Crisis Abuse in History

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Last week, CEI released Wayne Crews’s paper proposing an Abuse of Crisis Prevention Act. (If you prefer the short version, see Wayne’s and my article in National Review.) The main argument is that government grows every time there is a crisis, it never gives back all the new powers it collects, and the best solution to prevent these abuses is a structural overhaul. Such reforms include rainy-day funds to deal with crisis spending, tax code changes to incentivize more private saving and stockpiling, devolving more crisis response policies to the states and to localities, and a more flexible regulatory code to allow faster adaptation to changing circumstances.

Wayne is hardly the first person to point out that crisis is the health of the state. Crisis abuse is as old as the state itself—and may have contributed to the birth of government itself. I recently came across this argument in the anthropologist Marvin Harris’s 1977 book Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures, a tour of world history through a Malthusian population pressure lens, mixed with a Montesquieu- and Jared Diamond-style emphasis on geography.

As with many books worth reading, I disagree with large parts of Harris’s arguments; one learns little by only reading things one agrees with. While Malthus’s ideas about population pressure were broadly true for most of pre-industrial history, they are a poor fit for the world after the post-1800 Great Enrichment, and Harris is reluctant to acknowledge this. He pays little attention to culture, institutions, and ideas. His economic thinking is also unsound, based more on Marxian conflict than on liberal cooperation.

However, other parts of the book justify the price of admission, such as Harris’s theories on human sacrifice, war, gender ratios, dietary taboos, and the surprising contribution of water to early despotism. These are novel and powerful theories that have not gotten enough attention.

When I reached a section on page pages 244-245 about how governments in Ancient China and Egypt dealt with floods, I was amazed by how closely Harris, who was no market liberal, matches Wayne’s (and Crisis and Leviathanauthor Robert Higgs’s) thinking on crises:

In China as in Egypt, when the major irrigation and flood control facilities were functioning properly, irrigation farming could flourish without any need for a highly centralized government. But when the great dams and levees on the major rivers were threatened by floods or earthquakes only a central administration could muster resource and labor on a sufficiently grand scale.

Crisis, Harris argues, did not give birth to the first centralized states, but it did give birth to the first despotic states with absolute rulers. For example, compare the powers that the Nile’s annual floods gave to Egyptian pharaohs to life in the less centralized societies just a few days’ sail away in mostly flood-free Greece. Geographically imposed crises, Harris argues, is one reason why Ancient Athens was able to have a limited form of democracy, while Ancient Egypt and China were not. Civilizations that were less prone to floods and other crises tended to be less centralized, and their rulers less despotic.

The kicker is that, just like today, ancient states not only used crises to increase their power, but they often made things worse:

Periodically, the Yellow River overflowed its banks and flooded huge areas of the plain. In order to prevent these disasters, the central government supervised the construction of dikes and levees. This had the effect of increasing the amount of impounded water and of raising its level during flood seasons, thereby adding to the damage that the river could inflict when it broke through its containments. In 132 B.C. the river breached the dikes, flooded sixteen districts, and sent a whole new branch across the plain. Tens of millions of peasants were affected. The break remained open for twenty-three years until Emperor Wu-ti himself visited the scene and personally supervised the repair.

At the time, this was one of the worst disasters in history. Of course, for people interested in power, there were benefits to taking charge in crisis situations:

[W]however possessed the means to control the river literally possessed the means the means to control the life span and well-being of vast numbers of people.

Harris, unlike Wayne, was probably not interested in how to help governments, businesses, and individuals prepare for crises, but his diagnosis of the problem is—perhaps unintentionally—almost identical.

For more not just on the nature of crisis and power, but how protect people against “flash policy” and other crisis power grabs, see Wayne’s paper about his proposed Abuse of Crisis Prevention Act, and Wayne’s and my recent op-ed summarizing the idea.