Examples of government control over social and economic life are as old as recorded history, and they always have features that are universal in their perverse effects regardless of time or place. One of the most famous of these collectivist episodes was that of the Incas and their empire in South America.

The Inca Empire emerged out of a small tribe in the Peruvian mountains in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Theirs was a military theocracy. The Inca kings rationalized their brutal rule on the basis of a myth that the Sun god, Inti, took pity on the people in those mountains and sent them his son and other relatives to teach them how to build homes and how to manufacture rudimentary products of everyday life. The later Inca rulers then claimed that they were the descendants of these divine beings and therefore were ordained to command and control all those who came under their power and authority.

The Inca Empire of Conquest and Collectivism

The fourteenth and especially the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw the expansion of the Incas into a great imperial power with control over a territory that ran along the west coast of South America and included much of present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and parts of Argentina and Colombia. The Incas were brought down in the 1530s by the Spanish conquest under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro.

The Inca kings, asserting to be both sons and priests of the Sun god, held mastery of all the people and property in his domains. And like most socialist systems throughout history they combined both privilege and egalitarianism. When the invading Spaniards entered the Inca capital of Cuzco, they were amazed by the grandeur of the palaces, temples, and homes of the Inca elite, as well as the system of aqueducts and paved roads.

But having an economy based on slave labor, there had been few incentives or profitable gains from the development of machines and tools to raise the productivity of the work force or reduce the amount of labor needed to perform the tasks of farming and manufacturing. Methods of production were generally primitively labor-intensive. Thus, the Spaniards, in comparison, were far better equipped with more advanced instruments of war to defeat the Incas.

The Inca Elite and the “Communism” of the Common People

The Inca society was rigidly constructed along hierarchical lines of power and privilege. The Incan ruling class, below the Inca Sun-god king, provided the membership for the bureaucratic administrators, the military officer corps, the priests and scholars. Beneath them were the Inca peasants, herdsmen and artisans; they also were used to settle newly conquered lands to assure Incan dominance over the defeated populations. And below them were the slaves, which according to Inca legend had originally been condemned to death, but out of mercy were reprieved from extermination to be lowly laborers in perpetual bondage.

The Inca rulers imposed on almost all in society a compulsory equalitarianism in virtually all things. In The Socialism Phenomena (1980), the Soviet-era dissident, Igor Shafarevich, (1923–2017) explained:

The complete subjugation of life to the prescriptions of the law and to officialdom led to extraordinary standardization: identical clothing, identical houses, identical roads. … As a result of this spirit of standardization, anything the least bit different was looked upon as dangerous and hostile, whether it was the birth of twins or the discovery of a strangely shaped rock. Such things were believed to be manifestations of evil forces hostile to society.

To what extent is it possible to call the Inca state socialist? … Socialist principles were clearly expressed in the structure of the Inca state: the almost complete absence of private property, in particular of private land; absence of money and trade; the complete elimination of private initiative from all economic activities; detailed regulation of private life; marriage by official decrees; state distribution of wives and concubines.

The Rigid and Detailed Planning of Everyday Life

An especially detailed description of the nature and workings of the Inca state is found in the classic work, A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru (1927), by the French economist and historian Louis Baudin (1887–1964). The Incas ruled through a cruel and pervasive system of command and control over everyday life. Baudin explained:

Every socialist system must rest upon a powerful bureaucratic administration. In the Inca Empire, as soon as a province was conquered, its population would be organized on a hierarchical basis, and the [imperial] officials would immediately set to work. … They were in general in charge of the preparation of the statistical tables, the requisitioning of the supplies and provisions needed by their group [over whom they ruled] (seeds, staple foods, wool, etc.), the distribution of the production of the products obtained, the solicitation of assistance and relief in case of need, the supervision of the conduct of their inferiors, and the rendering of complete reports and accounts to their superiors. These operations were facilitated by the fact that those under their supervision were obliged to admit them to their homes at any moment, and allow them to inspect everything in their homes, down to the cooking utensils, and even to eat with the doors open …

The Inca bureaucracy cast its net over all those that it ruled and soon transformed them into docile and obedient subjects through a “slow and gradual absorption of the individual into the state … until it brought about the loss of personality. Man was made for the state, and not the state for the man,” Baudin said. The Incas tried to banish “the two great causes of popular disaffection, poverty and idleness. … But by the same token, they dried up the two springs of progress, initiative and provident concern for the future.” The Inca government did all the thinking and planning for their subjects, with the result that there was a “stagnation of commerce … lack of vitality and the absence of originality in the arts, dogmatism in science, and the rareness of even the simplest inventions.”

The Inca Welfare State and Human Inertia

This inertia was fostered through the institutions of the welfare state. “As for the provident concern for the future,” Baudin asked,“ how could that have been developed among a people whose public granaries were crammed with provisions and whose public officials were authorized to distribute them in case of need? There was never a need to think beyond the necessities of the moment.”

In additi