The Rise of the Stationary Bandit

Mancur Olson famously argues that if rulers expect to stay in power for a long time, they will promote economic growth so they have something to steal in the future. These rulers become stationary bandits, which distinguishes them from the roving bandits who simply plunder and maximize short-term gains.

Why do some rulers become stationary bandits, while others roving bandits? In this post, I briefly introduce some of the recent studies that shed light on ruler duration in the ancient world.

A pioneering study conducted by Lisa Blaydes and Eric Chaney documents a divergence in the duration of rule for monarchs in Western Europe and the Islamic world beginning in the medieval period. They show that while leadership tenures in the two regions were similar in the 8th century, Christian kings became increasingly long lived compared to Muslim sultans. They argue that forms of executive constraint that emerged under feudal institutions in Western Europe were associated with increased political stability and find empirical support for this argument. While feudal institutions served as the basis for military recruitment by European monarchs, Muslim sultans relied on mamlukism—or the use of military slaves imported from non-Muslim lands. Dependence on mamluk armies limited the bargaining strength of local notables vis-à-vis the sultan, hindering the development of a productively adversarial relationship between ruler and local elites.

While Blaydes and Chaney focus on formal institutions, Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell examine how succession rule determined ruler duration in Europe. For rulers, they argue, the absence of a successor is problematic, as the elite have few incentives to remain loyal if the ruler cannot reward them for their loyalty after his death. However, an appointed successor has both the capacity and the motive to challenge the autocrat. Kokkonen and Sundell argue that a succession based on primogeniture solves the dilemma, by providing the regime with a successor who can afford to wait to inherit the throne peacefully. They test their hypothesis on a dataset covering 961 monarchs ruling 42 European states between 1000 and 1800, and show that fewer monarchs were deposed in states practicing primogeniture than in states practicing alternative succession orders.

Primogeniture, however, comes with another problem. During the Middle Ages, most European polities operated under a norm that gave only sons of a monarch a privileged place in the order of succession. When no such male heirs were available, succession disputes were more likely, with distant relatives and female(-line) heirs laying competing claims to the throne. These disputes often produced conflicts that destroyed existing institutions and harmed subsequent economic development. A shortage of male heirs to a European monarchy in the Middle Ages could thus have harmful effects on the development trajectories of regions ruled by that monarchy. Avidit Acharya and Alexander Lee provide evidence for this by showing that regions that were more likely to have a shortage of male heirs are today poorer than other regions.

European polities were especially prone to this heirless situation. Historians and anthropologists have discussed the role of familial institutions in shaping succession orders in Europe. Jack Goody shows that the Church engaged in a vigorous campaign against the secular aristocracy by regulating reproductive behavior. In addition to religious ideology, the prohibitions on endogamy, adoption, polygyny, concubinage, divorce, and remarriage also benefited the Church economically, because by limiting the circumstances under which wealth could be passed onto heirs, the Church could inherit large amounts of property and attain political power.

Divorce and remarriage, a typical way to obtain a male heir when the first marriage failed to produce one (e.g., Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine in medieval France, Henry VIII in Renaissance England), were virtually impossible except for a handful of the very rich in England until the reform of 1857. Even Charles II and George IV, both of whom lacked heirs, did not divorce. In the famous case of Henry VIII, Henry could not in the modern sense divorce his wife to marry Anne Boleyn: his efforts concentrated on proving that he had never been legally married to Catherine of Aragon since she was his late brother’s wife.

As a consequence, many European kings often died without a surviving son. According to one calculation, 11 out of 18 English kings from Henry VII to George VI had no even illegitimate sons, and most kings only had a small number of surviving sons when they died. So although hereditary rule can solve the succession dilemma, socially imposed monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage did not provide the crown with enough male heirs in Europe.

In imperial China, by contrast, emperors had much more control over the inheritance rights of their offspring, so hereditary rule could be sustained by the large number of male heirs. Patricia Ebrey demonstrates that although a man could marry only one wife, he could take as many concubines as he could afford. She estimates that about one-third of the elite families in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE) had a concubine at some point. This percentage was much higher for emperors, who cared most about succession and least about costs.

In a dataset I compiled on Chinese rulers, from the Qin Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (221 BCE–1911 CE), Chinese emperors on average had 7.57 spouses, 6.97 sons, and 3.12 daughters. Over 80% of Chinese emperors had at least one son. Chinese emperors also adopted a system that was more flexible than primogeniture, so they could often designate the most competent son (rather than the oldest) as their successor. According to my calculations, among the emperors who relied on hereditary rule, only 44.62% were succeeded by their first-born sons; the majority were succeeded by younger, and probably more competent, sons.

Although imperial China did not boast representative institutions, Chinese rulers were able to stay in power as long as European kings and queens. The figure below (upper panel) plots the moving average of ruler duration in China, Europe, and the Islamic World. Chinese rulers were just as secure as European rulers, and both outperformed their Islamic counterparts. The lower panel depicts the moving average of the probability of being deposed for rulers in China, Europe, and the Islamic World. For Chinese emperors, this probability declined to less than 30% after the 17th century; for European kings and queens, it remained around 30% until the 19th century. Islamic rulers’ probability of being deposed reached almost 60% in the 18th century.

In conclusion, it seems that both formal (e.g., parliaments) and informal institutions (e.g., family practices) matter for ruler duration. The long ruler duration in China, however, also casts doubt on the Olsonian notion that stationary bandits are good for economic development. It is difficult to square with the long-term economic stagnation in late imperial China. A promising direction for future research is to examine different types of stationary bandits and how they relate to a country’s economic prospects.




  • Wang is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University. He received a B.A. from Peking University and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His research has focused on the emergence and constraints of state institutions, with a regional focus on China. He is the author of Tying the Autocrat’s Hands: The Rise of the Rule of Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is currently working on a new book "Social Origins of Durable Rule in Imperial China" (under contract at Princeton University Press) to examine the long-term state development in China.

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