The Social Evolution of Markets

Socialists and other collectivists frequently argue that markets are inherently “inhumane” and “unjust,” among other things. Free-market advocates generally dismiss these claims on their face as inconsistent with reality and human nature. Collectivists then often respond by making ridiculous appeals to tribalism and defunct ancient societies. (ED: Why did these societies fail?) Repeat, repeat, repeat.

A new study (subscription required) published in Science aims to shed light on this issue, and the authors come to a surprising (for some) conclusion: human society evolved to foster the sort of anonymous trust characterizing market interactions, and that this in turn enforces a standard of equity. Until about 10,000 years ago, human beings were organized in familial units or tribal societies where members were protected and cared for, but outsiders violently shunned. Treating non-kin badly was not just a common practice; it was necessary in order to sustain the primitive social order. Odds are that the outsiders were gunning for you just as much as you were gunning for them.

The researchers found that adopting markets and setting a wider playing field, so to speak, based on shared ground rules was vastly more successful than the tribal system, and it spread fast. Once people discovered mutually beneficial trade with strangers was possible, they tossed aside their previous norms because kin- or tribe-based social interactions were incredibly limiting. And because everyone shared a common set of basic values (reinforced by the spread of global religions and population growth), fairness as defined by the society increased.

This gradual process continues to this day, say the authors, which will likely lead to a more complex, yet still fairer society in the future.