29 May 2007

Kleptocrats and Gun Control

For the past two years, I have been reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which is his attempt to explain why societies developed along different lines throughout the ages. It's a fascinating read, although I personally think Francis Schaeffer's How Then Shall We Live offers a better explanation for how things have turned out (at least in western society).

Now, the reason it takes me so long to finish a particularly long book is that I start it until I get tired of it, then go to something else, then return to it after a while. I've been doing that with Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for some ten years now and The Conservative Mind for seven.

At any rate, a couple of days ago, I started Chapter 14 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which has to do with the development of government, from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states. He uses a particularly interesting word, "Kleptocracy," to describe a governmental entity that takes away the fruit of others' labors to sustain itself.

He poses the question, why would anyone tolerate that? Or rather, as he puts it, "What should an elite do to gain popular support while still maintaining a more comfortable lifestyle than commoners?"

His first of four possible solutions is very interesting:

"1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite. That's much easier in these days of high-tech weaponry, produced only in industrial plants and easily monopolized by an elite, than in ancient times of spears and clubs easily made at home."(Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999. pp. 276-277, emphasis mine)

He gives a famous example of a society that did this very thing in the previous chapter on technological innovation. Around the mid-1500s, the Japanese were introduced to firearms. At first, they were very impressed with the weapons, so much so that they made their own versions, which proliferated so much that by 1600, they had more guns than anyone else in the world.

But there was one class that didn't care for them: the ruling elite. Now, Diamond explains that the Samurai preferred the older, ritualistic, more elegant way of combat, but what it really boils down to is that the elite no longer held the corner on martial power, when even a peasant could blast them with an arquebus. So, they started outlawing the weapons, restricting accessibility and production measure by measure until they pretty much no longer existed in Japan, and ensured that the elite remained in power.

The experts agree: Gun Control Works!

1 comment:

BobG said...

I quite enjoyed Jared's book; though I may not agree 100% with everything, I think for the most part he has some fairly good arguments for most of his conclusions.