One of the things that makes the Incan civilisation so interesting is what they didn’t have. Despite being highly advanced in many ways they hadn’t developed the wheel, didn’t use the arch in architecture and didn’t have a written language.

Economically they were wealthy enough to build and sustain massive and intricate road networks and cities decorated with gold. But they didn’t have currency, marketplaces or internal commerce. This is very unusual.

Food before wealth

One argument for the absence of currency and markets is that Inca society was geared to optimise food production rather than wealth. You can understand why: the climate of the Andes is tough and unforgiving; the soils not very productive; and, the Incas had no draught animals. So to keep their population from starving they:

  • created elaborate mountain terracing to make land arable
  • planted trees to maintain the quality of topsoil
  • developed major stores of food in the good times
  • organised cropping on a massive scale

They also occasionally sacrificed their daughters and live-stock to the gods, which may have been the key to their success.

It’s likely that their ability to better feed themselves is also what allowed the Incas to dominate other tribes when empire building. It was probably also a contributor to why lots of tribes joined the civilisation willingly.

The Incas made terraces to cultivate otherwise inhospitable land. Many are still in use.
The Incas made terraces to cultivate otherwise inhospitable land. Many are still in use.

Central planning and tax through labour

The Incas optimised food production through central planning. This crowded out individual enterprise. There were specialists who determined and oversaw the planting of crops from potatoes to peanuts in different climates and at different altitudes. Incan hunting was a stunning example of cooperation. Hunts were organised with many hunters – some estimates say 10,000 at once – moving slowly towards the middle of a massive circle in the Andean savannah, scaring, surrounding and slaughtering animals (but not so many as to eradicate populations).

Incas were required to work for the state in common field and mines, and on other projects, for most months of the year. In exchange they drew the tools, clothes, food and other raw materials that they required from central stores. This practice gives new meaning to the libertarian maxim that tax is slavery, but also meant there was no need for currency. The transaction was labour for goods.

Were the Incas socialist?

On the back of their economic planning and focus on labour and production some historians have argued that the Incas were a kind of pre-modern socialist state.

Others say that can’t be so as there was still a noble class that was exempt from taxes and pretty well did whatever it wanted. They were the only ones allowed to chew coca and take second wives, and they were exempt from labouring for the state. So it’s best understood as an authoritarian monarchy.

For what it’s worth it seems me this kind of privileged class, exempt from the travails of labour, its entirely consistent with the realities of a socialist state. At least the Incas had a good reason for bestowing this privilege: they believed their nobility were directly descended from the sun.


3 thoughts on “Incanomics

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