Genghis Khan and the Price of Civilization

I love historical anecdotes that can be plugged into research papers.* They give contemporary, technical, papers a timeless feel. I came across one that would be great for several different paper topics in reading The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia by french historian René Grousset.

Grousset shares the account of Genghis Khan’s (1162 – 1227) discovery of taxation. The purpose of the story is actually to highlight Khan’s willingness to listen to advisers of diverse backgrounds, particularly those he gained from conquering more civilized societies. One of his advisers, Ye-lu Ch’u-ts’ai, “succeeded in giving his master some tinge of Chinese culture, and even sometimes in preventing massacre” (p. 251). While many of the accomplishments were rescuing precious texts from town burnings and searching out medical treatments, one of these was convincing Khan the merits of taxation over genocide (p. 251):

At the time of Jenghis Khan’s last campaign in Kansu, a Mongol general pointed out to him that his new Chinese subjects would be useless to him, since they were unsuited to warfare, and that therefore he would do better to exterminate them–there were nearly ten million–so that he might at least make use of the soil as grazing land for the cavalry. Jenghiz Khan appreciated the cogency of this advice, but Ye-lü Ch’u-ts’ai protested. “He explained to the Mongols, to whom any such idea was unknown, the advantage to be gained from fertile soil and hard-working subjects. He made clear that by imposing taxes on land and exacting tribute on merchandise, they might collect 500,000 ounces of silver yearly, 80,000 pieces of silk, and 400,000 sacks of grain.” He won his point, and Jenghiz Khan ordered Ye-lü Ch’u-ts’ai to draw up a system of taxation on these lines.

Here are some potential topics/literatures where this anecdote could work:

  1. As an example of Militarist Theory in Fiscal Sociology. This is a bit on the nose to the point of being data, but the tradition of militarist theory posits that military competition and the development of taxation were a joint product. Probably most associated with Joseph Schumpeter, militarist theory attempts to explain the rise of modern bureaucracy. Taxes give rise to the state and provide it the resources to make war on other states. Those states which could most efficiently extract resources from their economy would be more likely to eliminate their competitors and avoid extinction in a kind of Darwinian competition of governance.**
  2. As the nature of government in public choice. Public choice scholars love to define what “the state” actually is and specify its nature. Violence is definitely some part of that definition/nature. I’ve actually never liked the way people toss out the “taxes are the price of civilization” mantra, because it seems to me a more civilized society wouldn’t need taxes to accomplish public works. I think the Khan anecdote is a better interpretative context for thinking about how taxes bring us civilization.
  3. Policy diffusion: Or more specifically, mimetic isomorphism for our friends in public administration.
  4. Revenue Forecasting and/or Cost-Benefit Analysis. This may be a bit harsh, but one can’t help but wonder if Khan would have gone the other way and wiped out 10 million people if the revenue forecast had only been 40,000 pieces of silk.

*My favorite appears in footnote 1 of this NTJ article on American state tax amnesties: “The first tax amnesty on record was reported on the Rosetta stone, an amnesty declared by Ptolemy V Epiphanes in Egypt, circa 200 BC. The stone itself expressed the appreciation of the priesthood for the program. It is not clear whether any state amnesties were based on this experience.”

**The militarist theory bears a striking resemblance to the “burning the cosmic commons” hypothesis that, among other things, provides an explanation for the Fermi paradox.

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