The origins of government and the state

The question on the origins of government and the state is one of the most enduring questions in the social sciences and humanities. On this blog alone, we have had several posts on the origins of various aspects of the state and its capacity, see here, here, here and here.

Two clusters of theories of the origins of the state

Many early theories of government, such as those of Hobbes and Locke, emphasized what citizens stood to gain from a government, relative to a fictitious ‘state of nature’. Their answers ranged from peace to dispute resolution. This view of the government got taken up by economists, who view the appropriate scope of government intervention to lie with those activities that communities can not provide themselves, see e.g. here. A second influential view conceptualizes of the state as an organization tasked with extraction on behalf of an elite. This view is popular in anthropology, political science, but increasingly also in economics.

In a recent paper, Bob Allen, Mattia Bertazzini and I combine data on the first states in Iraq with shifting rivers as a source of variation in the degree to which individuals stand to gain from government intervention to study whether the first states in this context were cooperative or extractive.

Mesopotamia, and shifting rivers

The setting of our study is the formation of the first states in history in Southern Iraq. Key to testing our hypothesis is the fact that between 5000BCE and today Iraq’s main rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, shifted into their current course in six sudden shifts. The figure below maps Southern Iraq, our study area, as well as the sample.

We study the first river shift in history – which happened around 2850BCE,  as a way to differentiate cooperative and extractive theories of government. Imagine a farmer farming next to the river. The river breaks through its bed upstream, finds a new flow, which is now away from the farmer. The farmer is not alone of course in this predicament. The farmer can pick up and move, or organize and build a canal back through the desert to farm.

This trade-off is at the core of our natural experiment. We posit that if state formation is primarily cooperative we expect states to form where the river shifted away. Kleptocratic state formation, instead, should occur where the tax base is highest, which is next to an unchanged stretch of river, or where the river shifted to.

How to test this idea?

Of course states collect data on states, so we moved to archeology. This part of the world has been extensively covered by archeologists. The fact that archeologists carried out ‘sweep’ surveys – meaning that they fully survey an area rather than searching where they expect to find something – meant we could put together a panel dataset of river shifts, states, and state capacity. We find that when a river shifts away, states form where the river shifted, rather than elsewhere. This effect is concentrated where the agricultural returns to staying are high, and where there are people farming before the shift, as we would expect. The two maps below illustrate the main result.

Note how between the two figures, the river system change (e.g. north of Adab, or south-east of Esnunna). States form where the rivers shift – and there was previous occupation. Notably, Adab, Umma, Nippur, Larsa and Abu Salabikh all form as new states. This effect is even clearer if we plot treated grid cells, and indicate whether they are populated. In the figures below, we remove all untreated cells and all population outside treated cells.

The river breaks at the point indicated with the black dot, and grid cells in grey indicate treated cells (i.e. those cells that used to be able to water from the river, but now can’t). In maroon, we indicate those cells that used to be inhabited. It is now easy to see that states form over treated – and inhabited cells.

How were these early states organized? In the last part of our paper we explore this question. We find that their primary tasks of these first states were not in coercion or war, but in coordination and dispute resolution. Before the formation of the first states, extended kinship groups, called ‘lineages’, would adjudicate disputes, coordinate through assemblies, and provide public goods locally. These functions continued to be performed within individual lineages after the formation of states, but the newly formed governments extended these functions between lineages. The internal structure of the government mimicked lineage organization with a chief – lugal  – acting as the lineage head of the state. The first states were in essence clever adaptations of existing social structures to cope with changing circumstances. Gradually, these states accumulated power, and we enter more familiar territory where states are both capable to provide public good as well as repress.


  • Leander Heldring

    Leander Heldring is an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. His research interests are in Political Economy, Economic History, and Economic Development, with a particular focus on the role of government in economic growth.

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