The Long Journey to “More”

In the Musical “Oliver” the title urchin asks simply for “More”.  Over our long history the vast majority of humanity, having “More” than the bare basics of food, clothing and shelter was a dream.  Sometimes they didn’t even have even those and failed survive.  Anatomically modern homo sapiens  appeared in Africa  about 200,000 years ago. If we go by the introduction of The Big Bang Theory, we think mankind’s progress was  pretty straight line march from there.   Actually it wasn’t till 12,000 year ago that we got around to domesticating plants and animals to have agrarian societies.  It it is only in the last few centuries a good part of humanity has risen beyond subsistence.  Given the history of mankind, is this real and sustainable progress or just an aberration.  If we use as a baseline our earliest forebears we can determine what constitutes “More.”  Even though being blessed with a better brain and opposable thumbs, they spent their time much like the rest of the animal kingdom, finding food and  shelter, resting and procreating.  All they had to work with was their own physical abilities.  In order to actually have more required first of all was taking time from there basic pursuits and investing it thinking of new ways to improve and physically putting it into practice.  Better hunting and gathering tools and practices, fire, domesticating dogs and then other animals and finally agriculture to name some milestones on the way to “More”.

Unfortunately, it took enormous amounts of time to achieve to these breakthroughs.  Even though our ancestors had some tools 2.6 million years ago, it took another 800,000 years just to get to fire or 400 times the the birth of Christ to the present.  Given this timeline major innovation was a rare occurrence.  Even when it happened it often was lost and had to be reinvented again and again.  Just because something was discovered or invented in one place didn’t mean was duplicated elsewhere.  Innovation was hardly early on the path to more.

So how did our ancestors actually get “More”?  Procreation in hopes of increasing available labor was dicey at best.  You need “More” to raise more children.  A better option was to take it from someone else.  The strongest got the most food and directed others to what tasks needed to be done.  Whoever this was had the most of whatever leisure time was available. Greater access to mates would mean the dominate family would retain control.  Taking from a different clan, tribe or nation was even better.  You took their stuff and enslaved mature labor.  Think of the grand March from Aida or the Roman Triumphs.  Pharaohs or Consuls leading a parade of seized goods and slaves. The only thing wrong with this is that it was a near zero some game.  One could  observe that captives would offset inbreeding by expanding the gene pool but generally it’s you have more and they have less but overall there there isn’t  much “More”.

What early on actually resulted “More”?  What really increased peoples goods and well being?  The answer in a word is trade.  It seems that humanity has a “Let’s Make a Deal” gene. We’ve found evidence of exchange of obsidian and flint in the Stone Age.  One clan needs furs but has access to plenty of flint.  Another clan has access to more furs then it presently needs. They make a deal and both have increased their well being.  Overall then each has “More”.  If I can accumulate something I can get relatively cheap in time and labor and trade it  for what I don’t have or is difficult for me to produce, that improves my life.  I will actually actually have “More” and I’m going to live better.  Further trade was a spur to innovation.  The sluggish pace of innovation picked up with the increase in the volume of trade.  Black sea fishermen might have an abundance of fish but learning to salt them got them olive oil and wine from Crete.  Trading goods and services ultimately lead to specialization which lead to settled communities and trade centers.  The spread of written languages and math was advanced by the commercial need to describe goods and make tallies.  Bigger and better boats lead to more goods being exchanged.  Knowledge gained in one place was transferred along with trade goods.

While the pool of goods and services slowly grew, it is important to realize that the “more ” went to a minority of humanity.  Under the Pharaohs the vast majority of Egyptians were agrarian workers who lived relatively short lives just above subsistence.  They for the most part illiterate with little time for the contemplation of anything.  While those who facilitated trade initially had “more”, but a mostly hereditary upper class gained the lions share of any “more.” because they had the power of government.  Mainly they made the rules and had the means to enforce them.  Further they had control of whatever knowledge real or not that was available.  Religion was a major way to impose social order in a less repressive manner.  Again religion was dominated by the heredity upper class. The Traders or what we would now call the  entrepreneurial class in need of protection from those in power had to develop a symbiotic relationship with the ruling class. This meant a major transfer of the their “More” to the rulers.via taxes.  A small skilled artisan class was also able to get some distance above subsistence.  Think of the Pyramids.  The traders and the tradesmen made them possible, but the vast illiterate majority supplied the brute labor.

Now let’s skip ahead several thousand years to the turn of the 19th century, just after we in fact ratified our constitution.  The vast majority of the earth’s populous was still agrarian illiterates with relatively short life spans, living at subsistence.  In fact up to 80% of humanity lived in some form of bondage.  Whatever “More” we were able to achieve in all those years went to the same groups as we had in the ancient world.  But something was afoot that would change humanity and if we don’t understand the path of “More” we will never make the most of it.  We will in future posts try to make sense of “More” and how to maintain and expand on the current trend that is providing “More” for the vast majority of humanity.  This will entail a change in our economic thinking and maybe how society is organized.

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