Over the past two millennia successful pre-modern states in Eurasia adopted and cultivated Big-God religions that emphasize (i) the ruler’s legitimacy as divinely ordained and (ii) a morality adapted for large-scale societies that can have positive economic effects. We make sense of that development by building on previous research that has conceptualized pre-modern states as maximizing the ruler’s profit. We model the interaction of rulers and subjects who have both material and psychological payoffs, the latter emanating from religious identity. Overall, religion reduces the cost of controlling subjects through the threat of violence, increases production, increases tax revenue, and reduces banditry. A Big-God ruler, who also is a believer, has stronger incentives to invest in expanding the number of believers and the intensity of belief, as well as investing in state capacity. Furthermore, such investments often are complementary, mutually reinforcing one another, thus leading to an evolutionary advantage for rulers that adopted Big-God religions.
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Reincarnation, for example, implies continuous supernatural monitoring, thereby making it difficult to hide bad acts during the eventual accounting of a person’s lifetime.
A long debate emerged about the meaning of the phrase and its surrounding text in the New Testament that partly revolves around its meaning about the separation of Church and State. That does not concern us here. The phrase itself implies the legitimacy and the right of the ruler to taxes regardless of the degree of separation between Church and State. In cases of severe conflict, such as the ones that led to the Reformation, Protestant rulers typically brought the new churches under the ruler’s close control as happened with the Anglican Church. For an economic analysis of the Medieval Church as a firm, see Ekelund et al. (1996).
Including Levi (1988), Engineer (1989), Findlay (1990, 1996), Olson (1993), Grossman and Noh (1994), McGuire and Olson (1996), Robinson (1997), Konrad and Skaperdas (1998, 2007, 2012), Wintrobe (1998), Skaperdas (2001, 2014), Moselle and Polak (2001), Myerson (2008), North et al. (2009), Leeson (2014) and Vahabi (2016a, b).
Whitehouse et al. (2019) show how their measure of society’s complexity typically precedes their measures of “moralizing high gods” or of “broad supernatural punishment”. While their measure of society’s complexity appears to be “polity population” and is shown to be highly correlated with other measures, they don’t seem to focus on the role of rulers and the state as much as we do in this paper. Nevertheless, their data possibly could be adapted and used to examine empirical hypotheses that emerge herein.
See Holland (2005, Ch.2). The Zoroastrian Big God—Ahura Mazda—also was adopted by Darius to legitimate his usurpation of power and his acceptance by Persian elites. However, Darius and other Persian kings were very tolerant of other gods in their vast empire. One difference with many of the states that adopted Big Gods later was intolerance of lesser gods or, in some cases, of other Big-God religions.
The evidence includes game-theoretic experiments in different types of societies, including hunter-gatherers. For example, Henrich et al. (2001) have found that individuals from less complex societies behave in a less pro-social fashion in ultimatum, public-good, and dictator games.
Konrad and Skaperdas (2012) examine two polar extremes: The case of a ruler who captures all profits and the case of an egalitarian community that provides collective goods voluntarily. Of course, in practice many intermediate governance structures are observed, from fairly egalitarian democracies in some early Mesopotamian and classical Greek city-states to ruling elite self-governance in Medieval Europe (on the latter see, e.g., Salter and Young 2018). Myerson (2008) shows how powerful rulers might want restraints on their powers so as to maximize their profits. Skaperdas (2014) discusses conditions under which self-governance might emerge. In what comes next, we do not conceive of the state’s profits literally going to a single person, but a ruling elite, which is perhaps narrow, that shares those profits.
Konrad and Skaperdas (2012) examine that case in the absence of believers in Big-God religions. Since rulers can extract more from producers than bandits can, more resources are allocated to self-protection and production lower than in anarchy. Because rulers extract a larger share of production than bandits do, overall welfare also is lower than under anarchy.
For introducing such status payoffs in theoretical models, see Shayo (2009), Sambanis and Shayo (2013), and Sambanis et al. (2015). For a rational-choice approach to religious authority, see McBride (2016). Konrad and Qari (2012) provide evidence of greater tax compliance for those who feel more patriotic.
It is not possible to have the payoff of a heathen producer strictly greater than that of a heather bandit as it is fixed by their productive and self-protection efforts.
It also is possible for guards to have higher psychological payoffs than producers because the ruler can motivate them with team and religious instruction that exceed the returns to being peasant producers. The ruler thus could offer even lower material wages than those expected by believer producers. Of course, such a specification would make our results stronger than they are.
That could, of course, potentially be reduced or eliminated if the Big-God ruler were to provide more protection to believer producers than to heathen producers, but that policy might seem arbitrary from a modeling and substantive viewpoint.
The conclusion is explained partly by the simplifying assumption that producers—either heathens or believers—can resist the ruler and his guards as easily as they can bandits. Making it harder for producers to resist the ruler can be expected to increase the resources expended by producers on self-protection and reduce production. That outcome is not necessarily better for the ruler because it could reduce total tax revenue. See Konrad and Skaperdas (2012) for such modeling without the psychological payoffs we have included in this paper.
Furthermore, building a church that might take more than one’s lifetime (as routinely has occurred) requires an especially long-term horizon and therefore an extended notion of profitability to encompass a ruling dynasty, while it is consistent with genuine belief on the part of the ruler who undertakes such a project.
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For useful conversations and advice on the earlier version of the paper titled “For-Profit States and Big Gods”, we thank Alina Arseniev-Koehler, Renaud Bellais, Dan Bogart, Rob Boyd, Jean-Paul Carvalho, Metin Cosgel, Larry Iannaccone, Mike McBride, Eleni Skaperdas, and participants at the ASREC conference in Boston in March 2019, a brown bag presentation at Chapman University, and the conference on the predatory state at University of Paris 13. Two anonymous referees provided extensive comments that helped us significantly improve our argument.
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Skaperdas, S., Vaidya, S. Why did pre-modern states adopt Big-God religions?. Public Choice 182, 373–394 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00681-9
- State capacity