Suppose you were a merchant going into the mountains, seeking to trade for rare spices. The local clans know where the spices are; but they would much rather kill you and take all of your trade goods than part with their own valuable spices, even in a profitable exchange. You know this, and they know you know this. Is there any way that you can trade with the locals anyway, and escape with your life and a good profit?
There are a few ways to entice the locals to trade peacefully. One is to invest in military strength to deter attack—hiring bodyguards or improving your own martial skill. Another is to offer the possibility of repeated interactions, meaning that you will keep coming back with more trade goods if each trip goes well. Therefore, if the locals behave peacefully they will end up making far more profit over time than if they simply plunder your caravan. (This strategy only works if the locals trust you to come back, and if their time preference isn’t heavily weighted to short-term gains rather than long-term gains. If they need lots of money today, they might be willing to plunder you and sacrifice the long-term profit.)
Another method was to threaten the bandits with retribution from your allies, even if they are not present at the time. Your own weakness could be counterbalanced by the strength of your allies. This was one of the perks of being a Roman citizen, for example—everyone knew that a Roman was inviolate. If you harmed a Roman, you could expect legionnaires to be knocking on your door in short order. This did not prevent banditry entirely, but it certainly kept it to a much lower level.
All well and good; but let’s spice things up a bit. What if the merchant were the bandit, and the local clan were too weak to resist? And what if the clan had a permanent village, so they couldn’t simply escape from the traveling merchants until they had passed by? The merchants have powerful weapons, and while they wouldn’t mind striking a fair bargain if they needed to, they would cheerfully sack the village and take all of its valuables and people as booty if they thought it worthwhile.
If the weaker party is immobile and cannot escape, the above methods to induce peaceful trade no longer work. By assumption, the village is unable to invest in greater strength. And since the merchants are mobile, the village cannot easily threaten it with retribution from its allies. Repeated interactions are trickier too; merchant expeditions are expensive, and the merchants would want a high enough profit margin to be worth the bother.
So what is there to do?
I shamelessly stole the title of this post from the journal article it is based on, by Peter Leeson. Leeson, who would later enjoy some fame for his work on the economics of pirate ships, investigated our second case with the dangerous merchants and weak village, and gained some insights by looking at trading patterns in Central Africa. There, trade networks would connect producer villages deep in the interior with the European trade outposts on the coasts. The producer villages were at constant risk of being attacked by the merchant caravans, so they developed two major strategies to protect themselves.
The first strategy, paradoxically enough, was to demand that the merchants paid their side of the bargain upfront, and extend credit to the village. The village would then provide its own goods to the merchants the next time they came by. This allowed the village to reduce its stores of plunderable goods during the merchants’ first visit, since they wouldn’t need to pay right away. That way, the merchants would have less reason to plunder the village, since there would be little booty to plunder. And when the merchants came back, they had already paid for their goods and would have little incentive to use violence—unless the village tried to cheat them and withhold payment.
Since the merchants were stronger than the village, they could safely extend credit and know that they could punish the village for cheating if they needed to. (The reverse would not have been true; the village could not dare pay goods up front—that is, lend money—to the merchants, because they could not possibly enforce the bargain.) And the merchants had an incentive to play along: if the village didn’t think it was safe to stockpile its trade goods, it would simply produce no goods for trade and only enough to subsist on. That would make it unprofitable for traveling merchants to come all the way out and plunder them, discouraging violence.
But there was still a problem: what if the village makes a bargain with one set of merchants, then produces the trade goods that it owes, only to be attacked by another set of merchants?
To mitigate this risk, the village would expect the merchants that it bargained with to protect the village from other merchants. That is, part of what the village was trading for was protection. It was worth it for the merchants; they would lose out if their precious trade goods were stolen by some other group of merchants.
Still, the whole business was touch and go. For the system to work as described, the merchants had to be sufficiently patient to prefer long-term riches to short-term plunder, and be able to protect the village and enforce exclusivity against other merchants—and the village had to be able to reduce its stock of trade goods to unprofitable levels for the merchant, to make plundering a poor proposition and induce the merchant to offer credit. If the village’s trade goods were of the sort that was difficult to deplete or hide (such as livestock, or slaves or people who might be enslaved), then the village would have a difficult time indeed avoiding attack.
In your own worldbuilding, you might not necessarily have these specific situations. But the concepts involved are delicious for generating story conflict. Stakes are high, incentives can balance on the edge of a knife, and much will depend on the characters involved. A good deal can be messed up by an impatient character, or implacable enemies might recognize an alignment of interests that can encourage the first tentative steps toward peace.
(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Wealth for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)