Liberalism is not 300 years old; it was born 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture.by Paul Seabright / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
How old is political liberalism? Here is a surprising answer: it is not a few hundred years old, but 10,000 years old. And this answer matters because it affects our ability to see liberalism as capable of addressing some of the deepest anxieties of modern society. Can we live together with those of different cultures? Can we argue instead of fight?
Most accounts of liberalism date its origins to between 500 and 300 years ago. Five hundred years ago, Europeans were discovering the new world and Protestantism was being born. Just over 300 years ago, between 1689 and 1692, John Locke published his Two Treatises of Government and his three Letters on Toleration. In between, much had happened: the English civil war; its European counterpart, the thirty years’ war; and the beginnings of capitalism. Historians have argued about the precise nature of the furnace in which liberalism was forged, but most agree that it is a product of the modern capitalist Christian west.
Here is an alternative story. Liberalism is not about how to live as a western capitalist Protestant. Its roots are to be found not in capitalism but in agriculture, in that remarkable 10,000-year-old revolution that led modern man, independently in many different parts of the world, to give up the hunting and gathering life and to found farms, villages and eventually cities. That change had a radical consequence: human beings had to learn to live and to trade with strangers for the first time. By an intriguing paradox, globalisation began when man became sedentary – for settled communities cannot hope to avoid all contact with outsiders by melting into the forest. Instead they must think systematically about defence, trade, immigration, and the division of labour on more than a local scale. This was a momentous departure: prehistoric man had lived in groups of kin or at least among familiar faces. The habits of mind and the forms of behaviour that farmers had to learn are the foundations of liberalism, and they are what we need to reaffirm today if we are to share the world with strangers without tearing ourselves apart.
Philosophers of liberalism such as Voltaire and Hume were just codifying solutions which had enabled people to deal with strangers for thousands of years. This account of the history of liberalism differs from the orthodox one by stressing the cosmopolitanism of the ancient world. The…