1. The impact of resources on political systems.
There is a certain admiration for those in history who have undertaken heroic struggles. By one view, history is nothing but a battle against long odds. The heroic theme has taken on many different forms. If it is a constant theme in battle, it is not limited to struggling armies. More generally, humanity is engaged in a struggle to advance the course of civilization. In the political realm, the theme has been used to describe mankind's fight against injustice and hardship, particularly in the struggle for freedom and the fight against the injustices perpetrated by dictatorial governments.
If epic struggles inspire us, there is a certain mystery attached to struggles between nations. The experience of Athens may have perpetuated such beliefs. Failure seems incomprehensible, notwithstanding what we know about the fates of the Athenian Empire, the Roman Empire, and the Spanish Empire. All three fell in the end. While failure is a familiar part of the human experience, there seems to be a suspension of belief where nations are concerned, even when confronted with clear evidence. Because we view the struggles of nations in mythic terms, we can only explain their failures in terms of extraordinary events.
The Athenian model, unfortunately, may have given the impression that every problem encountered by a civilization could be overcome. Until Athens came along, democratic hopes remained largely an unattainable dream. The Parthenon, completed in 432 B.C., for all that it said about Athenian civilization and architectural skills, may have suggested, symbolically, that the dream could be realized. Athens did more than simply create a democracy; it had proved that the dream of freedom could actually be put into practice. If there were obstacles to democracy, Athens proved that they could be overcome through a supreme human effort. To those skeptical of the human capacity for achievement, the Athenian model was the answer. Athens had succeeded at overcoming great obstacles. Others surely could. It was simply a question of will.
The possibility of failure, in spite of the "Athenian" spirit, exists in nearly every undertaking. In most instances, failure is viewed simply as one part of the human experience. There is no reason to believe that nations are an exception to the general rules. Not only must they endure the consequences of bad decisions by their political leaders, they often have to accept limitations imposed on them by natural or external political forces.
Yet, if nations are subject to the same rules as individuals, the belief persists that ordinary causes cannot explain failure. That may be why dictatorship, the ultimate governmental failure in the political area, must be explained in terms of evil or a failure of political will. Perhaps the question is whether dictatorship can only be explained in such mythic terms. Is it possible to explain dictatorship in more ordinary terms? This book would suggest that repressive governments can be explained in such terms. If dictators have committed some of the most evil acts imaginable, the failures which dictatorships represent do not need to be explained in such drastic terms as "evil" or as "failures of the human will." A major theme of this book is that resource scarcity, rather than the dark side of humanity, is the more likely cause of dictatorship. Scarcity, with its accompanying economic limits, may serve as the main obstacle to the success of democracy.
This book's thesis is that governments are a product of their resource environment. Resources place limits on governmental options. Dictatorships are condemned to repression, not so much by the evil intent of the dictator, but by the lack of resources. Democracies, with greater access to resources, have a wider variety of political options.