Justifying the Upward Redistribution of Wealth in Centralized Societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is such an interesting look into the development of human society. The other day I discussed the factors that made Japan quickly adopt, and just as quickly abandon firearms in the 16th and 17th centuries. But Diamond also speaks of the formations of various governing bodies humans create as their numbers grow. There are bands with people numbering in the dozens, tribes which can consist of multiple bands and generally include hundreds of people, and Chiefdoms generally consisting of thousands of human inhabitants. Chiefdoms resemble State’s and are the smallest organization of humans to justify kleptocracy, “transferring net wealth from commoners to upper classes” (276).

This central control was justified in larger organizations of society when everyone in a group did not know one another, and was not related to one another in some way. In bands and tribes if you came across someone you didn’t know, it was common to discuss familial relations until one was found in common. Disputes would generally be settled by a mutual relative of the feuding parties, excluding the need for a monopoly on force, which the rulers in Chiefdoms and State’s exercise.

The problem among centrally governed societies becomes the balance between keeping peace through settling disputes, and functioning “unabashedly as kleptocracies” (276).

These noble and selfish functions are inextricably linked, although some governments emphasize much more of one function than of the other. The difference between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and public benefactor, is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a percentage of the tribute extracted from producers is retained by the elite, and how much the commoners like the public uses to which the redistributed tribute is put (276).

Keep in mind that even though the elite maintain a monopoly on force, this does not mean that the outcome will be good for any particular feuding party. The innocent party could be punished by the elite as often as the guilty, and inevitably when the elite and their kin are involved in disputes, they will win regardless of guilt or innocence. What the monopoly on force instead does is keep violent actions to a minimum among the commoners who cannot use force without retaliation. But what makes the commoners put up with the upward redistribution of wealth inherent in all Chiefdoms and States?

Diamond pinpoints 4 solutions kleptocrats and elites have used through history to maintain control:

1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite…

This should be obvious from Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the British marching on Lexington and so on and so forth. The biggest centralizations of power have always happened when commoners are least equipped to fight back.

2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways. This principle was as valid for Hawaiian chiefs as it is for American politicians today.

Indeed, if it is for the children, to help the poor, or to protect us from terrorists, the commoners will gladly throw more tribute (tax dollars) towards the kleptocrats in hopes that the commoners will again be safe, or taken care of. But remember what Diamond said before, the difference between a robber baron and a politician is simply the degree of redistribution. Certainly elites like George Kaiser benefited from the tribute the taxpayers gave to Solyndra through the Department of Energy, but no commoners could say the same.

3. Use the monopoly on force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence. This is potentially a big and underappreciated advantage of centralized societies over noncentralized ones (277).

And this is really what modern States boil down to. If their monopoly on force is used fairly, to only punish those who have victimized another, and not to protect elites who have victimized commoners, then the population is peaceful and generally happy. The real problem is how the commoners can make sure this happens.

Even in a country like the US with a generally fair justice system, the monopoly on force is used against those whose “crime” includes no victim. The war on drugs, government regulations, and corruption: these factors sometimes lead to the monopoly of force being used on those who do not deserve it, and this is when the population becomes skeptical of the legitimacy of the elites who rule them. In America for example, police officers need to be held to the same standard as the population, but unfortunately many get away with crimes because of the badge they wear while committing the crime.

The final way for kleptocracies to maintain control over a population is for elites to “construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy”. Pretty much every religion has served to justify kleptocracy at least one time in history, in some society. But ideology in modern America seems to be the preferred justification. On the one hand you have an ideology that says people will not be safe from outside threats unless the elites take our money and soldier tributes. On the other hand you have an ideology that says the greater good must trump individual concerns. They are related, but appeal to different segments of the American population.

But if we throw out the ideologies supporting kleptocracy, then we realize that we can still have an organized society in modern times that does not justify kleptocracy, but keeps people safe and taken care of. It would still be centralized, but there would be no monopoly on force by one group of elites. I am not saying go back to tribes or bands of humans, that is not realistic, but perhaps take a page from their book on dispute resolution. Arbitration between feuding parties can solve problems based on the incentives of each party, and disincentive of violence. I am saying allow people to function in groups without compulsion, and decide how to get along, without elites using force to resolve differences.

Part of the ideology justifying kleptocracy involves the myth that people cannot organize themselves without an “authority”. But proper organization, the functions purported to be carried out by the elites governing, is not uniform across states, and more often leads to injustice. The fear that keeps us subservient to these elites is that things would be worse if they were gone. We may think, sure, it is an unjust society, but it beats widespread murder and mayhem.

And maybe in times past this was true, but as we advance as a society, connected by the internet and advancements in travel, we are outgrowing states. If the earth ever hopes to be linked together by a global society, we cannot rely on the archaic organizations of States monopolizing force to do it. Free interaction, trade without compulsion, and organization based on the absence of force will take humanity to the next level, where there is no distinction between elites and commoners.

2 thoughts on “Justifying the Upward Redistribution of Wealth in Centralized Societies

  1. Pingback: Competition and Political Disunity Made Europe Technologically Dominant | Vigilant Vote

  2. Pingback: Competition and Political Disunity Made Europe Technologically Dominant | Joe Jarvis

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