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The Origins of Inequality: Insiders, Outsiders, Elites, and Commoners



Permanent economic inequality is unknown among mobile hunter-gatherers, but hereditary class distinctions between elites and commoners exist in some sedentary foraging societies. With the spread of agriculture, such stratification tends to become more pronounced. We develop a model to explain the associations among productivity, population density, and inequality. We show that regional productivity growth leads to enclosure of the best sites first, creating inequality between insiders and outsiders. This is followed by the emergence of elites and commoners at the best sites. As this process unfolds, elites and commoners have increasingly unequal food consumption. In some cases, the elite specializes in guarding land while relying entirely on the food produced by commoners. Our analysis is consistent with archaeological evidence from southern California, the northwest coast of North America, southwest Asia, and Polynesia.

Suggested Citation

  • Gregory Dow & Clyde Reed, 2009. "The Origins of Inequality: Insiders, Outsiders, Elites, and Commoners," Discussion Papers dp09-03, Department of Economics, Simon Fraser University.
  • Handle: RePEc:sfu:sfudps:dp09-03

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Dow, Gregory K. & Reed, Clyde G., 2011. "Stagnation and innovation before agriculture," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 77(3), pages 339-350, March.
    2. Matthew J. Baker, 2003. "An Equilibrium Conflict Model of Land Tenure in Hunter-Gatherer Societies," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 111(1), pages 124-173, February.
    3. de Meza, David & Gould, J R, 1992. "The Social Efficiency of Private Decisions to Enforce Property Rights," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 100(3), pages 561-580, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Stephan Heblich & Alex Trew, 2015. "Banking and Industrialization," CDMA Working Paper Series 201502, Centre for Dynamic Macroeconomic Analysis, revised 01 Dec 2017.
    2. Bruce Winterhalder, 2015. "Jared Diamond: The world until yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies?," Journal of Bioeconomics, Springer, vol. 17(3), pages 303-307, October.
    3. Gregory K. Dow & Clyde G. Reed & Simon Woodcock, 2016. "The Economics Of Exogamous Marriage In Small-Scale Societies," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 54(4), pages 1805-1823, October.
    4. Dow, Gregory K. & Reed, Clyde G., 2015. "The origins of sedentism: Climate, population, and technology," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 119(C), pages 56-71.
    5. repec:eee:deveco:v:127:y:2017:i:c:p:297-305 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Javier Mejía, 2018. "The Network Formation Origin of Tribal Societies," Documentos CEDE 016381, Universidad de los Andes - CEDE.
    7. repec:eee:reecon:v:71:y:2017:i:3:p:373-383 is not listed on IDEAS

    More about this item


    inequality; stratification; prehistory; archaeology; anthropology; insiders; outsiders; elites; commoners; productivity; population density; foraging; hunting and gathering; agriculture;

    JEL classification:

    • O10 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - General

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