James C. Scott – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

James C. Scott – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

How did governments emerge? The usual answer is economist Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory. Scott describes this theory in the final chapter, but seems not to have heard of Olson. Scott instead emphasizes an anthropological, biological, and environmental history of government’s origin.

Lots of good material here on domestication, disease, war and slavery, and how sedentarism affected environmental quality. Many ruins became that way due to epidemics, lack of sanitation, and deteriorating soil quality.

As importantly, Scott doesn’t view states as a black-and-white concept. There are shades of gray on a spectrum, with difference facets of government such as organized militaries, monarchs, and written records emerging at different times in different places, and to varying degrees. This shows itself in how written versions of the Gilgamesh epic evolved over time.

The emergence of centralized states was, ironically, a spontaneous order, same as the non-state market processes that economists study—though again, Scott doesn’t stroll very far down that avenue. Scott’s story is incomplete, but well worth studying.

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