A tale of the stationary and the roving bandits!


Mancur Olson (1932-1998), the American economist, introduced a very influential model of state formation, how do states rise. In political science scholarship, there are several theories of state formation. Olson’s model helps explain the behavior of governments. Basically, his model is regarded as an antisocial contract model of the origin of government.

Olson coined the phrases roving bandits and stationary bandits to explain his model. Roving bandits are those groups that suddenly come and loot the produce of farmers and there are many of them. And in such an anarchic environment, there is a little incentive for the people (citizens) to invest or produce.

This in turn leaves not much for the people to consume and the roving bandits to steal or loot. Such a scenario brings the two parties namely; the people and the roving bandits to table for discussion. Out of their discussion, an agreement was reached upon. And that was for a group of one particular roving bandits to seize and hold one territory and hence making himself a settled ruler.

The settled bandits protect the people from other roving bandits and provide peace and order. The people on their behalf give a portion of their produce to the roving bandits who have now become stationary bandits. The stationary bandit finally understood that it is not a good idea to strangle the goose that lays golden eggs.

The provision of peace and order in addition to the protection from other roving bandits gives the people an incentive to produce. By protecting citizens from the predations of roving bandits, the stationary bandit increases the profitability of income generating activities. The people accepted the deal since it leaves a portion of their produce at their disposal.

This led to the increase in production and made both parties better off. The roving bandits become stationary bandits and the people become stationary captives. He went further to explain that roving bandits tend to take away the very produce of the people (i.e. 100 percent tax rate) and maximizes his short run plunder.

The stationary bandit on the contrary has an incentive to maximize long-run plunder by taking a portion of the peoples’ produce. Mancur Olson therefore concludes this relationship with such a swiping statement, “A state is a stationary bandit that legalizes theft in the form of tax.”

This characteristic of humans to fight for their desires and even take from others for the same reasons is a basic human nature that has prevailed through the test of time. Therefore, the government acts as a higher being that plays the game of taking a portion of the harvest to regulate a peaceful environment for the population it governs so as to help facilitate better production and stop other groups from taking from the population.

The existence of this nature in the list of human natures creates a need for a governing body that helps regulate this because a lack of a governing body would create a state of “war of all against all” creating a state of anarchy. Under anarchy, uncoordinated competitive theft by “roving bandits” destroys the incentive to invest and produce, leaving little for either the population or the bandits.

Both can be better off if a bandit sets himself up as a dictator-a “stationary bandit” who monopolizes and rationalizes theft in the form of taxes. A secure autocrat has an encompassing interest in his domain that leads him to provide a peaceful order and other public goods that increase productivity. (Marcus Olson)

It is clear that a stationary bandit is necessary for state formation. The stationary bandits “legalize theft in the form of taxes”, and in doing so are in agreement with the people they govern so as to provide protection in return for the portion of harvest they take. A question arises at this point; “Who are the stationary bandits protecting the people from?” The answer to that is “from roving bandits”.

In Ethiopia even though there is a stationary bandit there has been a rise in the number of roving bandits that are attacking the population that pays taxes to the stationary bandit. This is evident in the rise of conflicts and damage caused by several roving bandits in the country. We can take the recent burnings of farmers’ harvest by a specific group of roving bandits in the northern parts of the country, and several mass killings of innocent civilians in different parts of the country by other roving bandits as examples.

If the current stationary bandit isn’t able to keep its side of the bargain and if it fails to provide protection for the people it receives taxes from, the population might give its produce to the roving bandit that has taken it captive.

This will in turn weaken the stationary bandit and strengthen the roving bandit. Such a situation may cause the state to collapse. Nation-states fail because they are convulsed by internal violence and can no longer deliver positive political goods to their inhabitants. Their governments lose legitimacy, and the very nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes illegitimate in the eyes and in the hearts of a growing plurality of its citizens. (Robert I. Rotberg)

To successfully fend of the threat of the roving bandits the stationary bandit must be able to implement a monopoly of violence. What does this mean? State monopoly on violence, in political science and sociology, is the concept that the state alone has the right to use or authorize the use of physical force.

It is widely regarded as a defining characteristic of the modern state. (Britannica) What this means is that the governing body should be the only one in a state to control means of violence such as; firearms, heavy military vehicles, and anything else that can be used to initiate violence in the populous. If the governing body is not able to control who is in control of these means of violence the roving bandits will get the opportunity to have means of violence under their control.

This in turn will cause the tax paying populous to be caught in the crossfire, confused and taken captive. Consequently, the population that is under the control of these roving bandits is forced to give its share of produce to the roving bandit that has taken it under captivity. This will lead the current stationary bandit lose its grip on the support of the population taken captive by the different roving bandits, which could gradually lead to its collapse.

The conditions necessary for a lasting democracy are the same necessary for the security of property and contract rights that generates economic growth. (Marcus Olson) Therefore, if the current stationary bandit wants to retain its legitimacy it has to be able to fend of roving bandits and create confidence in the population. By providing peace and security for the populous to produce the stationary bandit will be able to keep its legitimacy and bring true prosperity in the state.

 Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The Ethiopian Herald

The Ethiopian Herald October 24/2021

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