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Scientists Have New Theory on Origin of State


The conventional theory about the origin of the state is that the adoption of farming increased land productivity, which led to the production of food surplus; this surplus was a prerequisite for the emergence of tax-levying elites and, eventually, states. Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Professor Joram Mayshar and colleagues challenge this theory and propose that hierarchy arose as a result of the shift to dependence on appropriable cereal grains.

Mayshar et al. challenge the conventional theory that the transition from foraging to farming drove the development of complex, hierarchical societies by creating agricultural surplus in areas of fertile land. Image credit: Dan Lewandowski.

Mayshar et al. challenge the conventional theory that the transition from foraging to farming drove the development of complex, hierarchical societies by creating agricultural surplus in areas of fertile land. Image credit: Dan Lewandowski.

“A theory linking land productivity and surplus to the emergence of hierarchy has developed over a few centuries and became conventional in thousands of books and articles,” Professor Mayshar said.

“We show, both theoretically and empirically, that this theory is flawed.”

Underpinning the study, Professor Mayshar, Professor Omer Moav from the University of Warwick and Reichman University, and Professor Luigi Pascali from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and the Barcelona School of Economics developed and examined a large number of data sets including:

(i) the level of hierarchical complexity in society;

(ii) the geographic distribution of wild relatives of domesticated plants;

(iii) and land suitability for various crops to explore why in some regions, despite thousands of years of successful farming, well-functioning states did not emerge, while states that could tax and provide protection to lives and property emerged elsewhere.

“Using these novel data, we were able to show that complex hierarchies, like complex chiefdoms and states, arose in areas in which cereal crops, which are easy to tax and to expropriate, were de-facto the only available crops,” Professor Pascali said.

“Paradoxically, the most productive lands, those in which not only cereals but also roots and tubers were available and productive, did not experience the same political developments.”

The researchers also employed the natural experiment of the Columbian Exchange, the interchange of crops between the New World and the Old World in the 15th century CE which radically changed land productivity and the productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers in most countries in the world.

“Constructing these new data sets, investigating case studies, and developing the theory and empirical strategy took us nearly a decade of hard work,” Professor Pascali said.

“Following the transition from foraging to farming, hierarchical societies and, eventually, tax-levying states have emerged,” Professor Moav said.

“These states played a crucial role in economic development by providing protection, law and order, which eventually enabled industrialization and the unprecedented welfare enjoyed today in many countries.”

“The conventional theory is that this disparity is due to differences in land productivity. The conventional argument is that food surplus must be produced before a state can tax farmers’ crops, and therefore that high land productivity plays the key role.”

“We challenge the conventional productivity theory, contending that it was not an increase in food production that led to complex hierarchies and states, but rather the transition to reliance on appropriable cereal grains that facilitate taxation by the emerging elite,” Professor Mayshar said.

“When it became possible to appropriate crops, a taxing elite emerged, and this led to the state.”

“Only where the climate and geography favored cereals, was hierarchy likely to develop.”

“Our data shows that the greater the productivity advantage of cereals over tubers, the greater the likelihood of hierarchy emerging.”

“Suitability of highly productive roots and tubers is in fact a curse of plenty, which prevented the emergence of states and impeded economic development.”

The team’s paper was published in the Journal of Political Economy.

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Joram Mayshar et al. 2022. The Origin of the State: Land Productivity or Appropriability? Journal of Political Economy 130 (4); doi: 10.1086/718372



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