Economy & Business

Caveman Says: ‘Yes, I Did Build This!’

(Gajus/Dreamstime)
England already was a nation of merchants 8,000 years ago.

‘Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive,” the little man insisted, in a pout. “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business: You didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” The little man had never created anything, and his intellectual virginity was intact, never having suffered the violation of an original thought. Even his nonsense was derivative, in this case lifted from another little someone of no special distinction: “You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.”

None of that is in fact true.

The truth is, that little man and that little woman — they are the marauding bands.

There is a line of argument shared by both our so-called liberals and the daft juvenile Marxist revanchists who do most of their thinking for them that goes like this: Traders and entrepreneurs do not thrive on their own — they can go about their business only because of actions taken by the State, and so they trade only at the sufferance of the State, and they keep their profits only to the extent that the State suffers them to do so. Without the State, the argument goes, they are nothing. When vapid poseurs such as Matt Breunig demand that we “repeal property,” that’s the assumption: that property rights themselves are a creation of the State, which may therefore alter or revoke them when the interests of the State demand it.

But there is a mystery in the bellies of ancient Britons: wheat. The seabed at Bouldnor Cliff, near the Isle of Wight, was dry land 8,000 years ago. It was, as National Geographic reports, occupied by hunter-gatherers who were not just hunter-gatherers: The area was the site of a boat-building facility. (Boat-builders are a friend to the entire human race.) In addition to the hazelnuts that they cooked — the ancient charred shells of which have been uncovered by archaeologists — these Mesolithic boat-builders also ate wheat, probably in the form of flour. This is strange, in that wheat cultivation was unknown in Britain at the time, the arrival of agriculture still being some thousands of years away. So, where did the wheat come from?

The answer is suggested by the stone tools the boat-builders used: Like the wheat they ate, they were thousands of years ahead of what was found in the rest of Britain at the time. (Again, by some 2,000 years: Imagine opening a previously unknown trapdoor in the tomb of Jesus and discovering an iPhone in the basement.) The ancient British boat-builders seemed to have known already what their descendants must begrudgingly admit: If you want industry, look to England, and if you want dinner, look to France. 

The wheat and the stone tools are very much like what was found across the water in France, where a Neolithic cultural group was well on its way toward producing the first baguette. (Neolithic sounds like it should always mean ancient and primitive, but the Neolithic people were ages ahead of their Mesolithic cousins across the channel.) The timeline, though obviously rough, is an interesting one: Wheat first came to be cultivated in the Fertile Crescent about 10,000 years ago. Within 2,000 years, it had made its way into the diets of the coastal boat-builders of ancient Britain — but it would take another 2,000 years before the rest of Britain started catching on. Why?

Trade. Free trade — glorious, unregulated, anarchic, Stone Age free trade enabling the massive division of labor that along with language is the most important thing separating human culture from chimpanzee culture.

“It immediately suggests that a sophisticated cultural interaction must have been going on,” Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick tells National Geographic. Allaby, a specialist in the study of the evolutionary genetics of plants, calls the discovery of wheat at the Bouldnor Cliff site “a massive surprise.” “We don’t normally think of Mesolithic people as being sophisticated enough to have interaction with the advancing farmers, but here we have them in possession of the products of Neolithic technology 2,000 years before we thought.”

That “sophisticated cultural interaction” is another way of saying “trade” — free trade that was well under way some 6,000 years before the writing of the Code of Hammurabi, long before there was anything like a government in Britain. Trade assumes something to trade — which is to say, it assumes property and property rights. That these should have existed long before the State — the central actor in the minds of the little men and women of the “You didn’t build that!” school of thought — is not an entirely new discovery. Other archaeological evidence has suggested that trade existed long before agriculture, cities and fixed settlements of any significance, or government as such. Those ancient boat-builders did not move their products to market on roads somebody else paid for, under the protection of professional police (the first modern police force, created in London, did not arrive until anno Domini 1829) or fire squads.

They also did not ask anyone’s permission.

If you think of a right as a purely legal thing, then of course it is only a creation of the State, and a creature of the State. But states do not create rights — they only codify them. (The American proposition is not a legal doctrine at all, but a theological one: “That all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”) There is an ancient tradition, one that runs from magic to mandarinism, holding that the one who names a thing is the master of that thing. This is the reason that in certain ancient societies people had public names for social use while their true names were a closely held family secret. Our magical thinkers and mandarins still believe that: that because the law recognizes property rights, lawmakers own ownership. They write the thing down, they know its true name, and they are therefore its master. A related assumption is that the unnamed, uncodified thing cannot be real. But surely bread in the belly is more real than any theory of law or any other abstraction. You do not need a Lockean theory of property, or even the American belief in divine investiture, to understand that trade, and therefore property, is older than the State and outside the State. That isn’t a question of philosophy, but a question of archaeology.

The bands of marauders did come, of course, and the biggest and orneriest and most cunning of them stayed until their longevity imbued their successors with an unearned glow of respectability. They call themselves “public servants” now, but the type is familiar enough: Every chimpanzee troupe has a boss, but only human beings have capitalism. Warren, Clinton, and the rest are lining up to be the new boss.

Who is lining up to be human?

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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