“On the Origin of States: Stationary Bandits and Taxation in Eastern Congo,” R. S. de la Sierra (2013)

The job market is yet again in full swing. I won’t be able to catch as many talks this year as I would like to, but I still want to point out a handful of papers that I consider particularly elucidating. This article, by Columbia’s de la Sierra, absolutely fits that category.

The essential question is, why do states form? Would that all young economists interested in development put their effort toward such grand questions! The old Rousseauian idea you learned your first year of college, where individuals come together voluntarily for mutual benefit, seems contrary to lots of historical evidence. Instead, war appears to be a prime mover for state formation; armed groups establish a so-called “monopoly on violence” in an area for a variety of reasons, and proto-state institutions evolve. This basic idea is widespread in the literature, but it is still not clear which conditions within an area lead armed groups to settle rather than to pillage. Further, examining these ideas empirically seems quite problematic for two reasons, first because states themselves are the ones who collect data hence we rarely observe anything before states have formed, and second, because most of the planet has long since been under the rule of a state (with apologies to James Scott!)

De la Sierra brings some economics to this problem. What is the difference between pillaging and sustained state-like forms? The pillager can only extract assets on its way through, while the proto-state can establish “taxes”. What taxes will it establish? If the goal is long-run revenue maximization, Ramsey long ago told us that it is optimal to tax elements that are inelastic. If labor can flee, but the output of the mine can not, then you ought tax the output of the mine highly and set a low poll tax. If labor supply is inelastic but output can be hidden from the taxman, then use a high poll tax. Thus, when will bandits form a state instead of just pillaging? When there is a factor which can be dynamically taxed at such a rate that the discounted tax revenue exceeds what can be pillaged today. Note that the ability to, say, restrict movement along roads, or to expand output through state-owned capital, changes relevant tax elasticities, so at a more fundamental level, capacity by rebels along these margins are also important (and I imagine that extending de la Sierra’s paper will involve the evolutionary development of these types of capacities).

This is really an important idea. It is not that there is a tradeoff between producing and pillaging. Instead, there is a three way tradeoff between producing in your home village, joining an armed group to pillage, and joining an armed group that taxes like a state! The armed group that taxes will, as a result of its desire to increase tax revenue, perhaps introduce institutions that increase production in the area under its control. And to the extent that institutions persist, short-run changes that cause potential bandits to form taxing relationships may actually lead to long-run increases in productivity in a region.

De la Sierra goes a step beyond theory, investigating these ideas empirically in the Congo. Eastern Congo during and after the Second Congo War was characterized by a number of rebel groups that occasionally just pillaged, but occasionally formed stable tax relationships with villages that could last for years. That is, the rebels occasionally implemented something looking like states. The theory above suggests that exogenous changes in the ability to extract tax revenue (over a discounted horizon) will shift the rebels from pillagers to proto-states. And, incredibly, there were a number of interesting exogenous changes that had exactly that effect.

The prices of coltan and gold both suffered price shocks during the war. Coltan is heavy, hard to hide, and must be shipped by plane in the absence of roads. Gold is light, easy to hide, and can simply be carried from the mine on jungle footpaths. When the price of coltan rises, the maximal tax revenue of a state increases since taxable coltan production is relatively inelastic. This is particularly true near airstrips, where the coltan can actually be sold. When the price of gold increases, the maximal tax revenue does not change much, since gold is easy to hide, and hence the optimal tax is on labor rather than on output. An exogenous rise in coltan prices should encourage proto-state formation in areas with coltan, then, while an exogenous rise is gold prices should have little impact on the pillage vs. state tradeoff. Likewise, a government initiative to root out rebels (be they stationary or pillaging) decreases the expected number of years a proto-state can extract rents, hence makes pillaging relatively more lucrative.

How to confirm these ideas, though, when there was no data collected on income, taxes, labor supply, or proto-state existence? Here is the crazy bit – 11 locals were hired in Eastern Congo to travel to a large number of villages, spend a week there querying families and village elders about their experiences during the war, the existence of mines, etc. The “state formation” in these parts of Congo is only a few years in the past, so it is at least conceivable that memories, suitably combined, might actually be reliable. And indeed, the data do seem to match aggregate trends known to monitors of the war. What of the model predictions? They all seem to hold, and quite strongly: the ability to extract more tax revenue is important for proto-state formation, and areas where proto-states existed do appear to have retained higher productive capacity years later perhaps as a result of the proto-institutions those states developed. Fascinating. Even better, because there is a proposed mechanism rather than an identified treatment effect, we can have some confidence that this course is, to some extent, externally valid!

December 2013 working paper (No IDEAS page). You may wonder what a study like this costs (particularly if you are, like me, a theorist using little more than chalk and a chalkboard); I have no idea, but de la Sierra’s CV lists something like a half million dollars of grants, an incredible total for a graduate student. On a personal level, I spent a bit of time in Burundi a number of years ago, including visiting a jungle camp where rebels from the Second Congo War were still hiding. It was pretty amazing how organized even these small groups were in the areas they controlled; there was nothing anarchic about it.

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