I often think that antismoking zealots see everybody as being primarily members of a society, which – like all societies – has rules and regulations, and which it is both their right and their duty to change if they see some benefit to society as a whole. We will, they say, all be healthier and more productive if smoking and drinking is banned, and everyone made to exercise.
But I’m very much an individualist, and I don’t first and foremost see myself as a member of society. Indeed, since I was effectively expelled from society by our current smoking ban, I feel much less a member of any society than I used to feel. I’ve become an outcast.
The way I see it, individual people form societies of one sort or other because they benefit individually from them. Societies are made up of bonds of trust between people, and when these bonds break, societies break down.
I thought about this quite a lot a few years ago using Idle Theory, which is my particular way of approaching these sorts of matters. I was wondering back then how bunch of individual nomadic hunter-gatherers came to form trading societies with rules and regulations. I’d like to briefly recapitulate the way I thought about it.
I started out assuming that an individual nomadic hunter-gatherer spent his life walking around in a large circle, picking plants and catching animals as he walked along. He didn’t eat just one thing, but several different types of food, which provided a balanced diet with enough energy and proteins and minerals and vitamins to stay healthy. To simplify matters, I reduced them to 6 different forms of food, which were abundantly available at one or other geographical point on a circle, and nowhere else. So at one place apples would be plentiful, and at another nuts would be abundant, and at another fish, and so on. My single nomad would go round and round this circle, and it would take him W hours to walk from one point on the circle to the next point, and it would take him G hours to collect (and eat) what he needed for that day when he got there. So it took him 6W + 6G hours to walk all the way round the circle, and gather and consume enough food for the day.
How busy or how idle he was depended on what W and G were. If W and G were half an hour each, it would take him 6 hours to collect all the food he needed. But if W and G were greater than 2 hours, it would take him more then 24 hours to collect all the food needed to sustain him for 24 hours, and he would gradually starve and die.
I then supposed that the first nomad (call him Romulus) was joined by a second nomad (Remus), and they both initially make their way around the circuit independently of each other, only encountering each other from time to time. And at some point, when they both realise they’re doing the same thing, it may occur to one of them that the task of gathering food might be lightened if they joined forces and shared the work between them. If, for example, each collected twice as much food as they usually did, and when they met they exchanged their extra food, they could both reduce walking and gathering time. So in the shorter time it took to walk half way round the circle (3W), they’d each spend twice as long gathering food (6G), exchanging their extra food whenever they met. As a result, instead of spending 6W + 6G hours each day gathering food, they’d each now only spend 3W + 6G hours. And if W and G were both half an hour, they’d only be busy 4.5 hours a day instead of 6 hours.
I then supposed that a third nomad showed up, and was persuaded to join their little band. Now, instead of spending 3W + 6G hours gathering food, they each spend only 2W + 6G (4 hours) going and collecting food to exchange with each other.
If another 3 nomads then show up, and included into their little ‘society’, each one might be assigned to go and collect enough food for 6 people form just one place, and return to a central camp. Now they’re each only busy getting food for 2W + 6G hours (4 hours) each day.
The larger this little society becomes, the less work that its members need to do. And so such little societies would welcome new members (and new members in the form of children as well). Although at some point it would be found that the benefits accruing from each new member were getting smaller and smaller.
And since this little trading society is more idle than any independent nomad, it would mean that the trading society would be more likely to survive a famine or drought or flood during which food became harder to collect than any lone nomad could manage.
The only downside to this society is that it requires people to agree to do whatever is necessary, and stick to their agreements. For example, they may agree to meet every day at some particular place and time, bringing the agreed amount of food to exchange. And this constraint might become very burdensome, even though everyone benefits from the arrangement. It’s not hard to imagine tempers fraying when people show up late, or not at all, or with only half the amount of food they were supposed to bring. It’s perhaps not too hard to imagine that penalties might be imposed on persistently indolent or untrustworthy individuals. Nor is it hard to imagine that some people might be expelled from society, to return to their former lone nomadic life – which very often might be a death sentence upon them.
And it’s perhaps not too hard to imagine that, as the number of members of society increases, some members of society (the elders) are called upon to adjudicate in disputes, and to impose penalties, and make all sorts of decisions about the allocation of labour among the members of society
So now we have a very simple little society, with a set of rights and duties (aka “laws”), and penalties for failing to perform these duties, and a little government of elders as well.
And now, to bring things full circle, let us suppose the governing elders decide to ban smoking and drinking and dancing. It is their right and their duty to decide the rules and regulations governing society, and they decide that everyone would be “better off” or “healthier” if these practices were prohibited. Can we use our little model of society to object to such laws?
I think that we can. For the only purpose of the original laws (“Bring the agreed amount of food each day to the required place at the required time”) was to ensure the smooth functioning of society in increasing the idleness (aka “freedom”) of all its members to do whatever they wanted (within the law). And if all they wanted to do in their idle hours was to drink and smoke and dance, the banning of these activities would amount to a loss of freedom rather than a gain in freedom. It was the whole purpose of the original society, formed by Romulus and Remus, that their combined efforts be directed towards increasing their idleness, and increasing their freedom.
There are good laws and bad laws. Good laws are ones that make life freer and easier for everyone, and bad laws are ones that make life harder. And it is not for the elders to determine whether people will be “better off” or “healthier” as a result of a smoking and drinking and dancing ban, because people can (and will) decide that for themselves.
My little model of a society, and how it came to be formed, sketched out in a few words, may be overly simplistic. But I think our own society works in much the same way. We all live easier and freer lives as a result of our mutual association. But along with these benefits, there are also costs. We also lose a little bit of freedom as members of society. We can’t do exactly what we like. But the benefits must outweigh the costs, because otherwise society will break down, and people will seek to escape from it. And this is best arranged by keeping the numbers of laws to the absolute bare minimum.
But in our time, legislators create more and more laws, governing every single detail of our lives. And these legislators believe they know what’s good for us, and pay no attention to our protests.