Magazine | April 25, 2016, Issue

The Bandit State

‘The new world order is this. . . . Give me your sh**, or I will kill you.”

That, in a nutshell, is the political economy of Negan. Who’s Negan? He’s the latest villain in the TV series The Walking Dead. Wait, don’t turn back to James Lileks’s column just yet. Bear with me, because Negan is offering what the late economist Mancur Olson called “the first blessings of the invisible hand.”

Most of us remember reading something about the “social contract.” When Crito begged Socrates to escape rather than accept a death sentence, Socrates refused. He drank the hemlock to hold up his end of the social contract. Rousseau wrote a book called “The Social Contract” in which he argued that political legitimacy comes only when all of the citizens agree to the rules of society (and once they agree, those rules are called the “general will,” and violations of them should be punishable by death). John Locke had his “social compact,” and Elizabeth Warren says the rich get rich by exploiting the “social contract.”

Here’s the problem: There is no recorded example in human history of anything like a real social contract. No one, writes Olson, “has ever found a large society that obtained a peaceful order or other public goods through an agreement among the individuals in the society.” Rather, Olson argues, every large society or polity has arisen from the triumph of “stationary bandits” over “roving bandits.”

The classic roving bandit is the Viking warlord. He sails his warriors into a poorly defended hamlet and takes everything that isn’t nailed down. And then they split — or, if you prefer, rove on. Because roving bandits don’t stick around, they have little incentive to leave behind anything worthwhile. And the victims have little incentive to start over. “In a world of roving banditry there is little or no incentive for anyone to produce or accumulate anything that may be stolen and, thus, little for bandits to steal,” Olson observed.

Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard and Gert Tinggaard Svendsen in their 2003 Public Choice article “Rational Bandits: Plunder, Public Goods, and the Vikings” demonstrate how, over time, it dawned on Viking warlords that taxation was a more enlightened and efficient form of plunder. Instead of “a-ridin’ into town, a-whompin’ and whoopin’ every livin’ thing that moves within an inch of its life,” as Slim Pickens puts it in Blazing Saddles, it made more sense to offer “protection” — not just from your own men’s bullying but from other bandits as well. Thus was born the system of Danegeld, in which English communities paid the Vikings not to attack them. This reasoning is what led the Danish Viking Sweyn Forkbeard to become the king of England rather than merely the plunderer of it.

When roving bandits become stationary bandits, they often call themselves kings. And it turns out that the peasants and other victims prefer kings. Predictability and non-violent extortion are preferable to anarchy and violent extortion every time. Moreover, if you let your “clients” keep some of their crops and protect them from the anarchy of constant predation from roving bandits, economic growth will explode. Kings recognize that it is better to get half of a much bigger pie than all of a much smaller one, so they start investing in public goods such as roads and courts. As Olson puts it, “The monopolization of theft and the protection of the tax-generating subjects thereby eliminates anarchy. Since the warlord takes a part of total production in the form of tax theft, it will also pay him to provide other public goods whenever the provision of these goods increases taxable income sufficiently.”

In The Walking Dead, Negan tells the show’s protagonists that he wants them to work for him. “I’m not going to grow a garden,” he says derisively. Negan is offering to provide security for garden-growers — a net good for everyone. It’s a road to serfdom where serfdom might actually constitute progress!

Olson was hardly the first to argue that the state had its origins in thievery. My hero Albert Jay Nock was very fond of this notion. “The idea that the State originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical,” he wrote. “It originated in conquest and confiscation — that is to say, in crime.”

But there’s something unhistorical about this analysis too. Applying modern notions of right and wrong, legality and criminality, to ancient times just feels a bit Whiggish to me. Also, just because states are born in criminality does not mean they have to stay there. After the first generation or two, stationary bandits start to believe their own propaganda. The divine right of kings led to many great horrors, but it was probably an improvement on what it replaced: the bloody rights of thieves.

This is a more controversial topic than it might seem, particularly among conservatives. The reason Olson says that security and order are “the first blessings of the invisible hand” is that without them, there can be no market, no private property, no contracts. Individuals “need a secure government that respects individual rights. But individual rights are normally an artifact of a special set of governmental institutions,” writes Olson. “There is no private property without government!”

We can debate all that another time. What I find intriguing is that the premise of The Walking Dead is that civilization is over and mankind is returning to a state of anarchy that would be familiar to the majority of humans who’ve ever lived. Much of the moral tension for the audience comes from trying to apply civilization’s norms to post-civilization circumstances. The irony is that if civilization ever returns after the zombie apocalypse, it will likely require stationary bandits like Negan.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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