Imagine you live and work with 150 of your closest friends, family, and coworkers in an area, isolated but large. There are no distinct separations between work and life and family; everything is just all blended together. There are no celebrities, just popular people in your tribe. Anybody not in your tribe is an “other,” though you may be acquainted with some of them. That’s what a social network was like for our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Everybody worked. Women raised children in groups and men hunted and made tools. Gossip ran rampant; you couldn’t act like an asshole and get away with it. Everybody had to work together and stay in good rapport with everybody else. Wrongdoers who were perceived as a hazard to the rest of the tribe were either ex-communicated or murdered (perhaps either by tribe leaders or in a group activity such as stoning in which no one person has to take responsibility for having murdered the individual). Shirkers were probably not usually murdered, but dealt with through social pressure, humiliation, or perhaps even physical reprimand. Envy still existed, but jealousy may have not been as fiery because sex often occurred in groups and at least some early societies may have believed that babies came from the semen of every man who inseminated the woman rather than the semen of a single father. The concept of property surely existed, but the tribe was small enough that disputes were probably minimal, and tribe members likely had free reign over most of the tribe’s territory and beyond.
Hunter-gatherer society was not perfect; two big problems were starvation and violent confrontations. Eventually humans attempted to mitigate the risk of starvation by domesticating useful crops and animals, which inadvertently allowed human populations to explode. According to Yuval Noel Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the agricultural revolution was actually the biggest fraud in history because the success of a species has nothing to do with happiness of that species, just its ability to make copies of itself. The domestication of humans and livestock fated the majority of people to less social, more laborious, and less nourishing lives.
Along this journey, society lost the ability to “take care” of wrongdoers and freeloaders in the natural way that they did in tribal societies, thus institutions were born. Institutions are fictional entities that establish a worldview and a standard set of rules and impose them upon members. The earliest institutions were probably religious or political. They served as a “fix” for the wrongdoer and freeloader problems, because they made behavior and expectations explicit: “if you want to be part of this society, you need to do this, or the consequences will be that.” The creation of institutions made some people extremely wealthy, but left the majority more impoverished than their own hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Institutions aren’t all bad; they are kind of like wheat and cheese (the metaphor can be extended to any high-carbohydrate grain or processed food, I just find “wheat and cheese” more catchy and whimsical). Shortly after the dawn of agriculture, wheat and cheese became imbedded in human culture and critical for survival. We crave them, and after thousands of years, have grossly overestimated their necessity in the human diet. If you don’t believe me, check out the alleged perfect diet I learned about in elementary school. Sometimes we even have a physiological intolerance for wheat or cheese that goes undiagnosed for decades, because how could such delightful and benign staples of the human diet be to blame for stomach pain, fatigue, gas, or weight gain?
Our institutions fail right in front of our eyes, and we’re none the wiser. Have you ever shared a laugh with a colleague over the irony of how counterproductive a new policy is? Almost all of us have. That was the organizational equivalent of a digestion problem. Yet we still insist on the imagined order of institutions and fictional hierarchies because, well, we have for so long. Again, I’m not arguing that all hierarchies are bad. They are often highly productive and were for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but those are and were spontaneous hierarchies, not institutionalized ones. It’s when hierarchies become institutionalized that they are suddenly regarded as more sacred than their members and have the hazardous side-effect of tending towards tyranny.
By now, we’re all familiar with stories about how you can’t truly escape your past anymore because of the transparent nature of the Internet. Remember that in hunter-gatherer societies, freeloader and wrongdoer problems were managed by social pressure. So it’s not entirely a stretch to suggest that social media is putting us back into the Stone Age, at least in regards to our behavior being influenced by a fear of permanently ruining our own reputation. If that mechanism stays intact, and I think it will, the original purpose of institutions will become obsolete.
The theory behind the paleolithic diet is compelling and elegant: humans today are still adapted to the diet of their Paleolithic ancestors. Could the same go for our social structures? Is it possible that modern humans are restless and unhappy because we’re still socially programmed for hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Leaders Eat Last author Simon Sinek thinks so. He believes that most modern work environments are fueled by dopamine and cortisol highs, while hunter-gatherer life was powered by the nobler happy chemicals seretonin and oxytocin.
I propose proprietism as the closest thing we can have today to a “paleo system” without reverting back to Paleolithic life. A proprietist structure maximizes personal accountability and individualism while minimizing the possibility of too much bureaucracy and tyranny resulting from hierarchical structures. Proprietism also offers one more thing: proportional growth.
An institution is dangerous when its rules assert that its leaders are entitled to the totality of excess resources resulting from its growth. If you really think about that, it’s something that nearly all institutions do. That was the brunt of Louis Kelso’s argument for the invention of employee stock ownership (ESOP) companies. If I hire an employee who consistently contributes 10% of my company’s productivity, then that employee deserves for her 10% share to grow as the company grows, rather than watch it shrink down to 5% or less. We can be sure that our Paleolithic ancestors were probably not always fair to each other, but it’s hard to imagine them institutionalizing inequality when institutions did not yet exist.