Monday, March 19, 2018

Reader reacts to my remarks on Scott


A correspondent has written me about my blog post reviewing Scott's Against the Grain.

"I suppose the main point about grain is that it can be stored for some (long) time given the right conditions. The same might be said for beans and most pulses. All that needs to be done to keep this form of "preserved wealth" is to keep it dry. Tubers like yams and potatoes cannot be so easily stored for more than (say) one season and so represent a very temporary form of wealth.
But, to be honest, a goat is almost as useful as a sack of corn. It keeps itself "fresh" and can even grow in size while waited to be "liquidated". If anything one might hypothesise that herding as much as grain production was the genesis of tax collection. "


My reply:


Thank you for your letter.  You've given me an opportunity to restate some things.

There is much in Scott's book that is quite correct.  He is right that early state formation is associated with transfer of goods from producers to a new consumer class (whoever they are).  He is right that grains make good candidates for such a transfer.  He is right that very often outsiders forcibly appropriate wealth from communities of producers but by stating that robbery is the origin of the state misses 99% of what we can know from historical examples.

If the business model of a gang of bandits consists of stripping communities of their wealth then the likelihood of the appropriators now becoming governors is quite small.  If Scott doesn't believe this then he should show us how bandits form a state.  I'm sure that this has been possible under some circumstances and I would read Scott on this subject with great interest.  As yet he has not told us how this works.

By emphasizing grains he misses the fact that wealth transfer can consist of products from the entire ecosystem.  It doesn't have to be just food stuffs.  He misses the appropriation of subsistence as well as luxury goods.  States sometimes emphasize one over the other and this can have implications for state formation.  But a discussion of this is absent in Scott.  He also misses the larger picture of how human associations change in a way such that the result is what we identify as a 'state'.  He never discusses the well-documented fact that the state does not spring de novo from a group of villages but goes through a long process of intermediate transformations; rank societies both achievement and hereditary are found more often in the historical record than states.  Scott omits this.    To him it's all the same - the State is a protectionist gang.

You seem to emphasize the idea that certain goods are more collectible because they are less perishable.  Why would you (or Scott) think that?  If appropriable goods are perishable then why wouldn't tax collectors come more often?  Or does Scott suppose that tax collectors in ancient Mesopotamia always came once a year on April 15?   I don't want to promulgate 'Just So' stories but I really cannot see the force of the argument from perishability.

Scott never really does characterize specific tax-collecting practices.  He has created a tax straw-man and he uses it to avoid the real questions about the complexities inherent in all human associations.  The formation of societies above the tribal level is a complex one with many variations.  The best discussion of such topics is Flannery and Marcus [2012], The Creation of Inequality.  (And please Google the many reviews of this work.)  This is what discussion of the State looks like when one is not grinding an ideological axe.  I cannot recommend it enough.

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