Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768dbb666b-7lw58 Total loading time: 0.31 Render date: 2023-02-04T10:09:04.007Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Geography, Transparency, and Institutions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 June 2017

Hebrew University of Jerusalem
University of Warwick and Interdisciplinary Center
Tel-Aviv University
Joram Mayshar, Department of Economics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Mayshar’s research was supported in part by the Falk Institute for Economic Research in Israel. Address: Mt. Scopus. Jerusalem 9190501, Israel (
Omer Moav, Department of Economics, University of Warwick; School of Economics, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya; CAGE and CEPR. Moav’s research is supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grant 73/11). Address: Department of Economics, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, United Kingdom (
Zvika Neeman, Eitan Berglas School of Economics, Tel-Aviv University. Address: Ramat Aviv 6997801, Israel (


We propose a theory in which geographic attributes explain cross-regional institutional differences in (1) the scale of the state, (2) the distribution of power within state hierarchy, and (3) property rights to land. In this theory, geography and technology affect the transparency of farming, and transparency, in turn, affects the elite’s ability to appropriate revenue from the farming sector, thus affecting institutions. We apply the theory to explain differences between the institutions of ancient Egypt, southern Mesopotamia, and northern Mesopotamia, and also discuss its relevance to modern phenomena.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2017 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


We have benefited from comments from Daron Acemoglu, Bob Allen, Josh Angrist, Ernesto Dal Bo, Eddie Dekel, Diana Egerton-Warburton, Christopher Eyre, James Fenske, Oded Galor, Maitreesh Ghatack, Jeremy Greenwood, Avner Greif, James Malcomson, Andrea Matranga, Jacob Metzer, Stelios Michalopoulos, Motty Perry, Torsten Persson, Herakles Polemarchakis, Louis Putterman, Debraj Ray, Ariel Rubinstein, Yona Rubinstein, Larry Samuelson, Matthew Spigelman, Yannay Spitzer, Nathan Sussman, Juuso Valimaki, Joachim Voth, and David Weil, and from comments from participants in various seminars and conferences.



Acemoglu, Daron, and Robinson, James A.. 2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York, NY: Random House.Google Scholar
Adams, Robert M. 1981. Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use of the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Allen, Robert C. 1997. “Agriculture and the Origins of the State in Ancient Egypt.” Explorations in Economic History 34 (2): 135–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baer, Gabriel. 1969. Studies in the Social History of Modern Egypt. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Baines, John, and Yoffee, Norman. 1998. “Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.” In Archaic States, eds. Feinman, Gary M. and Marcus, Joyce. Advanced Seminar Series. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 199260.Google Scholar
Banerjee, Abhijit V., and Ghatak, Maitreesh. 2004. “Eviction Threats and Investment Incentives.” Journal of Development Economics 74 (2): 469–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Billman, Brian R. 2002. “Irrigation and the Origins of the Southern Moche State on the North Coast of Peru.” Latin American Antiquity 13 (4): 371400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bockstette, Valerie, Chanda, Areendam, and Putterman, Louis. 2002. “States and Markets: The Advantage of an Early Start.” Journal of Economic Growth 7 (4): 347–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boix, Carles. 2015. Political Order and Inequality: Their Foundations and Their Consequences for Human Welfare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Butzer, Karl W. 1976. Early Hydraulic Civilization: A Study in Cultural Ecology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Carneiro, Robert L. 1970. “A Theory of the Origin of the State.” Science 169 (3947): 733–38.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. 1990. “Why Were Workers Whipped? Pain in a Principal-Agent Model.” Economic Journal 100 (403): 1109–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cooper, Richard S. 1976. “The Assessment and Collection of Kharāj Tax in Medieval Egypt.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 96 (3): 365–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dal Bó, Ernesto, Hernández, Pablo, and Mazzuca, Sebastián. 2015. “The Paradox of Civilization: Pre-Institutional Sources of Security and Prosperity.” NBER Working Paper (21829). National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
Dandamaev, Muhammad A. 1984. Slavery in Babylonia: From Nabopolassar to Alexander the Great (626–331 BC), trans. Powell, Victoria A.. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
Dari-Mattiacci, Giuseppe. 2013. “Slavery and Information.” Journal of Economic History 73 (1): 79116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
De la Sierra, Raul Sanchez. 2016. “On the Origin of States: Stationary Bandits and Taxation in Eastern Congo.” Working Paper, University of California, Berkeley.Google Scholar
Demsetz, Harold. 1967. “Toward a Theory of Property Rights.” American Economic Review 57 (2): 347–59.Google Scholar
Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
Eyre, Christopher J. 1994. “The Water Regime for Orchards and Plantations in Pharaonic Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 80: 5780.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Eyre, Christopher J. 1997. “Peasants and ‘Modern’ Leasing Strategies in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (4): 367–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Eyre, Christopher J. 1999. “The Village Economy in Pharaonic Egypt.” In Proceedings of the British Academy, 96: Agriculture in Egypt from Pharaonic to Modern Times, eds. Bowman, Alan K. and Rogan, Eugene. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 3360.Google Scholar
Finer, Samuel E. 1997. The History of Government from the Earliest Times: Volume I, Ancient Monarchies and Empires, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Gennaioli, Nicola, and Voth, Hans-Joachim. 2015. “State Capacity and War.” Review of Economic Studies 82 (4): 1409–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Greif, Avner. 2006. Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hughes, George Robert. 1952. Saite Demotic Land Leases. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Huning, Thilo R., and Wahl, Fabian. 2016. “You Reap What You Know: Observability of Soil Quality, and Political Fragmentation.” EHES Working Paper (101). European Historical Economics Society.Google Scholar
Hunt, Robert C. 1987. “The Role of Bureaucracy in the Provisioning of Cities: A Framework for Analysis of the Ancient Near East.” In The Organization of Power: Aspects of Bureaucracy in the Ancient Near East, eds. Gibson, McGuire and Biggs, Robert D.. Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 161–92.Google Scholar
Jas, Remko M. 2000Land Tenure in Northern Mesopotamia: Old Sources and the Modern Environment,” In Rainfall and Agriculture in Northern Mesopotamia, ed. Remko, M. Jas. Leiden, Netherlands: Nederland Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut.Google Scholar
Kau, James B., and Rubin, Paul H.. 1981. “The Size of Government.” Public Choice 37 (2): 261–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (2nd ed). Abingdon, England: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kleven, Henrik Jacobsen, Kreiner, Claus Thustrup, and Saez, Emmanuel. 2016. “Why Can Modern Governments Tax So Much? An Agency Model of Firms as Fiscal Intermediaries.” Economica 83 (30): 219–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levi, Margaret. 1988. Of Rule and Revenue. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Liverani, Mario. 2006. Uruk: The First City, eds. and trans. Bahrani, Zinab and de Mieroop, Marc Van. Jakarta, Indonesia: Equinox Publishing.Google Scholar
Ma, Debin. 2011. “Rock, Scissors, Paper: The Problem of Incentives and Information in Traditional Chinese State and the Origin of Great Divergence.” Economic History Working Paper (152). London School of Economics.Google Scholar
Mann, Michael. 1986. The Sources of Social Power, Volume I: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Manning, Joseph G. 2003. Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Structure of Land Tenure. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mayshar, Joram. 1991. “Taxation with Costly Administration.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics 93 (1): 7588.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mayshar, Joram, Moav, Omer, Neeman, Zvika, and Pascali, Luigi. 2015. “Cereals, Appropriability and Hierarchy,” CEPR Discussion Paper (10742). Centre for Economic Policy Research.Google Scholar
North, Douglass C. 1981. Structure and Change in Economic History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar
Noy-Meir, Imanuel. 1973. “Desert Ecosystems: Environment and Producers.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 2551.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Olson, Mancur. 1993. “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development.” American Political Science Review 87 (3): 567–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Postgate, J. Nicholas. 1994. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. Abingdon, England: Routledge.Google Scholar
Renger, Johannes M. 1995. “Institutional, Communal, and Individual Ownership or Possession of Arable Land in Ancient Mesopotamia from the End of the Fourth to the End of the First Millennium B.C.” Chicago-Kent Law Review 71: 269319.Google Scholar
Shapiro, Carl, and Stiglitz, Joseph E.. 1984. “Equilibrium Unemployment as a Worker Discipline Device.” American Economic Review 74 (3): 433–44.Google Scholar
Sinopoli, Carla M., McIntosh, Roderick J., Morris, Ian, and Knodell, Alex R.. 2015. “The Distribution of Power in Early Cities.” In World History, Vol. 3: Early Cities in Comparative Perspective, ed. Yoffee, Norman. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 381393.Google Scholar
Sng, Tuan-Hwee. 2014. “Size and Dynastic Decline: The Principal-Agent Problem in Late Imperial China, 1700–1850.” Explorations in Economic History 54: 107–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sng, Tuan-Hwee, and Moriguchi, Chiaki. 2014. “Asia's Little Divergence: State Capacity in China and Japan Before 1850.” Journal of Economic Growth 19 (4): 439–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spolaore, Enrico, and Wacziarg, Romain. 2013. “How Deep Are the Roots of Economic Development?Journal of Economic Literature 51 (2): 325–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stasavage, David. 2010. “When Distance Mattered: Geographic Scale and the Development of European Representative Assemblies.” American Political Science Review 104 (4): 625–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stigler, George. 1961. “The Economics of Information.” Journal of Political Economy 69 (3): 213–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tilly, Charles. 1975. “Reflections on the History of European State-Making.” In The Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. Tilly, Charles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 383.Google Scholar
Trigger, Bruce. 2003. Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ur, Jason A. 2010. “Cycles of Civilization in Northern Mesopotamia, 4400–2000 BC.” Journal of Archaeological Research 18 (4): 387431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Van De Mieroop, Marc. 1997. The Ancient Mesopotamian City. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
Van De Mieroop, Marc. 2013Democracy and the Rule of Law, the Assembly, and the First Law Code.” In The Sumerian World, ed. Crawford, Harriet. Abingdon, England: Routledge, 277–89.Google Scholar
Warriner, Doreen. 1948. Land and Poverty in the Middle East. New York, NY: Royal Institute of International Affairs.Google Scholar
Wilkinson, Tony J. 1994. “The Structure and Dynamics of Dry-Farming States in Upper Mesopotamia.” Current Anthropology 35 (5): 483520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilkinson, Tony J. 2003. Archaeological Landscapes of the Near East. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.Google Scholar
Wilkinson, Tony J. 2013. “Hydraulic Landscapes and Irrigation Systems of Sumer.” In The Sumerian World, ed. Crawford, Harriet. Abingdon, England: Routledge, 3354.Google Scholar
Willcocks, William. 1899. Egyptian Irrigation (2nd ed). London, England: E. and F. N. Spon.Google Scholar
Wilson, John A. 1960. “Egypt Through the New Kingdom: Civilization Without Cities.” In City Invincible: A Symposium on Urbanization and Cultural Development in the Ancient Near East, eds. Kraeling, Carl H. and Adams, Robert M.. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Wittfogel, Karl A. 1957. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Yoffee, Norman. 1995. “Political Economy in Early Mesopotamian States.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 281311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Yoffee, Norman. 2005. Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States and Civilizations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Zaccagnini, Carlo. 1999. “Economic Aspects of Land Ownership and Land Use in Northern Mesopotamia and Syria from the Late Third Millennium to the Neo-Assyrian Period.” In Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East, eds. Hudson, Michael and Levine, Baruch A.. Cambridge, UK: Peabody Museum of Archaeology, 331352.Google Scholar
Supplementary material: PDF

Mayshar supplementary material

Online Appendix

Download Mayshar supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 197 KB
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Geography, Transparency, and Institutions
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Geography, Transparency, and Institutions
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Geography, Transparency, and Institutions
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *