The Paradox of Civilization: Preinstitutional Sources of Security and Prosperity

Ernesto Dal Bó, Pablo Hernández-Lagos, Sebastián Mazzuca

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The production of economic surplus, or prosperity, was fundamental to financing the rise of pristine civilizations. Yet, prosperity attracts predation, which discourages the investments required for civilization. To the extent that the economic footing of civilization creates existential security threats, civilization is paradoxical. We claim that, in addition to surplus production, civilizations require surplus protection, or security. Drawing from archaeology and history, we model the trade-offs facing a society on its path to civilization. We emphasize preinstitutional forces, especially the geographical environment, that shape growth and defense capabilities and derive the conditions under which these capabilities help escape the civilizational paradox. We provide qualitative illustration of the model by analyzing the rise of the first two civilizations, Sumer and Egypt.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)213-230
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 18 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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