Happy tax day: Meet bureaucracy’s roots!

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Happy tax day: Meet bureaucracy’s roots!
Flat stone wall with pictoral carvings on the brown rock, patchy grass and dirt in front.
All photos copyright Charles S. Spencer, AMNH, used with permission
Two conquest inscriptions on Building J, from about 100 BC. At the bottom, upside-down heads, with closed eyes, signify conquest.

Given the current hostility to government, you could be forgiven for thinking that “bureaucrat” is a euphemism for “bottom feeder” or “control freak.”

But does bureaucracy contain the keys to making a large state? Did bureaucracy’s characteristic division of administrative labor and power allow ancient states to rule areas that were too large to walk across in a day?

Yes, says anthropologist Charles Spencer of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, Spencer looked at states that arose thousands of years ago, in isolation from any other state.

He found that, so far as the archeological record could say, the rise of bureaucracy and the territorial expansion were more or less simultaneous. In contrast to another more traditional view of state development, the expansion did not occur long after bureaucracy appeared.

The six states under study were in Mexico, Peru, Egypt, Iraq, China and Pakistan’s Indus Valley.

“In all six cases this model seems to work, which suggests that this process of territorial expansion is perhaps how a state bureaucracy evolves in the first place,” says Spencer.

He adds that the tight link between bureaucracy and expansion “may tell us something fundamental about the nature of states and bureaucracy.”

building J Montealban
The main plaza of Monte Albán, in the Oaxaca Valley. Building J (foreground), features some 40 stone slabs with inscriptions showing the city’s conquests.

Three stages of development

Spencer’s analysis builds on the idea that societies develop through three distinct stages:

Egalitarian: Leaders are chosen based on personal characteristics like intelligence or bravery; leadership is not hereditary.

Chiefdom: Leadership becomes hereditary, and the paramount chief exerts control over several villages in a region, which he rules from the center, unaided by a bureaucracy. The chief may attempt to expand his territory and benefit from greater resources, but he may lose power to rivals if he over-expands.

State: A leader delegates specific tasks and responsibilities to different functionaries in the bureaucracy. Assigning these “parcels of authority” helps prevent subordinates from overstepping their position and threatening the leadership as the state grows to control more territory.

Chicken or egg?

When historians and social scientists pondered the origin of states, many figured that the growth of the bureaucracy was a precondition for an imperialist expansion of territory. But Spencer believes that territorial expansion and the growth of bureaucracy are united in a positive feedback loop. “There is much evidence that the pre-bureaucratic system seems to be spatially more limited. Once you start getting involved in managing territory beyond that limit, you have to have a delegation of authority to secondary and tertiary centers; this seems to be a requirement for maintaining one of these larger political-economic territories.”

Spencer says chiefs were apparently loath to dispatch powerful lieutenants to administer provinces, for fear they would go rogue, but the bureaucratic structure made it safer to send out tax collectors or generals with a limited array of powers. “To move toward a larger polity, it’s necessary to assign powers and roles,” he says. But this strategy requires a fundamentally different kind of administration, one based on bureaucratic principles.

Roots of an idea

Small broken section of pottery, brown rough edge, red outside with white scratches and etchings
The blond clay in “Crema” pottery came from a source near Monte Albán. The timing and distribution of crema ware shows when and where Monte Albán traded with other settlements in the Oaxaca Valley.

Spencer says he began thinking about the state development in the 1970s, while doing research at the ancient city of Monte Albán, located in south-central Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley. He says Monte Albán began to acquire a bureaucratic form of government around 300 BC, and the city flourished for roughly 800 years.

The specialization that characterizes bureaucracy is evident in the “diverse array” of buildings and temples at Monte Albán itself, Spencer wrote.

The Oaxaca Valley is a large, three-lobed valley, and as Spencer explored how Monte Albán gathered more territory, he found the expansion toward the north “happened much earlier than most people thought, and was in fact contemporaneous with the appearance of state institutions around 300 BC.”

That did not jibe with the theory that the bureaucracy arose first, long before the state expanded its territory to distant regions, but rather indicated that the bureaucracy and the territory expanded at the same time. “I started to think about how territorial expansion, rather than being a consequence of state formation, might be the mechanism through which the state arose, and the extra resources generated by expansion would help finance the administrative transformation itself.”

Excavation site, two people working, brown dirt on ground, low stone walls in squared sections
The El Palenque palace, near San Martín Tilcajete, in the Oaxaca Valley, dates to 300-100 B.C. Although this is the earliest palace yet excavated in the Valley, a similar but larger palace probably existed at Monte Albán during this period.

States may expand violently or peacefully, Spencer says. “There are ways to impose your will on another territory that may not involve killing. You may set up an economic relationship that is far more favorable to you than to them, with the understanding that if they do not play along, they will get squashed.”

On April 15th – America’s tax day – “bureaucracy” may conjure the Internal Revenue Service, but bureaucracies can be more beneficent or more sinister than that. “Government can do very good things, but this research suggests that the state, and by extension the bureaucracy, is inherently expansionistic, you might even say inherently predatory, and that is a cautionary note we need to keep in mind,” Spencer says. When a state initiates unprovoked warfare, “we should remember that this is perhaps the oldest doctrine of all in the story of states.”

– David Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Bureaucracy in ancient Egypt
  2. More on Monte Albán
  3. Ancient Bureaucracies
  4. Reshaping landscapes with the Wari