Monday, August 07, 2006

Stone Age Economics

Just been reading the intriguingly-titled Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins. This one's been sat on my shelf for a year or two since I picked it up at a Fortean Times Unconvention, but I was finally spurred to read the damned thing after it was referenced in Clifford Conner's excellent A People's History of Science.

It's not as wacky as it might sound (as someone asked at the Uncon - 'What's that about, exchange rates for pebbles?'). My copy is a first British edition from 1974, but it appears to still be in print.

It's more a work of anthropology and sociology than economics, though. The opening chapter, 'The Original Affluent Society' (a slightly different version of which is available on various websites like this one), riffs on Galbraith to argue that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was more than adequate to meet all the needs of its members with just a few hours' labour a day. It's an obviously appealing idea as a riposte to the work-hard/spend-hard ethos of late capitalism.

Vernon Smith, the Nobel-winning experimental economist who I interviewed a few years ago, has written on prehistoric and hunter-gatherer economics, and also concluded that they generally enjoyed plentiful food and a far-from-Hobbesian life. I've also found a recent paper by Charles Kenny of the World Bank (available as a pdf from the Brookings Institution) which asks "Were People in the Past Poor and Miserable?" - Kenny concludes they generally weren't any more miserable than people today (and maybe less so), and suggests a re-examination of the economic doctrines that rising incomes mean more happiness (or 'utility' as economists call that nice warm feeling you get from satisfying your wants). It's another angle to current interest in the economics of happiness, something I've touched on before.

Back to the Sahlins book - the following chapters argue that 'primitive' economies operated at far below their production possibilities to meet their own needs, though production intensifies to meet the extra demands of a tribal chief when such arises. There's also a lengthy exegesis about gifts and exchanges in a pre-monetary society, derived from Mauss' 'Essay on the Gift' - this is all rather steeped in 60s sociology-speak, and didn't quite hold my interest. Throughout, contemporary 'primitive' and hunter-gatherer societies are used as a proxy for prehistoric ones (something Conner also does in the early parts of his history) - I don't know how valid this actually is, but there's some fascinating notes on the traditions and practices of various tribes. The book ends with a briefer consideration of primitive trade, and the emergence of exchange rates for pigs, pots, axes and spears (if not pebbles).

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Blogger alex said...

Interesting post!

3:43 pm, September 06, 2006  

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