Koyama on Roman Empire economics

Mark Koyama has just written a great piece about Roman Empire historiography. Specifically, about how historians misunderstand the economic aspects of the Roman Empire, leading them to make erroneous conclusions about the cause of its decline. You can find his piece here.

One of Bryan Caplan’s points in The Myth of the Rational Voter is that what voters think about economics is important because so many questions in politics are or affect economic issues. A similar theme holds here, mutatis mutandis. I also see it in anthropology/archaeology. There are a great many fields of study where economics has explanatory power, but more often than not the people in these fields simply aren’t prepared to use it properly. For example I enjoyed Georges Lefebvre’s French Revolution books for the wealth of historical information, but his Marxist interpretation seemed close, but no cigar.

This is important because our framework for understanding the past reflects our framework for understanding the present. The worse we do with one, the worse we’ll do with the other.

David Malo on autocracy, pt. 2

While the authority of the kings in ancient Hawai’i was and is described as more or less absolute, selections from Mo’olelo Hawai’i, chapter 38: The Civil Polity demonstrate some constraints:

46. One thing which the kalaimoku [the king’s right-hand-man and chief agent] impressed upon the king was to protect the property of the chiefs as well as that of the common people; not to rob them, not to appropriate wantonly the crops of the common people.
47. If the king made tour about the island, when night fell, the proper thing for him to do was to camp down by the highway, and the next morning to proceed on his journey. It was not right for him to enter the house of commoner to pass the night; that was all wrong and was termed alaiki, the short way.
48. The wrong lay in the fact that when the king entered the house of common man his men entered with him. They ate of the commoner’s food, helped themselves to his goods, seduced or ravished the females, acted disgracefully, and raised the devil generally.
49. Their counsel to the king was that when, in travelling along the alaloa, he came to branch-road, he was not to follow the branch, because that was bad practice. The branch-road was called mooa, or meheu. (Mooa, bending of the grass; meheu, trail, trace.)
50. The evil lay in the fact that when the king left the beaten way, the people followed along with him. The path led probably to little farm—mahina ai—and as soon as the king’s men saw it they pulled the crops, helping themselves to the sugar-cane, etc., and the blame for the outrage fell upon the king.
51. Another reason why the king should not turn aside to follow a by-path was because it might lead to house where women were beating tapa—hale kuku—and if the king’s men found her to be handsome looking woman, they might ravish her, in which case the king would be blamed for the deed.
52. The proper course for the king was to camp at night by the highway. If the people put up house for him, well and good. If not, let his own retinue set up for him tent, and let him eat the food he brought with him. The king who would follow this plan would not have to issue any orders to the districts for food; he would be called king of superior wisdom. (Alii noeau loa), prudent king.
53. Again when the king went on canoe-voyage around the island, he should not let his canoes tack back and forth, off and on, in towards the land and out to sea again, lest, by so doing, they should come across fleet of fishing canoes, and the fishermen, being robbed of their fish, should lay the blame upon the king.
54. The right plan in sailing would be to keep the canoe on straight course from the cape just passed to the one ahead, and when that was doubled to steer directly for the next cape, and so on until the destination was reached.

67. It is the king’s duty to seek the welfare of the common people, because they constitute the body politic. Many kings have been put to death by the people because of their oppression of the makaainana.
68. The following kings lost their lives on account of their cruel exactions on the commoners: …
71. It was for this reason that some of the ancient kings had wholesome fear of the people. But the commoners were sure to be defeated when the king had right on his side.

Many, perhaps all ancient societies had similar implicit constitutional provisions.

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.

Burke and Tocqueville on liberty, then and now

This weekend I had the great pleasure of attending a seminar put on by the Institute for Humane Studies. The theme was “Burke and Tocqueville on Liberty”. Both of these writers were important influences on Western political theory and so are still worth studying, even if you don’t agree with how later writers used them. Indeed, it occurred to me during the final day’s discussion that they are still highly relevant in understanding today’s left and right.

It was explicit in Burke and to a lesser extent in Tocqueville that they saw the early modern transition away from strong monarchy toward democratic republicanism to involve the loss of social unity, and Tocqueville, perhaps without knowing it, wrote extensively on the grasping efforts to replace it. This sentiment is echoed in other thinkers as well. Even if social unity under the Ancien Régime broadly considered was imposed and not chosen or commonly understood, at least it was there, and they missed it when it was gone. Both the left and right since that time can be thought of as pushing its replacement.

It came to me while thinking about several passages in Tocqueville and their modern versions criticizing low culture. People where assigned a place under the old systems and society made sense. When history finally allowed the mass of people to choose their own culture, from the aristocratic perspective of both writers the people chose poorly. They chose things concerned elites don’t think have value toward their larger social purposes. The modern left and right take turns bemoaning low culture for this reason. I understand the sentiment and share it on the level of taste but it doesn’t undermine how I think society should operate.

The French Revolutionaries, Burke’s bêtes noires, tried to replace the unity under king and church with a rationalistic patriotism that they more or less created from whole cloth, even a Temple of Reason! Aside from the fact that it led to very undesirable consequences, it wasn’t very successful at creating a new unity. The French underclasses mostly kept right along with their Catholicism, and with some exceptions the revolutionaries themselves seemed unfulfilled. By Tocqueville’s time the monarchy had been reestablished. It’s easy to dismiss this as one powerful segment of society arrogating benefits for itself, but it seems to have been deeper than that, and now I think I see why.

This makes more sense of the late 18th and 19th century intellectual currents emphasizing republican virtue. It wasn’t enough to replace the old forms of government. Something else had to be replaced too, and while the movements that became the modern left and right differed on what the replacement should be they implicitly agreed that they needed one.

This also helps me understand some sociological features of the libertarian movement. As good as I think its arguments are, it’s just not very popular as a total package. It doesn’t offer a replacement for the old sense of place and purpose. Conservatives have religion, tradition, and a sense of patriotism to cling to, and progressives have a sense of cosmopolitanism and a secular millenarianism. Libertarians have…whatever they individually find inspiring, which is why their movement a) is small and b) has the highest average IQ of the ones considered; it doesn’t provide the subconscious, passive satisfaction most people look for.

This also helps me understand thinkers like Smith* and Mill who thought about both moral philosophy and economics/political philosophy. They had great intellects incapable of satisfaction in only narrow channels, but these seemed naturally related to them. They were men of their time. The concern about faction of the writers behind Publius makes more sense in this light as well.

Libertarianism is like atheism in this way, offering an alternative to other modes of thought that isn’t exactly a full replacement for them. I’m not sure what to do about this, but at least I know what the issue is now.


* Smith lived before the storm but it was clearly already gathering.

Gooood morning, world!

Two separate but related things came across my desk recently. The first is a song called “Ich möcht’ so gern Dave Dudley hör’n” (I’d Really Like to Hear Dave Dudley) by a German country band called Truck Stop, apparently the heavyweights of American-style country from Germany. You can find the lyrics here. [Honestly it’s got too much lingering German folk influence for my tastes—that’s my least favorite folk style—but I appreciate them anyway. I wouldn’t discourage anybody from appreciating and propagating American country music.*] The relevant part here is this:

Ich möcht’ so gern Dave Dudley hör’n,
Hank Snow und Charlie Pride,
‘nen richtig schönen Countrysong, doch AFN ist weit.

I’d really like to hear Dave Dudley,
Hank Snow and Charlie Pride,
a nice good country song, but AFN is far away.

AFN is the American Forces Network, which I dimly recall from the year in my childhood I spent in Germany. In Vietnam it was known as AFVN, which brings me to the second thing.

I was introduced to the Cambodian singer Ros Serey Sothea a few years back. She was mainly known as a ballad singer but had a nice phase with dreamy garage rock. (Check it out. This kind of stuff would do great on the circuit today.) I learned a little of her story, but I guess I skipped ahead in the biography to the part where she was one of the many victims of the insanely bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge regime. What I only read recently was, according to Wikipedia, the broader Cambodian rock scene she was a part of was influenced by AVFN in neighboring Vietnam.

As blog readers may know I have a very libertarian position on US foreign policy, especially military involvement. I don’t think the US military should have been sent to Vietnam at all, and I can see the argument for having kept it in Germany although I don’t really buy it.

Still, in both cases it was a vector for American cultural transmission, and I view that as a good thing ceteris paribus. I happen to have a fondness for it, and in any event having more options is better than having fewer. The fact that people embraced it shows they shared my assessment. In the minds of people abroad America sometimes means guns pointed at them for mysterious reasons, but it also sometimes means new and exciting cultural inputs.

An additional remarkable story is that while American styles of country and rock & roll are of distinctly American origin, the ingredients used to make them are not; they came to America with the Scots-Irish and West Africans.** (Important story about black influence on country here.) It would surely boggle the mind of any Scots-Irish or West African people you could find several hundred years ago to be told they were players in a cultural story that would branch out as far as 1970s Cambodia.


* Disclaimer: does not apply to nu-country. Nobody should be listening to that.
** Unwillingly in the latter case, but we have to find the silver lining in the history we have since it’s the only one there is.

“With a system so tortuously involved as this, it may seem remarkable that anyone was ever elected at all”

Another passage from Norwich’s A History of Venice, this time from pp. 166–167, describes a remarkably convoluted randomizing procedure first used in 1268 to try to remove undue partisan influences on the election of the Doge:

On the day appointed for the election, the youngest member of the Signoria [footnote: the inner council of state] was to pray in St Mark’s; then, on leaving the Basilica, he was to stop the first boy he met and take him to the Doges’ Palace, where the Great Council, minus those of its members who were under thirty, was to be in full session. The boy, known as the ballotino, would have the duty of picking the slips of paper from the urn during the drawing of lots. By the first of such lots, the Council chose thirty of their own number. The second was used to reduce the thirty to nine, and the nine would then vote for forty, each of whom was to receive at least seven nominations. The forty would then be reduced, again by lot, to twelve, whose task was to vote for twenty-five, of whom each this time required nine votes. The twenty-five were in turn reduced to another nine; the nine voted for forty-five, with a minimum of seven votes each, and from these the ballotino picked out the names of eleven. The eleven now voted for forty-one – nine or more votes each – and it was these forty-one who were to elect the Doge. They first attended Mass, and individually swore an oath that they would act honestly and uprightly, for the good of the Republic. They were then locked in secret conclave in the Palace, cut off from all contact or communication with the outside world and guarded by a special force of sailors, day and night, until their work was done.

So much for the preliminaries; now the election itself could begin. Each elector wrote the name of his candidate on a paper and dropped it in the urn; the slips were removed and read, and a list drawn up of all the names proposed, regardless of the number of nominations for each. A single slip for each name was now placed in another urn, and one drawn. If the candidate concerned was present, he retired together with any other elector who bore the same surname, and the remainder proceeded to discuss his suitability. He was then called back to answer questions or to defend himself against any accusations. A ballot followed. If he obtained the required twenty-five votes, he was declared Doge; otherwise a second name was drawn, and so on.

Economic lessons from late medieval Venice

Lately I’m reading John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice. He’s not particularly interested in economics (it’s not for everybody), though I was particularly struck by this section about the middle 13th century (pp. 155–156):

… She was no longer a city. She was a nation.

But a nation founded on trade; and that trade, as the Venetians must – at least subconsciously – have realized, owed its phenomenal success not to any territorial expansion but, paradoxically, to the very smallness of the Republic. Here was another benefit conferred by the surrounding lagoon. By virtually confining the Venetians to so restricted a space, it had created in them a unique spirit of cohesion and cooperation – a spirit which showed itself not only at times of national crisis but also, and still more impressively, in the day-to-day handling of their affairs. Among Venice’s rich merchant aristocracy everyone knew everyone else, and close acquaintance led to mutual trust of a kind that in other cities seldom extended far outside the family circle. In consequence, the Venetians stood alone in their capacity for quick, efficient business administration. A trading venture, even one that involved immense initial outlay, several years’ duration and considerable risk, could be arranged on the Rialto in a matter of hours. It might take the form of a simple partnership between two merchants, or that of a large corporation of the kind needed to finance a full-sized fleet or trans-Asiatic caravan; it might run for an agreed period or, more usually, it might be an ad hoc arrangement which would automatically be dissolved when the particular venture was completed. But it would be founded on trust, and it would be inviolable.

Trust is important for social activity in general and for commerce in particular. Venice was a setting in which the behavior of one’s possible trading partners could be easily known and conveyed—and subject to the discipline of continuous dealings. Norwich does not specify the official legal penalties for cheating but one imagines such bad behavior would be hard to sustain in this atmosphere even without them.

This system of easily formed short-term partnerships meant in practice that any Venetian with a little money to invest could have a share in trade. Artisans, widows, the aged, the sick – all could enter into what was known as a colleganza with some active but comparatively impecunious young merchant. … Some small dues [on the proceeds of the colleganza] might be levied by the state, but in these early days Venetian tax was low – infinitesimal in comparison with the punitive sums levied by the Byzantines on their own merchants, or by most of the princes of feudal Europe. So profits were high, incentives were great, and investment capital increased year by year.

We know from the study of economic development that societies in which investment opportunities (in the broadest sense) are within the reach of broad segments of those societies are the ones that get better growth results. This isn’t only a modern phenomenon.

Ancient law & economics: Sabbath-breaking edition

Ancient law often seems especially cruel to us moderns. Not only do ancient laws often condone and systematize things we find repellent—a topic for another day—but the punishments seem especially harsh. One famous example from the Torah*:

Exodus 31:12-17 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The Sabbath Law

12 And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; every one who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’” [emphasis mine]

One way to deal with this passage is to say that God said it, and God’s wisdom is greater than ours, so we don’t have to understand it, we just have to do it however harsh it seems. (As long as we’re in the population to whom the law applies, Jews in this case.) There are various other apologetic ways to look at it. I’m not inclined or qualified to discuss all of them, but they’re similar.

If one interprets this example as coming from a human document the analysis is very different. There must be some other justification intelligible to humans. A little law & economics can help here. The Torah law is incredibly thorough in its proscriptions. Some of them govern the minutest details of daily household life. The probability of detection for many of these infractions is very low. If a person is seen to commit an easily detectable infraction, it’s likely he is also committing and getting away with smaller infractions.

The logic of punishing things that are easier to detect because of an assumed correlation to things that are harder to detect (or prove) is apparent even today. Al Capone went to prison for income tax violations even though it was known by everybody that he was involved in many more serious matters. Structuring laws punish how people deposit and withdraw cash because this is much easier to detect than the illegal things they might do with the cash.

There was no science of forensics in the ancient world, no dedicated police force, and rarely any paper trails. In order to deter people from breaking the law when the chances of getting caught were slim, the magnitude of the punishments had to be ramped up. While we have no way of knowing it’s fair to assume violations occurred all the time without anybody else ever finding out about them.

The worthiness of the goals of these ancient laws, and indeed of parallel modern laws, is a separate topic. The goals of the Torah law may have been order and social cohesion among the people of Israel, or they may have been fabrications to shore up the power of the powerful at that time, or a combination. Readers of this blog know that I think the War on Drugs is a fantastically awful institution, for example, and it is one of the major justifications for structuring laws. But you can see how, given the ends, there is a logic to the legal means.

As a final note, though I don’t intend this as an apologia for any particular religious law, I suppose one could explain the passage by saying that God had the law & econ reasoning in mind when declaring the penalty for breaking the sabbath.


* I use the RSV here since the relevant passage in the Orthodox Jewish Bible is harder to follow for those not versed in it.

Non-Muslim Berbers in Spain?

From Early Medieval Spain by Roger Collins:

Unfortunately the question of the Berber contribution to the culture of Al-Andalus has received little attention. It is often assumed that they were thoroughly Islamicised by the time of their entry into Spain in the early eighth century. However, the Arab conquest of North Africa was hardly complete by that point. What is more, evidence of the continued use of Latin there can be found for as late as the tenth century, and substantial Christian communities were still in existence in Africa in the eleventh. It is thus highly improbable, particularly in view of the general indications of slow conversion to Islam on the part of the Arabs’ subject populations, that large numbers of Berbers were Muslims in 711, nor in view of their role would they have been required to be. A reference in Al-Makkarī to the religious practices of Berber rebels who besieged Mérida in 742 makes it clear that they were not Muslims.

Without in any way being expert on the topic of the expansion of Islam this runs counter to what I thought. Probably the biggest first-pass lesson I get out of reading history is that the most common mental error in thinking about history is to project today backwards onto yesterday. I doubt I am alone in this.

Notes from the Pow Wow

This past weekend I attended both the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow and the Nizhoni Days Pow Wow. Some observations:

1. Like any large gathering of people who self-identify in a common way, a lot of the fun seems to be seeing people like you and feeling the sense of community that can be hard to feel when you know abstractly that they’re out there but can’t see them. In normal life you have to adapt to society, but here, for a little while, you are society. Outsiders (like me) were only a small percentage of attendees.

2. The participants came from all over the place. Most were from the American and Canadian Plains and West, where one would expect, but not all. Not all are living in or near tribal communities. This one wasn’t too surprising but it was nice to see.

3. The Gathering of Nations is structured around several competitions: a few categories of dancing, hand drum (with singing, mostly in English), the Miss Indian World competition. This seems like a very efficient way to organize large gatherings that don’t have a very specific mission.

4. Though the participants come from many different backgrounds, the dance competitions featured a few standardized Pan-Indian styles of dance. The interesting part is that these are not “traditional” but relatively recent. For example the “fancy dance” was developed in the 1920s and ’30s in Oklahoma and quickly became a major style throughout the US and Canada. On a related note synthetic materials made up the majority of the costumes. Many people had quality moccasins or leather goods but these are living, adapting cultures even if they keep selling authentic stuff to tourists (and using it themselves, naturally). Almost all of the hand drum competitors wore street clothes, as did the drummers who play during the dances.

5. At some point we have to talk about words. Specifically endonyms. “Native” or “Native American” is common, but also “Indian” and (infrequently) “indigenous” in addition to the various tribal names. However one refers to this community the name debate seems much less heated than the politicized debate outside of it indicates.

6. I am always interested in seeing what sports teams people like, to make a mental map of sports fandom I suppose, and I couldn’t help noticing here as well. The Dallas Cowboys seem to have a plurality of football fans but that’s mainly due to so many of the people living in areas where the team is popular anyway. Next up was the Arizona Cardinals for the same reason. Likewise, teams with national followings, e.g. Green Bay or Pittsburgh, were also well represented. The noteworthy thing was that there were a lot of fans of other teams you wouldn’t necessarily expect: Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs. Cleveland in particular had a lot of fans. Based on the participant lists almost nobody was from these areas, so these are people who went out of their way to be fans of these franchises. This, too, is a big debate outside of the community that doesn’t seem to be nearly so important inside of it. (It happens but not all the time and opinions are far from uniform, as we’ve seen.) It’s possible that some of them were wearing these items more for style than for actual interest in sports—think of how common the New York Yankees logo is—but that makes the point even stronger.

To people with exposure to modern Indian culture none of this should be surprising. To people without such exposure a kind of “Indigenism” is common akin to what Edward Said called “Orientalism” in another context. Indigenism is motivated by the desire to be respectful but still treats Indian cultures as overly exotic, monolithic, stylized, and essentially fragile. They aren’t.