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The Primitive Marauder is the Modern State, Evolved

Midnight bird, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Check out last week's episode of Econtalk:

Omer Moav on the Emergence of the State - Econlib
Since at least Adam Smith, the common wisdom has been that the transition from hunter-gathering to farming allowed the creation of the State. Farming, so went the theory, led to agricultural surplus, and that surplus is the prerequisite for taxation and a State. But economist Omer Moav of the Univer…

The good stuff is in the first 20 minutes. After that, the interview really gets into the weeds about the difference between growing tubers (which can be kept in the ground for a long time but rot quickly once harvested . . . and therefore are tax resistant) and grains (which must be harvested at set times and store well . . . and therefore are ideal for taxing). A culture of tuber farmers has historically had less government intrusion than cultures of grain farmers. It's fascinating, but like I said, the interview really gets into the weeds.

I recommend the first 20 minutes for the premise described in it (which both economists seem to acknowledge is a fundamental historical truth that pretty much everyone has acknowledged since at least Adam Smith): Taxation arose when the human race shifted from hunter-gatherer to sedentary agriculture.

The reason is simple: If marauding bands descended on the hunter-gatherers every time they slaughtered a bison and took the meat, you'd move away. That wasn't possible when humans started farming. They were stuck and the marauders could always find them and take everything.

But they wouldn't take everything. They would, at a minimum, leave the early farmers with enough to survive so they would be alive to farm next year. The more intelligent marauders would even let them keep a little extra so they would have an incentive to grow more.

But that wasn't all the marauders did. The marauders also kept other marauders away, so the farmers could till, plant, and harvested unmolested.

And thereby arose the State.

Taxation like this is theft. That's obvious to anyone who ponders it for, say, two minutes. If you take something against someone's will, that's theft. It doesn't matter if it's a governmental body or a marauding body, a State or a gang: it's theft.

But that doesn't settle the issue. It's one of those truths that, I like to say, should inform everything but settles nothing.

Shift back to those earliest States: the marauders-turned-rulers. They stole your grain, yes, but they also protected you against other marauders. They might even build a road so you can better cart your grain to their capital, which can become a central meeting place where you can trade your excess with other citizens who are also there to pay their taxes.

Good can come out of anything, even theft.

But it doesn't change the fundamental nature--the essence--of the State: An organized effort to take wealth from people by force. That's how government started and evolved over the years: from marauders who rode around, looking for a group of people who had recently slaughtered a bison, to their ancestors who could stop riding around and just squat in a region, to kings, to the modern state.

A similar system like the early marauders-turned-rulers existed on a Mediterranean island for many years. An oligarchy of organizations provided protection for the people who wanted to engage in commerce. There was effectively no government on the island: just protection money paid by people who wanted to trade. It worked reasonably well.

That island? Sicily. The organizations in the oligarchy? We call them "the Mafia."