Over the course of human history, life has become increasingly complex and specialized. Back in the “cave man” days, life was…well, primitive, and in many ways simpler. The foraging style of society required two main components: food and shelter. There were two types of jobs when it came to getting food: either to hunt animals or to gather plants. Not too shabby. Now, this lifestyle may not have included fancy cars, iPhones, mansions, health care, or fine dining but that does not make it bad. Sure, humans may have not lived as long, and technology was limited to carved stone, but was it really that bad? You see, if us humans had not been exposed to the domestication of plants some 10,000 years ago, things may have stayed much as they had always been. And who knows, maybe we would have been a happier and more equal species today.
But alas, as far as society is concerned, we have been much too overexposed to agriculture, industry, and technology to go back. In the United States, we live in a society dominated by civil and political freedom. Distribution of wealth is unbelievably skewed to the point where the top 10% control 2/3rds of the wealth, while the bottom 90% only control a little over 1/4th. The majority of wealth is owned by an astounding few while the majority of people own little to nothing. All of this has been fostered directly by the freedoms found within civil society. Now does this seem good to you? I am not asking this question in terms of the individual but rather in terms of American society. In terms of the collective, of every person living in the United States, does the distribution of wealth and the social inequality that many experience as a result of it, seem good for all of us? In my opinion, the distribution is anything but equal.
18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that life was best when humans were literally in primitive times. He also believed that it was the foundation of civil society that had created chaos on Earth. Rousseau argued that people should give up all their civil liberties to the community. In many ways, Rousseau saw individuality as a vice, and private property as leading to inequality. His emphasis on everyone in society, really set him apart from earlier theorists. In Rousseau’s, The Basic Political Writings, he wrote on issues resulting from civil society and what he saw as the solution,
“For if some rights remained with private individuals, in the absence of any common superior who could decide between them and the public, each person would eventually claim to be his own judge in all things, since he is on some point his own judge. The state of nature would subsist and the association would necessarily become tyrannical or hollow. Finally, in giving himself to all, each person gives himself to no one.”
Here Rousseau suggests that by giving any civil liberties to “private individuals”, those individuals will want more civil liberties. In this passage, Rousseau illustrates the point of exposure. In other words, he is saying by exposing individuals to certain civil liberties, these individuals will want more civil liberties. In this way, Rousseau acknowledges that the exposure of power to individuals has already happened. Yet, he proposes that to improve life, we must give up all of our rights to the community. Does it not seem a little ironic that Rousseau is arguing that humans, already exposed to individual power, give up that power? If he believes we cannot go back to the heydays of foraging society, what makes him think we can act as if we had never been exposed to civil liberties? In my opinion, since we have already been exposed to individual power it would be hard for us to give up that power.
Do you think Rousseau’s proposal would ever work in our modern-day society? Why? Furthermore, if you had to choose between living in modern day society or society 10,000 years ago (the domestication of plants), which would you choose and why? Also keep in mind that if you choose society 10,000 years ago, you would not be exposed to luxuries of today’s society and would consider it the norm.