Geography as Causal in Societal Ascendance: An Austrian Retrospective on Diamond

By Brätland, John | Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Geography as Causal in Societal Ascendance: An Austrian Retrospective on Diamond


Brätland, John, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics


ABSTRACT: In his 1997 book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond attributes the ascendancy and triumphs of certain societies to geographical and environmental advantages. But given the conditions of geography and environment, Diamond advances the misguided view that societal ascent is principally contingent upon success in centralizing management of resources. Diamond largely ignores the institutions critical to formation and ascent of a society: (1) private property rights and (2) monetary exchange leading to specialization and division of labor. Diamond fails to understand the fact that these institutions necessarily imply that society cannot be viewed as an acting entity independently of the actions of individual, goal-oriented human beings. Private property and monetary exchange allow individuals to rationally reckon economic scarcity and the marginal private worth of alternative plans for serving the current and future needs of others.

I. INTRODUCTION

In his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Professor Jared Diamond argues that geography and environment are the "ultimate determinants" of the fates of societies.1 The book can be described as focusing the on fields of environmental geography and geographical anthropology. The book explores the ascendancy of certain cultures and their dominance over competing societies. For Diamond, the broad pattern of history can be understood and explained within the context of geographical and environmental circumstances facing societies.

This paper examines Jared Diamond's success in explaining the broad pattern of history within the context of geographical and environmental considerations. While Diamond addresses many disciplines in his 1997 book, this paper will focus on Diamond's disregard of purposedriven human action of individual human beings, property rights, and the institutions that foster specialization and cooperative exchange- these institutions being principally money and monetary exchange. Diamond's failure can be attributed to a vane attempt to attribute major social developments to geographic and environmental factors. In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond concludes that new technologies emerge randomly across continents. He further asserts that successful societies are so called complex societies, which in his view, must be centrally organized and centrally managed.

But Diamond's focus on geographical and environmental considerations leads him to essentially minimize or ignore (1) private property rights, and (2) human action leading to specialization and institutions of cooperative and calculative monetary exchange. Monetary exchange refers to the decision-making ability afforded individuals by being able to use market prices. In particular, individuals can make rational choices between consuming or providing for the future by saving. Without both private property and monetary exchange, members of primitive societies have no means by which to place a marginal net worth on alternative actions necessary to replenish and maintain their personal resource base. Hence, primitive societies tend to remain primitive.

In largely ignoring these institutions, he finds it possible to believe that social interdependence sets the stage for conflict and, hence, reveals the need for a highly centralized governmental order. Diamond is prompted to attach excessive importance to political unification in the formation of society. His neglect of the aforementioned institutions reveals his ignorance of the nature of society and the processes by which societies are formed. For example, mutually-beneficial market exchange conducted in money allows individuals to arrive at a rational reckoning of both scarcity and capital. Hence, money is not only a critically important calculational institution, but in conjunction with private property, allays interpersonal conflict, fosters cooperation, and establishes the foundations of society itself.

II. GEOGRAPHY'S ROLE IN SOCIETAL SUCCESS AND ITS LINK TO INNOVATION AND INVENTIVENESS

Jared Diamond is largely a geographic determinist.

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