Building for the State: A World-Historical Perspective

13 Pages Posted: 24 May 2015

Date Written: May 22, 2015


Whenever governments want work to be performed for the state, they have a choice between contracting for the completion of such tasks and resorting to compulsion to get them done. While the former strategy is usually sustained by taxation of private assets and output, the latter often entails the imposition of labor services as a specific form of tax. Military conscription is merely the historically most resilient variant of what used to be a wide range of coerced labor services on behalf of the state. Throughout history, public construction projects crucially depended on states’ ability to enforce labor obligations. A global survey across Eurasia and the Pre-Columbian Americas reveals that exceptions to this practice were extremely rare. Classical Greece and the Italian heartland of the Roman world stand out for the state’s reliance on market institutions to undertake building projects, a preference that appears to link these societies to later European history and modern norms. What were the reasons for this anomaly, and what does it mean for our understanding of the early state?

Keywords: Labor history, Public building, Forced labor, Free labor

JEL Classification: N30, N60

Suggested Citation

Scheidel, Walter, Building for the State: A World-Historical Perspective (May 22, 2015). Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Walter Scheidel (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305-2145
United States

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