The taxman doesn’t like root crops

The highland groups adopted a swidden agriculture system (sometimes known, pejoratively, as “slash and burn”), shifting fields from place to place, staggering harvests, and relying on root crops to hide their yields from any visiting tax collectors. They formed egalitarian societies so as not to have leaders who might sell them out to the state. And they turned their backs on literacy to avoid creating records that central governments could use to carry out onerous policies like taxation, conscription, and forced labor.

Now, I don’t know if this is a valid summary of the thesis of James C. Scott’s latest book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009), or a flight of fancy on the part of the reviewer of the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education. But characterizing swidden agriculture based on root crops as part of a strategy of tax evasion by the hill tribes of SE Asia is certainly novel.

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