Comment and Discussion on Central Planning in the Bronze Age  
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In our earlier post, we suggest that the economic organization of Greek Bronze Age civilizations had many elements similar with what we today identify as central planning — centralized control of the economy for extraction and redistribution of resources.

William Parkinson and Gary Feinman from the The Field Museum in Chicago have sent this comment pointing to some recent, more nuanced interpretations. Here is their comment:

The study of ancient economies is evolving, bolstered by years of painstaking data collection by archaeologists and their collaborators. Archaeology yields key perspectives, providing kinds of information often unmentioned in textual sources. We agree that more-or-less centralized economic and political systems certainly existed in the past, many early states, which in the past were described as centralized, redistributive, economies, now are understood based on new empirical underpinnings to have been much more dynamic systems with characteristics of decentralized economies and even vibrant markets. One key reference is the synthetic review by M. E. Smith in 2004 Annual Review of Anthropology. While in another, G. M. Feinman and C. P. Garraty (in 2010 Annual Review of Anthropology) review the importance of ancient markets and their under-emphasis in traditional theoretical approaches.

In the case of the Aegean Late Bronze Age, for example, Mycenaean palaces were initially characterized as redistributive centers because the Linear B tablets originally translated by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick in the 1950s documented goods that were moving into and out of the palatial centers. As a result, for almost a generation after the decipherment of Linear B, Mycenaean palaces were characterized as powerful redistributive centers whose primary role was to extract labor and materials from the hinterland, and to support production and distribution of those specialized craft products.

Over the last decade the roles and relationships of Mycenaean palaces have been redefined significantly. Rather than being portrayed as centralized rulers that controlled nearly every aspect of the political economy, the Mycenaean palatial elite now are understood to have been very savvy statesmen who managed to gain some limited political benefits by directing very specific aspects of the palatial economy. This revisionist perspective depicts Mycenaean palaces not as omnipotent, highly centralized, redistributive centers, but as cogs in more delicate, networked, sociopolitical systems that were dependent on economic activities that they could not completely control.

Models of ancient Near Eastern temple economies, which previously also were described as centralized, redistributive, centers, have undergone similar modifications. Across the ocean, later prehispanic Mesoamerican economies are now seen as having been characterized by active market systems with flexible economic valuations, and broadly accepted currencies, albeit not coinage. Earlier theoretical perspectives that reflexively applied the centralized and command economy model to this region have largely been rejected as increasing bodies of evidence have revealed that most productive activities for exchange were implemented in domestic contexts and so would have been near impossible to control centrally.

Gary Feinman and William Parkinson certainly know more about this literature than we do. The more nuanced picture they suggest is likely a better summary of recent developments in the literature.

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between absolute control of the governing institutions (e.g., the palace in the context of Greek Bronze Age civilizations), which certainly doesn’t need to be part of central planning (Soviet elites probably never had absolute control over their vast territories, even under Stalin), and central planning itself. Central planning involves the suppression of markets and price systems for the governing institutions and elites to better extract resources and politically and economically control society. The fact that the palace elites were “cogs in more delicate, networked, sociopolitical systems that were dependent on economic activities that they could not completely control” does not imply that there was no central planning.

The recent survey by John Bennett in the authoritative Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard Saller reiterates the view of Greek Bronze Age economy organized along central planning lines, partly based on classic work by T.J. Killen in Y. Duhoux and A. Morpurgo’s A Companion to Linear B: Mycenean Greek Texts and Their World. Bennett writes:

The major economic organization in Middle and Late Minoan Crete and Late Helladic mainland Greece was something we customarily call the “palace”. The presence of large-scale storage facilities for staples and craft products, together with spaces for rituals, evidence of bureaucratic control, and the Minoan palaces’s sheer size suggest strongly that they could extract what they wished and manage economic activity over quite large areas. (Page 188)

He continues:

[Finley] described the palatial economy as “a massive redistributive operation”…. while the Mycenaean economy clearly fits into this broad model, it covers a range of types of economic organization. Killian, in an authoritative overview, reinforces Finley’s points about the similarity with Near Eastern economies, but suggests that the nature of Mycenaean “redistribution” needs to be made more precise. A better term is “mobilization,” citing Earle’s definition: “the recruitment of goods and services for the benefit of a group not coterminous with the contributing members”. This better captures the way we now understand the selective nature of palatial interest — seeking to acquire commodities essential to the support and maintenance of the ruling elite — while reinforcing the essential point: the ability of the palatial economy to centralize control of those aspects of the economy it chose to manage. (Page 190)

So though the literature is evolving and though the control of the elite was certainly not absolute, the economic organization of Bronze Age Greek civilizations still appears to have many many parallels with central planning.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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