Mancur Olson in Afghanistan (And Thakur in Sholay!)

Who is (was) Mancur Olson?

An American economist of some note, who is perhaps not as widely known as he should be. Let me be honest upfront and say that I have never read a single book of his cover to cover, in spite of repeated attempts – they are really hard going, at least for me. But even dipping into them every now and then, based on snippets I pick up here and there is by fun, and rewarding. (One such snippet was provided by The Economist recently, about which more in a second.)

Olson is perhaps most well known for his theory of the “roving” and “stationary” bandit. Here’s Wikipedia:

In his final book, Power and Prosperity (2000), Olson distinguished between the economic effects of different types of government, in particular, tyranny, anarchy, and democracy. Olson argued that under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government. Olson’s work on the roving vs. stationary bandits is influential in analysis of the political and economic order structured in warlord states and societies.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mancur_Olson

And here’s the Economist, writing about the current state of Afghanistan:

At the edge of Kabul, the boss of a company which imports cooking gas says the security of his tankers has actually improved over the past year, because the Taliban control more roads. They charge 35,000 afghanis ($455) for every lorry travelling from Herat, on the Iranian border, to Kabul. “In the past there were no Taliban taxes,” he says. “But they used to shoot us with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. So we are happy with the taxes.”

https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/11/18/as-america-pulls-out-of-afghanistan-the-taliban-fight-on

The trick (for the bandit) lies in getting the quantum of taxation just right, of course…

2 thoughts on “Mancur Olson in Afghanistan (And Thakur in Sholay!)

  1. We learnt about him in one of Urban Governance classes! Amazing! your description about it is like cherry on a cake.. loved it!

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