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The Tyranny of the Cultural Curators


Tags Free MarketsWorld HistoryInterventionism

08/10/2012Mike Reid
"They are not spotless children living in some never-never land of innocence and eternal stasis. They are thinking, calculating humans who would like a bit of material progress."

The state is at its most arrogant when it tries to protect us from ourselves. And there is perhaps no group of people subjected to a more absurd policy of state "protection" than the Jarawa tribe of India. They are confined to a reserve and forbidden to interact with outsiders, ostensibly for their own good.

A recent documentary expressing concern for the future of this little-known group of hunter-gatherers begins as follows,

The reclusive Jarawa people live on the Andaman Islands. Their lifestyle is threatened by poachers, loggers, and tourists.… We ask if India can protect an ancient tribe on the verge of extinction.

Today, there are about 400 living Jarawas. Their jungle territory has been set off as a reserve since 1956 in order to protect their pure and primitive life from the depredations of the modern world. To this end, contact between Jarawas and outsiders is outlawed.

Oddly, though, many of the Jarawas seem to want to leave their idyllic tropical Eden. The documentary shows footage of Jarawa men showing up at nearby Indian villages to ask for food, medicine, and even telephones.

Luckily, before any disastrous cultural contamination can occur, the police show up, corral the Jarawas into vans, and deport them back to the reserve. Thank goodness for government protection.

But perhaps the Jarawas aren't actually "reclusive." Perhaps they aren't terribly concerned about maintaining their cultural purity. Perhaps, like the vast majority of all human beings, they prefer wealth to poverty, and they want to trade with their neighbors in order to enjoy the fruits of the global market.

Dictatorial Arrogance

Denis Giles, an Indian journalist interviewed in the documentary, thinks of himself as an activist for the Jarawas. He believes that they need to be isolated for their own good. He remarks wistfully on his own brief (illegal) encounters with them

They are quite simple, and their brain is almost like a teenager, or little children: so simple, so clean, so pure.

Here is a classic justification for state control of the poor: they are mentally inferior to the rest of us; they are children, really. They don't know what's good for them. They must be safeguarded by the firm, fatherly hand of the state.

Apparently, Giles thinks those Jarawas who defy the government and leave the reserve to seek basic material assistance are making a terrible mistake.

This is a fine example of what Mises calls "dictatorial arrogance":

It is vain to pass judgment on other people's aims and volitions.… The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow's will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic.

Regardless of any romantic's wishes for them, many Jarawas (especially young men) have expressed a desire to share in the benefits of global capitalism. They want material progress. They want, as Mises says,

more and better food, better homes and clothes, and a thousand other amenities. They strive after abundance and health.

Jarawas in Business

Admittedly, most Jarawas today have little hope of gaining much income in the market as a factory worker or office clerk. Yet they are already engaged in making some meager profits from tourism.

It is of course strictly forbidden for tourists to travel into the reserve. But there is a thriving grey market in bus tours that pass through Jarawa territory along the Andaman Trunk Road, bringing as many as 500 tourists a day.

Jarawas commonly wait along the road in hopes of encountering such tours. They know that visitors will be willing to give them food in return for seeing a dance or taking a few pictures.

Officially, anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya reports,

within the Jarawa territory, police … stand at selected spots to make sure that in case of a Jarawa group coming to the road, the visitors are either quickly moved back into the forest or put into vehicles and taken away.

But in reality, crooked cops manage and control — and presumably receive bribes from the tour guides for — these exchanges. The prohibition on Jarawa/outsider interactions does not actually prevent them; it merely siphons off the profits of these meetings from the indigenous people to the state police.

No wonder the Jarawas are still so poor, despite providing a service sought after by tens of thousands of tourists every year.

Life vs. Lifestyle

The other major justification for the Jarawas' enforced isolation is that they have suffered recent measles epidemics. But Jarawas themselves understand that these diseases come from contacts with outsiders. Pandya reports that they call new diseases enen ulatey, meaning "outsider-given pain."

And yet, they still seek out these contacts. The Jarawas know the risks, and they have decided they are worth bearing. (Furthermore, despite the fact that Jarawas visit local hospitals for outsider-given pains, no Jarawa deaths from measles have ever been reported by medical authorities.1

So why on earth has the government taken it on itself to forbid contact between Jarawas and outsiders? What do they think they are protecting?

To answer this question, it's useful to go back to the wording at the beginning of the documentary, which expresses the usual left-liberal sentiment about exotic, supposedly primitive peoples. The "extinction" feared is not that of biological persons.

It's not the Jarawas' actual lives that are really the main concern here. Instead the danger is that their "lifestyle is threatened."

Of course, a lifestyle is simply the set of choices that a person makes about how to live each day. If you make new choices tomorrow, you could have a new lifestyle. The only guaranteed way to preserve someone else's lifestyle is to take away his ability to choose.

Indeed, under capitalism, everyone's "lifestyle" is destroyed every day as they seek out new and improved consumer goods, like telephones.

The Jarawas have already adapted to their new situation. They speak Hindi. They obviously have arrangements with policemen. And a few Jarawas have asked to be allowed into a local school.

They are not spotless children living in some never-never land of innocence and eternal stasis. They are thinking, calculating humans who would like a bit of material progress.

Carrying on blithely, the Indian authorities produced a new Jarawa policy statement in 2004. According to Pandya,

The principal idea … was to keep the Jarawa in a state of "protection" in their cultural identity, natural habitat and health. They were regarded as a "unique human heritage."

And there it is. The Jarawas are a heritage, a museum piece for us moderns to contemplate. They must remain unchanged so that the rest of us can reflect from afar on their purity. Apparently, it is the Jarawas' duty to all humankind to remain in ahistorical poverty and isolation, like ascetic monks atoning for the materialistic sins of the rest of the human race, forever.

As Rothbard says of the critics of economic growth,

Enjoying a material contentment and a living standard undreamt of by even the wealthiest men of the past, it is easy for upper-class liberals to sneer at "materialism," and to call for a freeze on all further economic advance. For the mass of the world's population still living in squalor such a cry for the cessation of growth is truly obscene.

  • 1. Given the frequent contact between the Andaman Islands and the industrialized world in the last 200 years (the region served as a penal colony for the British in the 1800s and a military outpost for the Japanese in World War II), it's possible that much of the Jarawa population has already been exposed to such diseases.

Contact Mike Reid

Mike Reid is primus inter pares at Invisible Order, a libertarian publishing-solutions company. He also teaches anthropology at the University of Winnipeg. Follow him on Twitter.

Image source:
Jeremy Weate via Flickr