You Gotta Love This Stuff

In his article "Down With Primitivism: A Thorough Critique of Polanyi," Murray Rothbard first writes:

"Let us never forget that the existing primitive tribes are precisely the ones that didn't progress and remained in their primitive state. To infer from observing them that this is the way our ancestors behaved is nonsense and apt to be the reverse of the truth, for our ancestors presumably behaved in ways, which quickly advanced them beyond the primitive stage thousands of years ago. To scoff, therefore, at the idea that our ancestors among primitive tribes engaged in barter, and then in monetary exchange, etc., on the basis of the magic and games indulged in by present-day primitives, is a blunder of the highest order."

Rothbard is rejecting trying to figure out ancient hunter-gatherers by looking at how modern hunter-gatherers live. Now, that would seem to be one of the best ways to make progress here, and Rothbard's reason for rejecting seems capricious ("they are the ones that didn't advance" -- yeah, maybe because they live in the center of the Amazon rain forest, hey?), but let's grant him his point for a moment. What is Rothbard's alternative? He goes on to write:

"Secondly, the primitive's life is a life of almost constant terror. Terror of the world about him, which he does not and cannot understand, since he has not engaged in any sort of scientific, rational inquiry into its workings. We know what a thunderstorm is, and therefore do not fear it, and can take rational measures against lightning; the savage does not know, and therefore surmises that The God of the Thunder is displeased with him..."

You see, rather than doing the best you can by studying modern, primitive tribes, the right way to understand our roots is to just make up whatever shit you want off the top of your head, based on nothing at all!

Man, am I glad Rothbard cleared up that methodological confusion!


  1. I see you're vying for a paid position at the Mises Institute.

  2. The view that the life of modern "primitive" tribes can't be projected backwards to tell us about the culture of our distant ancestors is a commonplace in anthropology. Modern hunter-gatherers have just as long a past as we do; they aren't fossils of primitive stage of evolution. I'm very surprised to find this point challenged.

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