Life on the Edge

Denizens of the periphery find ways to escape the predatory state.

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott, Yale University Press, 442 pages, $35

In the dominant narrative of civilization’s march, cultured people are ruled by centralized law-giving institutions (city-states, kingdoms, empires, and now nation-states), usually centered in relatively flat lowlands and sustained by grain agriculture. By contrast, according to this view, people who live in the mountains, in swamps, or in “remote” jungles are rude, primitive, and backward, relying on nomadism, slash-and-burn agriculture, and hunting and gathering. They live not in cities or nations but in bands, clans, and tribes. The way they live is the way everyone used to live before some of us became civilized; they are windows onto our past, living museums of prehistoric life.

How lucky we are not to be backward. How fortunate we are to be ruled by wise kings and far-sighted legislators, by shepherds who protect us from barbarian wolves. Surely, as Oliver Wendell Holmes instructed us, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” Those who evade taxes are evading civilization and all that it entails.

Now along comes James C. Scott to show how absurd that narrative is. In his dazzling, enlightening, and enjoyable new book, The Art of Not Being Governed, the Yale anthropologist and political scientist boldly challenges the age-old story of “rude barbarians mesmerized by the peace and prosperity made possible by the king’s peace and justice.”

To begin with, people who live in relatively “ungovernable” peripheries do not really live like people before states existed. They live alongside state-governed populations, in constant contact with their cousins who live under state control. The inhabitants of such peripheries, Scott shows, are overwhelmingly refugees or descendants of refugees from states’ predatory behavior: slavery, war, and taxation. Their ways of life have made it more difficult for states to control them.

Their agricultural products are not harvested all at once, so it is harder to tax them. Their kinship systems decentralize power through networks of families. Their residence on difficult terrain, such as hills and swamps, makes them less accessible to slave raiders, tax collectors, or press gangs (or draft boards, “revenuers,” or drug agents). Their ways of life are adaptations to living near, and attempting to escape from, predation and violence. Those adaptations have made them harder to rule.

Once you understand Scott’s point, you can’t see such people the same way again. They are not a museum of ancient life. They are a display of what people will go through to escape being enslaved, robbed, and pressed into war. Their agriculture, social structures, religions, and other features, Scott writes, are “better seen on a long view as adaptations designed to evade both state capture and state formation. They are, in other words, political adaptations of nonstate peoples to a world of states that are, at once, attractive and threatening.”

As Scott notes at the outset, the “standard civilizational narrative” leaves out “two capital facts. First…it appears that much, if not most, of the population of the early states was unfree; they were subjects under duress. The second fact, most inconvenient for the standard narrative of civilization, is that it was very common for state subjects to run away. Living within the state meant, virtually by definition, taxes, conscription, corvée labor, and, for most, a condition of servitude; these conditions were at the core of the state’s strategic and military advantages. When these burdens became overwhelming, subjects moved with alacrity to the periphery or to another state.”

Political and military history, with its palace coups, religious conflict and persecution, wars, looting, rapine, and subjugation, produced not only victors but vanquished, some of whom escaped into regions inaccessible to their pursuers. Each successive wave of refugees carried new languages, religions, and other cultural accoutrements with them. Thus, “Much of the periphery of states became a zone of refuge or ‘shatter zone,’ where the human shards of state formation and rivalry accumulated willy nilly, creating regions of bewildering ethnic and linguistic complexity. State expansion and collapse often had a ratchet effect as well, with fleeing subjects driving other peoples ahead of them seeking safety and new territory.” Even the tribal systems of such peoples are, to a significant extent, the creations of the states they are fleeing, who foster them as means of “institutional linkage and control.”

Scott focuses his attention on the region of upland Southeast Asia he calls “Zomia” (from a term for “highlander” in the Tibeto-Burman languages). “Much of the Southeast Asian massif is, in effect, a shatter zone,” he writes. Similar “shatter zones” can be found in the mountains of the Caucasus (the ethnic, linguistic, and religious complexity of the region is staggering, with at least 13 languages spoken in Georgia alone), in the Balkans, in highland West Africa, in highland South America, in the Mekong Delta, in the Don River Basin, and elsewhere-even in Appalachia and the Great Dismal Swamp along the Virginia/North Carolina border.

For millennia, rulers have attempted to eliminate such zones of refuge, sometimes through relatively benign methods, such as road building in highland areas, and sometimes with brutal methods, such as forced relocation, “ethnic cleansing,” or habitat destruction. An example of the latter would be Saddam Hussein’s destruction of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands, an effort to bring the Marsh Arabs under control following their unsuccessful 1991 uprisings against him.

Scott illustrates the case in great detail, drawing on his remarkable knowledge of Southeast Asia. The early public choice theorist Amilcare Puviani asked what tax collection systems would minimize taxpayer resistance to taxation, a question that led him to the study of “fiscal illusion.” Scott focuses our attention on the geography of predation, asking what conditions “would be most favorable to the state and its ruler” and “what arrangements are most likely to guarantee the ruler a substantial and reliable surplus of manpower and grain at least cost.”

From the perspective of the rulers, but perhaps not of the ruled, wet rice cultivation seems ideal. It requires large concentrations of manpower (i.e., taxpayers and soldiers) and produces a crop that is relatively easy to appropriate and that can be stored to support armies in the field in ways that yams, vegetables, and other foodstuffs cannot. Scott finds a close relationship between states and agriculture, one that helps explain the rise and fall of the region’s various kingdoms, empires, and other state formations.

In addition to discussing the appropriation of agricultural surpluses to sustain the ruling houses and their wars, Scott focuses attention on the appropriation of population itself, noting that “most powerful kingdoms constantly sought to replenish and enlarge their manpower base by forcibly resettling war captives by the tens of thousands and by buying and/or kidnapping slaves.” Successful rulers were preoccupied with keeping subjugated people under the state’s thumb; as Scott notes, the Great Wall of China was built not merely to keep barbarian raiders out but to keep Chinese peasants in.

Having a large supply of manpower was “the only means by which wealth could be securely held.” To keep subjects from escaping, various states established means of tattooing, branding, and otherwise designating the human population as chattel. In Freedom and Domination, his great libertarian work of sociology, Alexander Rüstow notes that some early rulers, typically nomadic pastoralists who had conquered farmers, insisted that their subjects approach them on all fours, with tufts of grass in their mouths, to underscore their chattel status.

Scott observes that rulers are less interested in the gross domestic product than in the “State-Accessible Product,” which “had to be easy to identify, monitor, and enumerate (in short, assessable), as well as being close enough geographically.” He documents various campaigns to discourage forms of agriculture that are hard to appropriate, such as “shifting” or “slash-and-burn” cultivation, even when the value to the agriculturalists of such crops was greater than that of the ruler-preferred methods. Scott notes that the government “maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and its subjects.” What’s best for the ruler is not always best for the ruled.

Topography plays an important role as well, with state power tending to be greatest where the “friction of distance” is least. “Political control sweeps readily across a flat terrain,” Scott writes. “Once it confronts the friction of distance, abrupt changes in altitude, ruggedness of terrain, and the political obstacle of population dispersion and mixed cultivation, it runs out of political breath.”

Understanding the nature of such zones where political control “runs out of breath” is not merely of interest to historians and social scientists. It’s central to understanding many things about the modern world, including the difficulties that NATO and its allied forces face in Afghanistan, the problems with other nation-building campaigns around the globe, the nature and costs of resistance to predatory state power, and the evolutionary relationship between tax systems and economic structures-that is, between systems of theft and structures of production. In effect, Scott gives us a libertarian geography.

Scott draws on the insights of Pierre Clastres, whose 1974 book Society Against the State undermined the narrative of the progressive transition from archaic society to state-governed civilizations by showing how a variety of Native American tribes developed systems to keep the state at bay. Such groups did not merely “fail to develop a state”; they succeeded in keeping one from developing. The insight is important, but Scott follows Clastres in making questionable claims about the conjunction of the state, private property, and material inequality.

Why would private property spring up in a type of society in which it is unknown because it is rejected?” Clastres asked. He suggested that the state preceded property, rather than the other way around. Scott is well known for advancing a “moral economy” thesis, formulated in his 1976 book The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, in which peasants live by a “safety-first maxim” that “embodies a relative preference for subsistence security over high average incomes” and thus tend to resist the creation of property rights, fixed-rents (rather than share-cropping), and production for the market. In The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott writes: “Permanent padi-field cultivation also leads to systems of landed property and inheritance and the social class distinctions they foster. Inequalities per se do not distinguish the valleys from the hills. Status differences and inequalities abound in the hills, but in contrast to inequality in the padi state, they are not underwritten by inherited inequalities of property enforced, if need be, by the coercive power of a rudimentary state.” Further, “Just as fixed, inheritable property in land facilitates permanent class formation, a common property frontier equalizes access to subsistence resources and permits the frequent fission of villages and lineages that seems central to the maintenance of egalitarianism.”

Maybe. But inequality can take many forms, from the exclusive privilege of chiefs to multiple wives, as described by Clastres, to the use of common property to perpetuate material inequality, as described by Scott’s critic Samuel Popkin in his 1979 study of the history of rural Vietnam, The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam. According to Popkin, access to communal lands in rural areas, rather than being a source of egalitarian redistribution, was more likely to be manipulated by the rich and powerful to shift the burdens of taxation to the poor. “The procedures for paying national taxes, the system for allocating communal lands, and the methods for financing village projects were regressive,” Popkin wrote. “Some communal lands were reserved for widows, orphans, and the aged without children. For ‘regular’ families, however, communal lands were distributed not according to need, but ascriptively, on the basis of rank within the village.” Scott rejects Popkin’s characterizations of his views, but the debate between the “moral economy” perspective and the “political economy” perspective is both complex and ongoing. Despite its many insights, The Art of Not Being Governed offers no more evidence to resolve the issue.

But whether or not Scott is on the right side of the argument, The Art of Not Being Governed is chock-a-block with fascinating observations. For example, he shows a new way to understand the dispersal of ethnic groups: horizontally. Merely looking down on a two-dimensional ethnographic map shows what appear to be random scatterings, but by looking at the topography horizontally, Scott notes a pattern: The same altitude tends to harbor the same (or closely related) ethnic groups. “Thus, for example, the Hmong have tended to settle at very high altitudes (between one thousand and eighteen hundred meters) and to plant maize, opium, and millet that will thrive at that elevation,” he writes. “If from a high-altitude balloon or on a map they appear to be a random scattering of small blotches, this is because they have occupied the mountaintops and left the midslopes and intervening valleys to other groups.” Moreover, Scott’s thesis about the close connection between state formation and the promotion of certain kinds of agriculture offers an occasion to think about how vulnerable new forms of wealth creation are to state control and, for those who favor escape from the state, how to promote the kinds of wealth that help people evade predation.

The Art of Not Being Governed also provides a healthy antidote to the ahistorical and naive views of the “communitarians,” who posit static traditional communities as the framework for personal identity. As Scott demonstrates, “traditional identities” more often than not are hybrid, porous, plural, and fluid. The idea of an unchanging way of life going back millennia is, in general, bunk. Subordination to states is not necessary to identity, as stateless peoples show, and “tribal” or ethnic identities are neither as unchanging nor as inescapable as communitarians think. Fluid identities are features of freedom, whether in modern liberal society or in peripheral “zones of refuge” from state predation.

Scott is clearly sympathetic to the Zomians, but he doesn’t romanticize the lives of people who reside outside the reach of state power. Sometimes the escape from predation has preserved other forms of oppression that shock modern liberal sensibilities. Some hill peoples who escaped slavery, for example, supplemented their incomes by organizing slave raids of their own.

Scott concludes his book on a sober note. As states extend their sovereign power from one internationally recognized border to another and intrude into every space, he writes, “the world I have sought to describe and understand here is fast disappearing. For virtually all my readers it will seem a very far cry from the world they inhabit. In the contemporary world, the future of our freedom lies in the daunting task of taming Leviathan, not evading it.”

I think that Scott is essentially correct, but I wonder whether evading Leviathan is part of the process of taming it. The history of freedom in Europe is to a substantial degree the history of lowering costs of exit, as the Australian historian E.L. Jones shows in his 1981 book The European Miracle. We may simply need to follow Scott’s example and think more creatively about the ways in which wealth is produced and exchanged and the means by which predatory state behavior can be evaded.

If you wish to have your comfortable preconceptions about the history of humanity shaken and to see things anew, The Art of Not Being Governed is for you. The lives of people on the periphery have often been hard, but less so than the slavery they were escaping. Although the search for freedom does not always yield optimal results, understanding its history is essential to understanding the future of freedom.

Tom Palmer ( is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, vice president for international programs at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the author of Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice (Cato). This column first appeared at