Arnold Kling  

Of Mayas and Markets

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The New York Times reports,

The findings, archaeologists say, are some of the first strong evidence that the ancient Maya civilization, at least in places and at certain times, had a market economy similar in some respects to societies today. The conventional view has been that food and other goods in Maya cities were distributed through taxation and tributes controlled by the ruling class.

I am pretty heavily invested in the conventional view. I just don't believe that over a thousand years ago human beings had the trustworthiness, discipline, numeracy, and institutional base to engage in what we would today recognize as free trade. Adam Smith, of course, said that we are born with a propensity to "truck and barter." But my guess would be that the "market" was a place where the rulers doled out plunder to loyal vassals, rather than a place where free men sent goods to trade in a cash economy.

Tyler is more of a Smithian.

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CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

Well, perhaps not a Smithian type market economy, but no doubt it was much more likely that trade prevailed over central distribution of any kind. The society would not have lasted as long as it did under that kind of control. The market may have been something more like that found in ancient Greece or Rome, but trade they did.

Alex J. writes:

You may be interested in this paper about Aztec law from David Friedman's "Legal Systems Very Different From Ours" seminar homepage:

Aztec Law

In defense of Arnold's view of things, some ancient sites had the granaries inside the central palace/fortifications. The main palace of Minoan Crete acted as "a center of distribution" (hah!) in the words of one lecturer.

I understand that there were several cities with walls that protected the city dwellers from outsiders. Then inside the city walls was a castle for the rulers, with the granaries inside the castle. If they needed to turn the screws on the proles, they could just bottle themselves up with all of the food.

Alex J.

Tracy W writes:

How does tax collection and distribution require less in the way of "trustworthiness, discipline, numeracy, and institutional base " than trade?

The two fundamental problems of tax collection and distribution are:
- getting the money from the tax collectors
- making sure the peasants get enough food and goods that they don't starve to death, thus causing the economy to collapse.

Do you really think these are easier than being able to trot along to a market and barter?
The NY Times article was not describing the Mayans as trading in life insurance or stock options, or some other complicated financial product. The archeological evidence implied that people set up stalls with food on them. The amount of trustworthiness, discipline, numeracy and institutional basis involved in doing that strike me as less than that involved in successfully farming the food in the first place.


Please read the first three chapters of Bruce Benson's The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State. Benson gives evidence of successful voluntary law which seems to have escaped your notice so far.

The state is a parasite upon trade, not an essential aid to trade.

DoopDoop writes:

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Rimfax writes:

Yeah, I'm not getting how the "primitive screwheads" didn't have what it takes to have a flea market, so they must've had a totalitarian state that doled out food. You mean like pretty much the entire developing world, where, even where the government is totalitarian, open unorganized peasant markets are ubiquitous?

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