So I was thinking about the part in this past week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, where Joseph consolidates the population of Egypt into cities after buying up their rural property during an economic depression. I was convinced that urbanization was vital to the formation of a state because it somehow made the population more manageable by centralizing it, and breaking possible clan-tribe allegiances that could develop in rural isolation outside the eye of state bureaucracy. My model was the peasant revolution.
But then I realized how backward my thinking had been. Urbanization makes the population less manageable. In a situation of agricultural rural isolation, a small band of professional fighters can control large areas. An isolated farmer or three would probably have to pay any tax demanded by a band of five or six tax collectors who show up on his farm. If he got angry and decided to march to his neighbor and try to collect an army/gang to respond, a local autocrat could leverage force mobility and faster communications (using horses, literacy, and possibly some highly capital intensive communication, such as signal fires or flags) to head off a potential snowballing rebellion by quickly extinguishing sparks of discontent.
However, an urbanite could possibly have twenty of his neighbors within earshot should some government official demand something of him. Urban riots were feared by many autocrats, making the maintenance of country estates common. As the industrial revolution tilts the balance of power from rurality to urbanity, there is a shift from rural authoritarianism to urban democracy.
It is difficult to distinguish this model from Acemoglu’s. The presence of profitable agriculture and absence of industry would also produce conditions that decrease the urbanity of the population. However, it seems that one distinguishing characteristic of the models is their predictions on the effect of mineral wealth (which may produce negligible concentrations of miners). My model would predict at most a neutral effect of mineral wealth, while Acemoglu would argue it is a source of instability. In support of my model I would offer the example Norway, which possesses many mineral resources, of which oil is only recently of the highest importance (before the advent of artificial nitrates in the early twentieth century, Norway was an important source of mineral nitrates for fertilizer). Norway generates about 30 gallons of oil per citizen per day, which puts it solidly between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi (Abu Dhabi has more per person then Saudi Arabia).
China presents two interesting potential challenges to the model which I’d like to remark on briefly. One is the presence of peasant revolutions. While difficult to pull off, constant sporadic insurrections occurring in many places at the same time defeats the advantage of the bureaucracy in communication and mobilization. In addition, large scale events may also defeat the coordination advantage of the authoritarian force, such as the natural disasters which may have initiated the Red Turban rebellion against the Mongols in the fourteenth century.
Another is that China is deceptively urban. As many Chinese are in enormous metropolises, there are possibly more rural Chinese. The most recent direct clash was in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, where rural troops were trucked in to bust the heads of the loud urbanites. However, as we all know, 1989 seems like an eternity away in China.