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Seeds of empire
Why did states and empires emerge earlier in some parts of the world than in others?
The question has long intrigued historians, who have wanted to understand the discrepancy, and policymakers, who have sought to exploit it. The exploiters had their heyday in the late nineteenth century when European imperialists carved Africa into parcels to suit their interests. Against the power of the European states, the political entities in Africa could muster little effective resistance. The imperialists rationalized their cupidity by asserting a civilizing mission in what they were doing: Because the Africans hadn’t been able to build states sufficient to ward off the intruders, the Europeans would do the state-building for them.
Not everyone, even in Europe, was persuaded at the time of the scramble, and within three-quarters of a century the rationalization fell apart. Africans expelled the colonizers and established independent states. Crucially, though, the post-colonial states mostly maintained the boundaries established during colonial era.
For the historians, the question is still a live one. Some have blamed imperialism itself for retarding the growth of incipient states. Others have pointed out that empires had existed in Africa before the Europeans arrived.
But both responses fail the crucial test of state power: Can the state defend itself? The failure of the Africans to keep the Europeans out is prima facie evidence that state-building in Africa lagged that in Europe.
So we’re back to: Why?
The conventional view has been that agricultural productivity was the key to the establishment of states. Once hunters became farmers, and farmers produced sufficient surplus to support ruling elites, the ruling elites appeared. Sometimes they were soldiers, sometimes priests, often a combination. In whatever proportions, they employed coercion and provided protection to the farmers, thereby justifying their existence. The state was born.
Africa and other tropical regions fell behind, according to the conventional version, because the poor soils that typify rain forests—on account of the rain washing out soil components essential to agriculture—prevented surpluses from developing. No surplus, no state.
The problem with this view is that many African and other tropical regions—Amazonia and New Guinea, for instance—did produce surpluses. Or at least they could have. The cultivation of cassava, plantains, yams and other such plants produced as many calories as their cultivators required, and could have produced more.
But the surplus wasn’t transportable or storable. Pull a cassava out of the ground and it starts to rot; soon it’s inedible. A tax collector in a proto-state couldn’t do anything with such a surplus.
Elsewhere, though—in regions less rainy: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Mexico, Europe—different plants produced a surplus that could be transported and stored. These regions grew cereal grains: wheat, rice, corn, barley, oats. The edible parts of these plants weren’t tubers but seeds, and the nature of seeds is precisely that they don’t rot quickly. If they did, they wouldn’t survive to produce the next crop. And seeds are energy-dense—they give the new crop its start on life—and so are easily transported.
In the cereal regions, tax collectors could make a living, for themselves and their states. And the cereal regions were where states and empires emerged first and most successfully.
The effect was attenuated over time. As economies grew more sophisticated, states based on trade developed: Phoenicia, Mali, Venice. The nomadic empires of the Mongols and the Comanches were underpinned by animal resources. Extractive industries like mining and oil produced storable, transportable surpluses detached from food supplies.
Yet early effects linger. In China, rice in the south and wheat in the north fostered states that merged into a civilization that endures until the present. The corn in Mexican tortillas often comes from the United States these days, but that American corn is descended from Mexican ancestors. The United States seized half of Mexico in the 1840s, but Mexican corn conquered the American farm economy in the decades before and after. India is or soon will be the most populous country on earth; the billion and a half Indians are sustained by rice and wheat as they have been for millennia.
(For more on this, see “The Origin of the State: Land Productivity or Appropriability?”, by Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav and Luigi Pascali, in Journal of Political Economy, vol. 130, no. 4 (April 2022). https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/doi/full/10.1086/718372 .)