When warlords were simply lords

Sheri Berman describes Louis XIV’s approach to state-building in Foreign Affairs:

During the second half of the seventeenth century, accordingly, he and his ministers focused on buying off and winning over key individuals and social groups that might otherwise obstruct their state-building efforts.

Adapting and expanding a common practice, for example, they repeatedly sold state offices to the highest bidders; by the eighteenth century, almost all the posts in the French government were for sale, including those dealing with the administration of justice. These offices brought annual incomes, a license to extract further revenues from the population at large, and exemptions from various impositions.

The system had drawbacks in terms of technocratic effectiveness, but it also had compensating benefits for the crown: selling off public posts was an easy way to raise money and helped turn members of the gentry and the emerging bourgeoisie into officeholders.

Rather than depending on local or personal sources of revenue, these new officeholders eventually developed new interests connected to the broader national system.

The lesson for the modern world:

Looking at weak states in Afghanistan and elsewhere today, and the conflict and poverty they engender, observers tend to mourn a putative long-lost era when state building was straightforward and less problematic.

Such nostalgia is often accompanied, consciously or not, by undertones of ethnic or cultural superiority — as if the struggles today in the developing world stem from unique or intrinsic characteristics of the communities living there.

The truth, however, is that modernization has almost always been traumatic and the emergence of strong centralized states has almost always been fraught with difficulties.