After a great deal of procrastination, it’s time to revisit the Land/Labor/Capital triad, identified by the classical economists like Adam Smith and the like as the key factors of production.
(Side note: modern economists consider entrepreneurship to be a fourth factor of production. I’m still trying to figure out whether there is a nice way to characterize entrepreneurship in our model, as it would obviously lend itself to strong stories.)
Remember, we’re not trying to explain everything about an economy from the ground up. We’re trying to build a relatively simple, yet powerful and flexible framework that worldbuilders can use to quickly mock up the contours of their invented societies. Once the bones are in place, you are then in a position to dive into all the cool little details, confident that they will be consistent with the structuring logic.
So when we talk about land, we’re going to focus on three broad variables—each of which can have surprisingly powerful implications:
- Population density
- Ease of transport
- Natural resources
Really, these are interrelated. For example, you can’t have a dense population without lots of food, and and an easy way to get the food to people. Still, it’s useful to consider them separately to keep everything straight in our heads. Let’s begin with population density.
If you want to have a country or region with a high population density, that implies several things. We already noted the need for lots of food and efficient transportation of it. On the other hand, you don’t necessarily need to have urban cities, if people are living in densely placed villages and growing their own food with intensive agricultural methods. (It will mean that animal husbandry will likely use methods that require little land, rather than pasture-grazing.) And the material standard of living might still be low if most people are producing food, rather than more specialized goods. Still, the more people there are living close together, the more opportunities for specialization and exchange, and the more likely that the economy will develop more complexity.
Conversely, if the population is thinly spread, the people might still be relatively prosperous. They could have large herds of livestock that move from place to place, or practice a carefree foraging lifestyle where they only spend a few hours a day gathering food and use the rest of their time making luxuries, playing games, fighting with neighbors (!), or relaxing. Or they might be desperately poor, if the land is not very productive and they all have to work hard to feed themselves, since there are few opportunities for trade. With a thinly spread populace that cannot sustain specialization and exchange, chances are that the energy surplus of the society will be small, which limits the development of their society and culture. (And you can see how the productivity of the land interacts with population density.)
So whether you choose to have a dense population or not, you can play around with what that looks like for you and your story.
But what about the political effects of a dense population, or its opposite?
Note that the more thinly spread the population, the harder it is to control the territory. If you are being oppressed by a ruler, or landlord, or moneylender, or cruel family members or whatever, you always have the option to pull up stakes and run; and all else equal, it is more difficult for a ruler to stop you if the population is thin. This is because fortifying the border to keep people in would be too expensive, compared to the number of people being contained. By contrast, if the society has a dense population, it is relatively more efficient to fortify the border even at great expense, because of the large number of people you will be able to contain and control.
Jeffrey Herbst argues that this is one of the key differences between the experience of Western Europe and of precolonial Africa; Western Europe, being densely populated and urbanized, made it worthwhile for rulers to fortify their borders, the better to control the moments of their people (as well as to defend against invasion!). In Africa, however, the landscape was so vast compared to the populace that there was little practical way to control the territory as such. Instead, African rulers focused on strategies to control people directly—ties of loyalty or marriage for some, enslavement and physical domination for others.
Let’s see why. When seeking wealth or other resources, a ruler must ask a key question: is it easier to exploit one’s own people, or someone else? If your people are easily controlled and restrained, it will be relatively easier to tax them. If your people can move around easily, however, then they will not tolerate heavy taxation. On the other hand, if your army can also move around easily, it becomes more attractive to invade your neighbors and cart away plunder, in goods or people.
So as a broad pattern, we see regions of high population density focus on fortification of borders and relatively high reliance on taxation or other means to generate resources from their own people (which does not exclude invading and pillaging neighbors, of course!); and regions of low population density feature relatively higher mobility, societies that feature relatively less political coercion and taxation, and lots of raiding of neighbors for treasure and slaves.
Of course, rulers can also change the population density of their territory. A very common pattern, as James C. Scott tells us, was for city rulers to concentrate the surrounding populations by force within the city walls, and have them cultivate fields that were within easy reach of the city (and the city’s military). This allowed them to tax their peasantry’s output more easily than if farmers were living in distant villages.
So when you’re creating a new territory, think about the population density of the land, and then consider what consequences flow from that. The implications for your story might be surprising.
(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 [Commerce?] for Worldbuilders, along with some overlap with the planned third book, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when they will be finished, but it should be fun!)