Life on the Edge

Denizens of the periphery find ways to escape the predatory state.

(Page 2 of 2)

Scott observes that rulers are less interested in the gross domestic product than in the “State-Accessible Product,” which “had to be easy to identify, monitor, and enumerate (in short, assessable), as well as being close enough geographically.” He documents various campaigns to discourage forms of agriculture that are hard to appropriate, such as “shifting” or “slash-and-burn” cultivation, even when the value to the agriculturalists of such crops was greater than that of the ruler-preferred methods. Scott notes that the government “maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and its subjects.” What’s best for the ruler is not always best for the ruled.

Topography plays an important role as well, with state power tending to be greatest where the “friction of distance” is least. “Political control sweeps readily across a flat terrain,” Scott writes. “Once it confronts the friction of distance, abrupt changes in altitude, ruggedness of terrain, and the political obstacle of population dispersion and mixed cultivation, it runs out of political breath.”

Understanding the nature of such zones where political control “runs out of breath” is not merely of interest to historians and social scientists. It’s central to understanding many things about the modern world, including the difficulties that NATO and its allied forces face in Afghanistan, the problems with other nation-building campaigns around the globe, the nature and costs of resistance to predatory state power, and the evolutionary relationship between tax systems and economic structures—that is, between systems of theft and structures of production. In effect, Scott gives us a libertarian geography.

Scott draws on the insights of Pierre Clastres, whose 1974 book Society Against the State undermined the narrative of the progressive transition from archaic society to state-governed civilizations by showing how a variety of Native American tribes developed systems to keep the state at bay. Such groups did not merely “fail to develop a state”; they succeeded in keeping one from developing. The insight is important, but Scott follows Clastres in making questionable claims about the conjunction of the state, private property, and material inequality.

Why would private property spring up in a type of society in which it is unknown because it is rejected?” Clastres asked. He suggested that the state preceded property, rather than the other way around. Scott is well known for advancing a “moral economy” thesis, formulated in his 1976 book The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, in which peasants live by a “safety-first maxim” that “embodies a relative preference for subsistence security over high average incomes” and thus tend to resist the creation of property rights, fixed-rents (rather than share-cropping), and production for the market. In The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott writes: “Permanent padi-field cultivation also leads to systems of landed property and inheritance and the social class distinctions they foster. Inequalities per se do not distinguish the valleys from the hills. Status differences and inequalities abound in the hills, but in contrast to inequality in the padi state, they are not underwritten by inherited inequalities of property enforced, if need be, by the coercive power of a rudimentary state.” Further, “Just as fixed, inheritable property in land facilitates permanent class formation, a common property frontier equalizes access to subsistence resources and permits the frequent fission of villages and lineages that seems central to the maintenance of egalitarianism.”

Maybe. But inequality can take many forms, from the exclusive privilege of chiefs to multiple wives, as described by Clastres, to the use of common property to perpetuate material inequality, as described by Scott’s critic Samuel Popkin in his 1979 study of the history of rural Vietnam, The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam. According to Popkin, access to communal lands in rural areas, rather than being a source of egalitarian redistribution, was more likely to be manipulated by the rich and powerful to shift the burdens of taxation to the poor. “The procedures for paying national taxes, the system for allocating communal lands, and the methods for financing village projects were regressive,” Popkin wrote. “Some communal lands were reserved for widows, orphans, and the aged without children. For ‘regular’ families, however, communal lands were distributed not according to need, but ascriptively, on the basis of rank within the village.” Scott rejects Popkin’s characterizations of his views, but the debate between the “moral economy” perspective and the “political economy” perspective is both complex and ongoing. Despite its many insights, The Art of Not Being Governed offers no more evidence to resolve the issue.

But whether or not Scott is on the right side of the argument, The Art of Not Being Governed is chock-a-block with fascinating observations. For example, he shows a new way to understand the dispersal of ethnic groups: horizontally. Merely looking down on a two-dimensional ethnographic map shows what appear to be random scatterings, but by looking at the topography horizontally, Scott notes a pattern: The same altitude tends to harbor the same (or closely related) ethnic groups. “Thus, for example, the Hmong have tended to settle at very high altitudes (between one thousand and eighteen hundred meters) and to plant maize, opium, and millet that will thrive at that elevation,” he writes. “If from a high-altitude balloon or on a map they appear to be a random scattering of small blotches, this is because they have occupied the mountaintops and left the midslopes and intervening valleys to other groups.” Moreover, Scott’s thesis about the close connection between state formation and the promotion of certain kinds of agriculture offers an occasion to think about how vulnerable new forms of wealth creation are to state control and, for those who favor escape from the state, how to promote the kinds of wealth that help people evade predation.

The Art of Not Being Governed also provides a healthy antidote to the ahistorical and naive views of the “communitarians,” who posit static traditional communities as the framework for personal identity. As Scott demonstrates, “traditional identities” more often than not are hybrid, porous, plural, and fluid. The idea of an unchanging way of life going back millennia is, in general, bunk. Subordination to states is not necessary to identity, as stateless peoples show, and “tribal” or ethnic identities are neither as unchanging nor as inescapable as communitarians think. Fluid identities are features of freedom, whether in modern liberal society or in peripheral “zones of refuge” from state predation.

Scott is clearly sympathetic to the Zomians, but he doesn’t romanticize the lives of people who reside outside the reach of state power. Sometimes the escape from predation has preserved other forms of oppression that shock modern liberal sensibilities. Some hill peoples who escaped slavery, for example, supplemented their incomes by organizing slave raids of their own.

Scott concludes his book on a sober note. As states extend their sovereign power from one internationally recognized border to another and intrude into every space, he writes, “the world I have sought to describe and understand here is fast disappearing. For virtually all my readers it will seem a very far cry from the world they inhabit. In the contemporary world, the future of our freedom lies in the daunting task of taming Leviathan, not evading it.”

I think that Scott is essentially correct, but I wonder whether evading Leviathan is part of the process of taming it. The history of freedom in Europe is to a substantial degree the history of lowering costs of exit, as the Australian historian E.L. Jones shows in his 1981 book The European Miracle. We may simply need to follow Scott’s example and think more creatively about the ways in which wealth is produced and exchanged and the means by which predatory state behavior can be evaded.

If you wish to have your comfortable preconceptions about the history of humanity shaken and to see things anew, The Art of Not Being Governed is for you. The lives of people on the periphery have often been hard, but less so than the slavery they were escaping. Although the search for freedom does not always yield optimal results, understanding its history is essential to understanding the future of freedom. 

Tom Palmer (Tom.Palmer@AtlasNetwork.org) is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, vice president for international programs at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the author of Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice (Cato).

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  • ||

    Go back to Somalia libertards!

  • ||

    "There once was a man from Nantucket with a dick so..." you know the rest but you Tony would change it to "small he couldn't suck it".

  • Untermensch||

    This sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for publishing this review.

  • Fluffy||

    Whose leg do you have to hump to get a book reviewed around here?

  • Jabba the Hutt||

    Mine.

  • Joel||

    Bummer. You don't have any legs. How 'bout I hump the leg of the chick in the metal bikini?

  • The Expatriate||

    It was this history of freedom that attracted me to live in that area for four years. Indeed, my wife is actually of Nyaw heritage herself. Unfortunately, the hill tribes are now falling under ideological conquest by Baptist missionaries.

  • moosecat||

    what's their tax rate?

  • The Expatriate||

    I can only speak for those who live on the Thai side of the border, but it's exactly zero percent.

  • ||

    Damned Baptists and their regulatory regimes.

  • LarryA||

    Baptists? 10%, of course.

  • Jersey Patriot||

    Shorter James C. Scott: Shut the fuck up, Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

  • ||

    Jersey FTW!

  • ||

    " For example, he shows a new way to understand the dispersal of ethnic groups: horizontally. Merely looking down on a two-dimensional ethnographic map shows what appear to be random scatterings, but by looking at the topography horizontally..."

    Vertically?

  • ||

    I'm sure the book is fascinating if you're into that sort of thing, but what is the point of putting it in Reason...should we all move to upland Southeast Asia and become farmers? Is Tom Palmer going to?

    What with no taxes and no government, is their standard of living higher than ours? Is their per-capita GNP off the charts? Is it filled with John Galts?

  • Arrroooooooo||

    It makes perfect sense for Reason to feature this book review. Did you read the article in its entirety? Their is a definitive emphasis placed on the importance of this work as a catalyst for thought. We have real world examples that may inspire different models of wealth creation and human interaction.

  • ||

    Right...what I am asking is, IS this a model of wealth creation?

  • The Expatriate||

    Ummm...ever hear of a little thing called the "Golden Triangle"? Just what is it that you think this farmers are farming?

  • ||

    Interesting.

    The commentary on the geography of predation is almost identical to John Keegan's take in The History of Warfare about the preconditions for the emergence of war as a human activity. In a nutshell, population density and transportable economic surplus.

    Of course, these are also the preconditions for civilization.

  • ||

    Interesting.

    The commentary on the geography of predation is almost identical to John Keegan's take in The History of Warfare about the preconditions for the emergence of war as a human activity. In a nutshell, population density and transportable economic surplus.

    Of course, these are also the preconditions for civilization.

  • Tom G. Palmer||

    Interesting point! We might compare it to the preconditions for parasitism. You need a living organism for parasites to thrive, but it doesn't follow that the parasites are the cost of the organism's existence.

  • Tom G Palmer||

    for "cost" read "cause".... jetlag!

  • TruthOffering.com||

    By no means is a lack of government a good thing. To paraphrase Thomas Paince, government is a necessary evil. However, what our country is doing (Nation building) is a dead-end. It ended many civilizations before us so I don't see why it would give us a get-out-of-jail-free card.

    Further more, all our defense spending does is grow the military industrial complex! But no one ever stops to think about how that could blow up in our faces! Why not ask questions, like what are the goals of such massive militarism? Why do we need to spend 9 times more than even China spends on defense, and more than the next cluster of military powers combined?

    During Hurricane Katrina, I found the events that transpired to be horrifying; troops going door-to-door confiscating weapons. What would happen during a national emergency? Or if we one day decided our government needed to be overthrown? We'd be squelched by the might of our military! They have devices that can kill standing armies with the click of a button; no troops needed.

    So we must put an end to military funding of this magnitude! Check out this article called, "The Military Dictatorial Complex." It presents a scary scenario, but I share the writer's fear of what could be to come:

    http://www.truthoffering.com/c.....mplex.html

  • ||

    I don't think it's possible to emphasize enough how important this sort of analysis is. To a great extent, America was founded by those escaping tyranny by putting geographic barriers between it and themselves - oceans, mountains, rivers, and sheer long distances.

    Tom: Are you also familiar with Robert Carneiro's "circumscription" theory of state-formation? If not, see:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carneiro's_Circumscription_Theory

    One way of putting it is that the history of civilizations is largely the history of river valleys and flood plains, because they made for easy crop irrigation and transportation.

  • Tom G Palmer||

    Tim,

    I am aware of it. It's one of many interesting theories. I also like the works of Alexander Ruestow, Gianfranco Poggi, Franz Oppenheimer, John Kautsky, and others. Scott's book is a very important extension of their insights, with lots of his own. It's an impressive work.

  • π||

    Moved from central Phoenix up to NW Montana. It's not so bad living out here among the fringes, a lot of these mountain people are very libertarian. They certainly like making their own rules. The county I'm living in eliminated the two party strangle hold by eliminating parties in primaries, as a result we have a number of libertarian candidates competing for various offices. A good thing in my opinion.

  • Poppin' Caps Lock||

    It sounds like a compelling book.

  • ||

    "How to be Free in an Unfree World" by Harry Browne is an informative primer on how to deal with this issue.

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    "The periphery find
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    "Those who evade taxes
    are evading civilization
    and all that it entails."

    Hmmmm...sounds like New
    Hampshire...

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  • ปลวก||

    They certainly like making their own rules. The county I'm living in eliminated the two party strangle hold by eliminating parties in primaries, as a result we have a number of libertarian candidates competing for various offices. A good thing in my opinion.

  • RAN||

    So we must put an end to military funding of this magnitude! Check out this article called, "The Military Dictatorial Complex. | RAN ran ran แรน แรน แรน |

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