Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Romney's anthropological confusion

On Tuesday presidential candidate Mitt Romney (hereafter "Willard") told a group of supporters in Utah "We want to help those in need, but we don’t believe that redistribution is the way to create a bright future."

The key concept here is redistribution.  This is a term used by anthropologists to label a type of economic activity in which a surplus of goods and services is aggregated and then given out in culturally prescribed ways.  Redistribution is different from reciprocity, another form of exchange, in that reciprocity is generally carried out between and among individuals: the meat brought in by successful Ju/'hoansi hunters, for example, is shared out among the members of their band, most of whom are kin. Reciprocity may be generalized, in that the givers give with no special expectation of immediate or equal return.  Reciprocity may also be balanced, i.e. trade in which givers expect an equal return from recipients.  Reciprocity may also be negative, in which givers get back less than they give; nobody wants that.  Reciprocity, or sharing, represents probably the oldest form of economic exchange devised by humans.  It is the most typical mode of exchange in foraging (hunting and gathering) societies.

Because of the nature of what they gather and hunt, foraging peoples are rarely able to maintain a surplus.  With the advent of food production some 10,000 or so years ago, however, people in some places began growing crops and keeping animals that allowed for the development of surpluses.  This permits larger and more settled communities: the distinction between bands (foragers) and tribes.  Under these conditions, a farmer or herder might be able to gather enough of something or other together, usually with the help of kin, so that they can stage a ritualized giveaway for everyone in the community and sometimes for people from other nearby communities as well.  In its most pristine version, the giveaway, or redistribution, is complete, so that the recipients end up with everything and the givers are left with nothing.  However, the givers do gain important prestige from their giveaway.  This type of redistribution is called egalitarian redistribution.

As food production becomes more, er, productive, societies become more dense and more elaborate systems of hierarchical ranking with a well-defined leader at the top develop.  These societies are what anthropologists call chiefdoms, and while there has always been some ranking based on factors such as age and sex, now people's place in the society tends to be determined by their degree of relatedness to the chief's family.  The chiefs have more power over their "subjects" than leaders of bands and tribes have. Chiefs can order their folks to bring in a prescribed share of their crops and animals.  Some of this surplus ends up on the chief's table; some can be held back and then given out in times of need, say when a family's crop fails and they need help.  This is stratified redistribution, and it evolves eventually into what we call our tax system.  It's a fairly small jump from chiefdoms to the entities we know of as state societies.

Now, because Willard does not understand human cultural evolution, when he says "we don't believe that redistribution is the way to create a bright future," he is interpreting redistribution as a recent thing that Karl Marx and the Communists dreamed up.  In this view, redistribution is a perversion of some prior, more pure means of moving food and other things around, probably involving money.  Redistribution happens when people who don't have stuff see the stuff other people have and pressure them into giving some of it up.  In reality, redistribution was a cultural adaptation to a certain mode of food production, an adaptation that helped humans survive into that "bright future" that they were even then probably hoping for.  Redistribution happened long before money happened.  It's a part of what made us human.


  1. Send this to Willard, but I doubt he'll either believe or understand it, as he tends to think in (ahem) primary colours.

  2. Thank you for posting this, Dr. K. I'm always happy reading your posts about political/social issues because they are thoughtful and accurate, as opposed to the typical banter out there. I also particularly like the clarification on the concept of distribution because I never quite had a good response to those who would accuse Democrats of wanting to redistribute the wealth. It never seemed logical that one group of people would be assessed higher taxes than another, but it seems perfectly logical for a society to say to one group of people, "You have what you need; now, share your surplus with the rest so we can all prosper as you have."


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