Brad DeLong has gotten into an argument over anthropology. Specifically, he is arguing with anthropologists over whether the introduction of steel axes was a good idea for a tribal culture and, more generally, over the disruptive effects of trade. Naturally, being an economist, he views trade favourably, and the arguments against globalization to imply the stultification of traditional cultures:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: In Deepest Anthropologia II: The Steel Axe Cuts Both Ways. Each individual steel axe was very useful to its possessor--on that all agree. But to the set of high-status older men as a group, the introduction of steel axes was not useful to them because they "no longer had a complete monopoly of all the axes." The result was a "revolutionary confusion of sex, age, and kinship roles." Why, even a woman could have an axe of her own! How shocking! How terrible!
Most of us would think that the fact that the coming of steel axes brings "a major gain in independence and loss of subordination" for the poorer members of the community would be a plus that makes steel axes more useful community, not a minus.
Even if we were to take the strictly materialist position of his arguments, I still see a major problem. It assumes that liberation brought from outside will remain such. As such, it reminds me in some ways of the arguments for the Iraq war: "Destroy Saddam, and Iraqis will have FREEDOM! and DEMOCRACY!" Alas, it doesn't appear to be working out that way.
Similarly, even if the introduction of steel axes were to displace patriarchal relations among indigenous peoples where axes were previously controlled by older men, you don't really know whether it will remain such, and what it will evolve into. For example, the maintenance of this behaviour requires inputs from outside (more steel axes). Otherwise there'd be a shortage of axes in the future---and one group would start to monopolize them. So the continuous introduction of axes implies dependence on the powers granting those axes. A new "patriarchal" relation. Precisely what anti-globalization forces have railed against in the wider debate!
OK, so you say that now you give these tribes the technology to produce the axes. Who controls the the technology then?
So what appears to be a plus in a very strict economic sense can actually be a major minus, or at least a major risk. I think that's the point that Brad DeLong's opponents have been making. He says:
- Fred and Deborah write: "...the problematics of the introduction of steel tools... welcomed by some and detested by others."
- Chris Lovell writes: "the axes were not adopted smoothly, and many members of the tribe viewed them with suspicion."
- I would have written: "High-status established males were pissed:
not only did women and youngsters no longer have to bow and scrape to
get permission to borrow axes, but the women and youngsters had better
axes that chopped faster."
Which of these three ways of putting it conveys more and more accurate information about the introduction of steel axes among the Yir Yoront?
I'm not convinced these are the same statement at all. 1 and 2 leave aside the possibility of (very common in real life) unintended consequences which DeLong-the-economist does not consider. (And I add a bit unkindly, seems ideologically incapable of considering.)
Now let me be a bit clear on this: I used to believe, I think fatuously, that technological development and liberation were orthogonal. But now I think that, for very simple and obvious reasons, you can't really have permanent, stable liberation without certain kinds of technological progress. The matter at hand, though, is how this technology is introduced. If it's introduced on someone else's schedule...then there are usually consequences.