Beyond the State: When Being Poor in the Hills is a Good Choice


I make no secret of the fact that I am overwhelmingly in favor of big government. States have been responsible for

a) Reducing crime, brigandage and piracy – increasing the personal safety of its citizens.

b) Providing education for its citizens – raising the technological capacity of the society.

c) Promoting economic growth by providing sound banking systems and protecting commerce with rule of law.

d) Promoting economic growth by constructing infrastructure.

e) Increasing economic activity through state spending.

f) Being a primary patron of the arts.

g) Improving the physical health and lifespan of its citizens by providing health services, promoting medical research, and providing systems for clean water and the removal of sewage.

This is my short list.

Get me going and I could give you a much longer list.

States have been responsible for most of the improvements in human welfare throughout history.

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That said, there have always people who have strong motivations for escaping the state. For most American and European readers, this seems like an abstract and not-attainable possibility. An accountant in suburban Long Island has no easy wilderness into which she can disappear to live a life of personal freedom. There is nowhere near Suffolk County where one can permanently escape the tax collector, the police or even neighbors. That accountant might have the money for a one-way trip to the Northern Yukon or the Brazilian Amazon. Whether she would have the skills to survive in that setting is more debatable. She certainly could not replicate her current material standard of living or her level of personal or medical security.

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However, throughout history, there HAVE been people for whom escaping the state was a realistic option. Surprisingly, that option is still available in many regions of the world.

There is an eye-opening book on how easy it has been and how easy it still is to escape the chains of government: James Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. (Yale, 2009). James Scott is a Yale political scientist who has made a distinguished career of studying peasants in, as the title suggests, the Highland areas of Southeast Asia.

James Scott argues that for most of history, the power of states was effectively limited to lowlands. This was for two reasons.

a) Armies were raised with the material wealth that was available in lowlands. Soldiers had to be paid. The primary source of wealth was the agrarian activities associated with river valleys and coastal plains. River valleys and coastal plains were fertile, easy to irrigate and generated high yields. Mountains and forests had worse soil, and smaller fields. You could generate enough food to feed an army in the lowlands. Foraging in the mountains is a rockier deal.

b) Mountains present defensive advantages that neutralize the advantages of large armies. Horse cavalry, war elephants and chariots all struggle in mountain environments. Foot soldiers are less mobile going up hill or slogging up mountains. Artillery fire travels farther when placed in a high location shooting down than when placed in a low location trying to shoot up. Local residents can exploit defensive cover; they also know the terrain and the trails better than the invaders.

Thus, for most of history, the world consisted of lowlands with some sort of governmental unit – be it a barony, a nation or an empire, and highlands that were essentially ungoverned. In many cases, there were also forested frontiers that were essentially ungoverned.

The proximity of mountains and forests meant that anyone in the lowlands who was unhappy about his or her current government could essentially escape that government by migrating to the frontier. James Scott argues that people did run off to the mountains – and they still do.

The largest “no-state” zone in the world, according to Scott, is a territory he calls Zomia. This is a band of dense forested mountains that run unbroken from Assam, the easternmost province of India, through Myanmar, taking up the majority of that country, to Southwest China, including the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou and Western Guangxi, to much of the North and Northeast of Thailand, to nearly all of Laos to the upper three quarters of non-coastal Vietnam. Zomia even includes a few valleys in Eastern Cambodia.

Zomia is enormous. Geographically, Zomia is larger than Europe. The people of Zomia belong to hundreds of different ethnic groups. They speak hundreds of different languages. The tribes are culturally and linguistically distinct from each other – and most certainly, culturally and linguistically distinct from India, Myanmar, China, Thailand, Laos or Vietnam.

They don’t pay taxes – unless temporarily forced to by military incursion. They don’t receive or want government benefits. Legal and administrative questions are handled by village custom or the discretionary decision making of local elders. The economy is extremely local with some limited trading with outside agents.

Other parts of the world resemble Zomia. Technically, the American West was one large stateless zone until it was brought under the control of Washington D.C. Spanish America had its own stateless zones. The Northern Mexican desert was a long-standing place of refuge for individuals fleeing slavery or persecution in Mexico City or Vera Cruz. The jungles of Chiapas and Guatemala served a similar purpose. The mountains of the Philippines served as a refuge for Filipinos fleeing either pirates or Spanish plantation labor. The Cossack lands and the Caucasus were havens for people seeking refuge from Russia or from the Ottomans. The Carpathians were a place of refuge in Eastern Europe, as were the Pripet marshes. The sertão was a place of refuge for escaped slaves in Brazil. The rise of slaving kingdoms in West Africa led to the counter-establishment of refuges in the highlands of Senegal and Central Africa. The jungles of Surinam attracted refugees from both the Caribbean and the South American mainland.

What was the appeal of escaping to the wilderness?

Frontier living was appealing for people who were already farmers or for people who were already poor. Standards of living are not high out in the wild. However, for peasants or traditional farmers living a marginal existence in the lowlands, there is not that much difference between eking out an existence on the plains and eking out an existence in the forest or the swamp. The unspoiled natural resources of wilderness areas represented opportunities for people who knew how to hunt, fish or forage. The natural beauty of these settings was not irrelevant.

However, a bigger issue is that governments in these historical settings were often all take and no give. Rulers exacted the maximum available from their citizens while offering very little in return. Taxation was confiscatory. Corvées and forced labor were common. Men were conscripted into military service or into work detail. Women could be conscripted into providing personal services for leaders. Slavery was widespread. One could be sold into slavery either by being a soldier in a losing army or by simply being a victim of a passing slaver. Lowland kings made ample use of slaver’s services; they were not too choosy about whether the merchandise was local or imported.

Governments often provided little in the way of concrete services. Historically, educational services were reserved for the elite. Welfare payments were non-existent – although a king might help out in the event of a famine. Roads and infrastructure were not welcome, because these generally facilitated the taxpayer coming in to make demands on the locals. The state did build impressive buildings and fund elaborate religious rituals. The appeal of the lowlands often depended on how much one enjoyed going to the church or temple and engaging in indoor religious ceremonies.

The oppressiveness of lowland states does not necessarily mean that the mountains and forests were Gardens of Eden. The mountains were often warlike places. Villages could fight with their neighbors just as easily as kingdoms could fight with their neighbors. Net of their own wars, mountain people could find themselves enmeshed in the wars of others. Wilderness zones were often between rival kingdoms, with battles for geopolitical power being fought in the marches. Wild areas were havens for bandits. Lowland people might be victimized by pirates, but highland people could be victimized by mountain brigands. Homes and farms that were particularly prosperous could be “visited” by “gangs” that were interested in “sharing the wealth”.

Plus, highland areas are not completely cut off from the economic life of the lowlands. There is often extensive trade between mountains and valleys with mountain people trading the natural resources of their regions for manufactured goods produced in civilization. Trade brings its own complications. The presence of trade means the presence of merchants and locals travelling with goods. Travelers with goods are fair game for bandits. The presence of trade also means the presence of smuggling. Highland residents get rich sneaking goods from one lowland area to another, avoiding the tax and custom collectors along the way.

Smuggling and banditry imply the rise of warlords. Warlords do not guarantee a peaceful life for highland residents. Warlords fight for power. Warlords impose military discipline on their subjects. Warlords make their own exactions from local populations.

However, people can escape from warlords much the same way they escape from lowland despots. Zomia is a big place, and so are the Carpathians, the Central American jungles and the sertão. If people absolutely have to move, they can.

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James Scott refers to his book as an “anarchist history”. Anarchism appeals when your government puts nothing on the table to attract you – while making constant demands on your money, your freedom and your personal security. Anarchism makes less sense when governments do something that is actually useful. The Bangkok government in the 18th century and the 19th century was narrowly confiscatory. Today, Thailand has one of the best public health systems in the Global South, a thriving economy, a strong educational system, a reasonable system of criminal and civil justice, and a modest welfare state. The average Bangkok resident is a lot wealthier than a forest resident of Thai-Zomia – although the advantage is less marked for people living in the slums.

I remember having a conversation with an American who had just returned from Micronesia. He was totally captivated by the Magic of South Pacific Life.

Live on the beach.

Avoid the urban rat race.

Live on a natural schedule without deadlines or time pressure.

Rid yourself of unnecessary stuff and be satisfied with fresh fish and simple clothing and housing.

A wonderful enticing dream.

I then asked that American, “By the way, how were the locals’ teeth?”

Lots of people had dental problems.

Toothaches were common.

I still like a world with good hospitals, good doctors, decent pharmacies and long life expectancies. People do not live as long in the underdeveloped frontier.

But in settings, when you are going to die anyway, and someone wants to see you in chains, a plot of land by a mountain waterfall sounds better and better.