(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)
We’ve talked before about how states need to control their people, and so structure their very environments to make that easier (making them legible, for one thing). We’ve also talked about how states need to do the same thing with production and wealth, in order to collect taxes. When states are less able to extract taxes directly, they may have to rely on indirect means such as tax farming, which are less efficient and may cause other problems.
In a way, these are two examples of the same problem: states need to control resources, and different types of resources are easier or harder to control. Farmland is easy to tax: it can’t be hidden, and its production is fairly easy to monitor. An international merchant is much harder to tax: his goods may be anywhere in the world, or hidden in a bank vault somewhere, or converted into precious gems and sewn into his clothing. Factories are easy to tax, or even to confiscate entirely: they represent a massive upfront investment that is hard to move, and their production is easy to monitor. People can be easy or hard to tax (or conscript, or otherwise control), depending on how easily they can move from place to place, or hide from the local taxman.
To take a more fantastical example, magic might be easy or hard to control, depending on how magical power is accumulated and used. For example, some Polynesian societies believed that the brightly-colored feathers of certain birds conveyed magical power, or mana, and chiefs would have their subjects scour the islands to find such feathers. Individual feathers gave little power, and it was not worth the ire of your chief to withhold a handful of them; but the chiefs, sitting at the top of their societies, could accumulate thousands or tens of thousands of such feathers, which would be made into beautiful ceremonial mantles or coats.
If a state is lucky, it will control rich resources that are easy to tax, such as travel on a busy overland trade route, or oil wells or gold mines, or a large population of unarmed people in a confined area. With such a bounty, the state will have less need to worry about gaining the cooperation of its (other) people, and can be fairly hands-off. However, what if the available wealth is hard to tax? What if there are few people and lots of land for them to escape to, as in the African plains or the Russian steppes? What if your economy is built on ship-based trade and banking, as with the Dutch?
Generally, the state (or anyone, really) can respond in two ways: with overwhelming coercion, or with some kind of political bargain—sharing power or granting civil rights in exchange for cooperation. Russia imposed serfdom on most of its populace, tying them to specific wealthy landowners; in much of Africa, likewise, rulers used sophisticated strategies of control and coercion, including slavery, to keep their subject peoples under control. Colonial powers often imposed a head-tax on native peoples, extracting taxes without needing to worry if the poor individuals could actually afford them.
The Dutch, on the other hand, incorporated their merchant class into the government; Italian city-states often structured their taxes as a kind of forced loan, paying interest on their “debts” and turning taxpayers into investors. Famously, the American colonists declared “No taxation without representation!” And the link between these two things is quite strong: the earliest parliaments had power against their monarchs because (and only because) they had direct control over taxation.
Athens and Sparta combined both approaches: a large population of slaves or helots, over which was a broad ruling class with a say in government, whether through actual democratic voting or other means. The difference was that citizens were armed; they were both necessary for civil defense (or conquest), and very hard to tyrannize.
Rulers faced with difficult problems of resource control can either choose to use coercion in response, or to strike a bargain and share power or create political rights. Though some social scientists claim that granting rights is more likely, the truth is that it is merely more effective; short-sighted rulers often use coercion even when it fails, as we see today in places like Venezuela.
This is good news for authors, as we can present political problems to our invented societies and have them respond in the most convenient manner for the plot. Other useful questions: what resources are most difficult for the rulers to control? Are they dangerous in the wrong hands? Could a new kind of power or wealth or magic, or a new population of people, upset the existing calculus of control? What are the costs to the rulers for relying on indirect strategies like tax farming or delegating power to local lords? Might a farsighted politico realize that a different form of control, or a new political bargain, would yield better results?