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The Paradox of Civilization: Pre-Institutional Sources of Security and Prosperity

Ernesto Dal Bó, Pablo Hernández, Sebastián Mazzuca

NBER Working Paper No. 21829
Issued in December 2015
NBER Program(s):Development Economics, Political Economy

The rise of civilizations involved the dual emergence of economies that could produce surplus (“prosperity”) and states that could protect surplus (“security”). But the joint achievement of security and prosperity had to escape a paradox: prosperity attracts predation, and higher insecurity discourages the investments that create prosperity. We study the trade-offs facing a proto-state on its path to civilization through a formal model informed by the anthropological and historical literatures on the origin of civilizations. We emphasize pre-institutional forces, such as physical aspects of the geographical environment, that shape productive and defense capabilities. The solution of the civilizational paradox relies on high defense capabilities, natural or manmade. We show that higher initial productivity and investments that yield prosperity exacerbate conflict when defense capability is fixed, but may allow for security and prosperity when defense capability is endogenous. Some economic shocks and military innovations deliver security and prosperity while others force societies back into a trap of conflict and stagnation. We illustrate the model by analyzing the rise of civilization in Sumeria and Egypt, the first two historical cases, and the civilizational collapse at the end of the Bronze Age.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21829

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