Did war really make the state?

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson are doing a series of posts about Balinese politics in the 18th – 20th centuries, and make an counterpoint to Charles Tilly’s famous phrase “war made the state and the state made war” in their latest:

The truth of the matter is that all polities fight wars, and some centralize while others do not.

Looking at centralized ones and observing that they fight wars, therefore warfare creates states does not seem very sensible empirically.

It’s a very interesting point.  Under what conditions does the threat of war lead polities (not just states) to centralize?  Is the bias here that only polities which have survived an initial war are around to centralize later, while losing groups, who faced exactly the same risk of war, get swallowed up by their opponents and never build a centralized administrative structure?  In which case war would be expected to create and destroy in roughly equal measure.  (Granted, I haven’t read Tilly’s original paper in detail, so if these questions are addressed there or in his other work I’d be happy to hear about it.)

Kudos to Acemoglu & Robinson as well for the use of the word “polities” instead of “states” in the first sentence quoted here. It’s a small thing, but a good step towards moving away from ideas of power and governance as the exclusive province of the state.

2 thoughts on “Did war really make the state?

  1. I haven’t the Nordholt book, but I think the A&R post misrepresents Tilly’s argument. Particularly in his later book (Coercion, Capital and European States), Tilly expressly seeks to solve the mystery of how a homogenized system of nation-states emerged from the heterogeneous group of polities that occupied Europe. So first, it bears mention that Tilly’s theory embraces the notion that there exist a wide variety of non-state forms of government.

    Tilly *does* argue that centralized, bureaucratic, and ultimately democratic polities are better at prosecuting wars than other forms of government, including the expansive style of tribute-empire that characterizes Nordholt’s Bali. I don’t know enough about Balinese war to be sure what Tilly would say about the failure of Balinese polities to centralize, but his theory does argue that centralization became key *only as technology improved enough to make war materiel expensive and specialized*. That is, European political development was driven not only by war, but changes in the political economy of war-making. If Balinese societies never reached this point, individual polities would not have experienced great gains from centralization and the selective pressure mechanism would privilege a different governmental organization.

    In any event, the later domination of the Balinese by the much more centralized Dutch would suggest that the Dutch war engine was more efficient and selected out the weaker form of political organization. There are alternative explanations for Dutch success (although some of them are endogenous to Tilly’s explanation), but I think it’s telling that A&R chose *not* to characterize the Dutch colonialism as Tilly’s mechanism at work.


    1. Thanks for this, John! These are great points, especially the one that centralization only makes sense if the costs of war are high enough.


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