April 24, 2012 3 comments

Just wanted to apologize for the direction this blog has taken, or rather lack thereof. It’s been several months since I done part one of a series I wanted to do. I’m not arrogant enough to think anyone was, or still is, losing sleep over my lack of finishing it, but I still felt it deserved addressing.

I do hope to finish the series but at the moment I just lack the time/energy to devote to finishing it atm. Between the kids & other daily requirements when I get free time I unwind on some movies or snarking on twitter.

So in the meantime I’m going to start using this in a similar fashion that I use twitter for, & to discuss things other than philosophy. I still hope to sprinkle some longer & more insightful posts of course, and to work more on the series. Just needed to get this out there so I don’t feel guilty for seemingly ignoring it in favor of less time consuming posts.

Categories: General

Ancient Rome: Stagnation and Collapse

January 27, 2012 2 comments

While perusing my timeline I can’t help but come across ideas that are based on a one sided approach to things. In this case it was bemoaning the Emmanuel Goldstein of human institutions, Private Property. Basically the case was that current property relations might not have existed w/o the coercive Feudal period of history that the evil Capitalism emerged from. The error in this diagnosis of current economic problems is a misunderstanding of how the Feudal period itself emerged, and what killed it.

As with most things involving Western culture, we begin with Rome. As the republic died and empire took over, the economy became dependent more and more upon plundering of conquered territories. By the close of the 1st century 1/3 of the population of Rome depended upon the state for direct handouts. On the other side the top 1/3 were exempted from the taxes due to political connection, usually upper military. This put the burden of supporting the state upon the middle class that had to pay the increasing taxes. This fact helps explain why, in the face of totalitarianism, the population was content if the conquests were successful. Any budget deficit in Rome could be countered by looting neighbors. With the end of the Pax Romana all the low hanging fruit had been plucked. Any new territory was going to be costly to obtain, more than they could hope to bring home in loot. Thus we see the focus begins to shift from conquering new lands, and instead on keeping control of current holdings. Here’s where the story that shaped Europe for the next few centuries unfold.

By this time Rome has a populace who has become dependent upon their handouts, and have no desire to see them end. The problem was this was all hinged upon a continuing source of outside income. Emperors not only had no new lands to steal from, but they found that the cost of keeping control of current territory was growing. This put them in a double bind. If they released control of these territories, on top of the security concerns, they could no longer extract the resources at what appears to be a reduced cost in the short run. If they continued to occupy the region their cost would only continue to rise. Increasing costs upon a state through bases throughout the known world, a populace accustomed to living off the dole, stop me if this starts to sound familiar.

The first path chosen was the most obvious, raise taxes. Rome mainly relied on a sales tax to extract revenue from the middle class. This had the effect of drastically increasing the prices on goods sold. Taxes being as unpopular in antiquity as is today, evasion and avoidance became rampant. The middle class had a seemingly win-win option to avoiding taxes. As owners of their estates they owed taxes on what they produced and sold. The estates of the top 1/3, who were free from paying taxes, did not face this burden. This led to smaller land holders selling their estates to these connected individuals, thus giving birth to the Great Estates. Both participants were usually better off with the relationship. The Great Estate had a larger production base, and the former owner was getting paid more than what they would have made if staying taxpayers. While it isn’t the case that evasion wasn’t punished, the fact remains it did have a cost to enforce. Rome now faced the problem of a dwindling tax base along with an exploding organizational cost. When faced with this problem, emperors turned to the time honored tradition of all despots: currency debasement.

What followed is known today as the Crises of the 3rd Century. The complex trade networks that functioned in facilitating economic specialization throughout the territories is dealing with the chaos of a rapidly devaluing currency. Couple this with the increasing threat of outside invasion, and the increase in piracy both on sea and land trade routes, we begin to see a return to a more localized, barter based, economy. By the time Diocletian assumes the throne the empire was in economic shambles. His solution to the problem is well known. The 301AD Edict on Prices enters the stage. Merchants, farmers, and laborers faced the death penalty for charging above the set rate for their products/services.  Knowing that this would entail people hording and attempting to wait out this regime, hoarding also had the death penalty. The result is pretty easy to predict: repressed inflation. Goods stop being brought to market, and the goods that are brought are still sold above the price cap. Citizens began relocating from the city to the rural areas, usually joining one of the Great Estates, where the enforcement was more lax. It seems that the fear of a guaranteed starvation outweighed the fear of a chance at death if caught.

This led to a vicious cycle of economic decline. The economy would falter, the state would crack down harder, the process repeats. In an effort to halt people avoiding low wages by seeking other jobs, or just fleeing to other regions, in 332AD Constantine ties workers to their job/land. A colonus was to be viewed the same as a runaway slave should they abandon their job. Serfdom can be viewed as being born from these laws. We now return to those Great Estates.

As the middle class was being cannibalized by the empire to prolong a sense of glory, the great estates were adapting. While it had been profitable in the past to specialize in a particular product and bring it to city markets, due to the above mentioned turmoil, it was now more advantageous to become self sufficient. If the market could no longer be relied upon to buy food, clothing, and etc then it must be made on the estate. As the borders started becoming porous, the estates began fortifying and providing their own defense independent of Rome. While the empire existed in name into the 5th century, it had long since became a paper dragon. The real power had been transferred through economic sabotage into the hands of the Great Estates, and the emerging Christian Church.

In the next part we shall explore the rise of the manorial system and the life cycle of feudalism.

Categories: Economics, History

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