Ed Driscoll

Back to the Pleistocene

Glenn Reynolds is fond of quoting this passage by the late Robert Heinlein on the fragility of civilization:

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck.”

A decade ago in The Future and its Enemies, Virginia Postrel wrote:

Green reactionaries celebrate premodern and, in some cases, prehistoric life. “Back to the Pleistocene!” is a popular, semiserious slogan among radical greens. Edward Goldsmith writes romantically of hunter-gatherer societies with “no history” and, he presumes, with no “wars, invasions, massacres, revolutions, assassinations, and intrigues.” He marvels at the stability of these cultures: “During the old stone age, for instance, flint-chipping techniques did not change for some 200,000 years.” In his many books, the sledgehammer-wielding Kirkpatrick Sale praises various prehistoric cultures, including “the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers of prehistory—the ‘cavemen.’”

“The darkness is all around us: it is called industrial civilization,” says Sale. In his 1980 book Human Scale, Sale proposed the ideal of self-sufficient towns of five thousand to ten thousand residents, arguing that self-sufficiency—the absence of any trade with the outside world—helps a community “to create stability and balance and predictability.” Rifkin, a moderate by comparison, envisions cities that “once again return to their preindustrial size of 50,000 to 100,000 citizens,” and an autarkic economy. In his ideal world, if a product “cannot be made locally by the community, using readily available resources and technology, then it is most likely unnecessary that it be produced at all.”

The friendly, popular version of this ideal is the “radical localism” espoused by Sierra Club president Adam Werbach, a self-described former “Valley boy” who calls for “self-sufficiency” without sacrifice.

In May of this year, Jeffrey Tucker, the editor of Mises.org explored a place where “Capital Is Nowhere in View:”

Now to the question of why the absence of capital.

The answer has to do with the regime. It is a well-known fact that any accumulation of wealth in Haiti makes you a target, if not of the population in general (which has grown suspicious of wealth, and probably for good reason), then certainly of the government. The regime, no matter who is in charge, is like a voracious dog on the loose, seeking to devour any private wealth that happens to emerge.

This creates something even worse than the Higgsian problem of “regime uncertainty.” The regime is certain: it is certain to steal anything it can, whenever it can, always and forever. So why don’t people vote out the bad guys and vote in the good guys? Well, those of us in the United States who have a bit of experience with democracy know the answer: there are no good guys. The system itself is owned by the state and rooted in evil. Change is always illusory, a fiction designed for public consumption.

This is an interesting case of a peculiar way in which government is keeping prosperity at bay. It is not wrecking the country through an intense enforcement of taxation and regulation or nationalization. One gets the sense that most people never have any face time with a government official and never deal with paperwork or bureaucracy really. The state strikes only when there is something to loot. And loot it does: predictably and consistently. And that alone is enough to guarantee a permanent state of poverty.

Now, to be sure, there are plenty of Americans who are firmly convinced that we would all be better off if we grew our own food, bought only locally, kept firms small, eschewed modern conveniences like home appliances, went back to using only natural products, expropriated wealthy savers, harassed the capitalistic class until it felt itself unwelcome and vanished. This paradise has a name, and it is Haiti.

So in that sense, Haiti’s already Back to the Pleistocene — economically, it never left. So why aren’t paleo-leftists flocking there, instead of say, the Hamptons, Santa Fe, Aspen and Palo Alto?