The means of taxation

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Over at New Majority David Frum has a review up of Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000. Frum elaborates on one of Wickham’s central theses about the nature of the fall of the Roman Empire, the shift from direct taxation to assignments of land (what eventually evolved into what we term ‘feudalism’). Wickham’s book has been discussed in detail on this weblog before, he works within a Marxist framework whereby impersonal social and economic forces loom large, so you won’t get too much on battles as opposed to tax receipts.
But jumping forward in history 1,500 years I am struck by some of the same issues which crop up in the 18th century with the rise of the British Empire, and its ascendancy over continental powers such a France despite its smaller population (on the order of 1/3 France’s population in the early 18th century I believe). The argument roughly runs that Britain constructed a military-financial complex, whereby it could utilize debt to finance its wars, while France was dependent on more conventional forms of direction taxation. This is a classic case of using leverage to beat an opponent which by all rights should have you outgunned on paper. The early American republic saw conflicts between those who wished to emulate the British state (Alexander Hamilton) and those who did not (Thomas Jefferson). We know who won that debate. In any case, it is important to remember that before 1800, and in particular before 1500, differences in per capita wealth between regions were trivial compared to what we see today. The most extreme differences in per capita wealth might be 50%, while something closer to 10-25% were much more typical. This is why Greg Clark asserts blithely that for almost all of human history per capita wealth remained approximately what it was when our species were all hunter-gatherers in Farewell to Alms. No, what was different between Rome and the “barbarian” lands beyond the limes had less to do with median differences in wealth, and more to do with how the wealth was allocated and leveraged. This is why, I think, nomad elites invariably invaded civilized states despite the likelihood that the average nomad was likely more affluent than the average peasant; civilized super-elites could extract much more surplus from their subjects than nomadic warlords could from their inferiors.
Addendum: One thing want to add, structural and institutional innovations often only result in a transient advantage. For example, both Tim Blanning and Peter Turchin point out that the most consistent predictive variable for victories during the wars which erupted in Europe after the French Revolution was the size of armies. The initial victories of the French were simply a function of the revolutionary state’s putting many more men under arms, while most of the European monarchies stuck longer with smaller professional armies. Once other states caught up the French advantage disappeared. But despite the fact that the equilibrium was restored after a generation, I think we can admit that the transient was very important as a “hinge of history.”

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  1. [N]omad elites invariably invaded civilized states despite the likelihood that the average nomad was likely more affluent than the average peasant;  
    That’s a nice point — another take on the “original affluent society” angle.

  2. John Nye notes that “on paper” France had higher taxes than England. However, collecting taxes was quite difficult back then. England managed to form a rather corporatist arrangement with an oligopoly of brewers. In exchange for protection from competition (they way governments commonly did favors back then, rather than directly distributing money) they made sure the taxes were paid. The government also paid lower interest rates on its debts after the Orange Revolution.

  3. Low ranking nomads didn’t invade civilization to become peasants. There was a promotion expected. 
    Nomad societies at home also were constantly at war for very low stakes. High stakes wars were more tempting.

  4. i think constant mortality is probably one reason nomads had an edge on farmers in per capita wealth; they were bumping themselves below the malthusian limit more often. additionally, it seems that they were subject to mass die offs of their stock because of climate or disease (one of the major reasons that these groups sometimes try to force their way into civilized regions), so after that period of starvation there’d be an expansion back up to the malthusian limit during which they’d be more wealthy than before. though obviously famine occurred among agriculturists, i wonder the ability to store grain for the future, and the control of these resources by central states, dampened mortality rates and kept these societies close to the malthusian limit for longer periods than among nomads or hunter-gatherers.

  5. In Mongolia there’s an ethnic succession: Scythian — Turk — Mongol. The Mongols were a very abscure people, probably a forest people before 1000 AD. The Turks may have been a forest people sometime before 200 BC, not sure about that. (There are problems because archeology is poor at answering that kind of question, and because of bilingualism, intermarriage and artifact borrowing.) 
    So you can imagine a sort of pump sucking peoples out of the woods onto the Mongol steppe, multiplying and training them, and then sending them against China, India, the Middle East, or even Europe to do or die. We remember the victorious and persistent steppe peoples, but not the ones whose armies were utterly destroyed and dispersed. 
    The Scythians were a continental power for centuries, started to be threatened when the Huns came, but by now have almost disappeared with a moderate-sized remainder in the Caucasus (Ossetes). Presumably they were mostly absorbed by the civilized world (as mercenaries and slaves) and by the Turkish peoples coming up behind them.  
    The Turks were never replaced by Mongols, probably because a lot of dynamics had changed by 1300 (agriculture moving into the steppes, Russian expansion, the gunpowder empires.) But most Turks are far from their place of origins, and Turkish genes and names are all over the place in the Middle East and India, and (genes without names usually) the Balkans and E. Europe. 
    Mongols were regarded as adult at 15 and were sent to war as young as twelve. That gives a very short generation. The cost of war for them was only human, since they basically had no infrastructure to destroy and just had to repopulate the same land. By contrast, devastated areas of China or Iran would take centuries to recover.

  6. Some attribute the decline of the Mughal empire to land-grant instead of grants to the monetary revenue from the land (“jagir”).  
    Ever read any military analysis on British success in India from 1750 to 1850 (but not before 1725)? Technologically, the British had no advantage, especially no advantage over well organized states (e.g., mysore, punjab). And the tropps were Indian on both sides, and in the case of Punjab, the officers were European on both sides. 
    Was it a financial advantage?