Monday, 30 April 2012

Why Nations Fail thoughts, part 2

Here is an alternative explanation of the fall of the Roman empire:

“No doubt the imperial State created by the Julii and the Claudii was an admirable
machine, incomparably superior as a mere structure to the old republican State of the patrician families. But, by a curious coincidence, hardly had it reached full development when the social body began to decay.
Already in the times of the Antonines (IInd Century), the State overbears society with its anti-vital supremacy. Society begins to be enslaved, to be unable to live except in the service of the State. The whole of life is bureaucratised. What results? The bureaucratisation of life brings about its absolute decay in all orders. Wealth diminishes, births are few.... After the time of the Severi, the army has to be recruited from foreigners. Is the paradoxical, tragic process of Statism now realised? Society, that it may live better, creates the State as an instrument. Then the State gets the upper hand and society has to begin to live for the State. But for all that the State is still composed of the members of that society. But soon these do not suffice to support it, and it has to call in foreigners: first Dalmatians, then Germans. These foreigners take possession of the State, and the rest of society, the former populace, has to live as their slaves- slaves of people with whom they have nothing in common. This is what State intervention leads to: the people are converted into fuel to feed the mere machine which is the State. The skeleton eats up the flesh around it. The scaffolding becomes the owner and tenant of the house. ”

This story is superficially close to A&R’s. But the author blames the Roman state itself, not the way that state was used, for the decay of the Empire. An important point is that the centralized state which is the focus of A&R’s story is not actually a historical constant. For much of history, the state has simply lacked the capacity to impose its will directly, and has instead ruled through intermediaries, such as aristocracies. A&R tend to treat these forms under the rubric of “inadequate centralization”. That is not revealing: the feudal system is really not like modern Somalia.

Just before this bit, our author explains how states can decay:

“But the mass-man does in fact believe that he is the State, and he will tend more and more to set its machinery working on whatsoever pretext, to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it- disturbs it in any order of things: in politics, in ideas, in industry.
The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine. ... Such was the lamentable fate of ancient civilisation. ”

Again this is close to A&R: extractive political institutions foreclose innovation. But here the problem is the existence of the state machinery itself, not its control by a greedy minority at the top.

The author of the above is Ortega y Gasset and the book is The Revolt of theMasses, mentioned in a recent post on the Why Nations Fail blog. My curiosity was piqued and I got hold of a copy. It’s an excellent book – highly tendentious, sometimes very prescient, sometimes way wrong. It provides a nice complement to the A&R book. (Off-topic: don't only read new books! Otherwise you will be historically provincial. Old books are mind-expanding.)