Intro. [Recording date: May 25th, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is May 25th, 2021, and my guest is journalist and author Sebastian Junger. His latest book is called Freedom, which is our topic for today. He was last here in December of 2018 talking about his book, Tribe. Sebastian, welcome back to EconTalk.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back talking to you.
Russ Roberts: This book is an extended meditation, I would say, on what it means to be free. It's a strange book. It's a wonderful book. It's very short--one of my favorite things. Its context is a very long walk that you took, maybe 400 miles, with some other folks. Talk about just the origins of that trip and what happened.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. I took a couple of guys that I knew in combat in Afghanistan and another combat photographer, who was with one of my best friends when he died in Libya during the civil war--he was holding his hand. And, I got to be very good friends with this guy. His name is Guillermo. And, what I proposed is that we get to know the country and each other and ourselves by the tried and true method of walking. And, we decided to walk--no, we didn't decide, I told them what we were doing is walking up the railroad lines from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, and instead of going to New York as I'd planned, we swung west and headed for Pittsburgh.
The railroad lines are this sort of weird, quasi-lawless swathe of No Man's Land that is just about completely unscrutinized by society. It is all private. I mean, it's owned by the railroad companies. So, there's a lot of underbrush, there's a lot of abandoned buildings where you can sleep. We slept under bridges; we got our water out of creeks; and there was a lot marginal characters out there like ourselves.
And we were doing what we called high-speed vagrancy. We were basically vagrants, but we were moving very fast: 10, 15, 20 miles a day. Once we did 40 in 40--40 miles in 40 hours. And we're carrying 60 or 70 pounds. So, a 40 in 40 carrying 60 pounds will break your body. I mean, it wrecked us, but we got there.
What we were trying to do--the railroad lines, they see America from the inside out. They go right through the center of everything--the ghettos, the farms, the cornfields, the rich suburbs. We were exposed to every aspect of American society--and I think every aspect of ourselves as people.
Russ Roberts: I love that phrase, 'high-speed vagrancy.' You don't talk much in the book about yourself. There's one moment at the end of the trip where you break down a little bit: You've got some feet issues and you say, 'It's time to go back to life,' and you do, but you do not reflect. You do not share with the reader many of your thoughts on what it was like to spend an extended period of time with a small group of people on a peculiar mission that you kind of created out of thin air. What was that like?
Sebastian Junger: Well, yeah, I explain how to build a fire in the rain and how to hide from the cops. The cops had a helicopter looking for us at one point. Some guy started shooting at us in Pennsylvania. And so, what I said was--when that happened, for example, the bullets were going over our heads. We'd all been in combat. It had a predictable reaction in us. And, I said, one of us grabbed the machete and tried to circle around the shooter and come up behind him. I don't say who it was because it doesn't matter: What I didn't want was to the focus of this story be us as individual people.
As a journalist, I firmly believe that you are not the point. Sometimes your personal experience can illuminate something true and broader, but I didn't want us to become the central characters in this. America is the cental character and freedom is the central character.
And, I should say: Freedom is a misused word. It's been bastardized in the political conversation, dragooned into service for all kinds of nefarious purposes. Like, I could go on about how the word is misused. What I wanted to do was actually have a real conversation about what it really means.
And, it is not--just to get this out of the way--some people will be disappointed by this and some people will be happy I'm saying this: I'm not talking about metaphysical freedom. This is not a meditative or philosophical inquiry. It really is about as animals. Humans are animals. We're social primates. What allows us to remain free of the control of a more powerful person or a society, that's what freedom really means.
And, it's accomplished through three primary tactics: either you run away, or you outfight them, or you outthink them. We can get to it later, but my book is divided into Run, Fight, and Think.
Russ Roberts: But you're not going to reflect on the personal part of it now, even outside the book? Do you want to say anything about what it was like?
Sebastian Junger: Oh, I'm sorry.
Russ Roberts: That's okay--I'm just giving you a hard time.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, no, no, sometimes I lose my focus, right? Because these ideas are really interesting to me; my own personal experience is less interesting.
But, I think I actually do make it clear in the book that the experience was physically, again at the animal level, it was brutally hard. It was very cold in the winter. In the summer we were walking through a 110-degree heat index with 70 pounds. One guy started to pass out; another one of us had to take his pack, so then they were doubly loaded. Physically, it was really, really hard.
And, I do also talk a little bit about what it feels like to be interconnected and inter-reliant on a small number of people existing in a place, and I would argue, in a universe that doesn't care what happens to you--what that feels like. It feels extremely good, it feels very reassuring. I feel like--I was sleeping under a graffiti-covered bridge on the side of the railroad tracks somewhere in Delaware with my brothers and my dog--I feel like I felt more secure, more metaphysically safe than in my nice, comfortable bedroom back home. I mean, that's the irony of hardship: is it sometimes creates a situation that actually feels safer than what we call safety.
Russ Roberts: You mentioned the machete. The machete. That was your only, I think, tool for defense. Is that correct? You had no guns, is that right?
Sebastian Junger: No, we had no guns. We had my faithful dog Daisy, a 50-pound mixed breed, very sweet, a very, very sweet girl; but from the outside I think she looked kind of scary to some people. I had some bear spray that's--like, how old is it now? Fifteen years old? I don't even know if it still works, but we had it. And we each had knife; and then there was a machete that we kept as I say in the book somewhere central: we all knew where it was.
We had precautions at night. We slept with the things that we would need on us so that we could just get out of our sleeping bags, dive our feet into our boots, and run away in the darkness, and we'd be all right. I had a headlamp around my neck as a kind of necklace; I had map in my back pocket; I slept dressed. You know, whatever. We slept with the stuff we could have gotten by with if need be, which meant we wouldn't have to put up a fight at our camp site if we were somehow attacked or if the police came.
Russ Roberts: Did you have a goal besides--or any kind of goal? Or was it just an experience? You wanted to get to a certain place maybe, but did you have some kind of--something you wanted to achieve, experience? Or was it just a walk with your buddies?
Sebastian Junger: The point of the experience was to have the experience. I didn't know I was going to use this material in a book. Because I'm a writer, I kept notebooks, and at the end of every day when the guys would go to sleep, I would sit there with Daisy and I would sort of write down my thoughts, my memories of that day. Sometimes during a break in the walking--we tried to take a 5- or 10-minute break every hour--so sometimes I'd use the breaks to write things down. But I didn't think I would use it for anything.
But, in a deeper sense, which is I think what you mean: No, I didn't think that there would be some kind of, like, utility to this in an overt way. I wanted to have the experience of walking through America and watching myself adapt and watching what happened with my buddies, with my brothers out there. Beyond that, it didn't seem like, 'Oh, if I do this, I'll be released from my psychic pain and will be able to move on in my life.'
I was in the middle of getting a divorce. I don't talk about it, obviously, in my book because I didn't talk about it during the trip. One of the other guys--there was four of us and one of the other guys was in the middle of getting a divorce, too; and in both cases from women that we each really, really loved and cared about. But the marriages just weren't working. And, it may say something about us individually or about men in general--I don't know--but neither one of us who was getting divorced mentioned it, although everyone knew. And neither of the other guys brought it up--and--for 400 miles, right? Over the course of a year. So, it's not in the book because it wasn't in your trip.
At the very end, I felt it did become part of the trip in the sense that I got to this stopping point--and you don't know your stopping point until you arrive, really, I think. And, all of a sudden we were sitting in Connellsville and it was a brutally hot day. We'd been walking for days in this incredible heat. We'd basically boiled out feet in our boots; and it's awful what happens to your skin and tissue in high heat when you're walking like that with a heavy weight.
And, we limped into Connellsville; and Connellsville is very, very poor. It used to be, like, a pretty prosperous industrial town when the steel mills were running. And, no longer. It's so poor that people don't even have backyard swimming pools. They bathe--they take off the heat downtown in the river that flows right through the industrial heart of Connellsville. They sort of wade into river with all these old factories and old bridges around them--they wade into the river to get cool--and it's so ancient.
So, that's where we were--with the people of Connellsville trying to get away from the heat. And, my feet didn't work, and I just thought, all of a sudden I realized, 'Oh, this is the end of the trip.' Like, 'I don't need to go further. It's probably not good to go further. Now the new trip begins, which is returning to my life and resolving some of the issues that have arisen in the last years.'
And I did. I remarried, I have two beautiful little girls age four and age one-and-a-half. I don't know if that walk was part of it, but something landed me here in a very good place.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it was like a deep breath, kind of cool.
Russ Roberts: I'm writing a book on decision-making and recently wrote the following line: 'Grit and perseverance are overrated.' Obviously, they can be underrated at times, but there is a sense in which I think we're taught as children by our parents: 'Don't give up. Never give up.' I think that's really bad advice as a rule. There are many things you should give up and change and start over, and say, 'It's time to move on.'
But, I'm curious, when you started on your trip, did you have an idea of when you would stop it?
Sebastian Junger: We had the vague idea of going to Pittsburgh and to going specifically to a place called Jumonville Glen, which was about 15 miles outside of Connellsville up in the hills. It was basically a seminal battle that very few people remember or are aware of. George Washington was a 21 year-old lieutenant, and he led a militia force into the wilderness to confront a French patrol led by an officer named Jumonville. And he had some Seneca with him--Washington had some Seneca with him--were basically his trackers and his scouts; and they led Washington and his men to Jumonville's encampment underneath this little cliff outside Connellsville.
And, they ambushed the French at dawn and the French surrendered after some casualties. And, while they were negotiating, one of the Seneca, a war leader named the Half King--Tanaghrisson was his native name; he was known as the Half King--he ran forward and buried his hatchet in the back of the Frenchman's skull because the French had killed his father.
And, that precipitated a diplomatic disaster. The French sent reinforcements to Western Pennsylvania, which precipitated the English to do the same thing. It culminated in Braddock's Defeat--this infamous military catastrophe for the British in the Pennsylvania wilderness. And that eventually turned into the Seven Years' War, the French and Indian War, which the British won. And, had they not won it and had the war not happened, the colonists probably would not have dared rebel against the English government, because the French were right on their doorstep. Well, that war got rid of the French on their doorstep.
So, a lot of things happened from this unknown spot in this little clearing below a cliff in the woods in Pennsylvania. And, it's some kind of state park or something. And, we wanted to sleep there. We wanted to creep in at night, just like Washington had done, and lay out our sleeping bags and go to sleep in Jumonville Glen and then get out of there before they opened the park up. You know, it's possible no one has slept there, literally, since the French in 1756, I think it was--or 1754. 1754.
And, there I am on the banks of the Youghiogheny River with my feet just in shreds and all of the men just brutally tired. I mean, we were a mess. And I just thought, 'You know what? We don't need to do that.' That was the thing we were headed for; but you don't need to arrive at the place you're headed as long as you make your way in that direction in such a way that's healthy and strengthening and illuminating.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We're going to talk about freedom in a minute, for those of you listening at home, but last question about this--I was going to say ordeal--but obviously it was, like many things that are difficult, there was I'm sure an exhilarating component. Were there rules for the group? I know there were. Talk out what they were.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. I mean, everyone had to participate in the tasks that had to be done to get us through every day. You had to walk. You couldn't just sit down and say, 'I'm tired now.' I don't care if you're tired. I mean, if your body's still functioning, you have to keep walking. And, if you want me to take your pack, I'll take your pack, but you don't have the right to be tired out here because we're all depending on you.
And, there was some importance to that: the police were looking for us; there were some definitely bad characters in some areas; the trains were a dangerous environment. We had to stay, like, squared away--in every military sense--like a functioning unit. We needed to pump clean water so we could drink. We had to cook our food, gather fire wood. If it was going to rain, we had a cheap tarp that we'd string up: we'd sleep under the tarp. We had to get all this stuff done: we had to be on the lookout for people that might hurt us or arrest us. It wasn't outrageously hard, but it took a lot of coordination. And, no one had the choice to say, 'No, I don't think so. I don't feel like it.' That was just not one of the options. If you did that you weren't part of our group: you were something else.
Russ Roberts: What proportion of the waking hours were spent in silence, would you say?
Sebastian Junger: Oh, God: Um, 90%?
Russ Roberts: Just--that's what I figured. Okay.
Sebastian Junger: So, something like that. But not that we weren't in unison, though. I mean, one of things I talk about is cadence. And, there's this odd thing that can happen when you're walking either by yourself or in a group, where your body--you're tired at first and then your body kind of gets into a rhythm, and then it gets into a, like, super-rhythm. And, when you're in that state, particularly with some other people, you feel carried along by the unity of the group. It doesn't even feel like you're walking. And, we had 70 pounds on our back. Like, standing up was hard; forget about walking. And, you know you're in that state when--I mean, no one's really talking. You're just digging your body in, right? It feels so good to be alive and moving and watch your body do this thing: unstoppable.
And, I know I was in that state and it was a blessing because the alternative is to have to sort of--it's a small effort, a small decision to make each step. And that's exhausting. And you can do it, but it's not a good, easy way to go.
So, when you get, you fall into cadence like that, continuing to walk felt easier than stopping. When you didn't felt like, when you didn't feel like stopping because that looked harder than continuing to walk, you're in cadence. You're Superman. And that can take you for miles and miles and miles. That's a form of communication, right? It's just not verbal.
Russ Roberts: Oh yeah. My friends don't--and listeners may find this hard to believe--but when I was 22, I ran the Chicago Marathon--
Sebastian Junger: Whoa!--
Russ Roberts: And I ran it as a--I did a 10-minute per mile pace. And I kept it religiously, not because I meant to. It's just what happened. I knew I could keep a 10-minute mile pace.
And then, there's a point where what you're talking about happens where--first of all you're totally in tune with your body because I'm listening. I'm paying attention the whole time, waiting for something to go wrong. All of my sensors are on.
And, a sort of, as you mention in the book, a hypnotic thing happens where you're in some kind of altered state. You mention the hypnotic nature of it, it's a bit trans-like. And you realize 'I could do this forever.'
Now, it's not true. But, you feel like you can and as you say, you're buoyed along and time no longer passes the way it does in normal life. You're not going, 'Oh, how much longer till the next water station?' You just go. Sweet thing, very sweet thing.
Sebastian Junger: It's amazing and it's a very common experience. And so clearly mobility was very important in our human evolution. And if we could insulate ourselves from the effort of mobility, so much the better, because the first thing that gives up is the brain. Unless you're a really trained athlete. You can tell a trained athlete because their body will fail before their brain decides to back off the pace. And I was a very competitive athlete when I was young. I ran marathons. I ran the mile in college. When I was young, I ran a 4:12, which is a pretty decent mile, but the--
Russ Roberts: Yes, it is.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you. But, you need to be willing to sacrifice your body to every end and it takes a lot of training for your mind to do that.
So, for me, this task of walking came naturally because I'd been doing this sort of thing my whole life.
But, you know, what I would say is that when you don't give in to the sort of, like, pathetic appeals of your body--when you don't give in initially, there is a kind of freedom in that. You're freed from the tyranny of fearing discomfort and fearing pain. And eventually your body will just collapse. There are limits to what you can physically can do.
But when you don't negotiate with your body, when you say, 'Sorry, this is what's happening, shut the hell up and keep walking,' there is a kind of liberation there and even an intoxication.
The human record for 1,000 miles is 10 days. Someone ran 100 miles a day for 10 days. Like, just think about that. It's absolutely extraordinary. Clearly humans are adapted to move and that's exactly what we were doing and it's what has given people freedom for thousands and thousands of years.
Russ Roberts: So, let's get into the freedom part. You write something about what you call balance--the loyalty to a group in exchange for freedom. And here's what you wrote:
That balancing act--a great freedom through an even greater loyalty--can be hard for people who have never been under serious threat to understand. Marginal groups such as motorcycle clubs and street gangs are drawn from threatened populations however, so sacrifices make intuitive sense. And because these groups can be left very easily, authority tends to be bestowed from below rather than imposed from above. It's hard to be abusive or impose your will on someone who is there voluntarily. In that sense there is no real authority in marginal groups, there is mostly leadership by example and decision by consensus.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. So, one the groups that I looked at was--and we can talk about our human evolution and what life was like in our evolutionary past in small groups of 40, 50 people, we can do that.
But, for a contemporary example, I looked at a group called the Vice Lords. They were a street gang in Chicago in the section of Chicago that maybe still is but certainly in the 1960s was very violent. It's an African American population, a lot violence, a lot murder, a lot of crime.
And, if you were a young African American male in the area and you weren't affiliated with a gang, you were in a lot of danger from gangs. Right? I mean, the individual doesn't stand a chance against a group. Right?
So, the adaptive, the logical thing to do if you're a young man in that environment is join a gang. And, the Vice Lords were formed to protect themselves against other established gangs that threatened people, young men in this area.
So, it was very simple. The ultimate definition of a Vice Lord after you passed the rather painful initiation, the ultimate definition was that if another Vice Lord was in a fight, no matter how bad the odds were, you ran towards him and helped him, and if you ran the other way and saved yourself, you just weren't a Vice Lord. Right? That was the definition of being a Vice Lord.
And, in that case, they had a solution to that, they were just like, 'Okay, you're not one of us. Well, this is what happens.' They wouldn't beat him up, they wouldn't hurt him, they would just put him in the back of car and they'd drive him into the center of territory controlled by a violent rival gang and they'd just push him out of the car. Like, 'All right, you're on your own. You don't want to be part of this group, fine. You're on your own.'
So, the point is that our safety--certainly our wealth, our comfort, and ultimately our safety, our ability to survive in the world--comes from our affiliation with a group. Humans don't survive alone in nature. They die immediately. And humans that are alone facing a larger group are overwhelmed almost immediately.
But, what you can do in a group is not only survive but dominate, which clearly humans have done in the natural world. And, that means that in this solidarity of this group, you are freed from--you have the potential to be freed from the oppression of another group. Right? But you are not freed from the norms of the group that you're depending on. You cannot have it all. And so one of the--as freedom goes up, danger goes up; and then because you're in danger you have to affiliate with other people, then your freedom goes down because you're part of that new group.
And, I saw that, very clearly: that's what happened along the American frontier. We walked in Pennsylvania along the Juniata River. So, some of the rivers carved gaps through the mountains as the mountains rose up. And those gaps became Indian trails, because obviously it's easier to go through a river gap than around this long mountain. Some of the mountain ridges there are 200 miles long--extraordinary geographic features, geologic features. So, the Indian trails, then when the settlers came, settler's roads were laid there and then the railroad tracks were laid on the settler's roads.
So, what we were walking--an ancient, ancient thoroughfare through Pennsylvania: the Juniata River is the only east/west trending river in the whole state. So, when the settlers came in, in the 1700s, the Juniata became this sort of, like, throughway for people fleeing the colonies, fleeing for economic reasons, political reasons, didn't like to be told what to do, didn't want to go to church every Sunday--you know, whatever. They wanted to be self-defining for whatever reason. And so they went into the wilderness, what was called Indian Territory.
Well, the Indians didn't like that very much, of course, and so it was a very, very bloody--on both sides--a very bloody time, very, very violent time. And so, what they found was that they're completely free in this amazing wilderness, but to survive the settlers needed to be part of a mutual defense pact where when there were Indian raids on the frontier that they all rushed to the stockade--, there'd be a stockade in some central location--they'd rush to the stockade and defend it to the last man, the last woman. And everyone was expected to participate in this group defense--everybody, even the children. I mean, at the very least children can carry buckets of water to the wounded or buckets of water when the rooves are set on fire by flaming arrows, the children could put that out, whatever.
But, the real obligation to fight was on the adult males; and adult meant 14 and up. And if you did not--I mean, forget about if you refused to fight, forget about it, your life in that community is completely over--but if you didn't even carry a rifle, a scalping knife, and a tomahawk--at all times, even during times of peace--if you weren't customarily armed and prepared to fight, you were not part of the community, and you were mocked, and you were shunned, and you were cast out. And so: Is that freedom? No, of course it's not. But, that was necessitated by the circumstances that in a larger context were quite free of government oversight.
Russ Roberts: Now, there's this tension I always think about which, related to the kind you are talking about: which is that when you come into the world as an infant, you are helpless. You rely on your parents, or friends, or family to sustain you. You don't like it. As we get older, as we reach adolescence, certainly we want to be free of our parents. We're tired of being told what to do. And, then if life turns out that way, we become parents and we get to boss around some other little creatures; and we kind of like it because we endured this being bossed-around thing, the hazing. And now we get to impose it. And, I think it's very hard for people to respect and remember what it's like to be told what to do. So, I think this tension runs through our political system, it runs through our families and it runs through our workplaces.
You talk about--Nassim Taleb also talks about this--you know, you work for a large corporation, you usually get taken care of pretty well financially, often; and then there are all these restrictions on how you dress and how you act and what you do with your time. And you've got to work for a living in a particular way. Of course, you have to work for a living, but you have to work in a particular way within an organization. What do think of all that?
Sebastian Junger: Well, it's the ancient deal. I mean, there's no society in the world that does not inform its individuals that there are rules that have to be obeyed, and if you violate them we have sanctions against you and sometimes those sanctions can include death.
We live in a democratic society and our human rights, our individual rights, are written into the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and guaranteed by law--although sometimes we fail, we fall down on that. But there's an attempt to maximize people's autonomy within our society, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and by historical standards it's pretty extraordinary.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But, that does not mean that you can say, 'Well, I'm a free person: I just prefer to drive on the left hand side of the road. You know what? I'm just going to do that. And, you know this red light thing? I don't know, I'm in a hurry, I'm just--.' You don't have the right to do that. Your freedom does not include the freedom to put others at risk. And, that is every society's prerogative to say: The safety and the welfare of the collective, of the group, is more important than your individual rights if it comes down to an either/or choice.
And, there's a point where the government can seem petty and overweening and over-controlling; and at that point people throw off the chains of tyranny and say, 'I'm not wearing a mask,' or whatever it may be. Or, 'I'm not stopping at red lights.' It's understandable in a sort of human sense--like, who wants to be controlled? But, it is part of the deal of being part of the society that you get an awful lot from. And, if you don't like it, you know, of course, there's the courts, there's elections, there's a legislature. There are ways to change things that you find onerous. But, simply rejecting the authority of society to tell you what to do isn't one of them.
And, I say in the book, in thinking you owe nothing to society is--I mean, what you owe is a matter of debate and we can talk about that--but the idea that you owe nothing is literally infantile. Like, only children owe nothing, and as an adult that's an impossible fantasy.
Russ Roberts: I think the problem is that word 'owe.' I believe that a good human being has certain responsibilities, but I also--I understand that everybody wants to carry them out and that that imposes costs often on other people. Of course, part of what we're talking about here is the government as a parent. And, if the government were a loving parent, I think we'd be happier wearing our masks or stopping at red lights. I think the challenge is when we perceive that the government is not acting like a parent, but is enhancing someone else's pocketbook, say, at our expense, or putting my life at risk and ignoring the danger I'm in because they have certain friendly groups--that's where tyranny comes.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, absolutely.
Russ Roberts: I think that's the balance that is the American debate forever going forward. We're in the middle of it now I think in a different way than we usually have been, but--
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you. And, you know, society doesn't have a big problem trying to figure out how to handle what you call the good people, the responsible people. Right? The big problem is: how do you handle the irresponsible, bad people. You need the same rules for everybody; and how do you keep the, quote, "bad" people from harming us without infringing on what feels like the freedom of the good people? How do you do that?
I mean, I would love it if we didn't have traffic rules. Right? I mean, how awesome: except there's a lot of bad drivers out there that would take advantage of that and get people killed, so we have traffic rules. Right? And, even where there's absolutely no traffic at two in the morning in the cross street, you stay at the red light--or at least I do. I know some people don't.
Russ Roberts: Some do.
Sebastian Junger: Some do, right. But, what a police officer would say, I think, or what a judge would say if you ran that red light and were somehow caught, the judge would say, 'Look, in that specific circumstance you're right, there was no risk. But, there is a broad risk if rules are followed only at the discretion of the individual. So, you're going to have to pay the cost of that larger concept that keeps more people alive.' And, you know, I think a government that acts in a way that you describe--prioritizing certain groups and enriching themselves and all that stuff--actually isn't government. At that point it's a criminal cartel and must be called out. A government almost by definition is something that's acting with the interests of the community, of the society, or most.
Russ Roberts: At least in matters of life and death, where you have some degree of unanimity, I think that's certainly the case.
Russ Roberts: You contrast the freedom of the hunter-gatherer with the security but servitude of the farmer. Talk about that.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, I mean, there was a point about 10,000 years ago when human evolution--not evolution, but human society--reached a [inaudible 00:34:48] was at a huge crossroads. Some people started planting grains and staying in one place and harvesting grains. And grains can be accumulated. You don't have to eat them all at once. Meat, if you don't have refrigeration, you kill something, you've got to eat it right then and there. Maybe you can dry it and you can preserve it for a little while, but grains can be stored in massive quantities and effectively are the first accumulation of wealth; and they happened in a context where the community stays in one spot. I mean, once you picked all the rocks out of the field and dug irrigation ditches, and etc., etc., you can't really leave there.
And, that means that a powerful person can tyrannize you, because you don't have the choice of leaving. You're stuck in the ground, right? And you can be forced to pay taxes. The third son can be forced into military duty. All of these things--all of these ills of the modern state that dominates the decisions that individuals would rather make freely.
Not everyone did that. There were a lot of peoples that remained nomadic, and they were pastoralists with herds of sheep or cattle, or they were hunter-gatherers. Of course, the great era of hunter-gatherers in our human story started to come to an end around 10,000 years ago.
And, so, what's really interesting is to look at the relationship between these two societies. Hunter-gatherers, because they don't accumulate wealth, are very, very hard to tyrannize. I mean, if there's a leader that's simply being abusive of their authority, there's a lot of anthropological data that those people were simply killed, and if you couldn't kill them you could always leave.
I mean, the thing about being a hunter-gatherer or a pastoralist is you're carrying with you all of the things you need to survive. You can't carry a wheat field with you, but you can take your sheep and goats. You can take your bow and arrow and hunt. And, when you give the individual the opportunity to protest bad leadership, abusive leadership, exploitative leadership by simply leaving, that has the effect of--or you give them the choice of simply killing the bad leader--that has the effect of making leadership accountable to the group.
So, if you look at the relationship between these groups, the agriculturalists, they were wealthier, Very quickly they were wealthier. But, they had a strange insecurity about themselves, in my opinion; and the nomads were susceptible to an enormous amount of romanticizing. We still do this in this society: the figure on the motorcycle--sort of motorcycle outlaw--is a romantic figure at times in American cinema; the Comanche on the horseback. These figures of freedom usually are highly mobile. That's a very romantic idea.
So, in Northern Iran near the beginning of human agriculture, but also on the edge of these vast eastern steppes that were home to these very mobile nomads, a very war-like people, the Yomut; they were a nomadic tribe. They had this saying about the agriculturalists--it was a song. They said, 'I do not have a mill--' a gristmill--'I do not have a mill with willow trees, I have a horse and quirt'--a whip. 'I have a horse and quirt. I will kill you and go.' And, the arrogance, the sense of superiority by the warrior on horseback compared to the hard-working agriculturalist who has toiled away, who can accumulate wealth and security and safety--but at the end of the day they're not self-defining.
And, then finally I'll finish with this: If you look at the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, you have this sort of ancient schism in humanity. Cain was the agriculturalist: he had the fields. And Abel was the pastoralist: he had the flocks of sheep up in the high meadows, and he moved around. And, when it came time to make a sacrifice to God, Abel was able to sacrifice a fat sheep; and Cain, all he could do was offer vegetables. And, it enraged Cain, and he killed his brother. And, there you see the security of the agriculturalist's life, but the envy that they look at a free person with. I mean, you have it encapsulated in that ancient story of Cain and Abel.
Russ Roberts: I want to recommend--a past EconTalk guest, Yoram Hazony, has a remarkable book called The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, and one of the chapters in that book is the shepherd versus the farmer in the Bible, and how Cain and Able is just one example of where God seems to prefer the shepherd. Cain makes his offering, and God says, 'Eh,' and he takes Abel's; and Cain's rage really comes from the rejection of his sacrifice.
And, of course, the Israelites are shepherds outside of Egypt. They're in Goshen. The Egyptians are dependent on the Nile and its irrigating of their fields. They're stable, physically stable, but ironically they feel vulnerable to the Israelites even though they're smaller. And, they don't like that they're shepherds: it's not their thing. Anyway, it's a fascinating chapter of the book, it's fascinating; I recommend anybody who's interested in it.
Russ Roberts: Let's move on to violence and fight--a very, very interesting part of the book, incredible observations about human violence and fighting. Let's start with the fact that size is not decisive in one-on-one battle in humans the way it is often with animals. Talk about that. It's really a seemingly unimportant insight, but actually I think quite profound.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, and if I may, let me just back up for a moment to explain why fighting is so important. So, the English word 'freedom' comes from the Middle German 'vridom,' V-R-I-D-O-M. And 'vridom' meant beloved. So, the idea was that the people that you considered free, that you assigned freedom to, autonomy to, you could not kill on a whim, you could not torture, you could not enslave. It was the people that were beloved to you--your tribe, your clan, your community--that was not eligible for all this abuse. Everybody else was. All outsiders, all foreigners were eligible--did not have human rights, they weren't even in some ways considered human; and they could be enslaved, they could be abused, they could be massacred, whatever--it didn't matter. You could do that to them, not to your own beloved; and those were the people who had vridom, freedom.
So, clearly, the ability to defend your community was core to the idea that you could remain free. And as an example--an outrageous example--was the Yamnaya, who were a very war-like pastoralist people from the Russian Steppe, near where the Yomut were from, that went into battle on horse-drawn chariots, swinging battle axes. And, they traveled without women--all-male groups on these war chariots--and they cruised through Europe. They were sort of like the first criminal motorcycle gang, in a way--like, they were very mobile, they were very violent, and they were just intent basically on rape and plunder.
They cruised through Europe and they wound up in the Iberian Peninsula. And, over the course of about 100 years, 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic Era in Spain and Portugal, the Yamnaya killed all of the men. All of the men in the Iberian Peninsula were wiped out by the Yamnaya. They presumably mated with the women, and today's descendants in Spain mix female DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] from the Neolithic in Iberia with the male Yamnaya and other immigrant groups that came in afterwards.
So, the ability to defend your borders to your community from violent outsiders is crucial to your ability to remain free. Iberian men lost their freedom in the most radical way possible: they were wiped out. They were scrubbed from the human gene pool. So, that means that the ability to fight becomes integral to preserving your freedom.
And, what's very interesting about humans, as you said and I talk about this in the book a lot, is that if you look at other mammalian species, typically the largest male can either out-fight everyone else or just out-intimidate them--the largest elk, the largest grizzly. When they're quite close in size, then there's a struggle, a dominance struggle, but size and strength usually win that fight. Interestingly, with humans there's a different dynamic. Skill, really fine skill comes into play, and you can see that in mixed martial arts, in boxing: that size is not a very good predictor of outcome. I mean, if you have a huge guy facing a very small guy and you're penned into a small enclosure like the MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] Octagon, size can dominate, but actually in the natural world, a smaller person is so much more mobile that it gives the large, strong person an impossible task, which is to corner them and suppress them.
So, I looked at the sort of physical dynamics of a fight--literally, of a fist fight. Like, how does that work? So, basically it takes four hundredths of a second for your fist to go from here to here, four hundredths of a second.
Russ Roberts: To extend your fist.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, extend your fist in a jab. And, you hit someone with a good punch, they're unconscious. Right? I mean, one good punch the fight's over, right? Four hundredths of a second.
It takes 11 hundredths of a second for the brain to perceive something coming towards it. So, it should be that every time someone throws a punch it connects, because the other person can't react fast enough to get out of the way. But that's not what happens. The body is very fast, but it's very revealing of its intentions. So, when you're getting ready to throw that punch, your body signals it in very subtle ways; and the mind might be slow, but it's very perceptive. And, you can detect that a punch is going to come before the puncher has even initiated the punch. And you could even tell which hand it's going to come from.
And so, they've done all these tests of unconscious perception and the human ability to detect intention is so acute. They showed two-second videos of professional poker players moving their chips in to make a bet, right?--and these are people that didn't even know how to play poker--and with two-second videos of just the arm movement of moving the chips into center of the table by professional poker players, the observers had a far better than average chance of knowing who had a winning hand.
Humans signal all the time their state of being. And, so that means that a smaller fighter--I mean, it takes very little effort to slip a punch. It takes a lot of energy to throw a punch. So, a big guy throws 10 punches in a row, a small guy slips all of them; now you've got an exhausted big guy and a small guy who is, like, still doing okay.
And, that dynamic scales up, as well, so that you have situations like the Montenegrin tribes--the tribes of Montenegro in the late 1500s, early 1600s--were invaded by the Ottoman Empire, one of the most powerful military entities in the world at the time. They were outnumbered 12 to 1. The Montenegrins were outnumbered 12 to 1: they had no artillery, they had no calvary. And every time the Ottomans came in they got annihilated by the Montenegrins.
And then finally, just look at what's happening in Afghanistan, the greatest military power ever in history has been fought to a standstill--not defeated--but fought to a standstill by a group of fighters, the Taliban, who have no tanks, no artillery, no air force. A lot of them don't even have boots. The smaller guy or the smaller insurgency just has to not lose long enough for the big entity to give up.
And, if that were not so, the world would be dominated by these massive mega-states, basically fascist mega-states that controlled every aspect of every society and that's not what the world looks like. The fact that the Taliban can win, that the Montenegrins can win, also meant that the Americans could win against the British Empire 200 some years ago. It allows for the possibility of a society to be self-defining and what we call free.
Russ Roberts: You talk about tactics--obviously is one way of talking about skill, the ability to slip a punch being a primitive micro-micro-level of tactic. Of course, the feint, F-E-I-N-T, the fake punch can deceive the brain of the recipient and allow for those perceptions to fail you, to actually put you in danger. Of course, that happens in a national level and an insurgency as well.
You talk about the insurgency in Ireland over such a very long period of time. In some dimension they shouldn't have won: they were the inferior, smaller, less-armed force. In fact, I was talking about this recently: you can think of a number of examples where the British, despite their being the greatest army in history at the time, couldn't use their military dominance to achieve an end. Perhaps they didn't have the heart for it; perhaps their soldiers didn't have the heart for it. It's a big, complicated question, but the slow dispersal of the British Empire in the United States, in Ireland, in India, in Palestine, is an interesting evolution of their might; and yet, their inability to impose their will on people that aren't in England. They're pretty good in England, but outside of England, had a great run but it didn't last.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. Imean, in Ireland in 1916, the Easter Rising, the Irish rebels were a bunch of farmers and intellectuals and poets, and they were fighting the Brits with shotguns at times. The British Empire--was one of the dominant forces in the world--was 50 miles off the Irish coast. It wasn't like they were fighting in Samoa, right? There were no logistical problems, really.
Russ Roberts: No supply chain, yeah.
Russ Roberts: Not much.
Sebastian Junger: The British, they had controlled Ireland since, I think, 1100 or something. I can't remember the dates exactly, but for an awfully long time, almost 1,000 years. And, the initial battle, the Easter Rising didn't work. The Irish, within a week the rebellion was put down and the leaders were executed for treason. There was one woman, one female leader who they did not execute--who was condemned to death by firing squad and they did not shoot her because they were fearful of the political ramifications of executing a woman--which is part of the more complex game that gets played within a society around the issue of rights and freedom.
So, basically the first tactic to maintain your autonomy is to run away from your oppressor. The Apache did that very successfully. In the Southwest of America there were the Pueblo tribes that were agriculturalist, they were rooted in place, they were very wealthy. The Spanish rolled them immediately. They didn't have a chance. The Apache remained free and autonomous for another 300 years? Till 1886--the last of them were rounded up and almost within my grandmother's lifetime. They did that through mobility. But if you can't outrun them, you're going to have to outfight them. And, if you can't outfight them, you're going to have to out-think them, and "Think" is the last section of my book.
And, one of the very powerful strategies that insurgencies--like the Easter Rising, the Labor movement, initiatives like that--one of the most powerful strategies they have is to make sure to incorporate women into their efforts, for a couple of interesting reasons. One is that women's social networks tend to be more lateral than hierarchical. A hierarchical system is very, very useful. It's incredible when you're trying to get people to run into machine gun fire. You don't want them debating, 'Well, should I do this or not?' You're part of a hierarchy: I'm sorry, you're in the middle of a hierarchy or you're at the bottom; and you get the benefit of being in the hierarchy, but once in a while you're going to have to charge machine guns. And, that's a very important thing to have elements of a society that are willing to risk their lives for the entity. Right?
But, women don't--I mean, they can be absolutely part of a hierarchy, but women also have this ability among themselves to have a kind of lateral non-hierarchical organization which is very hard for intelligence services to penetrate. You can't take out one leader and cripple the whole thing. It's a spiderweb of social relations. And so, they're very, very useful in planning things in secret.
And, the other great asset of having women--it's sort of horrible to say it--but, of course, women individually are at high risk of violence with domestic partners. I mean, we all know this. But, in terms of mass demonstrations in public, in the streets, even hardcore dictators like Saddam Hussein are more reluctant to machine gun a group of women in the street than a group of men. You could have a mob of men in the street that's demanding the overthrow of the regime and using violence against them does not have high sanctions. You use that same kind of violence against 1,000 women amassed in the street and there can be severe repercussions.
So, just to finish, in the Mill Strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, the mill strikers, protesting terrible conditions, finally put women on the frontline. And the police, these young guys, National Guard with their bayonets fixed, were confronting women with their fixed bayonets and they didn't know what to do. And, one police captain said in frustration and despair, 'One good cop can handle 10 men, but it takes 10 cops to handle one woman.' And, that sort of tipped the balance and the dynamic on the ground in the streets of the Lawrence Mill Strikes.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't remember the details, but there was a strike of German women against Hitler, which was unimaginable in any other context or setting, where they complained about--I can't remember what it is now; it doesn't matter. But, it's a fascinating observation.
Russ Roberts: Until 2008, I think a lot of economists came to believe that we'd kind of figured things out and economic fluctuations were a thing of the past in any large magnitude. And, 2008 comes along and we get a wake up call. And, I think there's a similar wake up call coming or has arrived about our nature in the political realm. I think there was naivete--maybe 9/11 was the beginning of the end of that naivete--but a certain belief that people have gotten pretty civilized and we treat each other better and 'we're less discriminatory': a lot of groups that used to be marginalized have had more rights and we've become more civilized.
And, I don't believe that. I'm pretty confident you don't believe that. I think you believe, as I do that--I like to say the veneer of civilization is thin: that we're violent animals at heart, that civilization keeps that at bay. Our political process, which used to be somewhat Marquis [?Marquess--Econlib Ed.] de Queensberry Rules of give and take, it's become a lot more of a bloodsport. It aways has been: I don't want to be naive about it, but I feel like the darker side of humanity is coming to the fore in the last 10 years, 20 years.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. Well--
Russ Roberts: Talk about that. Do you agree with me? It's not politically correct: we're supposed to think we're at some--we used to believe we're at some kumbaya kind of achievement from the Enlightenment; and I think we're in dark times.
Sebastian Junger: Well, yeah. I mean, first of all, I would sort of look--let's talk about the words 'civilized' and 'civilization.' If you have the long view of human evolution, most of which was comprised of small groups of interdependent people with very little social or political stratification, and leadership that was really, very directly flowed from the consent of the led, those are very, very egalitarian terms to lead one's life on. And, really it was agriculture and the accumulation of wealth that allowed for the accumulation of power and very quickly the abuse of power.
So, they looked at Native American tribes in North America, pre-contact; and what they found is that in the tribes along the Northwest coast of Northern California where--there were certain spots along those rivers, there was a great wealth in catching mass quantities of salmon and drying them. Right? It's like freeze-dried, basically like dried food, dried protein. You could accumulate that; you could feed a huge army of warriors that could then conquer, etc., etc.
So, what they found was that you're able to monopolize the salmon fishery by physically taking control of the very few spots along these major rivers where the salmon runs were the most intense.
And, the societies that did that immediately created a nobility class that had slaves. Social stratification began immediately.
And, in the tribes where there was no ability to accumulate wealth or monopolize the means of production of wealth, of food, in 90% of those tribes there was no social or political stratification, no significant differences in wealth, in income.
So, what I would say is that society has actually allowed for the accumulation of wealth. Modern, industrial, agricultural society has allowed for the accumulation of wealth, but because capital investment must be protected, along with that came laws that protect capital, the loaning of money. And along with those laws came laws, as Yuval Harari points out in his brilliant book Sapiens, once you protect money, you have to protect the people that lend the money and then suddenly you have human rights laws. So, capitalism is associated with the rise of human rights law and eventually international law.
So, what we have in civilization is mostly violence-averse nation-states that have agreements with each other to more or less keep the peace and keep the economy functioning on a global scale, but meanwhile within those nations, we are living in ways that are almost antithetical to our human evolutionary origins. We have very high rates of anxiety, of depression, of suicide, of addiction--all of these sort of psychological and social, emotional ills that people are vulnerable to, they are sky high in the wealthiest societies in the world.
So, what's showing through is the thin veneer of civilization where the animal underneath--or really you could flip it around and say that great good has come from civilization--scientific breakthroughs. We could have a three-hour conversation about the benefits of, quote, "civilization." But, what it doesn't do is it does not maximize the things that make the human animal feel content and meaningful and safe in their lives. Basically, what does that is the proximity of people they love, and vridom--being part of a beloved group which is autonomous and self-defining and not under the oppression of a larger force.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Sebastian Junger. His book is Freedom. Sebastian, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Sebastian Junger: I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me on.