Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Art of NOT Being Governed: State-Accessible Product

"A premodern ruler in mainland Southeast Asia would have been less interested in what today would be called gross domestic product (GDP) of his kingdom than what we might call its "state-accessible product" (SAP!)....Given a choice between patterns of subsistence that are relatively unfavorable to the cultivator but which yield a greater return in manpower or grain to the state and those patterns that benefit the cultivator but deprive the state, the ruler will choose the former every time. The ruler, then, maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and his subjects."

In Southeast Asia, the preferred method of creating a legible field of appropriation was often rice. It was uniform product with a uniform growing season. Easy to count, easy to value, easy to tax. Make the people dependant on it for diet, by eliminating many other choices, and the result is that to sustain life one must work in a manner fully exposed to the state. The sedentary grain growing made it easy to develop the tax role, as the population was fixed to a location.

“Though shifting-cultivation agriculture might provide a higher return to the cultivator’s labor, this was a form of wealth that was inaccessible to the state.”

There were many crops besides rice that were grown in the region. Many continued to be grown in the hills after the development of the state in the valleys. However, these were not uniform, could not be easily valued, were not tied to a uniform growing season, and therefore very difficult to appropriate by the state (or other predators for that matter). Often they were root crops, growing and maturing underground and out of sight. Such patterns allowed for easy movement by the cultivator; no fixed address, if you will.

Things have not changed much, over the centuries and over the miles. A subtle form might be in the form of the currency. Society is coerced into a very singular uniform product, that being the currency of the state. Taxes are required to be paid in it, therefore everyone must earn or otherwise acquire it. The valuation is easy.

There are, of course, other forms. People often complain about the struggles of a small business. All of the regulations, ordinances, requirements, etc. these may be possible for a large company to absorb, but not so easy for the small businessman. What is the result? More people move to large business for their employ. These are much easier to regulate – a few large players as opposed to an infinite number of small players. The penalties of not complying with requirements such as a W-2 form or a 1099 are great. Withholding and submitting payroll taxes? It is impossible to imagine a large corporation taking such a risk purposefully.

However, small business? They are already on a shoestring. Not that I suggest they are less ethical, but it is easier to miss a requirement, more of a struggle for cash flow, more possibilities for cash transactions that later get missed in the accounting in a small firm.

Bigger and uniform is better. Easier to count, easier to control, and easier to measure. Most important of all, easier to appropriate. Times haven't changed much.

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