"Prosperity and Violence" by Robert Bates is a re-examination of the role played by government's coercive power in developing nations. In previous studies, scholars have focused their attention on societies undergoing economic and political transformation, while ignoring larger and more developed societies. Bates, however, sees lessons for the study of development today in the experiences of countries that industrialized hundreds of years ago. Using a supply and demand theory of violence provision, he goes back to the formation of society and the state to examine how states go about increasing per-capita wealth, and how the organization of power, in particular the use of violence, affects the trajectory of development. As Bates has learned firsthand through his experiences in Latin America and Africa, much of the world has yet to find the perfect prescription for political and economic stability. By contrasting those states that were successful in early industrialization with those who have struggled in the Post-WW2 period, Bates seeks to draw out patterns that may help guide the way for developing nations.
The story begins with a discussion of the importance of kinship in agrarian society. In these societies, production, consumption and accumulation of wealth was organized at the level of the family. As population grew and families diffused, gains from specialization and trade were realized, but so too did the incentives for violence. To safeguard themselves, families organized their own protection, but any peace forged this way was uncertain. Due to the uncertainty surrounding one's property, there existed little reason to invest in the future. Instead, a family was better served by simplifying and making their possessions less appealing to would-be thieves, presenting families with an unfortunate choice to be made between peace and prosperity.
Out of this violence, according to Bates, emerged certain "fighting lineages" that were successful in their battles, but soon found pillaging the emerging trading centers less prosperous than setting up permanent residence and collecting taxes. In exchange for revenues, heads of towns provided safety, eliminating the need for private citizens to engage in costly battles. To further increase their take, these heads of fighting lineages delegated authority, provided cheaper raw materials, and shut out foreign markets. With the provision of violence now monopolized, towns could be confident that their attempts to form capital would bear fruit. As wealth spread to rural areas, so too did the violence that plagued urban areas. A demand for peace existed, and those with the ability to provide it did so for a fee. With large towns and rural areas coming under the protection of the same person, an early form of the state, paid for by citizens, was established.
Bates next addresses development, namely the lack thereof, in modern states. His contention is that rivalry between the global powers following World War Two left leaders of modern developing states without the same incentives to liberalize their economies. Unlike early developing states, few heads of state were driven to structure their economies to provide security because they could count on aid and protection from the United States or the U.S.S.R. The economic situation changed markedly with the early 1980's credit crisis. Those with capital were hesitant to loan to developing nations, meaning that the programs of import substitution and rapid development had to be halted, and control of the economy taken out of the hands of the state. Politically, states dependent on foreign aid found themselves in a precarious position after the end of the Cold War. No longer concerned with nations falling into communist hands, advanced-industrial nations made receiving foreign capital contingent on democratization. Without foreign aid, leaders who resisted economic liberalization found themselves unable to purchase the support of local factions and retain power, while the states that were ultimately successful in their transition diffused their power, giving political elites reason to help pay the cost of government.
The book's size makes certain omissions necessary, but I was left wondering about gaps in the history he provided. For example, between chapters two and three Bates jumps from agrarian societies to bustling 14th century European ports. How, given the uncertainty surrounding accumulation of capital, did these agrarian societies survive without a central authority to monopolize violence? Are we to assume that a Darwinian process slowly crept through Europe and when all was said and done flourishing towns were what remained? For many nations, the path to a liberal economy was slow and violent. Unfortunately, Bates decides not to cover the fits and starts that have accompanied development, and the reader is left without any pre-modern examples where attempted political and economic liberalization failed.
Finally, while Bates presents a cogent and non-technical argument, I found his use of short digressions to illustrate his points troubling. Instead of using one or two cases throughout the book, when turning to development in the modern world Bates' strategy is to quickly address a case that proves the point he is making. Far more illuminating would have been to look at why, in the context of this argument, certain decisions regarding economic policy and political organization resulted in success or failure. A related complaint is that and Asia is left entirely out of the discussion. Bates mentions Japan in the context of countries who modernized to build their military, but where do China, Korea, and India fit into this model? While his theory appears sound, empirics are nowhere to be found. More nuance is needed if this book is to provide useful direction to developing nations on how to develop economically and politically.
Ultimately, there is a lot to like about "Prosperity and Violence." Bates concisely presents an interesting and logically sound rational choice explanation for the different paths toward development taken by early societies and does so without drifting into discipline-specific terminology or methodology. This book assumes little about the reader's abilities going in, and as such is a valuable way for one to introduce themselves to the rich field of work that walks the line between political science and economics. However, due to its brevity and lack of empirical rigor my recommendation is qualified. One can easily read this book and agree that Bates has an explanation for political and economic development, but that he might not have the explanation.