Widerquist and McCall, Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy

Karl Widerquist and Grant S. McCall, Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy, Edinburgh University Press, 2017. This book can be downloaded free here.

This book, by a philosopher and an anthropologist, has an agenda: to debunk the idea that everyone is better off in societies with state institutions and private property than they would be in stateless societies and without private property rights. The point is constantly made that such a claim requires empirical evidence, and it is to the task of evaluating the evidence that the authors commit themselves.

Following an introductory chapter, chapter 2 explores the ideas and methods in political philosophy and anthropology on which the rest of the book is based; and chapter 3 discusses modern social contract theory and Hobbes’ contribution to it: the idea that without a governing authority, societies ‘in the state of nature’ are anarchic and violent: so society’s members grant authority to governing institutions in order to reduce the risk to their lives. The authors define ‘contractarianism’ as ‘theories justifying government sovereignty with a contract device involving a comparison between the state and the state of nature’ (p. 28). By the end of the book they find such theories to be insufficiently evidence-based.

Chapter 4 finds Locke using similar presuppositions to support property rights; the following three chapters find similar ideas in circulation during the last three hundred years; chapter 8 finds anthropologists abandoning the Hobbesian hypothesis; chapter 9 finds stateless environments to be not necessarily intolerably violent; chapter 10 employs anthropological and archaeological evidence to cast doubt on Hobbes’ hypothesis; and chapter 11 finds private property and the state to be unjust unless they mitigate the harm that they do to the least advantaged members of society. The authors propose that we should take Hobbes’ and Locke’s hypothesis not as a statement of fact – that everyone is better off in a society with state and private ownership institutions – but as a promise and a task: that everyone will be better off in a society with state and private ownership institutions. They propose a Basic Income to ensure that this will be the case (pp. 243-4).

The reader will need to cope with some complex philosophical ideas, but the effort will be worth it. It is always worthwhile to see deeply embedded presuppositions questioned on the basis that there is little evidence for them.