October 31, 2023

Testing two theories of the origin of government

Leander Heldring discusses the formation of ancient states in Iraq.

Ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia carved detailed scenes from their lives in stone walls.

Source: swisshippo

Some social scientists have postulated that governments are designed for the purpose of helping the powerful take resources from the less powerful. But while there have been many exploitative governments throughout history, states may have actually started to form as a means of facilitating cooperation.

In a paper in the American Economic Review, authors Robert C. Allen, Mattia C. Bertazzini, and Leander Heldring found that in ancient Mesopotamia, states were more likely to form when large-scale irrigation projects were needed after losing access to a river. They argue that the pattern observed in the archeological records is best explained by small settlements banding together to cooperate through new institutions.

Heldring recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the economic origins of government, the nature of archaeological evidence for ancient state formation, and parallels to modern-day institutions.

The edited highlights of that conversation are below, and the full interview can be heard using the podcast player.



Tyler Smith: The goal of your paper is to test two competing hypotheses for understanding the origins of governments—the cooperative framework and the extractive framework. What do these two theories say?

Leander Heldring: This is really our attempt to categorize the many different theories that are out there for why we have governments in the first place. We decided to come up with two groups of theories that differ by what fundamentally they believe government is about. One is a cooperative cluster, meaning that fundamentally, governments are there to help people get along. People can organize many things for themselves, but many activities that people undertake have redistributive consequences. One view of government is that it is an organization that we set up to help us manage such problems that we can't otherwise.

A very prominent alternative cluster of theories emphasizes something very different, namely that there's always people who want to repress and extract resources from other people. You may be stronger than I am, and you may come and try to take away some of the things that I have. Over time you may organize with people who work with you or for you. You may organize to do that more effectively, and government is essentially an organization that manages that.

Smith: Why did you study ancient Iraq to answer this question; what made it a good setting?

Heldring: Once you start thinking about the origins of government, one of the problems is that you realize there's not that many places in the world where we innovated government for the first time—Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and a handful of others.

The second challenge is that the people who gather data on governments are part of governments themselves. So how do you even start to think about gathering some data on the origins of government. You'd like to say something about what was there before there was a government. It just so happens that one of our coauthors, Robert Allen, and I were looking at a series of books which contained what are called archaeological base maps. These are very detailed maps of southern Iraq. We saw these very highly detailed archaeological maps. And what I realized is that this part of the world has actually been studied in a systematic way that lends itself very well to our research.

Smith: Can you fill in that picture for me? What is in these maps you are talking about, and what you were able to pinpoint in this region?

Heldring: Once we realized that this part of the world is systematically surveyed, we started putting together the pieces of what it is we want to measure. What I mean by systematically surveyed is that the archeologists went through the desert and tried to locate all the settlements and cities. For each of the cities, we have detailed excavation records that go down through layer upon layer, where each layer corresponds to a different phase of occupation of the city. One of the things you start finding are palaces, but you should not think of a modern palace. You should think more of a central building where people executed public functions. Early on there would be these assemblies and other public buildings that are specific to the context. Now for each city, you can reconstruct its political history and can start pinpointing when there is something happening, like centralized decision making. On top of that, we can try to reconstruct what areas these cities actually govern.

Finally, we wanted to get a sense of what it is that we can learn about what these cities actually did. We were very fortunate to be able to access a very large database of what are called cuneiform tablets. These ancient writings talk about what people do, such as lists of economic transactions. We can measure the degree to which people paid for their expenses. For example, they paid tribute to somebody who then in turn did something for them. Or we can measure the extent to which different places mention the people in charge of assemblies. We can see people talk about these decision-making organizations that we think were present in the buildings we find in the archaeological record. What you end up with is an image over time of different cities that govern different parts of a country, and they write about what they do in different ways.

Smith: Let's connect this back to testing the two hypothesesthe coercive and the cooperative model for the origins of governments. How did you use all this comprehensive, detailed archaeological data to test these two theories?

Heldring: We have an idea of how to measure where states are different at different points in time, but we cannot yet know whether, when we see a state in a certain city, in a certain area, at a certain point in time, whether this is because of something cooperative that needed to be solved or whether this was because somebody else wanted to use this organization to steal from other people. However, we learned that the two central rivers in Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and the Tigris, early on in history were one big river. But in several sudden shifts, they split and moved into their current position. We reconstructed the position of these rivers over time, and then went back to the very first shift in history, which happened about 5,000 years ago. 

Now imagine you're sitting somewhere in the countryside and you're sitting next to the river, farming your piece of desert by cutting a little hole in the side of the river and irrigating your fields. Now 100 km north of you, the river all of a sudden diverted and traces a new course down to the sea that's now very far away from you. What do you do? Well, you can do a couple of things. You can pick up and move back to the river, or what you can do is talk to the people around you and together dig a little canal back to where you are farming. But now all of a sudden, instead of cutting a little hole on the side of the river and irrigating your farm, you need to collaborate with people who are living between you and where the river now happens to be. 

Some parts of the area that we study now have this problem. If they want to stay put, they need to work together to get their water back to where they are. And in other parts of our study area, they don't. They can go on by themselves. Now what happens is that when the river shifts away in the places that now need to cooperate, there's demand for the government to help coordinate. If the origins of the state are really about cooperation, that's where we should see states and governments form. But if it's actually about using the government to extract resources, you don't want to be where the river just shifted away, because there's nothing to extract anymore. You would really want to be where either the river stayed put or near the new location of the river because that's really where you're going to be able to take stuff away from people. This shifting of the rivers really gave us the opportunity to say, under one cluster of theories, we expect to form states in one location and, under the other cluster, we expect them to form somewhere else. With that prediction, we can compare where we would expect states to form under the two clusters of theories versus where they really form.

Having an organization that helps with coordinating among people, with resolving disputes, with having people get along and doing what they say they will, is really behind the origins of government, much more than the desire by some people to extract resources from others.

Leander Heldring

Smith: What did you find when you did this analysis?

Heldring: Comparing those two types of places, states only form where people need to get along. And it's not that these were preexisting polities that were already doing something that moved into parts of southern Iraq where people now really need them. It's really governments that never existed before that. What is amazing about our archaeological data is that we can also reconstruct every canal over time that was built before and after the river shift. And what you see very beautifully is that people build canals back to where the river shifted away from. So we see that people form governments in cities close to where the river shifted away so that they can work together. Then they build canals within those cities. We see palaces and other public buildings being built. And finally we see that people start writing about different things. Not only do they start writing more about the heads of lineages, but they also start talking for the first time about the head of the meeting of everybody that works together. If you take all of that together, we drew the conclusion that the origins of government are likely in having to solve a series of new problems that weren't there before, and it turned out that having an organization that helps with coordinating among people, with resolving disputes, with having people get along and doing what they say they will, is really behind the origins of government, much more than the desire by some people to extract resources from others.

Smith: How do you think these results circumscribe the view that governments are primarily extractive institutions?

Heldring: This is one of the reasons we're very careful to write only about the origins of government, because it's very clear that states and governments today do many things—some good, some bad. Once you do have a government and you try to work together and get along, you will need to start enforcing some things at some point. Initially, we know that that was done on a small scale within lineages. But what happened over time is that the means of enforcement were centralized in these cities. So, over time, you need more ways of getting people to do what you want them to do. And then you have created an imbalance in power between people who do the enforcement and those who don't. This puts us squarely in modern political economy problems, which are how you constrain those in power.

The Economic Origins of Government” appears in the October 2023 issue of the American Economic Review. Music in the audio is by Podington Bear.