the wolf state and the bear state

The Seven SamuraiWhenever I think about the theory of the genesis of the state, as held by Lysander Spooner, Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, and Murray Rothbard, I think of the Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai, in which a remote peasant village, besieged by bandits, persuades a band of out-of-work warriors to defend the village. Both the warriors and the bandits seem to be hungry. Only the peasants can feed themselves. The bandits want everything. The so-called samurai will work for room and board, which amounts to a small fraction of what the bandits would take. By the time the starving bandits attack, the samurai have drafted the entire village into military defense.

I love and recommend the film, which is not explicitly about state genesis, statecraft, or state anything; but the three main groups serve as useful mnemonic labels for the various roles played in the conquest theory of the state.

The villagers are the productive class. Any wealth that exists in the society exists because of them. (This is a microcosm without entrepreneurship or investment.)

The bandits are clearly parasites. They engage in a zero-sum game of win and lose. They redistribute and destroy wealth.

The samurai are more problematic. They have been engaged voluntarily to provide defensive services. They are, potentially, an excellent example of the benefits of specialization and the division of labor. But even within the narrower context of the story, it is clear that they could take over. If they are part of a voluntary arrangement in the present generation, there’s every chance of their becoming a settled aristocracy in the next generation or two.

The village by itself, before the bandits, did not constitute a state. There must have been various “governmental” arrangements, through tradition, to deal with whatever conflicts arose, but both the problems and the solutions would have been minor compared to the later scale of bandits and samurai.

If the bandits had won, would they have destroyed the village, raped the women, packed off the rice, and gone elsewhere? Maybe. But the fact that they invest so heavily in attacking the village suggests that they don’t have anywhere else to go. If that’s the case, then they can’t afford to destroy the village. How would they eat next year? Better to take some large fraction, but leave the villagers with enough to survive another year, and to survive well enough to bring about another harvest. Then the bandits can take “their” portion of that, etc. Sooner or later, this cycle would become less obvious, the bandits less remote. Either bandits or peasants or both would realize that everyone can have more rice if the bandits settle down and become the nobility of the village. Thus we get the bandit state.

If the bandits are too shortsighted (i.e., they have too high a time preference), and the villagers feel the damage is too great, they bring in our third group, the defensive warriors. If the warriors win, then they, eventually, become the nobility. Thus we get the samurai state.

We see both examples in history. Perhaps the samurai class devolves into a samurai state more slowly than the bandit class will become the bandit state. But the end result is similar.

Reading over Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, I find he had a different terminology for this same distinction:

What, then, is the State as a sociological concept? The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors.

No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner. Wherever a reliable tradition reports otherwise, either it concerns the amalgamation of two fully developed primitive states into one body of more complete organization; or else it is an adaptation to men of the fable of the sheep which made a bear their king in order to be protected against the wolf. But even in this latter case, the form and content of the State became precisely the same as in those states where nothing intervened, and which became immediately “wolf states.”

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One Response to the wolf state and the bear state

  1. Nathalie says:

    Great post. Now I want to see the movie again!

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