Good government by necessity

Fron Nicholas Eubank via Chris Blattman

For years, studies of state formation in early and medieval Europe have argued that the modern, representative state emerged as the result of negotiations between autocratic governments in need of tax revenues and citizens who were only willing to consent to taxation in exchange for greater government accountability.

This paper presents evidence that similar dynamics shaped the formation of Somaliland’s democratic government. In particular, it shows that government dependency on local tax revenues — which resulted from its ineligibility for foreign assistance — provided those outside the government with the leverage needed to force the development of inclusive, representative and accountable political institutions.

 

For the uninitiated, Somaliland is a de facto country in the North of the legal fiction called Somalia, hence it’s ineligibility for foreign assistance.

The basic mechanics hypothesized, that a government with access to aid could afford to do things that dependence of tax revenue from economic activity could not, is familiar. Early in University I speculated that the success of Japan/South Korea/Taiwan could be attributable to the lack of resource rents to pay for bad governments. Fruitfully this led me to the resource curse literature and thence to other places.

Something I’ve wondered ever since is how Australian history (that is NSW and the colonies that formed directly from it) might have changed if the Blue Mountains had been crossed earlier than they had been. Were rents available from wool earlier on the strangely benevolent character of the earlier colonial government [fn1] may not have been so necessary and the political culture that provided for the defeat of the bunyip aristocracy may never have arisen. Imagine a class of wool barons creating the same stupid culture that the Plantation owners in the Deep South did, reading Walter Scott novels and romanticizing their inequitousness . Still, we still may see Twiggy Forrest swapping his overalls for a kilt.

I also wonder if (and this may not be probable) if the naval character of early government (until Macquarie all governors were navy men) had anything to do with it. Pirate ships are often characterized as having early forms of constitutional government, and in no small part this was simply due to knowledge and experience of mutiny, including ones that led to the pirates taking control of the ship in the first place. The confines of a ship are prone to make a captain aware of their precarious status, and it’s plausible that any competent captain would know it. In a tiny isolated colony things were much the same. Arthur Phillip would know that the marines on Garden Island would step in were the convicts to revolt (even if they refused to do any supervising), but getting to that point would be a failure, especially when you had a background in managing masses of discomforted, confined and sexually frustrated men. There wasn’t any way a more arbitrary or foolish use of power would long survive [fn2].

[fn1] To settlers at least

[fn2] Nor could the unfortunate Bligh

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

You are going to upset people – it is an article of faith for many people here that Somalia is the practical disproof of libertarianism, this rather suggests the opposite!

john
john
10 years ago

“if the naval character of early government (until Macquarie all governors were navy men) had anything to do with it”

The development of a ‘citizens army’ concept happened very quickly in OZ , the groups that went to the Maori wars were already very much like the later ANZAC model, there might be something in this . Monash was more of a professional organiser ( engineer) than a commander.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

“representative states emerged as the result of negotiations between autocratic governments in need of tax revenues and citizens who were only willing to consent to taxation in exchange for greater government accountability.”

lol. Sure. The magna carta, the French revolution, the birth of Nations, etc., were all negotiations. Cups of tea, biscuits and talks till the wee hours of the morning?

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

I am actually amazed at the idea that negotiation can’t be violent or can’t follow. Violence.

observa
observa
10 years ago

Of some passing historical interest, but just how does it ultimately develop into so many giving up so many necessities for all of that Good Gummint-
http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/ipad/k-household-hit-for-government-pay/story-fn6bqpju-1226068953284

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Since Paul Frijters makes a lot more useful comments here than I do, I should probably explain why this particular (ly glib) one strikes me as uncharacteristically silly.

The fundamental premise of social organisation upon which Blattman’s model is predicated is the very violence Paul’s examples invoke. Paul’s comment, however, suggests a somewhat bizarre case in which good government evolved by cumulative fortitious victories (i.e. victories by the side predisposed to better government).

Blattman’s model is slightly more complex: violent domination is the first iteration, but what happens when one party cannot dominate – in some cases, sectarian conflict and disaster, doubtlessly. In other cases, ‘negotiation’, including by war/rebellion, resulting in limited or divided governmental functions which, thanks to each party’s vested interest in maintaining surveillance over the limits (of capacity or jurisdiction) on each other party, institutionalises itself (at least in some cases).

From an evolutionary point of view it is not hard to see why the societies in which this happens tend to dominate over time?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Patrick,

the word ‘negotiation’ is so out of place when it concerns the evolution of political institutions in Europe, it is hard to know where to begin. Not just are we talking centuries of violent bloodshed between feudal warlords and an immediate vendetta against any person or group opposing existing powers, but the eventual institutions we ended up with are based on group identities coming from that violent evolution. To pre-suppose some kind of long-standing groups that fought themselves to a stand-still and then made a truce is simply not how these things went. ‘The English’ are an outcome of the 100-year war, not really a pre-existing clear entity. ‘The citizenry’ was an outcome of the 40-odd years that it took for the french merchants, industrialists, etc., to overcome the noblity and the royal courts in France, and even then they organised around the concept of ‘Frenchness’ which itself is an indentity forged in battle.

Taxes themselves have a long and checkered history in Western Europe. Often they started as emergency levies to fund some war, and taxes were levied at the point of a sword. They were then intitutionalised (such as with the taxes from the Catholic church) and tax revolts were often bloodily put down (just think of what happened to the Cathares, or the Protestant tax revolts in Northern Europe). Take the magna carta for instance. That was less the outcome of a negotiations, but more one of ambush. The treaty that was signed was in particular oriented about insuring there would be no more new taxes on the barons (though the barons of course did whatever they wanted in their own realms! No real negotiation between the taxer and the taxed here. Merely a settlement between local warlords). And the king of course tried, quite succesfully, to rid himself of that magna carta as soon as possible (the document really wasnt in effect for long). Those barons are no more, but some of the institutions they spawned (representative institutions) are with us, though they changed composition. You can tell similar stories about almost and ‘taxes’. The point is that the institutions we have owe more to a path of violent struggle between ever changing (and usually not benevolent) groups.

Hence I see a European history with constantly changing identities, alliances, accidental institutions, and many failed revolts. An ebb and flow of wars and constantly changing institutions. To press that historical ‘reality’ in to the word ‘negotiation’ is like saying an elephant is really a mouse with overgrown teeth and a few too many steroids. It simply makes a mockery of the word ‘negotiations’. Worse, for me it downplays the many sacrifices that revolutionaries made to get us where we are today and overlays a language of calm and rationality that doesnt fit.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
10 years ago

As Paul says “No real negotiation between the taxer and the taxed here. Merely a settlement between local warlords.” An example doesn’t prove, of course, but I agree that this is typical.

I read the first sections of the Eubank paper on Somaliland. It is well-written but I find the “revenue bargaining” thesis weak. Like Paul, I don’t see the table on opposite sides of which the government and the people sit and where the people say “Give us more say and we’ll pay you more tax.” I really doubt the table ever exists. Counter-examples abound. The “Arab Spring” does not show anything like it. There, the table is a public square where demonstrators confront police but money does not enter into it. The eastern Europe anti-communist movements, ditto.

I miss two famous authors/theories: Mancur Olson and Dankwart Rustow.

Olson’s “stationary bandit” thesis says that with roving bandits intermittently laying waste, there is no incentive for settlements to put in an effort. A stationary bandit who offers protection from the roving bandits in exchange for predictable taxes will provide the peasantry with some certainty so everyone can prosper. Government as a protection racket.

Rustow says democratisation is created by elites. When the elites have fought themselves to a standstill and when they agree that it is a stalemate, they may agree that the only thing to do with the hunk of power they are squabbling over, is to give it permanently to a third party – so neither side can get it. They may give the power to the people.

Tocqueville had noticed it, saying that historically in France when the nobles quarrelled, sometimes the people got some more power. Power as a by-product of elite struggle.

According to the Somaliland paper, the new clan-dominated government tried to take a port by force but failed because another clan resisted. They then negotiated and agreed on some democratic reforms. Who agreed? Clan elders. (It is a tribal clan culture, Patrick; libertarianism is irrelevant. I warmly recommend Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest: “Nomad.”) Of course there must be some “revenue bargaining” but it is not between people and government and though money would be important in negotiations it’s not the essence. The essence is power and it is between elites. The elites struggle and devolution of power occurs (only?) when they recognise that the stand-off means none of the elites can grab it for themselves.

I don’t know the literature on revenue bargaining but I’m a bit suspicious. The lack of mention of Olson and Rustow make me wonder if it’s a goody-two-shoes notion of people-power.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
10 years ago

No Richard. Massive disagreements of substance:

Negotiation is not between people and government. It is between rival elites.

Not money but power. Money involved would be a means to power (i.e., will be divvied up among the elites who spend it to maintain their power bases).

The people do not pay tax in exchange for a slice of power. They pay tax for protection (about which they are not asked and get no choice).

Any power the people get will be a by-product of stalemated elite negotiation.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
10 years ago

From
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Carta

some evidence in support of the “revenue bargaining” case:

“Edward I of England reissued the Charters of 1225 in 1297 in return for a new tax.”

This successor to the Magna Carta of 1215 was negotiated with the nobles (not people) who were at loggerheads with the crown for centuries. Still, “The principle of taxation by consent was reinforced…”

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Bargaining with the tax man in the middle ages

t=0. “g’day folks, time to pay your taxes. My opening position in our tax negotiations is that I will have all your grain and your cutlery.”
“But some of us will then starve this winter”
“sorry, not my problem. You see, we have a war to fight. You are not the only ones we want to rob, you see. Take it up with the baron if you have a complaint. Your neighbour on your left put in a petition and after a jocular exchange my axe finalised the negotiations”
“but I dont have much grain”
“Dont worry, we will take everything we can find and torture your son till you tell us where you have hidden the rest”
” cant we talk about this like civilised people”
“we might, but I wouldnt put it past you to lie, so best to torture your son to be sure, hej? Oh, and of course I will be taking your daughter along to the castle to be raped. Lex prima noce and all that. You of course realise this has been sanctioned by the church.”
“And what if I hide my daughter”
“Your other neighbour did that. The bargaining with him involved some unpleasantries we would really want to avoid at this stage, but if you dont complain too much we might send your daughter home alive”

I reiterate, I can only laugh at the suggestion that the history of taxation in medieval Europe is one whereby the taxed got rights in return for the taxes.