David Malo on autocracy

David Malo [1793–1853] is a very interesting figure in Hawaiian history. He was born during Kamehameha I’s war to unify the islands—under his own rule, of course—fifteen years after Captain Cook brought the outside world in. He grew up learning and becoming an expert on traditional Hawaiian lore. After Kamehameha II abolished the kapu system in 1819 and Protestant missionaries arrived from New England in 1820, he became a Christian and later a minister. He is best known for writing a historical work in the Hawaiian language. N.B. Emerson translated this work, Ka Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i, as Hawaiian Antiquities. It’s an interesting mix of respect and appreciation for his native culture with the convert’s zeal for Christianity.

I bring it up here because of my abiding interest in governance. Gordon Tullock made the point that autocracy is the most common form of government throughout history; though we are mainly interested in democracies these days, we need to explain this fact. Malo’s brief comment in the section about the organization of the government:

2. It is probable that because it was impossible for all the people to act in concert in the government, in settling the difficulties, lifting the burdens, and disentangling the embarrassments of the people from one end of the land to the other that one was made king, with sole authority to conduct the government and to do all its business. This most likely was the reason why certain ones were selected to be chiefs. But we are not informed who was the first one chosen to be king; that is only matter of conjecture.

As far as I can tell, the most common explanation of the ancient Hawaiian system of government by modern scholars is that several centuries after the initial settling of Hawai‘i a second wave of settlers brought along the more rigid system then prevailing in the Polynesian core and more or less imposed it on the people already there. If this is correct it hardly matters for our purposes; the question then becomes why this system developed in the Society Islands.

Malo’s speculation is remarkably like explanations for why autocracy emerges from other parts of the world. I consider it unlikely, though possible, that the republican Yankee missionaries would have foisted this view on him. Whether it’s correct or not, in Hawai‘i or elsewhere, people keep finding it plausible across time and space.

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