Does Law and Order Destroy Civilizations?
Why has greed become such an integral part of the human condition while other species have remained relatively aloof? What led to evolution of extreme greed in modern humans alone? Can it be one of the causes of the fall of civilizations throughout the world? What has kept the modern civilization relatively protected and stable? What steps can we take to strengthen the resilience of modern civilization?
The strange limitlessness of human greed and desires
We seem to be the only species who experience absolutely limitless greed and desires. Almost all human problems, both at individual and societal levels, emanate from this limitlessness of our desires and complete absence of any kind of long-term contentment.
Individually, almost all of us are deeply discontented with the state and quality of our lives. Even though our basic needs are more assured than at any other time in history, our secondary, tertiary and quaternary “needs” have taken their place.
Whereas a few centuries ago, large sections of population desired assurance of food, clothing and shelter, today large sections of population desire high speed, uninterrupted, 24x7 internet. And yet almost everyone is more discontented than ever. What could have been a setting for a futuristic dark comedy novel written a hundred years ago, has turned out to be true.
Even at the societal level, most of our problems including crime, corruption, environmental degradation, pollution, wars, poverty, etc., result directly or indirectly from the human capacity for limitless greed.
While some limited accumulation has been observed in some other species as well, like ants and bees, we humans take accumulation to an altogether another level. While other accumulating species save for a season or two, we keep accumulating at ever increasing rates even after we have had enough for a thousand generations.
This stark difference between humans and other species has always intrigued me.
Why is it that greed has become such an integral part of the human condition while other species have remained relatively aloof?
The evolution of greed
The answer to the greed conundrum is easy to find in the theory of evolution.
Given a mixed society of greedy, ambitious individuals, along with sacrificial, contented ones, it is reasonably clear that the greedy individuals will thrive, depriving the contented ones of resources. Thus the greediness trait will be selected and enhanced over thousands of generations.
Seen in this way, the pervasive flood of greed in the human society seems easy to explain. Most of us have a hard time controlling our greed and desires because we are children of the greediest of our ancestors, who snatched resources from their more egalitarian peers.
However, shouldn’t this also have happened in other species?
All the species currently living on Earth have gone through ~4 billion years of evolution. None of them were able to evolve extreme greed. Even in the case of humans, there is no evidence of extreme greed for the initial 300,000 years.
What is it then, that enabled Homo Sapiens to evolve extreme greed in the last few thousand years? When Homo Sapiens could evolve extreme greed within a couple of thousands of generations, what prevented other species from doing so?
The advent of money
One explanation that could be given for this discrepancy is that other species have not developed easy means of accumulation and storage of resources. This can also explain why humans did not develop extreme accumulative tendencies in the initial 300,000 years.
There is no doubt that the advent of money in the modern era has greatly facilitated insane accumulation of resources. This facilitation has greatly aggravated the problems caused by limitless greed.
However, money itself doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon of permanent discontentment observed in human beings.
For one, greed had devastated individuals and societies well before the advent and widespread usage of money. Indeed, during middle ages, the primary cause of breakdown of societies throughout the world was stark inequality resulting from greed. Furthermore, wars, which primarily result from individual and collective greed, have ravaged our people throughout ancient and medieval times.
Secondly, even though other species have not developed efficient ways to preserve resources, they do not seem to be over-accumulating even what is possible. For example, territorial animals do not aspire for limitless territories. Primates do not store fruits for weeks and nuts for months or even years. Indeed, almost all mammals, reptiles, insects and birds do not exhibit any significant storage of resources.
What is it then, that led to evolution of extreme greed in modern humans alone?
Law and order aids and abets greed…
One important reason for the rise of extreme greed in modern times seems to be the rise of the civilizations. Allow me to explain why I think so.
In prehistoric humans as well as in other species, a chance development of a trait related to manifestation of greed would have occurred every few generations. However, the greedy, accumulating individual would have faced hostility, animosity and raids from other individuals. The resulting physical and mental conflicts wouldn’t have allowed the greedy individual to benefit from the accumulated resources. Instead, the greedy individual would have been at a higher risk of injury and death from physical conflicts caused by raids on its stores.
This natural correction mechanism against extreme greed started failing with the advent of civilization and the resulting inculcation of respect for private property and general law and order.
With the establishment of law and order in societies, the individuals with greedy traits flourished because they could easily hold on to and take advantage of their stores. Their status in society as well as the resources at their disposal increased. They attracted more mates and could support more children with multiple partners. The survivability of their children also increased, both due to the resources at their disposal and the greediness trait they inherited. Thus, the greediness trait started manifesting in ever-increasing numbers of individuals with each generation.
…leading to fall of civilizations
A peculiar aspect of human history is the rise and fall of civilizations. Right from the most ancient civilizations of Indus valley in modern day India and Mesopotamia in modern day Iraq, to early medieval ones like the Greeks and the Romans, to late medieval ones like the Incas, the strange rapid degradation has always intrigued anthropologists and historians.
After all, one would expect a civilized society to build up on its social and political achievements. A civilized society tends to have more of just and fair social and economic transactions thus stimulating and promoting even more of fairness and justice. This should lead to strengthening of the social, economic and political structures of the civilization.
And yet, what has been strangely observed, over and over again, is that after a period of continuous advancement (as expected), there comes a time when the civilization goes into an inescapable degradation spiral, ending only with complete destruction of the civilization.
Why does this happen?
I believe that one of the important contributing factors to this peculiarity is the flourishing and spread of greediness that a civilized society inevitably brings along with itself.
With the establishment of general law and order, a civilized society loses the natural checks against extreme greed (namely isolation, hostility and even attacks by other individuals). This leads to greed getting selectively enhanced in each generation, leading to destruction of ethical and moral proclivities, which eventually results in fall of the civilization.
If so, what has kept the modern civilization relatively protected and stable?
The stability of modern civilization
Like all other times in human history, extreme greed has brought great hardships on humanity even in modern times. Colonialism, slavery, wars, financial meltdowns, pollution and climate change are only some of the major threats faced by the modern society, which were/are a direct result of our limitless greed.
However, the modern society, as a whole, has largely resisted existential threats to itself for many centuries. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be a impending threat to the continuity of our civilization, at least in the short term.
The modern society is one of the most stable in history. Even though the gap between rich and poor is ever increasing, we do not see widespread loot and plunder. Why is it so?
We try to investigate one of the important contributing factors in the video below.
A case for reasonably high taxation
We have seen that establishment of rule of law and respect for private property in a society can lead to selective enhancement of greed in the society. What can we do to mitigate this?
Obviously, restricting the widespreadness or strength of law and order would be foolish. We need to blunt the pointed head of the greed missile so that, limitless greed doesn’t remain supremely rewarding. How can we do that?
One way to do it would be having reasonably high taxation. Increasing rate of taxes, especially in the upper slabs would make extreme greed slightly less rewarding. Even though greed would still remain beneficial to the individual, some of those rewards could also be shared with the rest of the society (in the form of taxes).
The rate of social degradation because of flourishing of greed could thus be arrested.
Can you think of better systems and practices to ensure that limitless greed doesn’t absolutely thrive? Please do let me know. I would be glad to learn.