“Barbarians” with sophistication: James Scott on the Art of Not Being Governed

Yale professor and celebrated writer James Scott gave a talk at Duke today. He walked us through a set of interesting ideas in his new book The Art of Not Being Governed. A similar interview is here. His main argument is that Southeast Asian upland people choose their living arrangements, farming practices, and even illiteracy (over which I have doubts) strategically in order to remain stateless.

The area he refers to is called Zomia. It is a mountainous region consisting of parts of seven Asian countries. The people in this area have remained anarchist throughout the history.

He first pointed out that sedentary crop farming is usually necessary to establish states, as can be demonstrated by civilizations in major river valleys all over the world. However, states can also emerge without sedentary farming. For instance, trade and transportation centers can also turn into states.

States have control over its territory and interact with areas beyond its territory — “barbarian peripheries”.  Historically, states trade with and demand labor (slavery) from peripheries. This statement is no longer after World War II for two reasons. First, accurate positioning technologies have increased states’ capacity to occupy the full territory. Second, “barbarian peripheries” are no longer fiscally sterile. Their rich natural resource deposits are often necessary for states to advance in science and technology.

Hills, valleys, and wetlands are three geographical environments that lead to different population arrangements and institutions. Wet rice cultivation is widespread in valleys because of good irrigation, while slash-and-burn is more prevalent in hilly areas. According to Scott, societies are more egalitarian in hills than in valleys. Kingdoms are more likely to occur in valleys. One reason may be that wet-rice farming requires skills and is likely to differentiate households with different level of productivity in terms of income. On the contrary, slash-and-burn requires little sophistication and is likely to generate similar incomes for all. Another reason may be that valley residents are likely to produce more surplus, and the increase in surplus calls for an institution — a state — to allocate the surplus, to facilitate trade among people, and to establish norms and regulations.

The most interesting concept in Scott’s lecture is “runaway crops”. Scott made a case that wet rice production is favorable for tax collectors because rice grows above the ground and matures at a predetermined time. Tax collectors can come at the harvest season and easily demand the amounts due by the household. By contrast, root crops such as potato and maize are easy to grow but not immediately visible at harvest. Such crops will make tax-collection difficult. It is also surprising for me to learn that people seem to adjust their portfolio of farming produces depending on their desired relationship with the state. They may plant crops maturing in different seasons so that one-time tax visits are not profitable for the state.

Although I have found Scott’s arguments about the relationship between geographical features and governance schemes compelling, I still doubt to what extent do the “barbarians” select into such lifestyles.

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