensuring the common defense. And the Declaration of Independence's first justification for the American Revolution was to overcome barriers preventing passage of "Laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good."

Americans in the 1830s, according to Alexis de Tocqueville, readily accepted the Founders' team logic. In a chapter of his book Democracy in America, that's called "How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Principle of Self-Interest Rightly Understood," he says "an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state." Sadly some loss of reason has made us less willing.

Just as they were in our prehistory, taxes are where the rubber meets the road on national team loyalty, on paying for the Founders' "public good." The much misrepresented Adam Smith usefully said, "Every tax... is, to the person who pays it, a badge... of liberty. It denotes he is subject to government."

The Founders, Tocqueville, Lincoln and Smith all knew that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are in effect government-enabled programs. No taxes mean no government, no public good, no live-able liberty, and no practical platform on which to build a private pursuit of happiness. Taxes are not a punishment. And they aren't a transactional payment for what you directly get back. They are the price of your liberty and of keeping your team in good shape. What can look like a sacrifice is actually a sacred and immeasurable gain. Logically this price of freedom must include eternal vigilance against those that would harm the "public good" or "general welfare."

A politics of individual interest, or a narrow politics of parts, that seeks only its own advantage, while weakening the whole, is a distorted form of self-interest that is ultimately self-undermining. To damage what you depend on cannot continue to be deemed rational. It's easy to see this with team-hunting. But it's no less true in the economic transactions we depend on. We all need our nation and economy to be healthy, which means it's in our rational interests to pay the necessary price.

Human life is a team sport and not a struggle of "social Darwinism." In fact that's a misnomer, Charles Darwin himself wrote in The Descent of Man (1871), "Social instincts... have given to [each human] some wish to aid his fellows." He calls anyone without such team and social instincts an "unnatural monster." Too many ideas in our politics are monstrously opposed to our inalienable social and team natures. Proudly pay your redistributive taxes. And don't let anyone succeed by damaging your team.

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