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3. The Origin of Private Property and the Family

I. The Setting: History

It is reasonable to begin human history 5 million years ago, when the human line of evolutionary descent separated from that of our closest non-human relative, the chimpanzee. It is also reasonable to begin it 2.5 million years ago, with the first appearance of Homo habilis; or 200,000 years ago, when the first representative of “anatomically modern man” madehits appearance; or 100,000 years ago, when the anatomically modern man had become the standard human form. Instead, I want to begin only 50,000 years ago, when “anatomically modern man” had evolved into “behaviorally modern man.” This is an eminently reasonable starting point, too.1

“Behaviorally modern human” refers to the existence of hunter-gatherers, of which even today some small pockets have remained. Based on archeological evidence, humans living 100,000 years ago were apparently still largely inept at hunting. They were certainly unable to take down large and dangerous animals, and it appears that they did not know how to fish. Their tools were almost exclusively made of stone and wood and made of materials of local origin, indicating the absence of any distance travel or trading. In distinct contrast, about 50,000 years later the human tool kit took on a new, greatly advanced appearance. Other materials were used besides stone and wood: bone, antlers, ivory, teeth, shells, and the materials often came from distant places. The tools, including knifes, needles, barbed points, pins, borers, and blades were more complex and skillfully crafted. The missile technology was much improved and indicated highly developed hunting skills (although bows were invented only about 20,000 years ago). As well, man knew how to fish and was apparently able to build boats. Moreover, next to plain, functional tools, seemingly purely artistic implements—ornaments, figurines and musical instruments, such as bird-bone flutes—appeared on the scene at this time.

It has been hypothesized that what made this momentous development possible was a genetic change leading to the emergence of language, which involved a radical improvement in man’s ability to learn and innovate. The archaic humans—Homo ergaster, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus—did not have command of a language. To be sure, it can be safely assumed that they employed, as do many of the higher animals, the two so-called lower functions of language: the expressive or symptomatic function and the trigger or signal function.2 However, they were apparently incapable of performing the two higher, cognitive functions of language: the descriptive and, especially, the argumentative function. These unique human abilities—so uniquely human, indeed, that one cannot think them “away” from our existence without falling into internal contradictions—of forming simple descriptive statements (propositions) such as “this (subject) is ‘a’ (predicate),” which claim to be true, and especially of presenting arguments (chains of propositions) such as “this is a; every a is b; hence, this is b,” which claim to be valid, emerged apparently only about 50,000 years ago.3

Without language, human coordination had to occur via instincts, of which humans possess very few, or by means of physical direction or manipulation; and learning had to be either through imitation or by means of internal (implicit) inferences. In distinct contrast, with language—that is with words: sounds associated with and logically tied to certain objects and concepts (characteristics)—coordination could be achieved by mere symbols; and learning thus became independent of sense impressions (observations) and inferences could be made externally (explicitly) and hence became inter-subjectively reproducible and controllable. That is, by means of language knowledge could be transmitted to distant places and times (it was no longer tied to perception); one could communicate about matters (knowledge acquired and accumulated) far away in time and place. And because our reasoning process, our train of thought leading us to certain inferences and conclusions became “objectified” in external, inter-subjectively ascertainable arguments it could not only be easily transferred through time and space but at the same time be publicly criticized, improved, and corrected. It is no wonder, then, that hand in hand with the emergence of language revolutionary changes in technology would come about.

About 100,000 years ago, the population size of “modern humans,” our immediate predecessors, is estimated to have been around 50,000, spread across the African continent and northward into the Middle East, the region of today’s Israel.4 From about 80,000 to 70,000 years ago, the earth experienced a significant cooling period. As a consequence, the Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and in the course of many millennia had adjusted to cold climates, moved southward, where they clashed with and apparently destroyed their African relatives in large numbers. In addition, an extended dry period beginning about 60,000 years ago robbed “modern man” of much of his subsistence basis, such that 50,000 years ago the number of “modern humans” may not have exceeded 5,000, confined to northeast Africa.5

However, from then on the rise of modern humans has been uninterrupted, spreading all across the globe and eventually displacing all of their archaic relatives. The last Neanderthals, holed up in some caves near Gibraltar, are believed to have become extinct about 25,000 years ago. The last remnants of Homo erectus, found on the Indonesian island of Flores, date back about 13,000 years.

The “modern humans” led a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Societies were composed of small bands of people (10–30), which occasionally met and formed a common genetic pool of about 150 and maybe up to 500 people (a size which geneticists have found to be necessary in order to avoid dysgenic effects). The division of labor was limited, with the main partition being that between women—acting mostly as gatherers—and men—acting mostly as hunters. While private property of tools and implements was known and recognized, the nomadic lifestyle only allowed for little possessions and hence made hunter-gatherer societies comparatively egalitarian.7 Nonetheless, life initially appears to have been good for our forebears.8 Only a few hours of regular work allowed for a comfortable life, with good (high protein) nourishment and plenty of leisure time. Indeed, fossil findings (skeletons and teeth) seem to indicate that our hunter-gatherer forebears enjoyed a life expectancy of well above 30 years, which was only reached again in the course of the 19th century.9 Contra Hobbes, their life was anything but nasty, brutish, and short.10

However, the life of hunters and gatherers faced a fundamental and ultimately unanswerable challenge. Hunter-gatherer societies led essentially parasitic lives. That is, they did not add anything to the nature-given supply of goods. They only depleted the supply of goods. They did not produce (apart from a few tools) but only consumed. They did not grow and breed but had to wait for nature to regenerate and replenish. At best, what they accomplished was that they did not over-hunt or over-gather so that the natural regeneration process was not disturbed or even brought to an entire standstill. In any case, what this form of parasitism obviously involved, then, was the inescapable problem of population growth. In order to permit the comfortable life just described, the population density had to remain extremely low. It has been estimated that one square mile of territory was needed to comfortably sustain one to two persons, and in less fertile regions even larger territories were necessary.11 So what was one to do when the population size exceeded these more or less narrow limits?

People could of course try to prevent such population pressure from emerging, and indeed hunter-gatherer societies tried their best in this regard. They induced abortions, they engaged in infanticide, especially female infanticide, and they reduced the number of pregnancies by engaging in long periods of breast-feeding (which, in combination with the low body-fat characteristic of constantly mobile and moving women, reduces female fertility). Yet while this alleviated the problem it did not solve it. The population kept increasing.

Given that the population size could not be maintained at a stationary level, only three alternatives existed for the steadily emerging “excess” population. One could fight over the limited food supplies, one could migrate, or one could invent and adopt a new, technologically advanced societal organization mode that allowed for a larger population size to survive on the same, given territory.

As for the first option, i.e., fighting, a few remarks shall suffice. In the literature, primitive man has been frequently described as peaceful and living in harmony with nature. Most popular in this regard is Rousseau’s portrayal of the “noble savage.” Aggression and war, it has been frequently held, were the result of civilization built upon the institution of private property. In fact, matters are almost exactly the reverse.12 True, the savagery of modern wars has produced unparalleled carnage. Both World War I and World War II, for instance, resulted in tens of millions of deaths and left entire countries in ruins. And yet, as anthropological evidence has in the meantime made abundantly clear, primitive man has been considerably more warlike than contemporary man. It has been estimated that on the average some 30 percent of all males in primitive, hunter-gatherer societies died from unnatural—violent—causes, far exceeding anything experienced in this regard in modern societies.13 According to Keeley’s estimates, a tribal society on the average lost about 0.5 percent of its population in combat each year.14 Applied to the population of the twentieth century this would amount to a casualty rate of some 2 billion people instead of the actual number of “merely” a few hundred million. Of course, primitive warfare was very different from modern warfare. It was not conducted by regular troops on battlefields, but by raids, ambushes and surprise attacks. However, every attack was characterized by utmost brutality, carried out without mercy and always with deadly results; and while the number of people killed in each attack might have been small, the incessant nature of these aggressive encounters made violent death an ever-present danger for every man (and abduction and rape for every woman).15 Moreover, increasing evidence for the widespread practice of cannibalism has been accumulated in recent times. Indeed, it appears that cannibalism was once upon a time an almost universal practice.16

More importantly, these findings regarding primitive man’s war-likeness are not just anthropological curiosities, i.e., features that one might consider incidental to the true nature of hunter-gatherer societies. To the contrary, there exist fundamental theoretical reasons why such societies were characterized by incessant warfare, and peaceful relations were almost impossible to attain, in particular, if the possibility of evading one another was foreclosed because all surrounding land was occupied. Because then it became unavoidable that the members of different hunter-gatherer tribes encountered each other more or less regularly on their various expeditions in search of plants and animals. Indeed, as the population size increased, such encounters became ever more frequent. And because hunters and gatherers did not add anything to the nature-given supply of goods but only consumed what was provided by nature, their competition for food was necessarily of an antagonistic nature: either I pick the berries or hunt a given animal or you do it. No or little trade and exchange between the members of different tribes existed, because the members of one tribe engaged in essentially the same activities as those of any other tribe and neither one accumulated any surplus of goods that could be exchanged for others’ surplus goods. There existed only ineradicable conflict and the more conflict the more the population number in each tribe exceeded its optimum size. In this situation, where everything appropriated by one person (or tribe) was immediately consumed and the total supply of goods was strictly limited by natural forces, only deadly antagonism could exist between men. In the words of Ludwig von Mises, men became

deadly foes of one another, irreconcilable rivals in their endeavors to secure a portion of the scarce supply of means of sustenance provided by nature. Each man would have been forced to view all other men as his enemies; his craving for the satisfaction of his own appetites would have brought him into an implacable conflict with all his neighbors. No sympathy could possibly develop under such a state of affairs.17

Only the death of one’s rivals provided a solution to one’s own desire to survive. Indeed, to spare another man’s life would have left him equipped to create even more offspring and hence reduced one’s own future chance of survival still further.18

The second available option to deal with the steadily reemerging problem of excess population was migration. While by no means costless—after all one had to leave familiar for unfamiliar territories—migration (as compared to fighting) must have appeared frequently as the less costly option, especially as long as some open frontier existed. Hence, setting out from their homeland in East-Africa, successively the entire globe was conquered by bands of people breaking away from their relatives to form new societies in areas hitherto unoccupied by humans.

It appears that this process began also about 50,000 years ago, shortly after the emergence of behaviorally modern man and the acquisition of the ability to build boats. From about this time on until around 12,000 to 11,000 years ago global temperatures gradually fell (since then we are in an interglacial warming period) and the sea levels accordingly fell.19 People crossed over the Red Sea at the Gate of Grief, which was then merely a narrow gap of water dotted with islands, to land at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula (which enjoyed a comparatively wet period at that time). From there onward, preferring to stay in tropical climate zones to which one had been adjusted, the migration—of possibly not more than 150 people—continued eastward. Travel was mostly by boat, because until about 6,000 years ago when man learned how to tame horses, this form of transportation was much faster and more convenient than travel by foot. Hence, migration took place along the coastline—and proceeded from there into the interior through river valleys—first all the way to India. From there, as the genetic evidence seems to indicate, the population movement split into two directions. On the one hand it proceeded around the Indian peninsula to southeast Asia and Indonesia (which was then connected to the Asian mainland) and finally to the now foundered former continent of Sahul (of Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania, which were joined until about 8,000 years ago), which was then only separated from the Asian mainland by a 60-mile-wide channel of water dotted with islands permitting short-distance island hopping, as well as northward up the coast to China and eventually Japan. On the other hand, the migration process went from India in a northwesterly direction, through Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey and ultimately Europe. As well, splitting off of this stream of migration, people pressed in a northeasterly direction into southern Siberia. Later migrations, most likely in three waves, with the first about 14,000–12,000 years ago, went from Siberia across the Bering Strait—then (until about 11,000 years ago) a land bridge—and onto the American continent, apparently reaching Patagonia only about 1,000 years later (archeological findings of human remains in southern Chile have been dated as 12,500 years old). The last migration route set out from Taiwan, which was occupied about 5,000 years ago, sailing across the Pacific to reach the Polynesian islands and finally, only about 800 years ago, New Zealand.20

The process was essentially always the same: a group invaded some territory, population pressure mounted, some people stayed put, a subgroup moved further on, generation after generation, along the coastline, following rivers and game and avoiding deserts and high mountains. The migration from Africa all the way to Australia may have taken about 4,000 to 5,000 years, and migration to Europe 7,000 years (the oldest artifacts there ascribed to modern humans, found in Bulgaria, date about 43,000 years back) and another 7,000 years to reach western Spain.21 Once broken up, practically no contact existed between the various hunter-gatherer societies. Consequently, although initially closely related to one another through direct kinship relations, these societies formed separated genetic pools and, confronted with different natural environments and as the result of mutations and genetic drift interacting with natural selection, in the course of time they took on distinctly different appearances. By and large, the genetic difference between various societies increased in correlation with the spatial distance between societies and the duration of their separation time.22 Different ethnicities emerged and, further on, also distinctly different human races. These emerging, genetically based differences concerned matters such as skin color, physical build and strength, resistance to cold temperatures and to various diseases, and tolerance vis-à-vis certain substances. They also concerned cognitive matters, however. Thus, genetic evidence exists for two significant further developments regarding the size and cognitive powers of the human brain. One such development occurred about 37,000 years ago and affected most of the population in Europe as well as in East Asia (but left very few traces in Africa), and another occurred about 6,000 years ago and affected mostly people in the Middle East and Europe (but had less impact in East Asia and almost none in sub-Saharan Africa).23

Moreover, hand in hand with the geographical and correlated genetic differentiation of humans went a linguistic differentiation. Very much in agreement with and supported by genetic (biological) evidence, some linguists, in particular Merritt Ruhlen,24 following in the footsteps of the pioneering work of Joseph Greenberg, have made the plausible case for a single human proto-language, from which all human languages can be derived as more or less distant relatives. Obviously, the original emigrants from the African homeland, some 50,000 years ago, would have spoken the same language, and so it seems hardly surprising that the above-sketched population movement, and the splitting of groups of people into different genetic pools, more or less separated in time and space from one another, should be closely mirrored by a differentiation of languages, the grouping of different languages into language families, and the grouping of these into still larger super-families.25 Likewise, the process of the proliferation of languages appears to have followed a predictable pattern. First, with the spread of humans around the world as hunters and gatherers and the concomitant proliferation of distinct, separated genetic pools, a successively increasing number of different languages emerged. Thus, for instance, of the 6,000 different languages still spoken today, some 1,200 languages are spoken in New Guinea, one of the most “primitive” remaining world regions, half of which have no more than the “magic” number of 500 speakers and none more than 100,000. Then, however, with the beginning of human settlement some 11,000 years ago and the following transition to agriculture and the attendant expansion and intensification of the division of labor (more on which later on), a countervailing and even contrary tendency appears to have come into existence: just as the genetic pools appear to have widened, so the number of different languages spoken has successively diminished.

II. The Problem: Theory

About 35,000 years ago, i.e., 15,000 years after the initial exodus from Africa, practically all of Europe, Asia, Australia and, of course, Africa itself had been occupied by our ancestors, the modern humans, and archaic humans, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus, were on the verge of extinction. About 12,000 years ago, humans had also spread all across the Americas. Apart from the Polynesian islands, then, all land and all of the naturally given supply of earthly (economic) goods, of plants and animals, had been taken into human possession; and, given the parasitic lifestyle of hunter-gatherers, humans did not add anything to this land and the nature-given supply of goods but merely reacted to natural changes.

These changes were at times quite drastic. Changes in global climate, for instance, could and did significantly affect how much inhabitable land was available and the natural vegetation and animal population. In the time period under consideration, in the 20,000 plus years between 35,000 and 11,000 years ago, drastic changes in such natural conditions occurred. 20,000 years ago, for instance, during the period known as the Last Glacial Maximum, temperatures fell sharply and most of Northern Europe and Siberia became uninhabitable. Britain and all of Scandinavia were covered by glaciers, most of Siberia turned into polar desert and steppe-tundra extended as far south as the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. After 5,000 years, about 15,000 years ago, the glaciers began to retreat, allowing people, animals and plants to re-occupy previously deserted regions. Two and a half thousand years later, however, within merely a decade, temperatures again plummeted back to almost the previous frigid conditions; and only another 1,000 years later, about 11,500 years ago, and again quite suddenly, did temperatures then experience a long-sustained increase and the earth entered the so-called Holocene, the latest and still lasting interglacial warming period.26 (The Sahara began to turn into the present, extremely hot desert only less than 3,000 years ago. In pre-Roman times, the Sahara—and similarly the central-Asian deserts—was still a green savanna with an abundant supply of wildlife. The power and the attraction of Carthage, for instance, was based largely on the fertility of its hinterland as a center of wheat production; this fact was an important reason for Rome’s desire to destroy Carthage and gain control of its North-African territories.27)

In any case and regardless of all complicating details and all changes that future empirical researchers will no doubt bring about concerning the foregoing historical narrative, at some point in time the landmass available to help satisfy human needs could no longer be enlarged. In economic jargon, the supply of the production factor “land” became fixed, and every increase in the size of the human population had to be sustained by the same, unchanged quantity of land. Of the formerly three available options in response to an increasing population pressure, to move, to fight or to invent, only the latter two remained open. What to do when faced with this challenge?

To bring the problem faced into even sharper relief it is useful to first take another, more detailed look at the admittedly rather limited extent of the division of labor within a hunter-gatherer society.

So far the antagonism between the members of different bands or clans has been explained while it has been taken for granted that within a given band or clan collaboration—peaceful cooperation—exists. But why should this be so? Intra-group cooperation is almost universally assumed as a matter of course. Nonetheless, it too requires an explanation, because a world without even this limited degree of cooperation is certainly conceivable. To be sure, there exists a biological basis for some forms of human cooperation. “The mutual sexual attraction of male and female,” writes Mises, “is inherent in man’s animal nature and independent of any thinking and theorizing. It is permissible to call it original, vegetative, instinctive, or mysterious.”28 The same can be said about the relationship between mother and child: if mothers did not take care of their offspring for an extended period of time, their children would instantly die and mankind would be doomed. However, this necessary, biologically determined degree of cooperation is a far cry from that actually observed in hunter-gatherer societies. Thus, Mises continues,

neither cohabitation, nor what precedes it or follows, generates social cooperation and societal modes of life. The animals too join together in mating, but they have not developed social relations. Family life is not merely a product of sexual intercourse. It is by no means natural and necessary that parents and children live together in the way they do in the family. The mating relation need not result in a family organization. The human family is an outcome of thinking, planning, and acting. It is this fact which distinguishes it radically from those animal groups which we call per analogiam animal families.29

Why, for instance, did not each man and each woman, after they had left infancy, hunt or gather alone only to meet for occasional sex? Why did it not occur what has been described as having occurred for groups of humans already on the level of individuals: one person, faced with a strictly limited supply of nature-given goods, breaking away from another in order to avoid conflict until all land was taken into possession and then a war of everyone against everyone else (rather than merely a war of the members of one group against the members of all other groups) breaking out? The answer to this is: because of the recognition that cooperation was more productive than isolated, self-sufficient action. Division of labor and cooperation based on such division of labor increased the productivity of human labor.

There are three reasons for this: First, there exist tasks which exceed the powers of any single man and require instead the combined efforts of several men in order to be successfully executed. Certain animals, for instance, might be too large or too dangerous to be hunted by single individuals but require the cooperative engagement of many. Or there exist tasks which could, in principle, be executed by a single individual but that would take up so much time for an isolated actor that the final result does not appear worth the effort. Only concerted action can accomplish these tasks in a time span sufficiently short to deem the task worthwhile. Searching for edible plants or animals, for instance, is fraught with uncertainties. On one day one might stumble across suitable plants or animals quickly, but at another time one might search for them in vain seemingly without end. But if one pools this risk, i.e., if a large number of gatherers or hunters begin their search separately only to call upon each other once any one of them has turned out to be lucky in his search, then gathering and hunting might be turned into routinely successful endeavors for each participant.

Second: Even though the natural environment faced by each person might be more or less the same, each individual (even identical twins) is different from any other. Men, for instance, are significantly different in their abilities than women. By their very nature, men are typically better hunters and women better gatherers. Adults are significantly different in their abilities than kids. Some people are physically strong and others show great dexterity. Some are tall and others are quick. Some have great vision and others a good sense of smell. Given such differences it is obviously advantageous to partition the various tasks necessary to perform in order to secure a comfortable life in such a way that each person specializes in those activities in which he has an advantage over others. Women gather and men hunt. Tall individuals pick fruits off trees and short ones specialize in hunting mushrooms. Quick runners relay messages. Individuals with good eyesight will spot distant events. Kids are used for the exploration of small and narrow holes. People with great dexterity produce tools. The strong will specialize in going in for the kill, etc.

Third: Moreover, even if the members of one tribe are so distinguished from one another that one person is more efficient in every conceivable task than another, division of labor is still all-around more productive than isolated labor. An adult might be better at any task than a kid, for instance. Given the inescapable fact of the scarcity of time, however, even in this conceivably worst-case scenario it makes economic sense—that is, it leads to a greater physical output of goods produced per unit of labor—if the adult specializes in those tasks in which his greater efficiency (as compared to that of the kid) is particularly pronounced and leaves those tasks for the kid to perform in which the latter’s all-around lower efficiency is comparatively smaller. Even though the adult might be more efficient than the child in collecting small firewood, for instance, the adult’s far greater superiority in hunting large game would make it a waste of his time to gather wood. Instead, he would want the child to collect firewood and use all of his own precious time to perform that task in which his greater efficiency is especially marked, namely large game hunting.

Nonetheless: While these advantages offered by the division of labor can explain intra-tribal cooperation (rather than fight) and, based on such, initially, maybe purely “selfishly-motivated” collaboration, for the gradual development of feelings of sympathy (good will) toward one’s fellowmen, which go above and beyond whatever biological basis there may exist for the special, more-than-normally-friendly relationship between close kin, this explanation still only goes so far. Given the peculiar, parasitic nature of hunter-gatherer societies and assuming land to be fixed, invariably the moment must arise when the number of people exceeds the optimal group size and average living standards will fall, threatening whatever degree of intra-group solidarity previously might have existed.30

This situation is captured and explained by the economic law of returns.

The law of returns, popularly but somewhat misleadingly also called the law of diminishing returns, states that for any combination of two or more production factors an optimum combination exists (such that any deviation from it involves material waste, or “efficiency losses”).31 Applied to the two original factors of production, labor and land (nature-given goods), the law implies that if one were to increase the quantity of labor (population) while the quantity of land and the available technology (hunting and gathering) remained fixed, eventually a point will be reached where the physical output per labor-unit input is maximized. This point marks the optimal population size. If there is no additional land available and technology remains fixed at a “given” level, any population increase beyond the optimal size will lead to a progressive decline in per capita income. Living standards, on the average, will fall. A point of (absolute) overpopulation has been reached. This is, as Mises has termed it, the Malthusian law of population.

Because of the fundamental importance of this Malthusian law of population and in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, it is advisable to make also explicit what the law does not state. The law does not assert where exactly this optimal combination point is located—at so-and-so many people per square mile, for instance—but only that such a point exists. Otherwise, if every quantity of output could be produced by increasing only one factor (labor) while leaving the other (land) unchanged, the latter (land) would cease to be scarce—and hence an economic good—at all; one could increase without limit the return of any piece of land by simply increasing the input of labor applied to this piece without ever having to consider expanding the size of one’s land. The law also does not state that every increase of one factor (labor) applied to a fixed quantity of another (land) must lead to a less than proportional increase of the output produced. In fact, as one approaches the optimum combination point an increase of labor applied to a given piece of land might lead to a more than proportional increase of output (increasing returns). One additional man, for instance, might make it possible that an animal species can be hunted that cannot be hunted at all without this one extra hunter. The law of returns merely states that this cannot occur without definite limits. Nor does the law assert that the optimum combination point cannot be shifted up- and outward. In fact, as will be explained in the following, owing to technological advances the optimum combination point can be so moved, allowing a larger population to enjoy a higher average living standard on the same quantity of land. What the law of returns does say is only that given a state of technological development (mode of production) and a corresponding degree of specialization, an optimum combination point exists beyond which an increase in the supply of labor must necessarily lead to a less then proportional increase of the output produced or no increase at all.

Indeed, for hunter-gatherer societies the difficulties of escaping the Malthusian trap of absolute overpopulation are even more severe than these qualifications regarding the law of returns might indicate. For while these qualifications might leave the impression that it is “only” a technological innovation that is needed to escape the trap, this is not the full truth. Not just any technological innovation will do. Because hunter-gatherer societies are, as explained, “parasitic” societies, which do not add anything to the supply of goods but merely appropriate and consume what nature provides, any productivity increase within the framework of this mode of production does not (or only insignificantly so) result in a greater output of goods produced (of plants gathered or animals hunted) but rather merely (or mostly) in a reduction of the time necessary to produce an essentially unchanged quantity of output. The invention of the bow and arrow that appears to have been made some 20,000 years ago, for instance, will not so much lead to a greater quantity of available animal meat to consume, thus allowing a larger number of people to reach or exceed a given level of consumption, but rather only to the same number of people enjoying more leisure with an unchanged standard of living in terms of meat-consumption (or else, if the population increases, the gain of more leisure time will have to be paid for by a reduction in meat consumption per capita). In fact, for hunter-gatherers the productivity gains achieved by technological advances such as the invention of the bow and arrow may well turn out to be no blessing at all or only a very short-term blessing, because the greater ease of hunting that is thus brought about, for instance, may lead to over-hunting, increasing the supply of meat per capita in the short-run, but diminishing or possibly eliminating the meat supply in the long-run by reducing the natural rate of animal reproduction or hunting animals to extinction and thus magnifying the Malthusian problem, even without any increase in population size.32

III. The Solution: Theory and History

The technological invention, then, that solved (at least temporarily33) the problem of a steadily emerging and re-emerging “excess” of population and the attendant fall of average living standards was a revolutionary change in the entire mode of production. It involved the change from a parasitic lifestyle to a genuinely productive life. Instead of merely appropriating and consuming what nature had provided, consumer goods were now actively produced and nature was augmented and improved upon.

This revolutionary change in the human mode of production is generally referred to as the “Neolithic Revolution”: the transition from food production by hunting and gathering to food production by the raising of plants and animals.34 It began about 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, in the region typically referred to as the “Fertile Crescent.” The same invention was made again, seemingly independently, less than 2,000 years later in central China, and again a few thousand years later (about 5,000 years ago) also in the Western hemisphere: in Mesoamerica, in South America, and in the eastern part of today’s United States. From these centers of innovation the new technology then spread to conquer practically the entire earth.

The new technology represented a fundamental cognitive achievement and was reflected and expressed in two interrelated institutional innovations, which from then on until today have become the dominant feature of human life: the appropriation and employment of ground land as private property, and the establishment of the family and the family household.

To understand these institutional innovations and the cognitive achievement underlying them one must first take a look at the treatment of the production factor “land” by hunter-gatherer societies.

It can be safely assumed that private property existed within the framework of a tribal household. Private property certainly existed with regard to things such as personal clothing, tools, implements and ornaments. To the extent that such items were produced by particular, identifiable individuals or acquired by others from their original makers through either gift or exchange they were considered individual property. On the other hand, to the extent that goods were the results of some concerted or joint effort they were considered collective household goods. This applied most definitely to the means of sustenance: to the berries gathered and the game hunted as the result of some intra-tribal division of labor. Without doubt, then, collective property played a highly prominent role in hunter-gatherer societies, and it is because of this that the term “primitive communism” has been often employed to describe primitive, tribal economies: each individual contributed to the household income “according to his abilities,” and each received from the collective income “according to his needs” (as determined by the existing hierarchies within the group)—not quite unlike the “communism” in “modern” households.

Yet what about the ground land on which all group activities took place? One may safely rule out that ground land was considered private property in hunter-gatherer societies. But was it collective property? This has been typically assumed to be the case, almost as a matter of course. However, the question is in fact more complicated, because a third alternative exists: that ground land was neither private nor collective property but instead constituted part of the environment or more specifically the general conditions of action or what has also been called “common property” or, in short, “the commons.”35

In order to decide this question, standard anthropological research is of little or no help. Instead, some elementary as well as fundamental economic theory, including a few precise definitions, is required. The external world in which man’s actions take place can be divided into two categorically distinct parts. On the one hand, there are those things that are considered means—or economic goods; and on the other hand, there are those things that are considered environment—or also referred to sometimes, if somewhat misleadingly, as free goods. The requirements for an element of the external world to be classified as a means or an economic good have been first identified with all due precision by Carl Menger.36 They are threefold. First, in order for something to become an economic good (henceforth simply: a good), there must be a human need (an unachieved end or an unfulfilled human desire or want). Second, there must be the human perception of a thing believed to be equipped or endowed with properties or characteristics causally connected (standing in a causal connection) with, and hence capable of bringing about, the satisfaction of this need. Third, and most important in the present context, an element of the external world so perceived must be under human control such that it can be employed (actively, deliberately used) to satisfy the given need (reach the end sought). Writes Mises: “A thing becomes a means when human reason plans to employ it for the attainment of some end and human action really employs it for this purpose.”37 Only if a thing is thus brought into a causal connection with a human need and this thing is under human control can one say that this entity is appropriated—has become a good—and hence, is someone’s (private or collective) property. If, on the other hand, an element of the external world stands in a causal connection to a human need but no one can (or believes that he can) control and interfere with this element (but must leave it unchanged instead, left to its own natural devices and effects) then such an element must be considered part of the un-appropriated environment and hence is no one’s property. Thus, for instance, sunshine or rainfall, atmospheric pressure or gravitational forces, may have a causal effect on certain wanted or unwanted ends, but insofar as man thinks himself incapable of interfering with such elements they are mere conditions of acting, not the part of any action. E.g., rainwater may be causally connected to the sprouting of some edible mushrooms and this causal connection may well be known. However, if nothing is done about the rainwater, then this water is also not owned by anyone; it might be a factor contributing to production, but it is not strictly speaking a production factor. Only if there is an actual interference with the natural rainfall, if the rainwater is collected in a bucket or in a cistern, for instance, can it be considered someone’s property and does it become a factor of production.

Before the backdrop of these considerations one can now proceed to address the question regarding the status of ground land in a hunter-gatherer society.38 Certainly, the berries picked off a bush were property; but what about the bush, which was causally associated with the picked berries? The bush was only lifted from its original status as an environmental condition of action and a mere contributing factor to the satisfaction of human needs to the status of property and a genuine production factor once it had been appropriated: that is, once man had purposefully interfered with the natural causal process connecting bush and berries by, for instance, watering the bush or trimming its branches in order to produce a certain outcome (an increase of the berry harvest above the level otherwise, naturally attained). Further, once the bush had thus become property by grooming it or tending to it also future berry harvests became property, whereas previously only the berries actually harvested were someone’s property; moreover, once the bush had been lifted out of its natural, un-owned state by watering it so as to increase the future berry harvest, for instance, also the ground land supporting the bush had become property.

Similarly, there is also no question that a hunted animal was property; but what about the herd, the pack or the flock of which this animal was a part? Based on our previous considerations, the herd must be regarded as unowned nature as long as man had done nothing that could be interpreted (and that was in his own mind) causally connected with the satisfaction of a perceived need. The herd became property only once the requirement of interfering with the natural chain of events in order to produce some desired result had been fulfilled. This would have been the case, for instance, as soon as man engaged in the herding of animals, i.e., as soon as he actively tried to control the movements of the herd. The herder then did not only own the herd, he thus became also the owner of all future offspring naturally generated by the herd.

What, however, about the ground land on which the controlled movement of the herd took place? According to our definitions, the herdsmen could not be considered the owner of the ground land, at least not automatically so, without the fulfillment of a further requirement. Because herders as conventionally defined merely followed the natural movements of the herd and their interference with nature was restricted to keeping the flock together so as to gain easier access to any one of its members should the need for the supply of animal meat arise. Herdsmen did not interfere with the land itself, however. They did not interfere with the land in order to control the movements of the herd; they only interfered with the movements of the members of the herd. Land only became property once herders gave up herding and turned to animal husbandry instead, i.e., once they treated land as a (scarce) means in order to control the movement of animals by controlling land. This only occurred when land was somehow enclosed, by fencing it in or constructing some other obstacles (such as trenches), which restricted the free, natural flow of animals. Rather than being merely a contributing factor in the production of animal herds, land thus became a genuine production factor.

What these considerations demonstrate is that it is erroneous to think of land as the collectively owned property of hunter-gatherer societies. Hunters were not herdsmen and still less were they engaged in animal husbandry; and gatherers were not gardeners or agriculturalists. They did not exercise control over the nature-given fauna and flora by tending to it or grooming it. They merely picked pieces from nature for the taking. Land to them was no more than a condition of their activities, not their property.

At best, very small sections of land had been appropriated (and were thus turned into collective property) by hunters and gatherers, to be used as permanent storage places for surplus goods for use at future points in time and as shelters, all the while the surrounding territories continued to be treated and used as unowned conditions of their existence.

What can be said, then, to have been the decisive step toward a (temporary) solution of the Malthusian trap faced by growing hunter-gatherer societies was the establishment of property in land going above and beyond the establishment of mere storage places and sheltering facilities. Pressured by falling standards of living as a result of absolute overpopulation, members of the tribe (separately or collectively) successively appropriated more and more of the previously un-owned surrounding nature (land). And underlying and motivating this appropriation of surrounding ground land—and turning former places of storage and shelter into residential centers of agriculture and animal husbandry—was an eminent intellectual achievement. As Michael Hart has noted, “the idea of planting crops, protecting them, and eventually harvesting them is not obvious or trivial, and it requires a considerable degree of intelligence to conceive of that notion. No apes ever conceived of that idea, nor did Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, nor even archaic Homo sapiens.”39 Nor did any of them conceive of the even more difficult idea of the tending, taming, and breeding of animals.

Formerly, all consumer goods had been appropriated in the most direct and quickest way possible: through foraging, i.e., by “picking” such goods wherever they happened to be or go. In contrast, with agriculture and animal husbandry consumer goods were attained in an indirect and roundabout way: by producing them through the deliberate control of ground land. This was based on the discovery that consumer goods (plants and animals) were not simply “given” to be picked, but that there were natural causes affecting their supply and that these natural causes could be manipulated by taking control of ground land. The new mode of production required more time in order to reach the ultimate goal of food consumption (and insofar involved a loss of leisure), but by interposing ground land as a genuine factor of production it was more productive and led to a greater total output of consumer goods (food), thus allowing for a larger population size to be sustained on the same quantity of land.40

More specifically with respect to plants: Seeds and fruits suitable for nutritional purposes were no longer just picked (and possibly stored), but the wild plants bearing them were actively cultivated. Besides for their taste, seeds and fruits were selected for size, durability (storability), the ease of harvesting and of seed-germination, and they were not consumed but used as inputs for the future output of consumer goods, leading in the relatively short time span of maybe twenty to thirty years to new, domesticated plant varieties with significantly improved yields per unit of land. Among the first plants thus domesticated in the Near and Middle East were the einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, barley, rye, peas and olives. In China it was rice and millet; much later, in Mesoamerica it was corn, beans and squash; in South America potatoes and manioc; in Northeast America sunflowers and goosefoot; and in Africa sorghum, rice, yams and oil palm.41

The process of animal domestication proceeded along similar lines, and in this regard it was possible to draw on the experience gained by the first domestication and breeding of dogs, which had taken place some 16,000 years ago, i.e., still under hunter-gatherer conditions, somewhere in Siberia.42

Dogs are the descendants of wolves. Wolves are excellent hunters. However, they are also scavengers, and it has been plausibly argued that as such wolves regularly hung around human campsites for scraps. As scavengers, those wolves who were least afraid of humans and who displayed the friendliest behavior toward them obviously enjoyed an evolutionary advantage. It was likely from these semi-tame, camp-following wolves that cubs were adopted into tribal households as pets and where it was then discovered that these could be trained for various purposes. They could be used in the hunt of other animals, they could be used to pull, they made for good bed-warmers during cold nights, and they even provided a source of meat in cases of emergency. Most importantly, however, it was discovered that some of the dogs could bark (wolves rarely bark) and be selected and bred for their ability to bark and as such perform the invaluable task of warning and guarding their owners of strangers and intruders. It was this service above all, that appears to be the reason why, once the dog had been “invented,” this invention spread like wildfire from Siberia all across the world. Everyone everywhere wanted to possess some offspring of this new, remarkable kind of animal, because in an era of constant inter-tribal warfare, the ownership of dogs proved to be a great advantage.43

Once the dog had arrived in the region of the Near East, which was to become the first center of human civilization, it must have added considerable momentum to the human “experiment” of productive living and its success. For while a dog used for sentry duty was an asset for mobile hunter-gatherers, it was an even greater asset for stationary settlers. The reason for this is straightforward: because in sedentary societies there were simply more things to be protected. In hunter-gatherer societies one had to fear for one’s life, be it from external or internal aggression. However, because no member of society owned much of anything, there was little or no reason to steal. Matters were different, though, in a society of settlers. From its very inception, sedentary life was marked by the emergence of significant differences in the property and wealth owned by different members of society; hence, insofar as envy existed in any way, shape or form (as can be safely assumed)44 each member (each separate household) also faced the threat of theft or destruction of his property by others, including especially also members of his own tribe. Dogs provided invaluable help in dealing with this problem, especially because dogs, as a matter of biological fact, attach themselves to individual “masters,” rather than to people in general or, like cats, for instance, to particular places.45 As such, they themselves represented a prime example of something owned privately, rather than collectively. That is, they offered a “natural refutation” of whatever taboo might have existed in a primitive society against the private ownership of property. Moreover and more importantly, because dogs were unquestionably the property of particular individuals they proved also uniquely serviceable in guarding the private property of their natural owners from every kind of “foreign” invader.46

Animals, even more so than plants, were valuable for humans for a variety of reasons: as sources of meat, milk, skin, fur and wool and also as potential means of transportation, pull and traction, for instance. However, as a matter of biological fact, most animals turn out to be un-domesticable.47 The first and foremost selection criterion, then, in the “production” of animals as livestock or pets was an animal species’ perceived degree of tamability or controllability. To test one’s hypothesis, in a first step it was checked whether or not an animal was suitable to herding. If so, it was then tried if a herd of wild animals could also be penned. If so, one would subsequently select the tamer animals as parents of the next generation—but not all animals breed in captivity!—and so on and on. Finally, one would select among the tamed animal variety for other desirable properties such as size, strength, etc., thus breeding eventually a new, domesticated animal species. Among the first large mammalian animals thus domesticated in the Near and Middle East (around 10,000 years ago) were sheep, goats, and pigs (from wild boars), then cattle (from wild aurochs). Cattle were also domesticated, apparently independently, in India at about the same time (about 8,000 years ago). Roughly at about the same time as in the Near and Middle East, sheep, goats and pigs were domesticated independently also in China, and China was also to contribute the domesticated water buffalo (about 6,000 years ago). Central Asia and Arabia contributed the domesticated Bactrian and Arabian camel respectively (around 4,500 years ago). And the Americas, or more precisely the Andes region of South America, were to contribute the guinea pig (about 7,000 years ago), the llama and the alpaca (about 5,500 years ago). Finally, an “invention” of particularly momentous consequences was the domestication of the horse, which occurred about 6,000 years ago in the region of today’s Russia and Ukraine. This achievement initiated a genuine revolution in land transportation. Up until then, on land man had to walk from place to place, and the fastest way to cover distances was by boat. This changed dramatically with the arrival of the domesticated horse, which from then on until the 19th century with the invention of the locomotive and the motorcar, was to provide the fastest means of over-land transportation. Accordingly, not quite unlike the “invention” of the dog some 16,000 years ago, the “invention” of the horse was to spread like wildfire. However, coming some 10,000 years later, the latter invention could no longer diffuse as widely as the former. While the dog had reached practically all corners of the world, the climactic changes—the global warming—that had taken place in the meantime made it impossible for the same success to be repeated in the case of the horse. In the meantime, the Eurasian land mass was separated from the Americas and from Indonesia, New Guinea and Australia by bodies of water too wide to be bridged. Thus, it was only thousands of years later, after the European rediscovery of the Americas, for instance, that the horse was finally introduced there. (Wild horses had apparently existed on the American continent, but they had been hunted to extinction there so as to make any independent domestication impossible.)

The appropriation of land as property and basis of agriculture and animal husbandry was only half of the solution to the problem posed by an increasing population pressure, however. Through the appropriation of land a more effective use was made of land, allowing for a larger population size to be sustained. But the institution of land ownership in and of itself did not affect the other side of the problem: the continued proliferation of new and more offspring. This aspect of the problem required some solution as well. A social institution had to be invented that brought this proliferation under control. The institution designed to accomplish this task is the institution of the family, which developed not coincidentally hand in hand with that of land ownership. Indeed, as Thomas Malthus pointed out, in order to solve the problem of overpopulation, along with the institution of private property “the commerce between the sexes” had to undergo some fundamental change as well.48

What was the commerce between the sexes before and what was the institutional innovation brought about in this regard by the family? A precise answer to the first question is notoriously difficult, but it is possible to identify the principal structural change. In terms of economic theory, the change can be described as one from a situation where both the benefits of creating offspring—by creating an additional potential producer—and especially the costs of creating offspring—by creating an additional consumer (eater)—were socialized, i.e., reaped and paid for by society at large rather than the “producers” of this offspring, to a situation where both benefits as well as costs involved in procreation were internalized by and economically imputed back to those individuals causally responsible for producing them.

Whatever the details may have been, it appears that the institution of a stable monogamous and also of a polygamous relationship between men and women that is nowadays associated with the term “family” is fairly new in the history of mankind and was preceded for a long time by an institution that may be broadly defined as “unrestricted” or “unregulated” sexual intercourse or as “group marriage.”49 The commerce between the sexes during this stage of human history did not rule out the existence of temporary pair relationships between one man and one woman. However, in principle every woman was considered a potential sexual partner of every man, and vice versa. “Männer (lebten) in Vielweiberei und ihre Weiber gleichzeitig in Vielmännerei,” noted Friedrich Engels, following in the footsteps of Lewis H. Morgan’s researches in Ancient Society (1871), “und die gemeinsamen Kinder (galten) daher auch als ihnen allen gemeinsam (gehörig) . . . jede Frau (gehörte) jedem Mann und jeder Mann jeder Frau gleichmässig.”50

What Engels and countless later socialists failed to notice in their glorifying description of the past—and supposedly again future—institution of “free love,” however, is the plain fact that this institution has a direct and clear effect on the production of offspring. As Ludwig von Mises has commented: “it is certain that even if a socialist community may bring ‘free love,’ it can in no way bring free birth.”51 What Mises implied with this remark, and what socialists such as Engels and Bebel apparently ignored, is that, certainly in the age before the availability of effective means of contraception, free love has consequences, namely pregnancies and births, and that births involve benefits as well as costs. This does not matter as long as the benefits exceed the costs, i.e., as long as an additional member of society adds more to it as a producer of goods than it takes from it as a consumer—and this may well be the case for some time. But it follows from the law of returns that this situation cannot last forever, without limits. Inevitably, the point must arrive when the costs of additional offspring will exceed its benefits. Then, any further procreation must be stopped—moral restraint must be exercised—unless one wants to experience a progressive fall in average living standards. However, if children are considered everyone’s or no one’s children, because everyone entertains sexual relations with everyone else, then the incentive to refrain from procreation disappears or is at least significantly diminished. Instinctively, by virtue of man’s biological nature, each woman and each man is driven to spread and proliferate her or his genes into the next generation of the species. The more offspring one creates the better, because the more of one’s genes will survive. No doubt, this natural human instinct can be controlled by rational deliberation. But if no or little economic sacrifice must be made for simply following one’s animal instincts, because all children are maintained by society at large, then no or little incentive exists to employ reason in sexual matters, i.e., to exercise any moral restraint.

From a purely economic point of view, then, the solution to the problem of overpopulation should be immediately apparent. The ownership of children or more correctly the trusteeship over children must be privatized. Rather than considering children as collectively owned by or entrusted to “society” or viewing childbirths as some uncontrolled and uncontrollable natural event and accordingly considering children as owned by or entrusted to no one (as mere favorable or unfavorable “environmental changes”), children must instead be regarded as entities which are privately produced and entrusted into private care. As Thomas Malthus first perceptively noted, this, essentially, is what is accomplished with the institution of a family:

the most natural and obvious check (on population) seemed to be to make every man provide for his own children; that this would operate in some respect as a measure and guide in the increase of population, as it might be expected that no man would bring beings into the world, for whom he could not find the means of support; that where this notwithstanding was the case, it seemed necessary, for the example of others, that the disgrace and inconvenience attending such a conduct should fall upon the individual, who had thus inconsiderately plunged himself and innocent children in misery and want.—The institution of marriage, or at least, of some express or implied obligation on every man to support his own children, seems to be the natural result of these reasonings in a community under the difficulties that we have supposed.52

Moreover and finally: with the formation of monogamous or polygamous families came another decisive innovation. Earlier on, the members of a tribe formed a single, unified household, and the intra-tribal division of labor was essentially an intra-household division of labor. With the formation of families came the breakup of a unified household into several, independent households and with that also the formation of “several”—or private—ownership of land. That is, the previously described appropriation of land was not simply a transition from a situation where something that was earlier on un-owned became now owned, but more precisely something previously un-owned was turned into something owned by separate households (thus allowing also for the emergence of inter-household division of labor).

Consequently, then, the higher social income made possible by the ownership of land was no longer distributed, as was formerly the case, to each member of society “according to his need.” Rather, each separate household’s share in the total social income came to depend on the product economically imputed to it, that is, to its labor and its property invested in production. In other words: the formerly pervasive “communism” might have still continued within each household, but communism vanished from the relation between the members of different households. The incomes of different households differed, depending on the quantity and quality of invested labor and property, and no one had a claim on the income produced by the members of a household other than one’s own. Thus, “free riding” on others’ efforts became largely if not entirely impossible. He who did not work could no longer expect to still eat.53

Thus, in response to mounting population pressure a new mode of societal organization had come into existence, displacing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had been characteristic of most of human history. As Ludwig von Mises summarized the matter:

Private ownership in the means of production is the regulating principle which, within society, balances the limited means of subsistence at society’s disposal with the less limited ability of consumers to increase. By making the share in the social product which falls to each member of society depend on the product economically imputed to him, that is, to his labor and his property, the elimination of surplus human beings by the struggle for existence, as it rages in the vegetable and animal kingdom, is replaced by a reduction in the birth-rate as a result of social forces. ‘Moral restraint,’ the limitations of offspring imposed by social positions, replaces the struggle for existence.54

Having first established some permanent storage and sheltering places, then, step by step, having appropriated more and more surrounding land as the basis for agricultural production and the raising of livestock and transforming erstwhile centers of storage and shelter into extended settlements composed of houses and villages occupied by separate family households, the new lifestyle of the people of the Near and Middle East as well as the other regions of original human settlement began to spread outward, slowly but inescapably.55 In principle, two modes are conceivable by which this diffusion could have taken place. Either the original settlers gradually displaced the neighboring nomadic tribes in search of new to-be-cultivated land (demic diffusion), or else the latter imitated and adopted the new lifestyle on their own initiative (cultural diffusion). Until recently, it had been generally believed that the first mode of diffusion was the predominant one.56 However, based on newly discovered genetic evidence this view now appears to be questionable, at least insofar as the spread of the new, sedentary lifestyle from the Near East to Europe is concerned. If present Europeans were the descendants of Near Eastern people at the time of the Neolithic Revolution, genetic traces for this should exist. In fact, however, very few such traces can be found among present-day Europeans. Thus, it appears more likely that the spread of the new, sedentary lifestyle occurred largely, if not exclusively, via the latter, second-mentioned route, while the role in this process played by the original Near Eastern settlers was only a minor one. Perhaps a few such settlers pushed in northern and western direction, where they were then absorbed by neighboring people adopting their new and successful lifestyle, with the effect that their own genetic imprint became more and more diluted with increasing distance from their Near Eastern point of origin.

In any case, with the Neolithic Revolution the formerly universal hunter-gatherer lifestyle essentially died out or was relegated to the outer fringes of human habitation. Without doubt, the newly developing farming communities were attractive targets for nomadic raiders, and owing to their greater mobility neighboring nomadic tribes for a long time posed a serious threat to agricultural settlers. But ultimately, nomads were no match for them, because of their greater numbers. More specifically, it was the organization of larger numbers of people in communities of households—the location of separate households in close physical proximity to each other—that made for military superiority. Community life did not merely lower the transaction costs as far as intra-tribal exchange was concerned. Community life also offered the advantage of easily and quickly coordinated joint defense in the case of external aggression. Moreover, besides the strength of greater numbers, settled agricultural communities allowed also for an intensified and expanded division of labor and for greater savings and thus facilitated the development of a weaponry superior to anything available to bands of nomads.57

Fifty thousand years ago the human population size has been estimated to have been as low as 5,000 or possibly 50,000 people. At the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution, some 11,000 years ago, when essentially the entire globe had been conquered by tribes of hunters and gatherers having spread out in the course of thousands of years from their original homeland somewhere in East Africa, the world population size has been estimated to have reached about 4 million.58 Since then, slowly but steadily, the new mode of production: of agriculture and animal husbandry based on private (or collective) ownership of land and organized around separate family households, successively displaced the original hunter-gatherer order. Consequently, at the beginning of the Christian era, the world population had increased to 170 million, and in 1800, which marks the onset of the so-called Industrial Revolution (the topic of the following chapter) and the close of the agrarian age, or as it has also been termed, the “old biological order,” it had reached 720 million. (Today’s world population exceeds 7 billion!) During this agrarian age, the size of cities occasionally reached or even surpassed one million inhabitants, but until the very end less than 2 percent of the population lived in big cities and even in the economically most advanced countries 80–90 percent of the population was occupied in agricultural production (while this number has fallen to less than 5 percent today).


* Previously unpublished. Reprinted in Hoppe, A Short History of Man: Progress and Decline (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2015).

  • 1. See the following: Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).
  • 2. On the “lower” and “higher” functions of language see Karl Buehler, Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache (1934; repr., Stuttgart: UTB, 1982); and, in particular, also Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge, 1963), pp. 134 ff., and idem, Objective Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), chap. 3, pp. 119–22, and chap. 6, sections 14–17.
  • 3. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 93, dates the origin of language at around 100,000 years ago; but given the archeological evidence cited above, the later, more recent date of only 50,000 years ago appears more likely.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 92.
  • 5. Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 8, 58; Cavalli-Sforza’s estimate is significantly higher: 50,000. (Genes, Peoples, and Languages, p. 50).
  • 7. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer societies should not be overemphasized or idealized, however. These societies were also characterized by pronounced hierarchical features. Not unlike what is known from the animal kingdom, men ranked above and dominated women. Often women were “taken” and treated by men like goods of the “outer” world are taken and treated: appropriated, stolen, used, abused, and traded. Children ranked below adults. Moreover, hierarchies existed among both male and the female members of society, down from the reigning alpha-male and female to the lowliest member of society. Status fights occurred, and whoever did not accept the established rank-order faced severe punishment. The losers in the fights for higher status were threatened with injury, even death and, at the very best, expulsion from the tribe. In a word: even if tribal life provided for a comfortable standard of living in terms of abundant food and leisure it was anything but comfortable in terms of today’s much cherished “individual autonomy.” To the contrary, life in the tribal household meant discipline, order and submission.
  • 8. See Richard Lee and I. De Vore, eds., Man the Hunter (Chicago: Aldine, 1968); Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), esp. chap. 2.
  • 9. Harris, Cannibals and Kings, p. 19f.
  • 10. This statement refers only to the hunter-gatherer life during periods of peace, however. On the high incidence of warfare and unnatural causes of death, see below.
  • 11. Thus, for instance, writes Harris: “In all of France during the late stone age there were probably no more than 20,000 and possibly as few as 1,600 human beings.” (Cannibals and Kings, p. 18)
  • 12. See Wade, Before the Dawn, chap. 8, and pp. 150–54; also Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
  • 13. Napoleon Chagnon, “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population,” Science 239 (1988): pp. 985–92.
  • 14. Keeley, War before Civilization, p. 33; Wade, Before the Dawn, p. 151f.
  • 15. See also Steven LeBlanc, Constant Battles (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
  • 16. See Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 154–58.
         Contrasting the ferocity of primitive vs. modern men, Wade, following Keeley, notes (Before the Dawn, p. 152): When primitive warriors “met the troops of civilized societies in open battle, they regularly defeated them despite the vast disparity in weaponry. In the Indian wars, the U.S. Army ‘usually suffered severe defeats’ when caught in the open, such as by the Seminoles in 1834, and at the battle of Little Bighorn. In 1879 the British army in South Africa, equipped with artillery and Gatling guns was convincingly defeated by Zulus armed mostly with spears and ox-hide shields at the battles of Isandlwana, Myer’s Drift and Hlobane. The French were sent off by the Tuareg of the Sahara in the 1890s. The state armies prevailed in the end only through larger manpower and attritional campaigns, not by superior fighting skill.”
  • 17. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Chicago: Regnery, 1966), p. 144.
  • 18. Indirectly, this insight into the irreconcilable antagonism between the members of different tribes within the framework of hunter-gatherer societies also provides a first clue as to the requirements for peaceful cooperation among men. In order for members of different tribes to view each other not as enemies but as potential collaborators, there must be genuine production of consumer goods (above and beyond the mere appropriation of nature-given consumer goods). At least, as a very minimum requirement, there must be production of consumer goods in the sense of the storage of surplus goods (of saving for future consumption). For only if man thus adds something to nature which otherwise, without his deliberate effort, would not exist at all, can there be a reason for one man to spare another man’s life for his own good (for his own selfish motives and to his own advantage). To be sure, as proponents of the thesis that it is civilization, which breeds war, are fond to point out, the very fact that one man has added something to the supply of nature-given goods might also provide a reason for another man to engage in aggression: to rob him of his product. But there is certainly less reason to kill such a man than to kill a man who has added nothing but merely takes and consumes what is given (and hence inevitably reduces what remains available for another). Moreover, insofar as a man adds something to the total supply of available goods there exists also a reason for another man to not interfere with his activity but let him continue, and to benefit from him and his activity by engaging in mutually beneficial trade with him and hence, as a consequence, ultimately develop sympathetic feelings toward his fellow man. Thus, while civilization does not eliminate man’s aggressive impulses it can and did diminish and attenuate them.
  • 19. Actually, the last great warming period, also called an interglacial period, had already ended about 120,000 years ago. During this period, i.e., more than 120,000 years ago, hippopotamuses had lived in the Rhine and the Thames and northern Europe had something of an “African appearance.” From then on, glaciers moved steadily further southward and the sea level eventually fell by more than 100 meters. The Thames and the Elbe became tributaries of the Rhine, before it streamed first into the North Sea and from there into the Atlantic. See Josef H. Reichholf, Eine kurze Naturgeschichte des letzten Jahrtausends (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 2007), p. 15 f. When this period ended, quite suddenly, about 12,000 years ago, the glaciers rapidly retreated and the sea level rose, not by millimeters per year but very quickly in an almost flood-like fashion. Within a very brief period England and Ireland, which had previously been connected to the European continent, became islands. The Baltic Sea and much of the contemporary North Sea came thus into existence. Likewise, most of today’s Persian Gulf dates from about this time. Ibid., p. 49f.
  • 20. For further details see Wade, Before the Dawn, chap. 5; also Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 1997), chap. 1.
  • 21. See Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages, p. 94.
  • 22. Ibid., pp. 20–25.
  • 23. See Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 96–99.
  • 24. Merrit Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (New York: Wiley, 1994).
  • 25. See Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages, chap. 5, esp. p. 144, for a table showing the correlation between genetic and linguistic families and trees of descent. See also Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1995), chap. 7; Wade, Before the Dawn, chap. 10, pp. 102ff.
  • 26. During the present Holocene period temperatures continued to show significant variations, however. About 10,000 years ago, after a warming period of thousands of years, temperatures reached the present level. Several times thereafter, temperatures rose significantly above this level (by up to 2 degrees Celsius): 8,000 to 6,800 years ago, 6,000 to 5,500 years ago, 5,000 to 4,000 years ago, 2,500 to 2,000 years ago, and again from the 10th to the 14th century, during the so-called medieval warming period. As well, several periods with significantly lower than present temperatures existed: 9,000 to 8,000 years ago, 6,800 to 6,000 years ago, 4,000 to 2,500 years ago, from the 2nd to the 8th century and again from the 14th until the mid-19th century, the so-called Little Ice Age. See Reichholf, Eine kurze Naturgeschichte des letzten Jahrtausends, p. 27.
  • 27. Ibid., p. 23f.
  • 28. Mises, Human Action, p. 167.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Empirically, it appears that the “magic number,” i.e., the optimum population size for a hunter-gatherer society, was somewhere between 50 to 100 people for a territory of about 50 to 100 square miles (one person per square mile). At around this combination point, all advantages offered by the division of labor were exhausted. If the population size increased beyond this “magic” number, average living standards became increasingly endangered and this threat grew still more if neighboring tribes, due to their own internal population growth, increased their territorial incursions, thus further diminishing the nature-given supply of goods available to the members of the first tribe. Internal as well as external population pressure then called for a solution to an increasingly urgent problem: namely sheer survival.
  • 31. See Mises, Human Action, pp. 127–31; idem, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Classics, 1981), pp. 174–75; also Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Kritik der sozialwissenschaftlichen Sozialforschung. Untersuchungen zur Grundlegung von Soziologie und Ökonomie (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1985), pp. 59–64.
  • 32. . In fact, over-hunting and animal extinction played a fateful role especially in the Americas, which were only occupied after the invention of bow and arrow. While the Americas originally exhibited pretty much the same fauna as the Eurasian continent—after all, for thousands of years animals could move from one continent to another across the Beringian land bridge—by the time of the European rediscovery of America some 500 years ago all large domesticable mammals (except for the llama in South America) had been hunted to extinction. Likewise, it appears now that the entire mega-fauna that once inhabited Australia were hunted to extinction (except for the red kangaroo). It seems that this event occurred around 40,000 years ago, only a few thousand years after man had first arrived in Australia, and even without the help of bow and arrow, only with very primitive weapons and the help of fires used for the trapping of animals. See on this Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp. 42ff.
  • 33. While the changes brought about by the “Neolithic Revolution” allowed for a significantly higher sustainable population size, the Malthusian problem was bound to eventually arise again, and the seemingly ultimate solution to the problem was only reached with the so-called Industrial Revolution that began in Europe at the end of the 17th century.
  • 34. See also Michael H. Hart, Understanding Human History (Augusta, Ga.: Washington Summit Publishers, 2007), pp. 139 ff.
  • 35. See on this distinction Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State (Los Angeles: Nash, 1970), chap. 1.
  • 36. Carl Menger, Principles of Economics (1871; repr., Grove City: Libertarian Press, 1994), p. 52.
  • 37. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, p. 92.
  • 38. See also Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Eigentum, Anarchie und Staat. Studien zur Theorie des Kapitalismus (Leipzig: Manuscriptum, 2005 [1987]), chap. 4, esp. pp. 106ff.
  • 39. Hart, Understanding Human History, p. 162.
  • 40. It has been estimated that with the appropriation of land and the corresponding change from a hunter-gatherer existence to that of agriculturists-gardeners and animal husbandry, a population size ten to one hundred times larger than before could be sustained on the same amount of land.
  • 41. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp. 100, 167.
  • 42. Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 109–13.
  • 43. Incidentally, genetic analyses have revealed that all present dogs, including those in the Americas, stem most likely from a single litter to be located somewhere in East Asia. That is, it appears that the domestication of the dog did not occur independently at various places but at a single place from where it spread outward to ultimately encompass the entire globe.
  • 44. See Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970).
  • 45. See Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (1954; repr., New York: Routledge, 2002).
  • 46. Remarkably, even today, with the availability of highly sophisticated electronic alarm systems, it remains barking dogs, which offer the most effective protection against burglary.
  • 47. See Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, chap. 9, esp. pp. 168–75.
  • 48. Essay on the Principle of Population, chap. 10.
  • 49. See on this Friedrich Engels, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staates, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke, Vol. 21 (1884; repr., Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1972).
  • 50. Ibid., p. 38f. “Men lived in polygamy and their women simultaneously in polyandry, and their children were considered as belonging to all of them. . . . Each woman belonged to every man and each man to every woman.”
         Incidentally, socialist authors such as Friedrich Engels did not merely describe but glorified this institution, very much like they glorified the already mentioned institution of “primitive communism.” Indeed, socialists typically recognized, quite correctly, the joint emergence of private property and the institution of the family, and they thought (and hoped) that both institutions—private property in the means of production, including land, and the (monogamous) family—would ultimately disappear again with the establishment of a future socialist society characterized by plenty (plentitude) of wealth and free love. Thus, after an arduous if necessary historical detour characterized by misery, exploitation and male sexual domination, mankind would at long last return—on a higher level—to the very institutions characteristic of its own prehistoric “golden age.” Under socialism, monogamous marriage was to disappear along with private property. Choice in love would become free again. Men and women would unite and separate as they pleased. And in all of this, as socialist August Bebel wrote in his, at the time (in the 1880s and 1890s), enormously popular book Die Frau und der Sozialismus, socialism would not create anything really new, but only “recreate on a higher level of culture and under new social forms what was universally valid on a more primitive cultural level and before private ownership dominated society.” Bebel, Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Stuttgart, 1879), p. 343; see also Mises, Socialism, p. 87.
  • 51. Mises, Socialism, p. 175.
  • 52. Essay on the Principle of Population, chap. 10.
  • 53. Rationally motivated as the institution of the family was, the transition from a regime of “free love” to one of family life did not come without costs, and the associated benefits and costs were different for men and women.
         Surely, from the male’s point of view it was advantageous to have every woman accessible for sexual gratification. In addition, this greatly improved his chances of reproductive success. By having children with as many women as possible the likelihood of his genes being passed on into future generations was increased. And this was accomplished seemingly without any cost to him if the responsibility of raising children to maturity could be externalized onto society at large. In contrast, if sexual access was restricted to just one woman (in the case of monogamy) or a few women (in the case of polygamy) his chances of sexual gratification and of reproductive success were diminished. Moreover, men now had to weigh and compare the pros (benefits) and cons (costs) of sex and procreation—something they previously did not have to do. On the other hand, also primitive men could not fail to notice, at least eventually, that even under a regime of free love the chances of sexual gratification and reproductive success were by no means equal. Some males—the stronger and more attractive alpha males—had much better chances than others. In fact, as every animal breeder knows, just one male is sufficient to keep all females constantly impregnated. Thus, free love effectively meant that very few males “had” most of the women, and especially most of the attractive and reproductively most appealing women, and fathered most of the offspring, while most of the males had the dubious obligation of helping to bring up other men’s children. Surely, even the dimmest recognition of this fact must have posed a permanent threat to any intra-tribal solidarity and especially to any inter-male solidarity that was called for, for instance, in the defense against rival tribes; and this threat must have grown ever more intense the farther the population exceeded its optimum size. In contrast, the institution of a monogamous family and to a somewhat lesser degree also of a polygamous family offered to each male a somewhat equal chance of reproductive success and thus created a much greater incentive for every male to engage and invest in cooperative behavior.
         Matters are significantly different from the female point of view. After all, it is women who must bear the risk of pregnancy associated with sexual intercourse. It is they who are particularly vulnerable during pregnancy and following childbirth. Moreover, it is women who have a unique natural tie to children; for while there can be always some doubt as to paternity no doubt is possible as far as maternity is concerned. Every woman knows who her children are and who the children of other women are. In light of these natural facts the principal advantage of a regime of free love from a female point of view becomes apparent. Because of the greater risk and investment associated with sex for women, women tend to be more selective as far as their mating partner is concerned. Thus, in order to increase the likelihood of their own reproductive success, they exhibit a strong preference for mating partners who appear healthy, vigorous, attractive, bright, etc., i.e., in a word, for alpha males. And because males are less choosy in their selection of sex objects, under a system of free love even the least attractive females can realistically expect to be able to mate occasionally with some of the most attractive males and hence possibly pass their “superior” genes on to one’s own offspring.
         Obviously, this advantage disappears as soon as the institution of the family replaces a regime of free love. Each woman is now supposed to try her reproductive luck with just one or maybe a few sets of male genes, and in the great majority of cases these genes do not rank among the very best. What did women get out of marriage, then? Very little, it would seem, as long as the population was at or around its optimum size and the life of the hunter-gatherer tribe was characterized by comfort and plenty. This had to change, however, as soon as the population grew beyond this point. The more the population exceeded its optimum size the more intense grew the competition for the limited food supplies. Whatever inter-female solidarity existed before increasingly weakened now. Naturally, each woman was interested in assuring her own reproductive success and helping her own children reach maturity and thus came into conflict with every other woman and her children. Even killing another woman’s child in order to further the prospect of survival for one’s own children was increasingly considered an option in this situation. (Incidentally, the same sort of inter-female competition for reproductive success still prevails to some extent within the framework of polygamous relationships and explains some of the peculiar instabilities and tensions inherent in such relationships.) In this situation, each woman (and her kids) is in increasing need for personal protection. But who would be willing to provide such protection? Most children have the same father—from among the few alpha males endowed with more-than-equal chances of procreation—but they have different mothers. Accordingly, the protection of one woman and her children from another cannot be expected to come from the children’s father, because the father is very often the same one. Nor can it be expected to come from another male; for why should a male offer personal support and protection to a woman who entertained sexual relations with other men and whose children were fathered by other men, especially if this offspring threatened his own standard of living? A woman could only secure personal protection from a man if she forewent all of the advantages of free love and promised instead to grant her sexual favors exclusively to him and thus managed to assure him also that her children were always his as well.
         Distinctly male and female perspectives exist not only as far as the very establishment of the institution of the family is concerned but also regarding the importance of marital fidelity in maintaining its stability. The difference between male and female calculations in this regard has its reason in the natural fact that, at least until the very recent development of reliable genetic paternity tests, a child’s mother was always known in a way—with a degree of certainty—that was unavailable and unattainable for the child’s father. As folk-wisdom has it: mother’s baby, father’s maybe. This fact, again quite “naturally,” had to lead to significantly different—asymmetric—expectations regarding appropriate (and inappropriate) male and female marital conduct. Of course, in order to assure the stability of the institution of the family any form of marital infidelity had to be socially disapproved; but disapproval had to be far more pronounced and the possible sanctions far more severe in the case of female infidelity than in the case of male infidelity. While this may appear “unfair,” it was in fact quite rational and in accordance with the “nature of things,” because female infidelity involved a far greater risk for betrayed husbands than male infidelity involved for betrayed wives. A wife’s infidelity can be the first step leading to a divorce from her husband just as a husband’s infidelity can be the first step leading to a divorce from his wife. In this regard, the situation is the same (symmetric) in both cases and the “sin” committed is equally grave. However, if and insofar as marital infidelity does not lead to divorce, the “sin” committed by a woman must be considered far graver than that committed by a man. Because extramarital sexual affairs may lead to pregnancies, and if a so-impregnated woman then stays with her husband, the real danger arises that she might be tempted to present her illegitimate offspring to her husband as his own, thus deceiving him to support another man’s child. No such danger exists in the opposite case: no man can submit his illegitimate offspring to his wife without her knowing the truth of the matter. Hence, the far greater social stigma attached to female as compared to male infidelity. (Incidentally—and also quite rationally—in the case of male infidelity a similar distinction is made: the offence is considered more severe if a man has an affair with a married woman than with an unmarried one; for in the former case he becomes a potential accomplice to a further female act of deception whereas in the latter case he does not. Accordingly, in recognition of this distinction and so as to accommodate the rather indiscriminate male sex-drive, prostitution has become a near-universal social institution.)
  • 54. Mises, Socialism, p. 282.
  • 55. Based on archeological records, the speed of this diffusion process has been estimated at about one kilometer per year on land (and somewhat higher along coastlines and river valleys). See Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages, p. 102.
  • 56. See for instance ibid., pp. 101–13; Cavalli-Sforza and Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas, chap. 6, esp. pp. 144 ff.
  • 57. More than 10,000 years ago already some early-neolithic settlements, such as Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey, for instance, reached an estimated size of 4,000–5,000 inhabitants. Findings made at such sites include sanctuaries à la Stonehenge (alas, more than 6,000 years older!), spacious houses built of stone and with elaborate wall paintings, megalith columns with animal reliefs, sculptures, carvings with writing-like symbols, ornaments, stone-vessels with elaborate decorations, stone daggers, mirrors made from obsidian (a volcanic stone), bone needles, arrow heads, mill stones, jugs and vases made of stone and clay, rings and chains made from colorful stones, even the beginning of metalworks.
  • 58. See Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1978).