No, human life was not a misery until the 1950s
There is an extant meme about early human history, that the invention of agriculture was a huge mistake. Noah Yuval Hariri popularized the idea in Sapiens. He pointed out that ancient foragers were “taller and healthier than their peasant descendants”. Foragers also suffered less from famine and plague and had a “relatively short working week”. As a result, Hariri calls the agricultural revolution “history’s biggest fraud”. Matt Yglesias has taken up the idea: “agriculture made living standards lower rather than higher.” And he pastes in this chart, with its appealingly honest y-axis:
As the source says, “we have some good reasons to think that this transition made life worse for the average person.”
You can’t discuss anthropology without pointing out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau said it all first, here in the Discourse on Inequality:
… equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops…. The poets tell us it was gold and silver, but, for the philosophers, it was iron and corn, which first civilised men, and ruined humanity.
It’s not my goal to criticize the empirics here. I think that plausibly, the average person’s welfare went down after the introduction of agriculture, although it’s a controversial result in a fast-moving field. But this ignores an equally important change: there were a lot more of those people!
Average welfare is an appealing way of evaluating societies. It has a natural interpretation: if you were to be a randomly chosen person in a society, how well off would you be? This is the basis of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance in A Theory of Justice, although he rejects average utilitarianism, and before Rawls, John Harsanyi had made the same point.
But the average welfare metric is indifferent to the number of people alive. A hundred people with average welfare of X counts the same as a thousand people with average welfare of X, or a million. That’s not plausible! We should care whether people are alive or dead.
Not doing so is just intuitively weird, and it leads to paradoxes. Suppose you evaluate society using average welfare, and people in society have average lifetime welfare of 100 utils or whatever. You’re indifferent, then, to a hundred new people being born who will also have average lifetime welfare of 100 utils. Their existence is neither good nor bad for the world. OK, now suppose people get much better off, so they have average lifetime welfare of 1000 utils. Now, you’re opposed to the same hundred new people being born and having 100 utils welfare! They would lower the whole society’s average. This violates our intuition that people’s lives have value in themselves, not in relation to other people who happen to be born at the same time. If the 100 people’s lives are worth living, then that must be true no matter what is happening elsewhere.
So let’s stop using average welfare as our criterion, and think about agriculture like this: average happiness went down, but very many more people were alive. (Something like 1 million people by 10,000 BC, and 300 million by 0 AD, compared to maybe 100,000 before agriculture.) Overall, was this good or bad?
I think this is a no-brainer. Clearly, good! The life of the extra millions outweighs the loss of the 100,000.
People like being alive. They show this by their actions. Very few people kill themselves. Most people fear death.
Poor people like being alive too. This is true even though very poor people have suffered terrible ills throughout history: disease, hunger, war and oppression. Despite this, ordinary life is basically good and worthwhile. In fact, a very large part of these ills is that they might stop you being alive! Or they might make your — fundamentally good — life less good. (Going blind is bad, because it is nice to see the light.) Anthropologists who live in peasant communities do not report unremitting misery, and ordinary people’s words, recorded in folk songs or hand-me-down sayings, have good cheer and optimism as well as sorrow.
There is a famous thought experiment by Derek Parfit, which is meant to make us question total utilitarianism. Imagine a universe with trillions of people, each with a life that is barely worth living. If there were enough trillions of people, this dismal universe would still have higher total welfare than a world of a few billion people with quite nice lives. Each new person born, whose life is just barely better than death, would contribute a tiny amount to the universe’s total welfare, and with enough people you can get arbitrarily high. Parfit called this “the repugnant conclusion” and Matt Yglesias mentions it when thinking about agriculture.
This is interesting philosophy, but the agriculture revolution is not at all like that! Ordinary people in agricultural societies (peasants) did not have lives that are just an iota better than death. A few surely had terrible lives, because plague and hunger and oppression can make your life very bad. Some had lives worse than death, and some thought that life was worse than death and killed themselves. But most didn’t. They had basically good lives, even though they were at risk of awful things that we now find morally unacceptable and try to prevent, and though they probably had more bad mixed with the good than we do.
In most of history, humans were in the Malthusian regime: an increase in total income led people to have more children, until average income was the same as before. Economists sometimes call this a “trap”, because it prevented sustained growth in living standards and the take-off into modern progress.
But it isn’t a moral trap. It doesn’t mean that an increase in total income was “wasted” on extra children. Extra people are good! Material progress through most of human history has taken the form of more people being alive.
Thinking of the past as “10,000 years of misery till the 1950s” is bad in two ways. It is dismissive of our own history, and it subtly devalues the people we are talking about.
Like Calvin in the cartoon, who thought that the USA was founded in 200 BC (“Before Calvin”), each age tends to judge the past by its own standards, which usually make it look relatively good. This is obvious when historians judge any society before, say, 1970, by post-millennial standards. A subtler version is when economists measure material social welfare and see a flat line for thousands of years, missing the aspects of progress over that time, material and otherwise, which don’t show up in per capita GDP.
It’s right to be shocked by the insults and injuries of poverty. But that can easily slip into defining poor people by those insults, reducing them to cardboard cutouts. This applies to people in the past also. The lives of Roman slaves, medieval peasants, or workers in the Industrial Revolution were not just composed of suffering. They had loves and hopes; they thought about higher things, as Christians, Cathars or Socialists. We are luckier than they were, but they deserve respect, not just pity.
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