Arnold Kling  

State Formation and Tax Collection

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In Francis Fukuyama's latest book, he talks a lot about the problem of collecting taxes over a wide area. This is one of those processes that we take for granted now, but several hundred years ago it was quite difficult.

In a world with high transportation costs and a lot of output consisting of agricultural products that can spoil, it is not easy to collect taxes on people far away. This fact should limit the size of states. You could argue that the extent of the state is limited by the portability of output. At a certain distance, the cost of collecting taxes exceeds the value of what the ruler gets.

For a relatively short period of time, you can have a large empire, in which you pay troops based on plunder of peripheral areas. However, the momentum of this process eventually reverses. You can expand fairly quickly as you plunder new areas. But once you run out of new places to plunder, you cannot pay your troops, and you collapse. So the Roman empire, the Muslim empire, and the Mongol empire expanded spectacularly and then fragmented pretty quickly and severely.

Fukuyama points out that China had a number of periods where it acted more like a modern state, in that taxes were collected on a regular basis (not just one-time plunder) over a wide area. There were also periods where dynasties collapsed and China became fragmented. However, it is possible that even in the strong-state periods, most of the taxes had to come from areas close to the capital of the empire. The hold of the center on the periphery may have been weak.

Fukuyama points out that as of 1100, in Europe the states were weak. It was difficult for kings to collect taxes from outlying areas. In addition to the problem of transportation and storage, there was the fact that castles were very strong militarily. Feudal lords held a lot of the balance of power.

I think that in the early days of the United States, the central government had limited ability to collect taxes. People could move to the frontier, where the costs of reaching them probably exceeded the revenue that could be taxed from them.

Flash forward to today. There is a lot of output that is portable. Transportation and communication systems are effective. Population density is high. Therefore, it is relatively easy to operate a high-tax state.

Even though tax collection has become relatively easier, I believe that the U.S. has become vastly over-centralized. I suspect that the social costs of the taxes that are collected by the U.S. and other large states exceed the benefits. At some point down the road, the "winners" in the world may not be the U.S. or China or India or Brazil. They may be smaller entities, like Paul Romer's charter cities. As long as these smaller entities can avoid having too much of their wealth taken at gunpoint by large states, they will achieve higher levels of income.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (5 to date)
Nathan Smith writes:

Hmm... (a) The Roman Empire did not "fragment pretty quickly. It dominated most of the Mediterranean as a unitary empire for at least four hundred years, from Pompey's settlement in the east in the 60s BC to the sack of Rome by the Huns in 410 AD. It began to be split into an eastern and western empire in the fourth century, but even that would give it a longer lifespan than the American republic has achieved so far. (b) Once people start using gold coins for exchange, I don't see how the portability of tax revenue is a big problem. And they were doing that by 700 BC.

Joseph K writes:

Just look at the list of the nations with the highest GDP per capita. Many of the nations near the top are tiny little countries like Liechtenstein and Singapore.

Aristotle had a similar sentiment, as well, in the Politics (Bk VII, Ch 4), saying that practical limitations mean a well-governed state can only be so large as a person can see to the horizon and only so populous as a person can speak to at once. Assuredly he was looking at the Persians, seeing all their problems and thinking they were way too huge (and shortly after Aristotle wrote it Persia got conquered by Alexander, who also formed a huge empire, which then immediately fragmented on his death). The problems Aristotle saw were information problems, and though technology limits those problems, it doesn't eliminate them. There simply is no way a decision can be made taking into account all the local conditions of a large and heterogenous nation.

cassander writes:

Nathan> Even after the invention of gold coinage there were always enormous segments of the population, particularly the rural population, working in what we would now call the informal sector. There was an awful lot of barter, paying in kind, slave labor, etc.

Nathan Smith writes:

Maybe. But I think the rise and fall of empires has a lot to do with ideology. It can't be reduced to technological or economic determinism.

Fralupo writes:

I think the thesis mixes the idea of empire and a centralized state. If you run your empire on a franchise model, which is my understanding of how the Roman Empire worked, you can keep a huge empire going without much need for centralized fiscal maneuvers.

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