Guns, germs, and steal

We have all been raised to believe that civilization is, in large part, sustained by law and order. Without complex social institutions and some form of governance, we would be at the mercy of the law of the jungle — so the argument goes.

But there is a basic flaw in this Hobbesian view of a collective human need to tame the savagery in our nature.

For human beings to be vulnerable to the selfish drives of those around them, they generally need to possess things that are worth stealing. For things to be worth stealing, they must have durable value. People who own nothing, have little need to worry about thieves.

While Jared Diamond has argued that civilization arose in regions where agrarian societies could accumulate food surpluses, new research suggests that the value of cereal crops did not derive simply from the fact that the could be stored, but rather from the fact that having been stored they could subsequently be stolen or confiscated.

Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav, Zvika Neeman, and Luigi Pascali write: In a recent paper (Mayshar et al. 2015), we contend that fiscal capacity and viable state institutions are conditioned to a major extent by geography. Thus, like Diamond, we argue that geography matters a great deal. But in contrast to Diamond, and against conventional opinion, we contend that it is not high farming productivity and the availability of food surplus that accounts for the economic success of Eurasia.

  • We propose an alternative mechanism by which environmental factors imply the appropriability of crops and thereby the emergence of complex social institutions.

To understand why surplus is neither necessary nor sufficient for the emergence of hierarchy, consider a hypothetical community of farmers who cultivate cassava (a major source of calories in sub-Saharan Africa, and the main crop cultivated in Nigeria), and assume that the annual output is well above subsistence. Cassava is a perennial root that is highly perishable upon harvest. Since this crop rots shortly after harvest, it isn’t stored and it is thus difficult to steal or confiscate. As a result, the assumed available surplus would not facilitate the emergence of a non-food producing elite, and may be expected to lead to a population increase.

Consider now another hypothetical farming community that grows a cereal grain – such as wheat, rice or maize – yet with an annual produce that just meets each family’s subsistence needs, without any surplus. Since the grain has to be harvested within a short period and then stored until the next harvest, a visiting robber or tax collector could readily confiscate part of the stored produce. Such ongoing confiscation may be expected to lead to a downward adjustment in population density, but it will nevertheless facilitate the emergence of non-producing elite, even though there was no surplus.

This simple scenario shows that surplus isn’t a precondition for taxation. It also illustrates our alternative theory that the transition to agriculture enabled hierarchy to emerge only where the cultivated crops were vulnerable to appropriation.

  • In particular, we contend that the Neolithic emergence of fiscal capacity and hierarchy was conditioned on the cultivation of appropriable cereals as the staple crops, in contrast to less appropriable staples such as roots and tubers.

According to this theory, complex hierarchy did not emerge among hunter-gatherers because hunter-gatherers essentially live from hand-to-mouth, with little that can be expropriated from them to feed a would-be elite. [Continue reading…]

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