Economic history lesson: Germanic rule in Gaul in the late Roman Empire

Readers of history have for centuries been fascinated with the Fall of the Roman Empire, however inapt that designation may be. In a passage from his book The Origins of France, Edward James offers two reasons for the transition. The Romans settled the Visigoths in Aquitania as foederati, i.e. as a governing body acting on their behalf. The local aristocrats cooperated as a means of increasing their own authority in the changing regime, and in general the local inhabitants were tired of Roman tax burdens.

In his letters Sidonius paints a lurid picture of the ruin into which the Catholic Church in south-west Gaul was falling under Euric’s rule. Even as a bishop he preserved a considerable pride in his membership of the Roman Senate, and his letters tell us a good deal about its reactions to the Germanic invasions. Some senators continued, or feigned to continue, the traditional life-style, living in luxurious villas on their country estates, reading, writing, playing backgammon or a somewhat elementary ball-game… But others seem to have made a determined effort to exploit the new conditions, like Syagrius, who very sensibly (but to Sidonius’ open amusement and incomprehension) acquired a fluent grasp of Burgundian. Some aristocrats obviously welcomed the extension of Germanic power in Gaul. They preserved their estates (or the most profitable parts of them), and their social status, and in all probability they increased their political influence. Under Euric, Romans acted as advisers and ministers; one of Sidonius’ friends commanded Euric’s navy. For how many senators was Arvandus, the praetorian prefect of Gaul, speaking when he wrote to Euric suggesting that he make war on the ‘Greek’ Emperor (Anthemius, appointed in Constantinople), and divide Gaul up between the Visigoths and the Burgundians, ‘according to the law of nations’? Other sections of the populace may have viewd the disappearance of Roman rule with still less regret. The strange Christian moralist Salvian of Marseilles, one of the founders of the long-lived historical myth of the clash between late Roman decadence and Germanic virtue, pointed out around 440 how heavy the burden of Roman taxation was (a fact confirmed by modern research) and concluded that ‘it is the unanimous prayer of the Roman people in that district that they may be permitted to continue to lead their present life among the barbarians’.

[emphasis added]

Considering the numerical inferiority of the various Germanic groups that caused trouble inside the boundaries of the late Roman Empire—I recall an estimate that the Visigoths in Spain were only 1-2% of the population—in tandem with the many troubles at the boundaries, the system of using the Germanic groups as foederati makes good sense. The acceptance and persistence of this Germanic authority would still have to be explained, but this passage illuminates two very good reasons.

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From Early Medieval Spain by Roger Collins:

The ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’, in the sense that a coherent and unified system of military and civil administration covering most of western Europe and North Africa, which was in being at the beginning of the fifth century had ceased to exist by its close, was a process scarcely perceived by those who lived through it.

One of the delights of seriously studying a subject is finding your own thoughts presaged by demonstrably greater thinkers. Here’s a bit from the great Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy:

The social meaning or function of parliamentary activity is no doubt to turn out legislation and, in part, administrative measures. But in order to understand how democratic politics serve this social end, we must start from the competitive struggle for power and office and realize that the social function is fulfilled, as it were, incidentally – in the same sense as production is incidental to the making of profits.

“Doing” vs. “taking” drugs, with policy implications

One of the benefits of having smart friends is that you can do each other’s thinking from time to time. Last week I heard a speaker* at a seminar say “I don’t take drugs” instead of saying “I don’t do drugs”, and when I tweeted about it two of my friends had an exchange that I missed until an hour or so had passed. What they determined, and I agree completely, is that people who view drugs as something one takes view them as a corrective to a somehow “off” condition, and that people who view drugs as something one does don’t think of the doer as “off” but rather as interested in recreation. Consuming LSD causes a “trip” for just this reason, unless my folk etymology is grossly wrong. Of course, a person who views himself as normally in balance and does drugs for recreation may still take drugs for medical conditions.

This may be a trivial semantic distinction, but I believe it does reveal something about the attitudes of the speaker, or at least the attitudes of the speaker’s relatively narrow speech community. If one views drugs as something you take (for correction), a generation of college kids and hippies in the 1960s who don’t have anything obviously wrong with them in the first place** consuming vast amounts of drugs must be shocking and appear socially destructive on its face. If one views drugs as something you do (for recreation), the same phenomenon might appear fun and socially liberating, if also perhaps irresponsible. Yes, abuse is clearly possible, but in the first formulation all recreational use is abuse. This is a theme I’ve treated here before, and I think the empirical evidence is undeniable that this view is completely wrong. Certainly there are many people who abuse drugs, but equally certainly to say that all use is abuse is wrong.

As the reader will no doubt have noticed, the average man on the street all too commonly makes the leap from “X is wrong” to “there oughta be a law about X” without much consideration. If recreational drug use is ipso facto wrong, then there should be laws enforced against it. I don’t share this view, as the reader will also have noticed. For certain problems, the cure might be worse than the disease. I’ve written on this theme before as well.

As far as I have been able to observe, “do” is now the most common spoken verb in this context. The more neutral verb “use” sounds normal in writing but just slightly odd in speech. This brings us to another point. Attitudes about drugs, or at least about drug laws, have been growing more accepting for many years, and my guess is that the increasing preference for “do” over “take” reflects a broader shift in attitude, in part due to demographic changes and in part to increasing experience with drugs.

In my opinion the main explanation for the current prohibition is public choice issues; the various interest groups that benefit from prohibition are vastly better funded, organized, and influential than everybody else. However, it isn’t as though public opinion has no effect. In the states that have made marijuana legal in varying degrees, it is much harder for a politician to proclaim that marijuana is a serious issue to be attacked with the full force of the law and not be run out of town. In other states this still flies with voters, but if my thoughts on this linguistic division and the increasing dominance of one side approximate the truth in at least some meaningful way, it is now only a matter of time. This should be good news for most people once they realize the social and economic devastation the drug war has wrought on the world, which to me seems very obviously to outweigh the downsides of drug use.

I mean, come on, is this the America you hoped for?


* The speaker was Camille Paglia, although getting more into that would rightly be its own post so I won’t do it here.
** Feel free to insert hippie joke here since I know you’re going to do it anyway.

On Development

Economic development is a topic about which I know very little, and on that account I’m in good company. Answers in this field have proven to be incredibly elusive, although as far as I can tell some of the right questions have been asked lately. Still, so far it seems as if the best work in development has been to point out flaws with the prevailing wisdom.

Dumping money into government coffers in poor countries is not necessarily as stupid as it sounds; assuming the powers spending the money have better ideas about government and governance than the powers receiving the money, there could conceivably be change in the right direction. However, in practice, this has been a disaster. Corrupt regimes have been propped up with very little development to show for it. Remember, if the world’s most powerful military can’t keep local leaders in line when it is occupying their countries due to both knowledge and incentive problems, how in the world could anybody do the same from afar? Perhaps if these countries had better leaders in the first place they could spend the money better, but if a society produces better government leaders on its own, it’s a lot less likely to be poor.

The geographical and cultural variety of poor countries is another confounding problem. Poverty, in fact, is the natural condition of mankind; at some point in history, everybody was poor. The various cultures/societies/nations/countries that have escaped it have done so in a variety of ways, and there’s clearly not a silver bullet that the rest can use. Many are cursed by geography, many are cursed by colonial legacies, and many are cursed by something more difficult to define. There are so many factors that influence development it may take generations before they are sorted and addressed properly.

One of the major themes, in my mind, is public choice problems in developed countries. (I am not breaking new ground here, it has been addressed often.) Countries with a comparative advantage in agriculture are frequently barred from economic interactions with large developed markets because of trade barriers imposed by developed countries, and subsidized producers in developed countries operate in a distorted market in which the optimal suppliers of food products may be in poor countries, may not receive these subsidies, and may be unable to compete. For all of the rhetoric about wanting to help the less fortunate, this is a glaring exception. Unfortunately, the agricultural lobbies in the USA and the EU are vastly better organized than farmers in poor countries and have far more clout with political decision makers. This is a great example of how unfree markets harm people who are worse off to benefit people who are better off. The antipathy to markets of many of the decision makers—based on ideology or financial interests or both—makes solutions to this problem extraordinarily hard to realize.

Immigration is another big issue. We aren’t as concerned with whether nations or regions prosper; that would be nice, of course, but we’re talking about people. The looming failure of welfare state policies may open up the political possibilities for allowing more immigration, letting people prosper and operating as a channel for financial resources and ideas to flow back to their home countries.

Fortunately, better minds than mine have started taking this field very seriously and perhaps will see some successes in the near future.