Of Tribes and Nations
I’m watching “The Colony,” a show on the Discovery Channel that claims to be an experiment about survival following an “apocalyptic” pandemic. I had originally scoffed at the idea, but the show is an enthralling window into greater society. The “stars” of this show are ordinary people with varying backgrounds who are forced to survive together in the abandoned warehouse district of Los Angeles. Each has skills that are an asset to the team, including carpentry, water filtration, gardening, electircal engineering, and self-defense.
On day 2 of the “experiment,” the group faces a mock attack from “marauders” who are supposedly trying to steal resources from their compound. While I don’t have a direct quote, one of the colony’s members states something along the lines of, “I understand what they are doing. They’re trying to survive, just like me. But they’re trying to survive by taking what I have to survive.”
This kind of scenario, the need for basic survival and the protection of scarce survival resources, is almost certainly what brought about the first institutions of government. Hunter-gatherer tribes selecting leaders to better organize individuals and more easily deal with marauders who would take those resources. In other words, the first governments were instituted to protect our stuff from people who would take it by force.
In order to do this, the government (that is, the tribal leaders) had to spend less time hunting and/or gathering, and more time planning and organizing. That meant everybody else had to give up a small piece of their work and the resources they gathered to provide for the organizers and defenders. A tribe of perhaps 30 people could possibly support five dedicated organizer-defenders, one of those being the chief organizer-defender, depending on the available resources.
These “chiefs” became more important, built larger armies, and banded together larger tribes. Indeed, in “The Colony,” another small group bands together with the original group early on the second day. In any event, these larger and larger tribes begin to develop common social norms, which we call “culture,” and spread out over larger areas. The areas and people covered by this culture we call “society.” Larger armies are needed to support and defend this culture. In order to feed these armies, a bureaucracy is developed to make sure every person protected by the army is helping to provide for it.
In “The Colony,” members of the group are clearly beginning to fight over leadership roles. Conflicts over the use of resources and methods of developing those resources are growing. In addition, other groups have arrived looking to trade resources like food, water and found materials. The need to trade and the organization of materials by subject matter experts was the driving force behind the development of money, in all its various forms. Money allowed those who were successful, those who more intelligently used their resources, to trade for more resources and employ them to effect, without having to trade specific goods or resources. The money was simply a storage device: Resources not yet obtained.
So eventually, these societies became so large and sophisticated that they declared particular regions and the resources within them to be theirs exclusively. This was the birth of “nations.”
At some point, however, the chiefs began to perceive themselves as not just protectors of their fellow tribesmen, but in fact they were more important than others in their society. These chiefs declared themselves masters over their nations and the geographic areas they utilized, becoming “kings” or “tyrants.” These tyrants forgot that their power was derived from protecting their fellow citizens, and perceived their fellow tribesmen to be subject to, rather than supportive of, to the king’s needs and desires.
This was the norm for millenia, with notable exceptions in Greece, Rome and few other locations. To support this system, the tyrants were forced to find enemies, both real and imagined. The Persians picked the Greeks. The Romans picked “barbarians.” The Danes picked the Anglo Saxons. The Mongols picked just about everybody. And so on throughout history these enemies provided the tyrants with an excuse to consolidate their power, with kings and subjects variously taking and giving back elements of their power and sovereignty.
Then in the mid 18th century, a part of a nation called the “England,” separated from its king by an ocean after colonizing a new land, recalled the original reason for the creation of government. They remembered that the reason governments were instituted was not to support and provide for kings, but rather to protect the property and liberties of the members of the tribe.
Choosing to throw-off their king, this new nation developed a way to express this “new” original doctrine: That governments were created among the people to serve them. That individuals were sovereign, not the governments that ruled them. They had to fight a protracted war against their king, but eventually established their independence and declare themselves the United States of America.
While it still dealt with its conflicting values, this new nation developed as an example for the rest of the world to follow. Individual determination became the focal point of every discussion of politics, economics and culture. Eventually, that question of individual self determination and its inherent conflict in slavery, of economic liberty, states rights and others became a contentious issue leading inexorably to civil war. In “The Colony,” the decisions on how to use resources and what methods to employ in dealing with threats and contradictions in belief are creating deep schisms within the group. While no wars are breaking out, the passive-aggressive behaviors exhibited could be seen in many ways as a “civil war.”
Eventually, the national discourse in the United States shifted away from the best methods to develop and defend individual liberty and shifted toward something else, something new. Instead of a discussion of “what is more free,” the discussion became one of “what is more fair.” Vast fortunes were built by individuals and families, even as other individuals and families struggled to survive. The government had been corrupted away from defending liberty and building barriers to individual progress or protecting the fortunes of those with influence.
The would-be tyrants seized upon this opportunity. In a new twist, tyrants used the mechanisms of a free society to enslave it. They began to argue for the arbitrary redistrubution of resources and wealth. For the envious, this seemed incredbile! They could have, without any exchange except for the support of the tyrant, the resources of others!
The tyrants, of course, did not want any of their own resources redistributed. So they embraced an idea that the founders of the nation had eschewed: Direct taxation of income. This had a double effect: It provided a sustainable and constant mechanism for the government to redistribute wealth, while at the same time limiting the ability of new leaders to develop by purely economic means. As income increased, taxes upon income increased, ensuring only the most successful could achieve. These “most successful” people would be embraced by the tyrants whenever possible. They would be used as puppets to project the idea that this form of economic tyranny was just and sound, either unaware or not caring that this direct taxation actually harmed those it was claimed to help.
Again, in “The Colony,” the group has stolen resources from an individual who has collected food and other provisions. His lone attempt to succeed in the post-apocalyptic landscape has resulted in the group stealing his resources for their own use, violating his rights in the claim of preserving their own. The leaders justify this theft as necessary, even righteous despite the availability of other resources. The needs of the group outweigh the needs of that individual to survive, they claim. Despite the fact that this lone individual has spent his energy providing for himself, and must now expend even greater energy to recoup his losses.
This is where we stand today: The constant battle between the tyrants who claim to be acting for the benefit of the group (but really for themselves at the expense of individuals) and those who recognize that protecting the rights of the individual benefits the whole group. Our battles over taxes, health care, social security and every other expansion or restriction of government power is over this concept of the rights of individuals and their responsiblity to the group.
This leaves us at a fork in the road: Will we turn one direction, toward individual rights and responsibilities? Or shall we turn the other direction, where group rights trump individual liberty?
At this time, it is unclear which direction the Discovery Channel’s “colonists” will eventually take. Their desperation and the constant exterior threats could lead them down the path of collectivism, or their unique perspectives, experiences and beliefs could ensure that individualism endures.
Cross posted at Seeking Liberty.