Everything Old is New Again

One of humanity’s oldest forms of national economy is the “palace economy.” Under this system, the king would have the harvest brought into a central granary for storage. In Genesis 41, Joseph interprets Pharoah’s dream as predicting seven good harvests and seven poor ones, and says: “Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.”

Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, the Minoans, and the Mycenaean Greeks all had similar arrangements. It was a command economy, with subsistence farming as a base and the excess over bare necessity taken into the care of the government. Many examples of early writing are simply accounting records for the acquisition, storage, and disbursement of grain, wine, and olive oil. In theory, the stored food would be redistributed to the poor and, in times of shortage, to the people in general. In practice, it put the weapon of hunger into the ruler’s hands.

Politically, the ruler was the representative and near relation of the gods, and was invested with divine attributes. That may or may not have included shooting 18 holes-in-one in a single round of golf.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

Good riddance to the god-king of North Korea. I hope his fellow god-king Stalin has saved him a seat by the fire.

13 thoughts on “Everything Old is New Again”

  1. Socialism is fundamentally a kind of aristocracy, instead of centering around religious “divine right” and hereditary membership in the aristocracy it concerns itself with a slightly different ideology without quite so much traditionalism and cruft about it. But at it’s core it boils down to the same thing, an elite rules and decides how “the needy” (which invariably becomes the great bulk of society) are to receive their share of the centrally controlled economic output.

  2. I don’t believe that the Pharaoh – or his contemporaries – had the pure evil and disregard for human life that the North Korean leaders have shown.

  3. There can be an economic argument for such a common storage arrangement as there will be economics of scale. The granaries of the ruler can be better protected and better managed than individual storage. Plus, for many polities, famine could be sectional, so that abundances in one province could feed those with local underproduction.

    I’d suspect that wise government would keep the system working well to truly serve as a benefit for society. That helps with compliance too.

    Of course, “wise government” has been too often the exception in recorded history but it is a key attribute of great empires and stable societies.

  4. In Leningrad, during the German siege, sugar was storied in one huge warehouse, typical of the Soviet system. The warehouse caught fire and burned to the ground. the sugar melted and ran into the ground, creating a market for sweet dirt that many paid good money for.

  5. If a society hasn’t yet evolved private property and the rule of law, centralized expropriation is really the only means of capturing wealth for an entire society. Without a high degree of social trust, subsistence farmers will not willingly part with any agricultural surplus they create because they have little expectation of getting it back. Without a centralized surplus you can’t support artisans and merchants much less a warrior class.

    (Some have hypothesized that expropriation prevented surpluses that would lead to population growth which would absorb the surplus and put everyone back on the subsistence level. I’m dubious but it might be true if you have a society in which productivity is largely fixed.)

    The upshot is that if you have no private property and no rule of law, you pretty much have to have some sort of expropriation system just to get anything large scale done at all.

    I think Communism replaced the old medieval systems of Russia and China so readily because they really didn’t have functioning private property systems to begin with so they just moved from one form of centralized expropriation to another.

    I feel confident it runs the other way as well. If a society has institutions of private property and rule of law and the lose them, the society will have no choice but to revert to an expropriation system.

  6. @ Michael Kennedy:
    That is one of the key dangers of the palace economy: it makes the society vulnerable to a decapitation strike. The Mycenaean city-states were already under stress, but they collapsed when the Dorian Greek invaders were able to seize the stored supplies, feed themselves, and move on to the next target. The cities were abandoned, literacy was forgotten, and population of Greece plunged.

  7. I have little doubt that socialism would become just as thoroughly ossified and self-satisfied as the old aristocracies did, if it were around long enough. However, socialism is so committed to the idea of destruction that it cannot sustain itself long enough to do that.

  8. Protection of the food supply is the first priority in every society. Jared Diamond “Guns, Germs and Steel” states that (back in the day) even on isolated islands in the Pacific the chief took control of all food that was caught/killed/picked/stolen/grown and passed it out to tribe members based on the usual criteria.

    The rule “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is ancient. Old age does not validate the effectiveness of this rule in producing food – it only validates that the rule is attractive to tribes and chiefs.

    “Palace economy” existed even among the cavemen of France, the hunter-gatherers of Siberia and the bushmen of Australia.

    One can study this phenomenon by watching Survivor. Every “tribe” if formed of complete strangers and somehow a chief emerges who takes control of the food and hands it out on the basis of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Men get to eat more than women. If a person finds/kills/catches food he/she is expected to share it. Everyone loses weight because there is never enough to eat. Indeed, Survivor is the best weight loss program on TV. No contestant has ever grown fatter, even the chiefs.

    Even though every player comes from a market economy with private property, no one has ever caught/killed /found/picked some food and opened a restaurant where other tribe members can buy dinner. It will never happen because in primitive economies group needs trump individual wants.

    Only in large populations can food be bought and sold and this occurs only if the group believes that it benefits more if it allows individuals to sell food rather than requiring the to share it.

    Hence we have Obama who wants to recreate the cave man economy by requiring sharing and opposing profiting.

  9. In primitive economies chance plays a larger role in finding any particular food resource than skill, particularly in large-game hunting. Furthermore large-game hunting was usually done by groups. It is hard to calibrate the relative contribution of any one individual, especially when you are innumerate. One person, or his immediate family, could not eat a large animal carcass by themselves before it went bad. It is more rational to pool the kills and share out according to need than to try to maintain individual property rights in game and foraged food. Once agriculture made large-scale preservation of food possible, and results were more obviously proportional to effort, property rights and exchange made more sense. But the old morality lingered on in attitudes, and people still felt that they ought to be their brother’s keeper.

    By the way, the surplus and specialization theory is becoming subject to revision. Recent archeological evidence now made accessible by the fall of the USSR is suggesting that copper and bronze metallurgy, horse domestication, and spoked-wheel technology did not arise in the agricultural cities southwest asian regions but rather in the proto-Indo-European speaking steppe cultures, which had a non-farming livestock and herding economy but which also had mining and metallurgical towns that seem to have developed metallurgy first and exported it to the agricultural cities, along with large amounts of horses. The steppe societies seemed to be trading cultures without the centralized states of the cities — their settlements were not fortified and didn’t show the usual archeological signs of warfare. See http://www.amazon.com/Horse-Wheel-Language-Bronze-Age-Eurasian/dp/0691058873

  10. …their settlements were not fortified and didn’t show the usual archeological signs of warfare.

    Neither did the Mayans. For fifty years archeologist thought that the lack of walled cities in mess-America meant that they had no significant warfare and were governed by a pacifistic caste of scientist priest. The archeologist should have remembered that for 600 years the city of Sparta proper also had no walls yet it’s people warred and trained for war incessantly.

    It turned out that the Mayans did as well. They most likely did not fortify there towns because in the hot and moist climate of meso-America, there is no way to store lthe arge amounts of food necessary to withstand a siege. There are no season and a constant inflow of food is necessary. That requires each polity to defend its domain at its frontiers because once an enemy invest the city, they’ve won.

    People fight whenever there is profit for doing so and most seemingly peaceful ancient peoples are just illusions caused by insufficient data and ideological blindness. If the ancient mines and settlements of the steps showed little signs of warfare, that meant that either they were perceived as valuable to the people of the day or than (more likely) the fighting for the resources occurred at a remove from the resource itself.

    The people of the steps were pre-agrigulture and relied on their herds or hunting for their primary food source. The real asset they had to protect were their herds and their grazing territory. Fixed assets like towns or even mines were pretty much useless without the herds to feed it. Besides, there is not a lot of material to fortify with anyway e.g. no trees.

    The steppe has been compared to an ocean militarily in terms of mobility and the lack of significant geological features. So, a fixed asset on the steppe would be akin to an island and in navel warfare the battle that determines who has control of the island can occur far away out to sea leaving little evidence of the battle on the island itself.

    It would be something akin to future acheologist rummaging through the strata for 1940s America and deciding that America was not involved in WWII because there were no signs of active warfare.

    Trouble is, most archeologist know diddly about warfare and even the history of warfare. They’re better about now than they used to be but they’re still largely insular academics. We they see something in the field, their vision is always clouded by their formal theories. Also, Archeologist who develop a fondness for the people they study tend to downplay their negative aspects. Very few if any of the cherry visions of people’s past have survived long study.

  11. The lack of fortification did not suggest the people were not warlike. It implied they didn’t have the big administrative state needed to build the walls. The food remains showed that they lived of of meat from their herds (or from their neighbor’s herds, traded for metal) and the abundant wild grain. The steppe people had a lively business supplying mercenaries, warhorses, and chariots to the big cities. They were used as shock troops to clear the way for the regular troops of their clients. Sometimes the mercenaries took over the cities and founded their own kingdoms. Many of the local semitic languages had Indo-European loan-words for military and equestrian terms.

    The main point of the book was that the conventional idea, that civilized technologies emerged in the cities and the steppe people were parasitical on the cities, may have it backwards. The steppe people seem to have been the technologically innovative ones. furthermore, the social organization of the steppe people seems to have been the foundation for Western civilization, with the god-kings of the middle east being an alien model that keeps intruding. In proto-Indo-European steppe culture, the king was only first among equals, his equals being the warrior aristocracy. Think King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which is actually pretty archetypal in the west. In the Mesopotamian cities, the king was literally a god and everybody else was his slave. Think Saddam, or Kim Jong-Il.

    It’s a complex argument. Read the book, I think you’d like it. There’s lots of hard evidence.

  12. Egypt used to be the richest country in the middle east. The annual floods of the Nile ensured the fertility of Egypt’s cropland. The Nile does not flood anymore. The fields along its banks of the Nile have lost their legendary productivity. Do gooders built a dam at Aswan. The people are hungry, Egypt is poor, and the gods are angry.

  13. James Bennett,

    The books already on my reading list. I will bump it up a few notches.

    The lack of fortification did not suggest the people were not warlike. It implied they didn’t have the big administrative state needed to build the walls.

    I’ll buy that they had no centralized state. Centralized states require (1) a controllable resource e.g. water or relatively small tracts of arable land, and (2) a large disparity between the military potential of governing caste and the rest of the population. One might argue that the limited case of mines were a controllable resource but the people of the steppes would have all been horsemen, hunters and warriors. No minority of warriors would have been overtly superior to the rest. As a result you could never develop a centralized autocracy because the autocrats could never impose their will on others by force.

    (For example: The Mongolian Khans were individuals who could temporally get large numbers of the steppe people to all fight in one direction. They’re efforts were never stable. Their only hope of dynasty was to invade an agricultural land and set up shop as the local aristocracy. )

    However, the lack of walls doesn’t itself indicate the of lack of centralized state e.g. the Mayans. It might just be that walls were poor forms of defense on the steppes for the reason I elaborated on above.

    The biggest factor with both the steppes and the Mayans is that a besieging army had access to the food production of the surrounds. In places that have seasons, food is produced and laying about only a few months out of the year. An army that doesn’t show up at the right time has to bring all its on food along. However, in mess-America, food was produced year round and some fields always had food and peasants to grow more. A besieging army could just live off the land indefinitely. On the steppes, besiegers had access to all the herds and natural grains.

    On the steppes, a walled city wouldn’t have been very protective but would have been a death trap in which your enemies could starve you to death. On the steppes, mobility and striking power are the only true defense.

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