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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: April 2017

1 - Introduction

Summary

Does it matter whether you're better off than your ancestors were 12,000 years ago (before the rise of sovereign states and the private property system)? Does it matter whether all of your fellow citizens are better off than the few peoples who still remain outside the authority of governments and landlords? Thousands of years ago, powerful people began imposing government and property institutions in parts of the world. The reach of these institutions has gradually expanded. Today they have authority over almost all of earth's land area and, therefore, also over almost all people. These institutions benefit many of us, maybe even most of us, but does it matter whether they benefit all of us? Does the justness of these institutions come into question, if—as currently constituted—they harm some of us? Would justice require reform of these institutions?

We all would like to think that this question is moot, because we'd like to think that everyone is better off. It might be tempting to think that everyone is obviously better off in contemporary capitalist states with their doubled life expectancy, their incredible productivity, their legal systems, and so on. But consider what you would have to know to verify that these achievements benefit everyone. You would need a deep understanding of how the most disadvantaged people in state society live. What is it really like to be the child of homeless people in the United States, to grow up in a shantytown in Brazil, or to work in a sweatshop in Southeast Asia? You would need a deep understanding of the life of people in small-scale stateless indigenous communities both of the modern era and of the distant past. What was it like to be a member of the Ju/'hoansi in the Kalahari in 1950 CE, the Inuit in the Arctic in 1500 CE, or the Clovis culture on the Great Plains in 12,000 BCE? This comparison cannot be obvious because it involves groups far from the everyday experience of most people who are likely to read this book.

Later chapters of this book present evidence that this seemingly obvious impression is mistaken. The least advantaged people in state society today are worse off than they could reasonably expect to be in a society with neither a state nor private resource ownership, not because life in stateless societies is great.