Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Some New Results in Economic History

Been reading, for comparative purposes, two histories of the fall of the West Roman Empire, one by Peter Heather and the other by Bryan Ward-Perkins. Both are very readable and (I think) solidly reliable pieces of history writing, over-all. Heather is more comprehensive, aiming to tell the whole story, while Ward-Perkins is out to prove a point, that the fall of the West Roman Empire really was a disaster for all concerned. Cool factoid: sixth-seventh Anglo-Saxon Britain actually lost the art of the potter's wheel; Ward-Perkins estimates that the Anglo-Saxons threw Britain back to a level of technology not just lower than the Romans, but lower than that of the prehistoric Iron Age, all the way back to the Bronze Age. The Slavs did pretty much the same to the southern Balkans and Aegean in the seventh-eighth century.

As a set of notes to myself, I'd like to sketch out a few things that I've gleaned from my reading in the above books, in David Hackett Fischer's Great Wave, and Jack Goldstone's piece in this edited volume on China, and other works. What I like about these things is that they can be stated very clearly and succinctly. Popular view of socio-economic history changes slowly. There are lots of views which are the common property of educated persons the world over which are just plain wrong. Usually, they have to do with economic history, since the progress in the field has been so recent.

1) The European economy didn't become qualitatively different from the economies of other Eurasian countries until 1815-1830. The Europe of Luther, Rembrandt, Cromwell, or Voltaire was not consistently wealthier than contemporary Turkey, India, or East Asia, nor did it have any inherent dynamism that those economies lacked. The economies of all these regions went through greater and smaller efflorescences that burgeoned in favorable circumstances and with implementation of new efficiencies, but always came to an end when resources when the efficiency gains were played out and population pressure mounted. The Dutch efflorescence of the seventeenth century, for example, ended in a decline in both top-end wealth and overall productivity in the eighteenth. Sometimes, these declines became Eurasia wide: 1350-1400, 1620-1660, and 1810-1825 were such times of collapse (of varying degrees of severity) from England to China.

But from around 1815-1830, a qualitatively new type of economic growth began around the North Atlantic. By continuously applying science to production for the first time, this new economy produced growth which was not an efflorescence but a cumulative and (so far) unending process. To exaggerate just a bit: economically speaking, George Washington's world had more in common with Julius Caesar's than with Abraham Lincoln's.

2) Before this era of modern growth, the three periods of highest population density in Western European history were: 1) the fourth century AD -- that is, the late Roman empire from the time of Constantine to Theodosius, 2) the early 14th century, that is medieval Europe at the time of the Mongol empire and just before the Black Death; and 3) the 18th century.

Yes, you read that first one right. Archeology has demonstrated that the Roman empire of superstitious, Christian, and philosopher-bashing Constantine and Theodosius was unquestionable richer overall and with a level of mass comfort higher than the nobly pagan Roman empire of Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Christians to the lions. Unfortunately, with a series of cascading events, this flourishing Christian empire came to an end in the fifth century with the "barbarian invasions." Historians have shown that the new Germanic kings, with a few notorious exceptions (see Anglo-Saxons above) wanted to preserve the old Roman order, but the archeologists have likewise demonstrated that they couldn't. They just didn't have the unity and skills. Economic decline in the 400s and 500s was slower in France, Spain, North Africa, and Italy than in barbarous England, and probably slowest around the city of Rome itself, but it was steady, and resulted in levels of poverty, depopulation, and technological crudity that by 600-650 was virtually English.

And yes, you read that second one right, too. The period around 1300 saw a population in Western Europe not matched until the eighteenth century. The mid-century collapse -- Black Death, cooling climate, etc. -- has given the fourteenth century a bad name, but it opened as one of the peak efflorescences of European economic history, building on the growth in the thirteenth century (the era of the Gothic cathedrals). It was also a period of tremendous growth in geographical knowledge, especially of Asia, due to the Mongol empire. In some ways -- exploration and military expansion, wealth at the top levels, etc. -- the 1500's recovered the ground lost during the disasters of 1350-1450, but not in basic population and living standards.

So in economic history, the "Middle Ages" is a bogus concept. Some "Middle Ages" really were barbaric and awful, but others were far wealthier, expansionistic and adventurous than the provincial and timid Italian Renaissance.

Although the eighteenth century, as we have been taught an era of prosperity, especially in Britain and China, it was in both cases a prosperity that was of the efflorescence type, which in both cases came to an end in the early nineteenth century. It was not until coming out of the world-wide depression of 1815-1830 that, as I said, you see modern economic growth beginning -- in Britain, but not in China.

3) The idea that over-taxation, over-militarization, and stratification of rich and poor in the 200s and 300s put unbearable strains on the Roman Empire, which then collapsed with the slightest touch from 375 on (the A.H.M. Jones hypothesis) has no merit. The 200s were indeed kind of bad, due to military pressure from a resurgent Iran, and the administration was very different in the 300s than in the 100s, but the empire really did recover and go on to new strengths under Diocletian, Constantine and successors. The whole empire's economy was going strong until 400 or so.

4) The Roman empire wasn't overthrown, the West Roman Empire was overthrown. While the West Roman Empire's economy was falling apart in the 400s and 500s, the East Roman Empire was virtually unaffected. In the early 600s, Avars and Slavs caused a similar Anglo-Saxon-style sudden economic collapse in the Aegean (Greece, the Balkans, western Turkey), but the Levant and Egypt remained unaffected by it. The Arab conquest thus brought the only remaining functioning part of the developed Roman economy under the new Arab empires, and they remained going strong through the 700s.

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