Ruling Classes that Lead Dangerous Warrior Lives

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

A successful Malthusian society that manages to form a middle class still needs to mobilize that middle class, Brad DeLong argues, to aid the aristocracy in overwhelming neighbors’ aristocracies:

Think about this, and you will recognize that an aristocracy faces the same Malthusian pressures and dilemmas as does the population as a whole. The population, the demos, lives off the limited resources provided by the land. The aristocracy, the aristoi, live off the wedge between what the demos produce and what they consume. If the aristoi do not find social mechanisms to constrain their numbers, their standard of living will also tend to settle at a point so low that their numbers no longer grow at all rapidly. And the social mechanisms to keep the population growth rate of the aristoi down are the same — and the patriarchal mechanisms of female infanticide, prolonged female virginity, and substantial permanent female celibacy, plus in the case of the aristoi excess male deaths in war, in the duel, or in the hunt. The alternative is to wind up with a very large “upper class” indeed, one made up of huge numbers of princes — but princes who live little better than peasants, a la Armenia or La Mancha.

But there is an additional constraint on the aristoi. A single faction of aristoi controlling an agrarian territory also faces an interesting Laffer curve problem — perhaps the only real-life Laffer curve problem. Tax rates too low leave them with too few resources vis-a-vis neighboring aristocracies. Tax rates too high leave them with too-low a population base. If extent of territory is too small they get absorbed. If extend of territory is too large they suffer rebellion and fraction. Moreover, the tax collectors have to be efficient enough and the soldiers competent enough that the phalanx or whatever is large enough and skilled enough on the battlefield — which means that the upper classes live not in attractive luxury but, rather, “return with your shield or on it”, and there is a premium on figuring out how to attach the middle class to the aristoi to fill out the battle line — to acquire and maintain what Ibn Khaldun called assibiyah, which is difficult because the middle class’s share of the benefits from rule by the current dominant group is not all that large. Add in balance-of-power considerations and the natural diffusion of technology and organization thus lead us to expect to see an agrarian world dominated by ruling classes that lead dangerous warrior lives, mistreat women, and govern moderately-sized principalities in semi-stable military-political equilibrium with each other. True “empires” should be rare, and evanescent. Think Timur-i-Leng, Ashoka, or even Charlemagne.

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