Thursday, April 14, 2005

Hierarchy, Hill Tribes & The Estate Tax

In the US, the Estate Tax was just permanently abolished. But commenting on the political merits of this most recent legislation seems boring. Let's talk about the Kachin people of highland Burma (Myanmar) instead:

The Kachin are a favorite of anthropologists... they seem to cycle through three distinct forms of organization: Gumlao (egalitarian) to Gumsa (stratified), then on to Shan (feudal), and eventually back to Gumlao again. What causes the critical transition from Gumlao (egalitarian) to Gumsa (stratified)? Well, due to the mechanics of inheritance, the egalitarian nature of Gumlao organization cannot be maintained for long, and local groups eventually slide into a stratifed society. From there, the institutionalization and intensification of stratification and concentration of wealth accelerates, transitioning next to a feudal society. At this point, everyone gets so fed up with the state of their local group that they dissolve back into the woods and begin again at Gumlao (egalitarian)--but only because they have the option of dissolving back into the woods!

Mechanisms of hierarchy and stratification--especially when they become institutionalized--are a swift kick down the slippery slope of slavery. Talk about a legislative aliteration! So... what were we talking about? Ah yes... the estate tax.

See "Political Systems of Highland Burma", by Edmund R. Leach for more on the Kachin peoples.

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