What is the state? An operating state is the monopoly-authoriser and dominant-holder of legitimate coercion in a given territory. Which makes social predation natural to it twice over – since exploitation worth the name requires coercion and lack of alternative. There is good reason why Mancur Olson started his analysis of the state on the model of the stationary bandit. But mere wealth extraction is not the only form of predation – a Rhomaioi ("Byzantine") state persecuting Jews and monophysites or (even more so) a Khmer Rouge state creating the "new society" by mass murder is being more predatory than some Eurasian potentate squeezing vast wealth out of masses of poor peasants. Predation is imposing your wishes on others to your benefit without genuine regard for theirs. Extraction of wealth is only one possible wish (though a common one, with a wide utility). Indeed, greed is a more self-limiting motivation than the search for some social perfection. (Burning heretics, gassing Jews or slaughtering "bourgeois elements" destroys exploitable social resources.)
Rulers trade-off provision of public goods for material and other returns – a certain level of social order, of roads, bridges, external defence etc. increases one’s take: both the current level and persistence of same. Rulers' coercive power makes it easier for them to make the trade-off to their own advantage. If the balance is persistently more towards provision of public goods and less towards predation than the general historical pattern, then one must look to more specific restraining factors.
Choice of ruler – by revolt against, other replacement of (such as elections), or flight from (also known as competitive jurisdictions) – are the main constraints. Representative government institutionalises ruler-replacement, and thus political competition, to the benefit of the citizens. (Though, as Paul Collier points out in his TED talk on the “bottom billion” the empirical evidence is that electoral competition is bad for poor governance resource-economies but checks and balances on power are good.) But such government is itself a product of previous constraints. Constraints including revolt (Dutch War of Independence, English Civil War, Glorious Revolution of 1688, American War of Independence, French Revolution …). A history that extends a long way (e.g. the English Peasant Revolt successfully halting aristocratic attempts to wind back peasant rights to pre Black Death arrangements). With some innovations on the way through, such as Edward I deciding that Simon de Montfort’s Parliament had social consent advantages which worked for the crown as well as against, both following on from Alfonso IX of Leon and Castile calling for merchants to elect representatives to councils of magnates to discuss taxing arrangements. But we have to ask why social consent in that form was useful: it was not a consideration than occurred to any Son of Heaven, Caliph, Sultan, Khan or Raja. Earlier, Classical city-states invented citizenship by trading political and civil rights for military effort, and so on. Processes that fluctuate back and forth (e.g. post-medieval monarchs with permanent income sources and standing armies no longer needing social consent via representative institutions until income demands exceeded income constraints, as fatally happened to both Charles I and Louis XVI).
A central long-term problem for rulers is that they must rule through agents, who have their own agendas. Early on in a new regime, identification of agents with the regime (what Ibn Khaldun calls asabiyya or common feeling) tends to be strong, with a high degree of ruler attention to what could go wrong and to instruments of agent-control. Over time, complacency sets in, the number of agents tends to grow (there are always reasons – policy, patronage, power, position – to have more bureaucrats/officials), control becomes more difficult – not least because agents collude and, in their own interests, wear away at the ruler’s instruments of control – corruption and waste becomes more widespread, so efficiency and effectiveness of rulership declines. Rulership becomes both more predatory overall (as agents extract more and more for themselves) and less effective. At some point, efficiency and effectiveness decline to the point where the old regime falls to some more competitive predator and a new system of rulership is imposed (often externally), which then goes through the same cycle.
The most recent major state to display the cycle was the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (which suffered the cycle particularly strongly for having all its social eggs in the government basket). First, a group bound by common feeling (asabiyya) seizes power (Lenin), then the ruler separates himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin), then the system slowly decays as group solidarity fades (loss of commitment by agents) and corruption (loss of control of agents) erodes social resilience and regime power (Khruschev to Chernyenko), until it finally collapses (Gorbachev).
But the cycle extends back to the dawn of civilisation (such as the effectively universal Roman imperium slowly reversing the citizenship deal of rights for support – as mass military provision was no longer required – until the predation/public-good-provision balance fell below that necessary to sustain social resilience against external pressure). The history of Chinese dynasties displays this pattern, as do the waves of pastoralist conquest across Eurasia going right back to ancient Mesopotamia. Indeed, in China, the two patterns merged together, China becoming more prone to pastoralist conquest over time; of the last three dynasties who conquered all of China, two – Yuan (Mongol) and Qing (Manchu) – were of conquering pastoralists, which no previous unifying dynasty had been. (Ibn Khaldun, along with Mancur Olson, are all you need to read to understand these patterns.)
A classic example of not thinking through this dynamic is much commentary on Diocletian’s division of the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern halves in 285 AD. People say ‘the Empire became too large for one person to control’. Really? The Roman Empire had not changed in territory substantially since Augustus (r. 27 BC - 14 AD). (Trajan, r.98-117, had been the last Emperor to add any bits to the Empire, most of which was not retained; the only previous addition being Britannia under Claudius, r.41-54). It is much more likely that almost three centuries of bureaucratic metastization made the Imperial bureaucracy too unwieldy an instrument of control – particularly when Diocletian himself expanded centralised control: hence the East-West division and the attempted Augusti/Caesar structure.
The constraints (both practical and competitive), or lack thereof, on the predation/public-good-provision trade-off, and the inherent principal-agent problems of rulership, are key underlying dynamics of rulership and its patterns of waxing and waning. Nor does representative government solve the problem – it just shifts the balance, and not irrevocably. Consider, for example, wasteful and inefficient government education systems, with their inherent tendencies to declining productivity (pdf). (Or even declining quality – as far as we can tell in Australia, relying on anecdotal evidence: the regulator also being the main provider, there are no reliable, regular public indicators of year-to-year performance.) Or that the representative principle has both waxed and waned in European history – to a pretty low level, by 1770. (Or, come to that, by 1941.) The current pushes to have more matters decided by judges, by unelected international bodies (or even unelected international judges) and to have certain policy options excluded as wicked regardless of majority wishes – such as the praise of bipartisan immigration policy when it excludes majority preferences for lower immigration and the denunciation of bipartisan immigration policy when it reflects majority wishes for exclusory border policies – all represent attacks on the representative principle.
The paradox of politics – that we need the state to protect us against social predators but the state is itself the most dangerous of social predators – can never be resolved, only managed more or less well.
ADDENDA: This post has been amended to make the logic of the argument clearer.
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