Prehistoric Barbarians and Bandits Knew Better
By: George Noga – December 8, 2012
The very instant I heard Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that” statement I knew it was not only wrong but bass ackward. Economic literati understand viscerally that economic activity must precede political activity. However, it took Tom Palmer in “The Origins of State and Government” to provide much of the necessary historical and logical underpinnings to juxtapose economic activity (business) and government.
“Economic means must always precede political means. Nomads and hunter-gatherers never have a government.”
Palmer’s axiom is that the economic means always must precede the political means. That explains why there never are governments among primitive societies; they have leaders but never a state. Hunter-gatherers and nomads don’t generate enough of an economic surplus to support a permanent predator class. Nevertheless, such societies were victimized by roving bandits (precursors of government) who moved on once they plundered what little was available. There was no reason for them to stay once they pillaged all the meager supplies available. Also, the nomads and hunters were not stationary and not easy targets for predators.
Everything changed once people settled permanently and established agriculture. Now they generated a constant economic surplus and remained vulnerable in one location. Once again, roving bandits came, pillaged and plundered. However, the bandits were not stupid. They quickly understood and grasped the opportunity. Now there was a reason for them to stay inasmuch as the farmers couldn’t migrate and they could pillage permanently. Hence, roving bandits morphed into stationary bandits who, through sheer force (subjugating the people and keeping out other roving bandits), acquired a monopoly on sanctioned physical violence within a given territory and, viola, government was created.
“Once agriculture was established, roving bandits became stationary bandits enforcing a monopoly on physical violence in a given territory and, viola, government was created.”
The evolution and causation is clear enough. An economic surplus is an a priori condition for the existence of a state. Indeed, government cannot exist without the entrepreneur class; they have to build it before government can plunder it. Without those who invest, take risks and build businesses (despite hindrance by the state), government wouldn’t have any resources and would not exist. Even the earliest farmers had to invest (plant seeds, tend the crops) and take risks (drought, pestilence, etc.) while the now-permanent bandits did nothing productive.
It is no different today. Permanent bandits, who now sanctimoniously go by titles such as kings, emperors, presidents and prime ministers, plunder billions through their enforced monopoly on violence. It continues in kleptocracies across the globe; witness Putin and the ill-gotten wealth of Chinese leaders on full display during the sordid Bo Xilai affair. Witness most of Latin and South America, the Caribbean, most of Africa, all of Arabia and all the countries ending in stan. Don’t forget the narcostate of Mexico and significant pockets of Southeast Asia.
“Even authentic bandits in ancient times sometimes understood that pillaging less today enabled them to pillage even more tomorrow – thus benefiting both the pillagers and pillagees.”
Is America really any different just because our rulers may govern with the pro forma consent of the governed? They may call themselves mayor, governor, congressman or president but they continue to behave like bandits. They enrich themselves in many illicit ways including money, perquisites, preferments, legal exemptions and power. They plunder from the rest of us in reliance on a legal monopoly on violence largely to ensure their reelection and thereby continued membership in the predator class. And now the chief bandit in all the land has the sheer chutzpah to proclaim that government is the font of all economic success – a notion that even the barbarians of yesteryear would have found absurd. Even they, lacking any education, understood that the plunderers did not help the plundered create their businesses.
We may be better off with authentic bandits of ancient times, like those in the Capital One commercials. At least sometimes they got sated and left us alone. And some of them even understood that pillaging less today caused the economy to grow faster such that they could pillage even more tomorrow, thus benefiting both the pillagers and the pillagees. Were it so in America today. Our current crop of bandits never gets sated and is less enlightened than some of their counterparts who swept into the west from the steppes of Central Asia.