Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilisation (2015), by Sean Gabb

I would be most reluctant to cross swords with Ludwig von Mises on economics. I have less regard for his history. We can reject the Polanyi/Finley claim that market behaviour is a modern and transitory development, and that ancient economies were so fundamentally different that they cannot be subjected to economic analysis in our own terms. Human nature is the same in all times and places, and only the objects of superficial desire are different.

This being said, the ancient world was institutionally different from ours. We have, during the past four hundred years, grown used to living with centralised, bureaucratic states, able to impose their will for all reasonable and many unreasonable purposes. The Roman State was able to collect enough taxes to pay an army to defend its frontiers most of the time. For all other purposes, it was vastly less competent than the English or French States of the seventeenth century. Its early effort to suppress Christianity was a miserable failure. Its late efforts to suppress heresy were barely less miserable. Its civil courts had no means to compel the attendance of witnesses, and little to enforce their judgments. Its criminal courts were powerless to prosecute offenders who had any degree of local support.

The Empire was an agglomeration of communities which were illiterate to an extent unknown in Western Europe since about 1450. Even most officers in the bureaucracy were at best semi-literate. There was no printing press. Writing materials were very expensive – one sheet of papyrus cost about £100 in today’s money. Cheaper materials were still expensive and were of little use for other than ephemeral use. Central control was usually notional, and the more effective Emperors – Hadrian, Diocletian, et al – were those who spent much of their time touring the Empire to supervise in person.

The economic legislation of the Emperors was largely unenforceable. Some effort was made to enforce the Edict of Maximum Prices. But this appears to have been sporadic, and it lasted only between 301 and 305, when Diocletian abdicated. The Edict’s main effect was to leave a listing of relative prices for economic historians to study 1,500 years later.

As for inflation, it can be doubted how far outside the cities a monetary economy existed. This is not to doubt whether the laws of supply and demand operated, only whether most transactions were not by barter at more or less customary ratios of exchange. This being so, the debasement of the silver coinage would have had less disruptive effect than the silver inflation in Europe of the sixteenth century. Also, the gold coinage was stabilised over a hundred years before the Western military collapse of the fifth century. And the military crisis of the late third century was overcome while the inflation continued.

Nor is there any evidence that people left the cities in large numbers for the countryside. The truth seems to be that the Roman Empire was afflicted, from the middle of the second century, by a series of epidemic plagues, possibly brought on by global cooling, that sent populations into a decline that continued until about the eighth century. The cities shrank not because their inhabitants left them, but because they died. So far as they were enforced, the Imperial responses to population decline made things worse, but were not the ultimate cause of decline. Where population decline was less severe, there was no economic decline. Whenever the decline went into temporary reverse – as it may have in the fifth century in the East – economic activity recovered.

Von Mises is right that the barbarian invasions were not catastrophic floods that destroyed everything in their path. They were incursions by small bands. What made them irreversible was that they took place in the West into a demographic vacuum that would have existed regardless of what laws the Emperors made.

Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization
by Ludwig von Mises

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

© 2015 – 2017, seangabb.

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