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Now let the world rest in peace and anarchy!

Thomas Rainsborough

The Art of Not Being Governed,

A scene from the movie Dances with Wolves: Kevin Costner runs into the
open prairie, stops and turns away, walks back to his camp, then charges
out again. Makes no sense, crazy man, native scouts think, observing him
from a distance. Then they notice a wolf. The animal is alert and edgy; it
retreats as the man advances, but not far, just enough to stay out of reach.
Its fear balanced against curiosity, and hope for a food scrap, the wolf
draws Costner into making mutually influenced steps; they dance.

This metaphor occurred to me as I was reading The Art of Not Being
Governed, by James C. Scott (Yale University Press, 2009.) Mr. Scott, a
professor of anthropology and political science, an authority on agrarian
studies in Southeast Asia, wrote an over 400 pages volume about runaway
slaves, rebellious peasants and illiterate (sometimes a-numerate) tribes
accepting the escapees into their fold. The history of centuries-long
equilibrium between densely populated, fertile-core states and
ungovernable peoples inhabiting surrounding marginal lands occurs with
striking regularity in the hills of Southeast Asia, deserts of Africa and
marshes of Europe. As a central government’s muscular arm extended,
reaching for new subjects, tribesmen retreated, slipping between fingers,
disappearing into inaccessible hideaways and leaving a groping hand
empty. When a hard fist relaxed, its grip loosened up, the ungoverned
people trickled back from their hilltops and muddy estuaries, seeking
comforts of towns and settled villages. A central power and a free-floating
human periphery advanced and stepped back, joined and separated, in
other words—danced over the centuries.

A state breaths, someone said, once inhaling willing settlers from its fringe,
other times exhaling desperate subjects who escape excessive taxes,
oppressive administration and military conscription. Great kingdoms, small
polities and modern republics expanded, contracted and often collapsed
due to these population movements, illustrating the unchanging truth:
countries are not made of fields, hills and rivers but of people. J.C. Scott
depicts state builders expanding their powers as new subjects were
attracted, but provides even more examples of ambitious rulers who
commanded military campaigns and ordered grand state-sponsored
projects only to see their dominions crumble as subjects trickled away or
rose in an open rebellion. “A temple was built but the country ruined,” went
a Thai proverb.

Dynastic struggles fought by brave knights might determine history on
pages of school books, but James C. Scott, an agriculture studies
professor, convincingly points to another history-shaping mechanism:
population movements induced by policies of central authorities. Like a
homeostatic device, it increased or decreased the state’s power, reacting
to direction of human traffic, which in turn, was a response to quality of life
within state’s boundaries. Opt in or out of the state, put a yoke on or slip it
off—these decisions were made on a very low political level, “at the kitchen
table,” we would say now, but added up to powerful trends capable of
making or breaking kingdoms. They could be made only because the
“barbarians” were free to move in and out of the state’s reach.

In effect, the evasive and unorganized people roaming hardscrabble
peripheries of proud kingdoms had a significant influence on state policies
through restraining the ruler’s power to tax and oppress. The extent of
liberties enjoyed by commoners, in borderline areas as well as on streets
of a capital city, was established not as much in royal chambers or high
courts as in semi-civilized, tribal periphery.

Historical accounts tend to belittle importance of the “barbarians,” but
according to J. C. Scott, the “ungoverned people”—despised as they were
by administrators—were numerous and crucial for state formation. Even
well established political entities depended on their economic output
(different from the rice-based core-state economies), military cooperation
and contributions as a source of population growth. Official historians
certainly did not acknowledge the “ungoverned tribes” as a counterweight
to the ruler’s power. After all, a scribe’s commission was to record his
employer’s victories and embellish his genealogy, not remind of the royal

The Art of Not Being Governed is a fascinating book, but as the author
states, the ungoverned peoples of Southeast Asia are mostly gone. Forced
integration, genocide and economic pressures squeezed the last resistors
from their mountain hideaways and their home marshes had been drained.
The modern technology: all season roads, helicopters, electronic
communications, GPS had overcome the “geographical friction” keeping
the “barbarians” out of state’s reach. At the end, government programs to
settle them down, to register and make them into subjects have
succeeded; they have become “governed.” They lost. So, why would
anyone outside a narrow academic field want to study the history of the
Karen, Hmon or Miao, watch them dance with their counterpart states?

As I was reading The Art of Not Being Governed, I realized that the dance
had never stopped! Governments and certain segments of populations
continue their “step forward, step back, and reverse” boogie; just the
tempo grew faster. A contemporary state’s technological power is vastly
superior to the means of a medieval Thai kingdom, but the “barbarians” put
the air travel, electronic communications, and other tools of digital
revolution in their arsenals as well. Costumes changed and the stage
moved from inaccessible hills into the cities, but governments and their
citizens keep circling the floor, one partner grasping with a muscular arm,
the other bashfully withdrawing. Not only the dance go on, the hesitant
subjects gain more influence. The migrants’ political power, their ability to
restrain governments by act of voting with their feet, is growing stronger
because the economic value brought by qualified workers overwhelms now
the importance of controlling land, mineral resources and unskilled labor.

Population—a base of power

A medieval strongman wishing to establish his own domain had to start
with a settled population, subjects, who could be taxed, conscripted and
forced into any labor his budding kingdom required. Military campaigns
were fought for the sole purpose of grabbing prisoners for resettlement and
slaves were bought, but a state could not be built without attracting
independent, tribal people living in hills surrounding a central valley. New
subjects were enticed with grants of land, farm animals and seeds to put a
royal yoke on their necks.

Do contemporary states need to expand their populations as well?
Perhaps not—we do not see ads: “Immigrants wanted in America,” after
all. But they do, just like medieval Siam. King Chandrabhanu took anyone
under his wing, but it went without saying, he wanted hard working,
productive individuals. Seeing close to fifty percent of his subjects not
paying any taxes (there is such a country in the twenty-first century) would
surely upset him. Fortunately, the good monarch did not have to
discriminate against any newcomers; good work ethics were easily induced
by generous application of a whip. Hence his unrestricted pro-immigration

Since productivity cannot be enhanced with a leather implement in our
times, modern administrators do not advertise for any immigrants, but
highly skilled workers are welcome. H1B visa, a work permit granted for
workers in high demand, is an example of such policy. Does it work?
Foreign-born entrepreneurs had founded fifty-two percent of Silicon Valley
high-tech companies, including Google, Yahoo, E-Bay and many other
American crown jewels. We can safely say that modern states benefit from
inflow of people as much as medieval kingdoms, perhaps more, if they can
attract right individuals.

Chinese Wall—what if they walk?

Medieval peasants in Southeast Asia had to be densely settled around an
administrative core because only the labor-intensive wet-rice agriculture
could produce excess crops necessary to feed a royal court, aristocracy
and administration. A long distance, overland transportation of rice was
impractical since draft animals and porters consumed too much grain. This
requirement created problems for peasants. Not only taxes took part of
their crops (and could be exacted effortlessly as rice paddies were within
clear view of an administrator) but also a king’s army and labor gangs
easily drew on very accessible commoners. The rice-based diet was
inferior to diverse foods their tribal brethren consumed, and famines
associated with monoculture farming occurred regularly. The densely
packed populations suffered from frequent epidemics and serfs could not
defend themselves against fierce officials backed by a nearby garrison.

Why did they stay then? Because they were forced to. Slaves and their
children, bondsmen and other captives were legally bound to stick to their
fields and the enforcement was ferocious. Volunteer settlers could have
more leeway but were quickly ensnared into a web of debts and
obligations. J. C. Scott opines, referring to the Great Wall: “Thus the
walls . . . were calculated as much to keep a tax-shy peasantry from ‘going
over to the barbarians’ as to keep the barbarians at bay.”

Even the bluntest ruler had to realize that forcible confinement—even if it
had its well-deserved place in his human resources management—had to
be supplemented by more subtle techniques. The sense of ethnic
belonging, a unifying religion, the pride of being “civilized” had become
indispensable tools of binding peasants to land and the propagandists
promulgating these values had become a constant element of central
governments. Priests, poets, story tellers and other spin-doctors enjoyed
ample employment opportunities around power centers in times of
Confucius as much as Obama. (It’s an obvious understatement; the
modern professional patriots and morale boosters have so many more
ways to peddle chauvinism, bigotry and misinformation.)

It had to be a source of delicious pride for a bottom-of-the-heap semi-
starved serf to consider himself “cooked” (a Chinese term for an inhabitant
of a “civilized” village) as opposed to contempt-deserving “raw” barbarians.
As the ethnic and cultural prejudice increased, the fear of dark and
mysterious places outside the village bounds grew taller than the Great
Wall, reducing need for physical fences.

The hill-inhabitants, on the other hand, moved into the exactly opposite
direction, eschewing everything that might promote their incorporation into
a state. Freewheeling tribesmen were quite tepid on issues of ethnicity;
new members—often emerging from state-controlled zones—were
accepted freely. Families moving into different regions shifted their
professed ethnic roots effortlessly, as circumstances dictated. Lack of
written genealogy and fixed records was an asset; a bit of tweaking on
their oral traditions placed the family heritage exactly where it was most
convenient. Obviously, it helped that as a rule they were multilingual.
Cultural practices were adopted and shed according to their usefulness.
The religious matters were kept simple and unorthodox; even if they
formally subscribed to one of the supra-regional sophisticated faiths, their
heaven was big enough to accommodate any new prophets.

Despite prevalent illiteracy (many of the previously literate people had
legends describing how the skill had been stolen from them), tribesmen
were astute practitioners of niche economies. The “slash and burn”
agriculture, which strike us as a mere step above the primitive hunting and
gathering, was in fact very well suited for the nomads. Their fields
dispersed over difficult terrain and tiny villages moved frequently kept tax
collectors a step behind, a feat impossible for wet-rice producers pegged to
their paddies. The men of no recorded name, no permanent address and
unknown possessions, the barbarians were nothing more than chronic pain
in any administrator’s neck; they were fiscally sterile.
At the same time, an intimate knowledge of large swaths of land gave
them access to valuable tradable resources and a nutritious diversified
Even though the “wild tribes” lacked a constant territorial base, their
economic output was significant. Scott writes: “Even quite large kingdoms
in precolonial Southeast Asia were strikingly dependent for their prosperity
on export of goods from the hills. The first Thai trade mission to Beijing of
Rama I (Chulalongkorn), in 1784, calculated to dazzle the Chinese,
included luxury products that were almost entirely provided by hill-dwelling
Karen: elephants, eaglewood, ebony . . .” A long list of expensive goods
follows; further he adds: “The smaller Shan states were dependent on the
hill peoples surrounding them both for the wealth of hill products necessary
for valley life and for important export goods.”

The “crude people” were rapid adopters of agricultural novelties offering
new and better ways to carve livelihood outside the state-controlled
valleys. Maize, cassava, potato and other agricultural wonders of the New
World, could be grown high on slopes, where they were hard to confiscate
and difficult to destroy during punitive raids. By swift adoption of these
crops, the stateless people could avoid authorities with greater ease. A
Spanish administrator complained bitterly of “people without God, law and
king” able to evade his best efforts to hunt them down since they had their
potato fields in the jungle. Burmese generals made planting tubers illegal
for the same reasons quite recently, at the end of the twentieth century.
Not quite primitive subsistence farmers, as they were often depicted, the
Southeast Asia highland people produced multiple cash crops, like opium
or peppers, tradable over long distances due to their excellent value to
weight ratio.
J. C. Scot makes it clear that the barbarians were not strugglers, inching
toward the state-based civilization at their own retarded pace but the
peoples who chose their way of life in an attempt to avoid political
subjugation. Moreover, the human movement between a “civilized state”
and “wild tribes” was always two-way, with the traffic frequently reversing.

The ethnically casual, religiously halfhearted, mobile, multilingual economic
niche specialists . . . Something about those “raw barbarians” feels
familiar? Could they be like H1B visa applicants?
Good heads, itchy feet

Highly productive individuals have to be attracted and coddled; a
reasonable medieval ruler understood it as well as any modern human
resources manager; not for any humanitarian reason (though it’s a nice
publicity touch) but because they are important for state’s success.

Reach countries, the USA first among them, attract quality human capital
easily by promise of opportunities for personal success. They bring with
them exceptional skills and entrepreneurial energy. This perpetuates high
productivity and comfortable life, ensuring ongoing inflow of talent and
minimizing its loss—the state “inhales”. It would be good to remember
though, that direction of the “brain-drain” can change rapidly. Just as
Southeast Asian tribesmen calculated their benefits and risks, deciding
whether to stay in a village or jump into a non-state territory, the highly
mobile workers—native as well as foreign born—carry on their kitchen
table conversations. What goes into these family dialogues is highly
individual: employment opportunities, incomes, taxes, political freedoms,
amount of red tape . . . Who knows? But we can be certain that the state’s
economy will clearly feel effects of these decisions. As Scott shows in his
book, as goes the productive population, so does the kingdom. The final
months of the German Democratic Republic might illustrate validity of this
opinion in modern times. A border between East Germany and Hungry was
opened on September 10, 1989; sixty thousand East Germans bolted
through the gap in a matter of days. The GDR government collapsed a
month later.

An interesting aspect of this complex state-nomads dance is relationship
between mobile tribesmen and settled populations. It should be noted that
the locally born and raised experts have the same ability and propensity to
move around as immigrant workers. Not only the English speaking
countries, like Australia or Canada but many other places (Hong Kong,
Dubai or … come to mind) compete for a finite pool of talent.

As much as the general public might realize how indispensable are the
mobile workers for economic reasons, the significance of the political
effects of their feet voting remains unknown. Puffed up in their self-
importance of voters, despite the ample evidence of their wishes not being
seriously considered, the fellow citizens do not recognize the political favor
that highly productive, feet-balloting nomads provide. At the end, the rulers
(the intelligent ones) may be more worried about the flight of prolific
tribesmen than the peasants’ grumbling. The people may forgive many
trespasses but not the luck of basic goods; and this is the bottom line for
any government.