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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Suppose there were two people on a desert island. One owns a crate of food; the other owns a gun. What is going to happen?

Very shortly, the person with the gun is going to also “own” the food; the other person might be dead, or might be reduced to the level of a slave. (In the immortal words of Clint Eastwood, “There are two kinds of people in this world…”)

This illustrates the fundamental problem of property’s relationship to power: if an actor has a lot of power but little wealth, it will often try to gain more wealth through violence. If an actor has much wealth but little power, it will often try to use its wealth to gain power—if only for self-defense! And this dynamic has played out throughout history, leading to endless cycles of bloodshed and misery.

To survive, as North, Wallis, and Weingast (NWW) argue, groups of people need to come up with some solution to this danger—a way to align the interests of those who have wealth and those who have power. This is called a social order.

NWW identify three kinds of social orders: the foraging social order, the limited-access or “natural” social order, and the open-access social order. Foraging bands deal with the problem of wealth and power very simply: group members have roughly equal wealth, physical strength, and social status. There is relatively little incentive to take more with violence, as the other group members will unite to destroy you.

As we will discuss fully at another time, egalitarian bands use several techniques to enforce social equality: malicious gossip, mandatory gift-giving, and the threat of splitting the group if one faction becomes too powerful, to mention a few. However, these methods do not guarantee success; it often happens that a respected chief is able to accumulate enough personal loyalty, wealth, and prestige that he can gain lasting control over the group, which is passed on to his descendants.

That brings us to the limited-access order, which has been the predominant mode of social organization throughout the history of states. In a nutshell, those with power are also given control over wealth as a consequence, in a tacit agreement between elites in order to minimize conflict between them. In the words of NWW, “By manipulating privilege, interests are created that limit violence.” The most obvious example was European feudalism, in which brigands with large armies “went legit” and set themselves up as landed aristocrats, along with supporting networks of bureaucrats and clergy to help them run things. As NWW put it, “In all natural states, economics is politics by other means: economic and political systems are closely enmeshed, along with religious, military, and educational systems.” One could also look at Soviet-style communism, in which wealth flowed to the regime leaders by virtue of their control over the military and police apparatus.

A key aspect of the natural order was that impersonal law and procedural equality did not exist. The regime was not a neutral arbiter of people’s social and commercial disputes; it existed to defend the privileges of the ruling coalition as a class, and thus your treatment by the regime depended on your personal relationship with the ruler or other elites. As NWW put it, “Personal relationships, who one is and who one knows, form the basis for social organization and constitute the arena for individual interaction, particularly personal relationships among powerful individuals.” This limited the ability for people to form complex organizations, in business or society more generally: if they could not settle disputes internally, the state would not do the job for them and the organization would collapse.

Partly, this was by design. Elites protected the value of their “rents” by deliberately restricting the ability of those outside the regime to organize groups of people. It may seem strange to us, in our society of mass organizations, but in the feudal era it was tantamount to treason to organize an independent guild of craftsman outside of the regime-sanctioned guild, or to have a town of people who swore loyalty oaths to each other. That was why English entrepreneurs needed to petition the Crown for the right to form a joint-stock corporation, for example. And in Communist or Fascist regimes, even such mundane organizations as chess clubs needed to be approved by the regime. In this way, a limited-access regime is able to retain control over economic activity and take its cut, and to prevent possible competitors from arising via new organized groups in the populace.

Again, the natural order is the most prevalent throughout history. It is almost inevitable for those with power to demand wealth, for those with wealth to seek access to power, for the two classes of people to become incestuously intertwined and then to use their power to suppress competition. Think of the relationships in many Latin American countries between oligarchs and generals. Think of the paramount business associations and unions found in much of Western Europe, organized and maintained by the state, which have the effect of protecting incumbents and squelching entrepreneurialism.

The biggest problem with the natural order, however, is that it is fundamentally unstable. If someone becomes too powerful or too wealthy too quickly, suddenly there is a mismatch between what he has and what he (or others) might want. This generally leads to a breakdown of the delicate balance of power in the regime, culminating in violence or even civil war. This is why, argue NWW, autocratic regimes tend to underperform democracies in economic growth over time: because their relatively better performance during good times is outweighed by frequent destructive episodes of civil war and social breakdown.

(This is a crucial reason why dictators need to gain control over their countries’ wealth: not merely out of greed, but to protect themselves from rich competitors. Regime outsiders who strike it rich represent a deadly threat to the regime.)

The third form of social order, the open-access order, is a historical anomaly: it first emerged only a few centuries ago in Britain, as elites gradually transformed their particular privileges into general rights (through a long and subtle process that NWW discuss in detail). This does not merely mean democracy, though Britain and the United States are the chief examples. In the open-access order, elites have no special privileges in law, and military power is removed from partisan politics or the extortion of wealth, becoming a neutral enforcer of the political system; it stays neutral because no single political or business leader has the opportunity to bring it under his or her control.

What distinguishes the open-access order, and what makes it work, is that anyone is allowed to enter politics or business, and to organize companies or political parties or activist groups without the permission of the regime. And you need both parts: political freedom is protected by economic dynamism, as new companies challenge the old leaders and displace them before they get too cozy with the government. Economic freedom is protected by electoral competition and turnover in political leadership, which makes policies that benefit the mass populace relatively more attractive to ambitious politicians compared to policies that benefit a handful of powerful companies. (See the post on selectorate theory.) NWW call this the “double balance.”

It should be noted, however, that for all its achievements the open-access order is profoundly fragile and in danger of backsliding into a natural regime. This can happen in either of two ways (or both simultaneously). First is for the government to become too powerful relative to the economy, in which case it can throttle free competition. Second is for individual businesses to become too wealthy and influential compared to their competitors or the government, which leads businesses and governments to build corrupt relationships with each other, with businesses gaining special privileges and returning the favor by keeping favored politicians in power. To a degree, such backsliding is always present (the military-industrial complex comes to mind, as does the growing political power of Google, Amazon, and Facebook). And the natural tendency is for such collusion to accumulate like layers of sediment over time.

As Mancur Olson warns in his The Rise and Decline of Nations, it is always easier to organize a small group of powerful actors to lobby government for some subsidy, than it is for the mass of the citizens to organize against them. This is because the average person is barely affected by the average subsidy and won’t bother to get involved, whereas the beneficiaries have a great deal to gain. Over time, this tendency results in a steady calcification of the economy and the government, as interest groups accumulate to feast on the populace’s wealth through direct or indirect means. The only way to prevent such decline, Olson suggests mordantly, is for an invading army to sweep away the existing corrupt relationships.

Fortunately, this invasion can be metaphorical. David P. Goldman (AKA “Spengler”) argues that American corruption declined in the 1980s, as the new tech industry displaced the existing corporate titans despite their close relations with government. The same can happen in the political sphere, if a determined political faction dismantles corrupt bargains and is rewarded electorally for it. That is the strength of the open-access system.

But it remains fragile. In the United States, we ought to be alarmed by the unprecedented decline in new business formation in the past decade, and the manner in today’s tech oligarchy is actively stifling competition—even as they exert themselves in the political sphere.

As authors, how can we use these concepts? Here are some points of conflict: growing power brings the temptation to take the wealth of others. Growing wealth attracts violent vultures, or inspires the wealthy to gain power as well. Sudden shifts in power and wealth will threaten to destabilize the balance of power in a society, with war as a likely result. (A brief glance at the history of the Congo will provide many depressing examples.) These tendencies are rich ore for story conflict, and the thoughtful author can build powerful plots from them.


(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Check out the announcement and start writing!)