This blog has been disused for a while. Hardly anybody ever read it, so I decided to hardly ever write for it. But now I’ve decided to use it, for a while at least, to start posting comments on things I am reading, copied from my notebooks. These are not edited, and particularly not made to function as stand-alone essays. I.e., I have not tried to paraphrase the arguments from the books that I may be discussing. The first book I’m doing this with is Thomas Piketty’s “Capital and Ideology”. Page references are to the 2020, hardcover, English language edition, published by Belknap Press.
4/17/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 368
This analysis of state power and functions in terms of tax revenues is interesting, if, I think, oversimplified. To get a complete picture for all types of state, you’d also need to look at local taxes, and other forms of elite income, especially in states where the line between the wealth of the state and the personal wealth of the ruler(s) is not clear (as in feudal societies), as well as the types of bonds within the ruling class, e.g., dependence of kings on the goodwill of nobility and clergy (sources of men and money) for extended military campaigns in Plantagenet England.
This does not counter Piketty’s points, just meant to elaborate on the in certain cases.
Similarly some empires (Ottoman? Chinese?) may have relied on local rulers/strong men, supported by local taxes/tax equivalents, for a lot of “state” functionality, including “watchman” function. Of course, this was a potential source of rebellions (and new central dynasties).
Then, there were lots of times and places when the “watchman” function pretty much broke down, altogether – bandits, highwaymen, condottieri, bands of armed men terrorizing the populace – Medieval times, Renaissance Italy, the American frontiers (North and South America)…
The other thing he hasn’t talked about (at least, yet) is the connection between the overall national income level and the tax revenues available to the central state. The closer the national income is to the subsistence level, the less excess exists, part of which can be taxed away by the state. A very poor family may not be able to sustain a 10% annual tax, especially if already required to tithe to the church and labor part time in the lord’s fields. It takes a fairly prosperous family to sustain a tax of 30-40%, or more. (It helps if some of those other levies are eliminated, or at least made voluntary.)
His analysis (p 369 ff) of why Europe developed a strong states with tax powers (when other places didn’t) doesn’t seem particularly compelling to me. My sense is that the Ottoman Empire was weak enough that states tended, effectively, to develop within it. Why couldn’t they develop into strong, European-style states? Similarly, I don’t think Mughal domination in India was so strong at all times and places that local political formations and competition couldn’t have developed within it. Again, I don’t know, I’m just not convinced by his explanation.