The Hobbesian Hypothesis

Thomas Hobbes famously characterized the human condition under “the state of nature” as one in which “the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” A Leviathan, Hobbes argued, would bring order and protect people from each other and this terrible fate. This narrative remains the essential premise for modern social science’s justification of the state.

How were states formed? Are we really better off under a state? Hobbes provides original insights into these two fundamental questions. The Hobbesian hypothesis, loosely framed, is that violence created the impetus for human beings to create a state, which provides political order and eliminates violence. Drawing on some old and recent works in anthropology, political science, and economics, I examine whether the Hobbesian hypothesis is corroborated.

How were states formed?

The standard story about the emergence of early states goes something like this: Homo sapiens existed for millions of years as scattered, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. Gradually they invented sedentary agriculture, started to enjoy a surplus, and developed a social hierarchy. A leader – a priest, warrior, manager, or charismatic person – came to the fore, and started to use his or her power. Gradually the organization of such a polity developed into an incipient early state.

Scholars, however, debate about whether this process was a voluntary or coercive one. Voluntaristic theories hold that, at some point in their history, certain peoples spontaneously, rationally, and voluntarily gave their individual sovereignties and united with other communities to form a larger political unit deserving to be called a state. A coercive theory believed that force, and not enlightened self-interest, is the mechanism by which political evolution has led, step by step, from autonomous villages to the state.

Robert Carneiro, an anthropologist, examined factors that are common to areas of the world in which states arose indigenously – areas such as the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and the Indus valleys. These areas differ from one another in many ways, but they have one thing in common: they are all areas of circumscribed agricultural land. Each of them is set off by mountains, seas, or deserts, and these environmental features sharply delimit the area that simple farming people could occupy and cultivate. Carneiro argued that population growth in these areas led to frequent warfare over land. A village that lost a war could not flee to a new locale due to the natural barriers. The defeated village’s only viable option was political subordination to the victor. Gradually, smaller units merged into larger units, which we call states.

Even with these conducive factors, state formation has been anything but natural or inevitable. If we locate the era of definitive state hegemony as beginning around 1600 CE, and considering that Homo sapiens appeared as a subspecies about 200,000 years ago, the state has dominated only the last one-fifth of 1 percent of our species’ political life. For the bulk of the human experience, we lived in small, mobile, dispersed, and relatively egalitarian hunting-and-gathering bands.

In James Scott’s recent book Against the Grain, he synthesizes recent anthropological evidence from Mesopotamia – the heartland of the first “pristine” states – from 6500 to 1600 BCE. He argues that the process of state formation is far from what we know from conventional wisdom. The first states emerged in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley around 3100 BCE, more than four millennia after the first crops were domesticated and people began to create permanent settlements. This massive lag, Scott suggests, indicates that agriculture and a settled population were “a necessary but not a sufficient basis for state formation.”

How exactly were these early states formed? One possible explanation is that a change in the climate limited humans’ options for existence. Citing the work of the archeologist Hans Nissen, and consistent with Carneiro’s circumscription hypothesis, Scott shows that the period from 3500 to 2500 BCE was marked by a steep decline in sea level and a decrease in the water volume in the Euphrates River. The rivers shrank back to their main channels, and the population became much more concentrated as it increasingly huddled around the remaining watercourses. “Climate change,” Scott asserts, “intensified the grain-and-manpower modules that were ideal for state formation.”

Not all agricultural developments were conducive to state formation. Scott notes that all states of antiquity – Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and the Yellow River – are grain states: wheat, barley, and millet. There were no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states, and certainly no banana republics. The reason is their legibility: grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing. By contrast, the tuber cassava (aka manioc, yucca) grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most important, can be safely left in the ground and remain edible for up to two years. If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dig up the tubers individually, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported. Evaluating crops from the perspective of the premodern “tax man,” the major grains would be among the most preferred, and roots and tubers among the least preferred. Scott hence concludes, “grains make states.”

Scott’s argument about grains making states is echoed by recent works by Carles Boix, Ali Ahmed and David Stasavage, and Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav, and Zvika Neeman who link agricultural potential, especially the transparency of crops, and the emergence of political hierarchies.

This literature suggests that while violence, a key component in the Hobbesian hypothesis, was important, agricultural development (especially the type of crops) and natural circumscription are critical exogenous factors that made state formation possible.

Are we really better off under the state?

Another component of the Hobbesian hypothesis is that everyone is better off, or at least as well-off, under the state than in statelessness. According to the traditional narrative, civilization started after the state was formed. Political order replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gathers and nomads. The narrative is one of progress: agriculture made sedentism possible and increased productivity, which helped create a lifestyle that was far superior to the “primitive” modes of subsistence.

Scott, continuing a tradition in his earlier works, questions this premise. He contends that while life outside the state is free and healthy, the state creates “institutions of bondage” – coerced labor, debt bondage, serfdom, communal bondage and tribute, and various forms of slavery – to control the means of production and create a surplus. Infectious diseases are also more likely to spread among settled populations, which often leads to state collapse. In contrast to the Hobbesian world of a nasty life without the state, Scott’s world under state control is full of drudgery and illness.

Evidence from recent ethnographic studies of stateless societies as well as the archaeology of prehistoric stateless societies further questions the Hobbesian hypothesis. In a recent book, Karl Widerquist and Grant McCall draw on evidence about two forms of stateless societies (hunter-gatherer bands and autonomous villages), both of which demonstrate the falsity of drawing an exhaustive dichotomy between living under something like contemporary state authority and the complete absence of political organization. A review of violence in these groups suggests that they are neither engaged in a war of all-against-all, as Hobbes would have it, nor are they entirely peaceful. There is significant variation depending on the group.

Contrary to the Hobbesian hypothesis, however, archaeologists believe that human societies became more violent as the first agricultural societies emerged. The consensus view is that increasing population density leads to increased violence, possibly because violence can no longer be avoided by moving elsewhere. The establishment of states led to yet more violence: “Early states and empires are perhaps the most violent and warlike contexts in which humans have ever lived,” Widerquist and McCall point out.

While I do not want to sound like an anarchist, the emerging evidence does raise questions for modern social sciences. We need to reevaluate some of the premises we have taken for granted and wonder how many other untested empirical assumptions lie at the foundations of contemporary Western political thought.

Some of the materials of this post are drawn from my recently published article on modern social science theories of the state.


  • 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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