Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Anthropological Conceptions of Economics

So, at breakfast, I was idly turning the pages of an introductory anthropology text being utilized by my brother this term. In a house populated by three university students, a professor, and a teacher, books are a common find. During term, I don't so much read books as browse through various ones.

Regardless, this anthropology textbook was, shall we say, quite poor. I think our profession has often wondered where the rest of the world obtains their economic insight. Sadly, for some reason, their anthropology texts are for some reason sneaking into the dismal science as early as p.50.

Let's examine some of the assertions made by this book. (Which, bizarrely, is not to be found on amazon.com or amazon.ca. You're going to have to trust me on this. Cultural Anthropology, 3rd Canadian Edition, Miller/Van Esterik/Van Esterik.)

1) Industrial society was a big mistake. It's apparently not sustainable in the long run. Agriculture gets upgraded to a "terrible mistake". "Non-intensive pastoralism" is a more sustainable - and get this - more efficient and productive!

Yes, I yearn for the days in Newfoundland when getting fruit during the winter was like Christmas and Easter balled together. Sounds super. (This was less than fifty years ago.) Anyone who thinks that society is too rich and needs to regress has mental issues.

2) Property rights detract from long-term sustainability. Groups use encourage communable property, or more formally, confer 'use rights' on everyone in the town/village/etc. This prevents the resource being destroyed from short-term profit-minded exploitation.

I'm pretty sure very few economists would agree with this. I believe it was even addressed in The Wealth of Nations. Nobody who owns their fields will run them to the ground - it just doesn't make economic sense. Common fields, however, are very prone to the so-called 'tragedy of the commons'.

3) Earlier modes of life, which the authors label 'horticulturalism, pastoralism, and foraging societies' - "have long term sustainability when not affected by encroachments from economic systems".

I am not aware that anyone suggests village life is somehow not an economic system. You cannot separate production of goods from economics. Period. Further, the only reason that we have traditionally seen long-term sustainability among older lifestyles is that most people died under those systems, and so the population never increased sufficiently to having to think about sustainability.

You know, I could keep going. There's a diatribe against free trade. There's complaints about income inequality, which are legitimate, but not when you argue they exist because of a deliberate conspiracy by richer nations against poorer ones. Etc. Etc, etc, etc, etc.

Perhaps most tellingly, the references to the chapter do not contain a single book that deals with economics as economists know it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is not the most widely used anthropology text, although as an anthropologist, I do not dispute your criticisms of the book and its apparent slant. However, I add that some economists have no compunctions about writing on pre-industrial economies without the slightest reference to archaeologists and anthropologists. Sometimes, when writing on deep history and non-western economies, they cite Jared Diamond, who is hardly an archaeologist/anthropologist. So, the lack of knowledge regarding broader literatures can bite both ways.