Because fantasy in particular is full of tyrannical rulers and terrible governments, I suspect there are many readers who assume the reaction of a historical king or queen to a flood, fire, famine, or other disaster was “suck it up — and yes, you still have to pay your taxes.”
I’m not going to say that never happened, but it was less common than you might think. Telling the peasantry to suck it up and still pay taxes is a fantastic way to get revolts — and even if those revolts don’t threaten to topple the throne, every farmer marching against you is a farmer not growing the crops your economy relies on. While you did get the occasional ruler both cruel enough and shortsighted enough to shrug off that danger, most of them at least made some attempt to deal with the underlying problem, however ineffectively.
In fact, dealing with these kinds of problems is one of the oldest functions of a sovereign. Those familiar with the Book of Genesis in the Bible (or with a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber musical) may recall Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream as portending seven years of good harvests followed by seven years of famine; his achievement was the correct decipherment of the dream’s symbols, not the advice to build up grain stores for later use. The latter was basic common sense for an agrarian society. All over the world, the wheat, rice, or other staples collected as taxes in kind partially went into royal granaries, kept for distribution in times of need.
That makes it sound simpler than it was, though. First of all, grain can go bad, quite fast if it’s improperly stored; the contents of those granaries might prove useless when the time of need comes. Second, how do you decide when and how much to hand out? People might revolt if they think distribution is too slow or too stingy, but too fast or too generous might mean you run out before the shortages have ended. (We see similar arguments in modern times around water restrictions and agriculture.) When weather forecasting consists of looking at the sky and economic models don’t even merit the name, it’s hard to gauge what level of intervention strikes the best balance between prudence and charity.
I should note, however, that this type of relief largely applies on a regional or national scale. Royal granaries didn’t generally open their doors for individuals or families in starvation; they were intended for areas devastated by flood, drought, crop blight, warfare, and other large-scale agricultural damage. And the further into the hinterland those areas are, the harder it will be for you to get meaningful quantities of supplies there. Everything we’ve said before about travel applies here, and it does little good to send grain if the convoy has to consume three-quarters of it en route.
Feeding people isn’t the only type of relief governments can engage in, of course. One of the other basic functions of the state is the regulation of water, whether in the form of irrigation or of controlling rivers prone to flooding. When those rivers overcome their controls, somebody needs to go out and restore the dam, the levee, or whatever else broke. (As with fire-fighting, that “somebody” is highly likely to be a military unit, with laborers in tow.) A well-organized state might also do some mitigation efforts on the inundated land, more rapidly restoring it to a usable state. Just like the famine relief above, this is as much about practicality as it is about compassion: ruined fields produce no food, so getting them back to productivity is a top priority.
Then there are the fires that occupied us in recent essays. When one of those rips through a city, you have a very significant problem: with everything destroyed, how can you tell where the property lines are? A weak government will let rebuilding be a free-for-all; a strong one will step in to make sure nobody makes a grab for land that isn’t theirs, nor pushes the cost of rebuilding onto the tenants of a structure rather than its owners. By all accounts, the Fire Courts set up in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London did a remarkably good job of keeping things fair, so that the only disgruntled people were the ones who failed to get away with an unscrupulous plan. Some modern governments, even in the developed world, can only aspire to do so well.
But while these efforts toward relief and rebuilding are underway . . . what do you do with the people? When crops fail, farmers leave their farms and gravitate toward population centers; when armies march through, or floods or fires sweep the land, residents flee in search of safety. Depending on what’s gone wrong, it may be a very long time before they can go back to their homes — if they ever can at all.
This is far from being a solved problem. Right now, in our wealthy modern world, we have huge numbers of refugees with nowhere to go. In the past, it was no different, and made worse by the pragmatic difficulties of supplying food, water, and other necessities. Outbreaks of disease are common in refugee camps (both modern and historical), due to the cramped and unhygienic conditions, which in turn makes more settled residents not want refugees nearby. Governments dislike having people out of their assigned places, locals view outsiders with suspicion, and of course all those displaced people are dealing with the trauma of whatever put them into flight. Then and now, it’s a recipe for suffering.
And yet, it isn’t all gloom and doom. Although Nero was vilified later on for claiming a large swath of what burned in the Great Fire of Rome to build his palatial Domus Aurea — not entirely in fairness, as he owned much of the relevant land already — he also took steps to house refugees in various gardens and public buildings. Similarly, those who fled the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 were resettled with noteworthy speed. While Roman examples are the ones I’m the most familiar with, other states and time periods have their own success stories.
Because in the end, much of this comes down to the simple matter of effective government. A well-organized state uses its resources and power to counterbalance disaster, making sure that large chunks of its populace don’t wind up without the basic necessities of life (and without the capacity to go on working and generating revenue). A corrupt or weak state fails to do so . . . and sometimes that means it soon ceases to be a state. The late Yuan Dynasty’s inability to manage a series of disasters contributed heavily to its downfall and the subsequent founding of the Ming Dynasty; poor harvests in 1780s France were one of the factors that produced the French Revolution.
As our own world faces more floods, droughts, destructive storms, and other disasters wrought by climate change, it’s a lesson more governments should keep in mind.