The Origin of Government: It Began With a Myth

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is the origin of government? How does the government rely on “fictions” to do its job?

The origin of government was in the era shortly after the Agricultural revolution. As groups of people got bigger, they needed an organizing structure to help them live peacefully.

We’ll cover why the origin of government (and government today) depends on shared fictions, myths we all buy into.

Origins of Government: From the Agricultural Revolution to Today

After the Agricultural Revolution, peasant farmers rarely achieved the security they sought. Surplus went to more and more children, or the elites that lived off them. They always had just enough to survive, perpetually working just to have enough to eat.

The Fiction of the Political Order

Where did the elites come from? Why did they have the power to take the farmers’ surplus and keep them living at the subsistence level?

People evolved to cooperate in small groups. As their way of life changed rapidly, there was no time for Sapiens to evolve the skills of mass cooperation. As groups of people got bigger, they needed some kind of organizing structure, a way to help people work together to divide land, settle disputes, and keep the peace. Organizing so many people involved creating myths that served as the links between previously distinct bands of people. This was the foundation of cooperation and the origin of government.

Cooperation didn’t necessarily mean egalitarian collaboration. Cooperation was often built on oppression. Those in power exploited the farmers to maintain the system.

The Requirements of an Imagined Order

A natural order, which has its basis in physical reality, is stable. Gravity will continue to exist even if we stop believing in it. Radioactivity will still be dangerous, even if we don’t know it.

Government is not a natural order. It’s created by humans. Therefore, the origin of government involves belief in an imagined order.

But imagined orders, systems based on myths, aren’t stable. There’s no guarantee that they’ll last. Consequently, there are two requirements for maintaining them.

Requirement #1: Coercion

At the origin of government, leaders had to figure out how to get others to cooperate. The myth creators or sustainers need to continually enforce people’s belief in the fiction. This is often done with violence. Armies, courts, and police officers make sure that people comply with the imagined laws of the imagined order. For example, when many Americans decided that African slaves should enjoy the right to freedom, they had to fight a war to enforce this principle in the South.

Requirement #2: True Believers

Coercion isn’t easy—it’s actually hard to coordinate violence. Armies, courts, and police officers won’t be effective at enforcing the imagined order if they don’t believe in it, or, at least, something. Soldiers and officers must believe in the myth of God, the nation, honor, or money—it doesn’t matter what myth they choose to believe, as long as the resulting behaviors lead to enforcing the political order. So, for instance, a soldier may not believe in the imagined political order he’s supposed to defend, but if he believes in the myth of money, he may enforce the political order anyway.

How do you get people to believe in the imagined order in the first place?

The origin of government depended on people believing in its legitimacy. How did leaders get that to happen?

First of all, you don’t tell people that it’s imagined. You maintain that the society was created by gods or nature, thereby making it part of objective reality.

Next, you constantly remind people of the imagined order’s principles, until the imagined order feels like a natural order. You can do this by inundating your citizens with these principles from childhood in the forms of fairy tales, art, traditions, propaganda, and fashions. This was the origin of government.

The Origin of Government: It Began With a Myth

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  • How Sapiens outlived and outlasted the 8+ other human-like species on Earth
  • The 3 critical revolutions in human existence that led to our domination of the planet
  • How much of what powers our world today is really just a shared mass delusion
  • What the future of humanity might look like

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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