Ayn Rand, Pygmies, and Collectivism

In his recent article “Ayn Rand versus the Pygmies,” Slate’s Eric Michael Johnson attempts to show that individualism is incompatible with human nature by telling a story of the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo on a hunt.

The story unfolds as a group of pygmies are working together to chase some animals into traps they’ve built. But one man, Cephu, sets his trap up ahead of everybody else’s. When the animals land in his trap, he claims that the meat belongs entirely to him.

Johnson seems to think that this is the sort of selfishness Ayn Rand, or libertarians in general, would defend. And therefore, because Cephu’s tribe scolds and threatens to ostracize him until he mends his ways (and because that sort of economic arrangement was probably very common among humans 10,000 years ago) Ayn Rand is wrong, irrelevant, and ridiculous.

But instead it is Johnson who is wrong and irrelevant, because the behaviour of Cephu is quite clearly robbery.[1]

Homesteading on the Hunt

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the Mbuti were hunting just one animal, a wild pig — a difficult but delicious prey.

At some point, that pig was wandering wild in the forest. It was not the property of any human. It was unowned — “unhomesteaded,” as Austrolibertarians would say. Then, a small group of Mbuti hunters begins to exert their labor on the animal. They shout and beat the brush to herd that pig towards the nets they had set for it in the jungle. In this way, they were homesteading the animal — exerting ownership over it.

Similarly, you could become the owner of an apple by plucking it from a tree in the wild. If the apple were so big that it took two men to pull it down, and they agreed among themselves that they would each get half of the apple, then we might say they are each homesteading one half.

The hunting technique of “driving” game toward traps is a widespread and ancient human practice. But it cannot be done by a single man.

If one man on his own tried to drive a wild pig in this way, he might come at it from the south, for instance, but then the pig could still go north, east, west, or any direction in between. The Congolese jungle is a big, big place, and you can’t put traps everywhere. So a man needs a group of allies (we might say “business partners”) to close off the other piggy exits and drive it in a specific direction. And obviously, they won’t do that unless they get to share in the bacon.

So the little group of Mbuti hunters are homesteading the pig together. And, like all other hunter-gatherers, the Mbuti certainly have a system of rules for deciding who gets to eat how much of the animal when they catch it. It isn’t mere chaos. They have property laws.

Pygmies and other hunter-gatherers do not live in Platonic collectives, but neither do they live in Robinson Crusoe isolation. Instead, (and this is, I think, a good way to translate them into Western terms) they live in groups of interrelated family businesses. And Cephu is trying to embezzle assets.

Cephu decides that by adding his own trap in front of everybody else’s, he can catch and own the whole pig for himself, even though the group of men is homesteading the pig together, and even though he couldn’t possibly homestead that pig into a trap on his own.

Cephu is a thief. He rightly owns some cut of the ham, but he is robbing the other Mbuti of their portions of the meat.

Taxing and Sharing

Pigs and pygmies aside, what’s important here is the implication of Johnson’s article. Why did he write this piece? What is the point of attacking Ayn Rand with an anecdote about hunter-gatherers in the Congo?

Johnson’s purpose is to attack the rising liberty movement, which now more than any time in decades threatens to tarnish the respectability of collectivist ideas and government programs. He is writing in defense of state-centered collectivism.

In his article, the Mbuti hunters of the 20th century are supposed to stand in for the primitive condition of all human ancestors some millions of years ago, and their response to robbery is supposed to show that individualism and voluntarism are unnatural deviations from our primordial “altruism.”

And, it seems, Johnson thinks that voluntary Mbuti sharing and exchange is equivalent to compulsory government taxation and redistribution.

The implication, then, is clear: In Mbuti society, men work together to claim shared ownership of resources, and they use shaming and ostracism to punish anyone who deviates. Therefore, in our society, governments should claim public ownership of all resources, and they should use Tasers and Glocks to punish anyone who deviates.

Notice what threat the Mbuti make to Cephu. They don’t threaten to beat him, jail him, or steal his belongings. They say only, in effect, “If you don’t give back what you stole from us, we will reject you as a friend and business partner. We won’t help you or talk to you or trade with you.” In contrast, the law in Canada is “If you don’t pay your taxes, men with guns and handcuffs will put you in a cage.”

Cephu does not have to report to the IRS. He does not have to go to jail. He remains entirely free to go live on his own, in Galt’s Gulch if you will. He repents his error and gives back the food he stole only because he prefers the rewards of social cooperation over those of isolation. And well he should.

Indeed, in the once-stateless societies of hunter-gatherers, ostracism was often a sufficient method for punishing criminals and deviants.

Johnson implies that social ostracism is equivalent to state violence by pointing out that it is “a punishment nearly equivalent to a death sentence.”

But why does it mean death? Ostracism is death for Cephu for exactly the same reason that being shut out of society would be death for you or I. Imagine that every human on the planet so reviled you that they simply refused to interact with you. No one would sell you bread. No one would lend you shelter.

Unless you happen to be sitting on a lifetime supply of guns and gasoline and medicine and food, you would promptly die.

Ostracism is not equivalent to private murder or public execution. No one uses violence against you. They simply refuse all voluntary interactions with you.

Total ostracism means near-certain death simply because all humans must cooperate with their fellows in order to survive.

And because property laws are the necessary economic basis of that cooperation, the Mbuti are very wise to threaten a violator like Cephu with expulsion from the tribe.

Perhaps they are even wiser than those societies that habitually enthrone property violators as their supreme leaders.

“Collectivism”

Johnson writes to defend collectivism, but the meaning of “collectivism” for a voluntary society like the Mbuti is entirely different from the meaning of “collectivism” for a compulsory, state-centered society like the ones Ayn Rand decried.

Indeed, because all hunter-gatherers historically lived in face-to-face communities where the major obligations were to personal family members and friends and allies, and because those obligations were usually enforced by shaming but not by violence, one is tempted to suggest using some awkward term like “relationism” for their social order. We could reserve “collectivism” for the social disorder of total states that use the threat of violence to redistribute resources among anonymous masses.

But perhaps we should stick to plain language: Johnson’s assumption is the old socialist claim — property is theft, taxing is sharing (and ostracism is execution).

Yet the Mbuti do not live in some kind of pre-property Marxian utopia. They do have property, and methods of protecting it from aggressors, as all humans must in order to maintain the social cooperation we depend on to survive.


[1] I am indebted to the National Post’s Peter Foster for solidifying this insight in his delightful “Ayn Rand vs. the Intellectual Pygmies.”

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