What is Civilization?

What is civilization? What is it that separates humans from the animals, and more civilized humans from the less civilized ones? The artist will tell you that civilization is the capacity to produce art. The scientist will tell you that civilization is a society that can contemplate its own existence. The engineer will tell you that civilization is the ability to build newer and greater technologies that improve the human condition. The businessman will tell you that civilization is the organization of labor to generate products in efficient ways. So who is right? Are any of them actually wrong? Is civilization just a conglomeration of different skills that all happened to be developed in humans, just because we’re smart or special or whatnot?

The property of being civilized doesn’t come from these attributes. Rather, these attributes all come from a root cause- some root “specialness.” So between all of these special abilities, what is the common thread? What do we really mean when we call one person civilized and another uncivilized?

After observing ancient artifacts in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan today, it became pretty clear that the beginnings of civilization are recognized in the ability to produce and preserve things that take a great amount of time and effort. Using a stick as a tool to harvest termites is intelligent, but it’s not necessarily civilized. But the technique of identifying specific ores or clays, skillfully shaping them into useful vessels, taking the time to decorate them with designs, and baking them in furnaces specifically designed for that purpose? Now that’s civilization. Making a profession out of cutting elaborate jade idols by rubbing stone down with nothing more than sticks and string? Now that’s civilization. Cultivating farms of wheat or rice to trade for other goods? Now that’s civilization. The common theme here is clearly the organized or systematic production of value using human ingenuity. But why did some societies develop these capacities while others remained less “civilized?” Why did humans develop these capacities while other animals did not? Is it all just chance?

If you spent hours, days, or weeks of your short, neolithic life making a decorated ceramic vessel for storing grain (instead of spending that time seeking more food), and then someone else came along and took it (or smashed it), how likely would you be to make another one? If you spent days designing and building a furnace to cast metals, and then someone else immediately decided they were going to take it over, would you bother trying again, or would you return your focus to day-to-day survival? Without the ability to protect your own creations from destruction or theft, creativity is pretty pointless. We cannot have cultural or technological innovation unless the fruits of those labors are protected for the creator’s use. In other words, property rights are a fundamental component of civilization.

With the protection of property rights, there is a major evolutionary advantage to developing skills besides those necessary for basic survival. You can create tools to make survival easier. You can create decorative objects of great value that you can trade for the means to survive. You can specialize your labor and accumulate property with the certainty that you are not leaving yourself at a disadvantage against those who simply take what they want. When the protection of property rights fails (or never existed) societies fail to develop because there is no evolutionary advantage to creating anything of value. When value is ephemeral, putting time and effort into seeking it will just leave you at a disadvantage in the animalistic struggle for survival. Hence, no species or society that fails to recognize any form of property rights will ever evolve the capacity to develop culture, technology, or infrastructure. Meanwhile, any species or society that simply develops the means to recognize and protect property rights will grow, diversify, innovate, and prosper. The better the protection of property rights, the faster that civilized development will occur.

The earliest form of property rights that humans developed was a very centralized, authoritarian version of it. The leader of the tribe, or clan, or empire decides who gets what, and resolves all property disputes through binding judgements. Rather than engaging in a pure “might makes right” formula, these early civilizations operated by the rules of, “might makes leadership, leadership assigns rights to everyone else.” This certainly wasn’t the pinnacle of civilization, but it does allow for some forms of property rights to be assigned to some classes of people, providing a slight elevation of civilization above the purely animalistic realm. The warlord unifies a large region, preventing (or at least trying to prevent) other warlords from rising up and taking whatever they want. If only one person can steal from you, your property is still safer than when anyone can steal from you. So the artisans are free to practice their crafts in relative safety, offering their products to the warlord in exchange for the means of survival.

Several societies eventually grew tired of living only in service to kings and emperors. Decentralization of control over the arts in Ming Dynasty China led to a massive diversification of styles (in literature, painting, ceramics, etc.), within a larger shift to a prosperous market-based economy. The Magna Carta in 13th century England laid the constitutional foundations for the culturally and economically prolific British Empire. Allowing people other than the central leader to have consistent rights protecting their property allowed many more people to produce creative works without fearing the loss of their labors to the whims of the ruling class. Through market capitalism, artisans could also finance their works without imperial subsidies.

Of course, this protection of property rights was not complete. It took about half a century for a conscious philosophy of individual liberty to be hashed out. Implementation of liberty was attempted through the American Revolution in the 18th century. The spread of property rights to democratic majorities again produced an economic and cultural revolution that reshaped the societal structure of the entire world. Suddenly, diverse products became available to most people, and nearly anyone could become an artisan and express their creativity in exchange for the means of survival. But the democratic system meant to produce this liberty was imperfect, still allowing elected majorities to have the power to infringe on property rights, even continuing the practice of enslaving certain classes of people for decades. The populist philosophies of communism, socialism, and fascism arose, questioning the value of property rights to the lower-skilled classes. These philosophies of majoritarian rule reverted entire countries to the uncivilized practice of predatory survival. This time, however, it was majorities preying on a small number of productive people, rather than the ancient practice of an elite minority leeching off of the labors of the masses. This has inevitably restrained the creative potential inherent to humanity by encouraging survival by dependency, while making it more difficult to navigate the regulations that still control the productive arts.

So this is where we are now. We, as a humans, have not yet progressed to the point of implementing the entirely non-predatory system that would mark a fully-civilized society. But of course, that isn’t for lack of inspiration. Libertarianism is a philosophy which extends property rights to all aspects of human endeavor, and renders them inviolable. Defined in terms that span the history of civilization, Libertarianism is a system where, if you make a bowl, you (not an emperor, not an elite class, not a majority) get to decide what to do with that bowl, but you can’t force someone to do what you want with their own bowl. Implementation of this philosophy globally would complete the transition to civilized coexistence from predatory animalism. But therein lies the challenge. The idea exists, so why has it not yet been implemented?

The entire political history of humanity can be characterized as a gradual progression towards increasing levels of civilization. We, as a species, have made remarkable progress across the millennia. Yet, this progress has been intermittent, inconsistent, and slow. But what has changed about humans that has allowed this progress to occur? From the establishment of non-family governments, to the extension of property rights beyond the ruling family took thousands of years. From the formalization of individual rights to the first explicit attempt at their implementation took hundreds of years. Will the implementation of Libertarianism only take tens of years from the moment it was first fully defined as a philosophy? To reach that level of civilization, do we need to evolve intellectually, culturally, or biologically? Is the fact that I and others are writing pieces like this a hint that we may be on the brink of that transition towards greater civilization?