Friday, June 26, 2009

Progressivism and the Roman Model

Progressivism, the paradigm for what later came to be called state-activist liberalism, was a variant of a twenty-centuries old model of economic development that the Romans conceptualized. Most models of economic development are variants of Roman policy. But the approach to economic development that was most successful, individualist laissez-faire capitalism, was in concept of more recent vintage even though elements of it existed in Hellenic times. The Greeks and the Hellenic states did not develop a method of analysis capable of identifying the elements of laissez-faire capitalism that facilitated development. The first to do so were the Physiocrats and Adam Smith in the 18th century.

Roman culture was based on the economic and technological advances of the Greek states. It is true that there was some innovation and dynamic business practice in the Roman world, but the Romans' statist model inhibited technological development and industrialization. Rather, the Romans conceived of progress as replication of the Greek polis and capitalist agricultural economy that the Hellenic states had innovated. This picture of cultural development drove the Roman concept of progress. Of course, Rome was unabashedly self interested and its chief concern was plunder and extraction of taxes from conquered territories. But eventually it did so through a developmental process. It assumed that the Hellenic/Roman model would maximize the productive output of the conquered territories so that imposition of the Roman model of social organization on the conquered territories would optimally increase its wealth. Therefore, progress meant that the rest of the world, which was barbaric, should adopt the Roman model.

The Roman notion of optimality was, therefore, static and did not conceptualize that technology or industrialization could radically increase and transform a nation's productive output. Moreover, it saw conquest and compulsion as essential to development. Thus, it rested on barbaric assumptions that are still reflected today in Marxist and other left wing ideology.

If productive output among primitive tribes is to be maximized, it is very likely that force is compatible with the optimality. The history of the idea of optimality might run something like this. Primitive tribes were traditionalist and saw their own way of life as optimal. Other tribes were not equal. Conquering tribes saw the optimal, profit maximizing approach as killing the other tribes and stealing their wealth. At some point tribal conquerors realized that enslavement could be more profitable than murder (a base realization that was forgotten in the twentieth century by the totalitarians following Marx and Hitler). Egyptian, Greek and to a lesser degree Roman culture were based on slavery. Ancient civilization would have been impossible without the innovation of slavery, which was actually more humanistic than the alternative to which Europe and China reverted in the twentieth century--mass murder.

The Greeks realized that trade could produce benefits that exceeded enslavement. Their colonies in Asia Minor and Arabia briefly realized that technology and enterprise could produce more wealth, but the realization was not firm and they did not develop a philosophical foundation for it. Moreover, the Greek and Hellenic states engaged in a considerable degree of class resentment and internecine warfare, which in turn limited their focus on the technological advances they were making.

The Romans saw adoption of the Hellenic model as optimal and ultimately their idea of optimal economic strategy was to impose the Hellenic model on the uncivilized.
Rome too became wracked with class conflict, notably the conflicts between upper and lower classes in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar and the resentments of the peasant army at the time of Septimius Severus and thereafter, leading to frequent murder and virtual enslavement of the Antonine-era upper class as well increasing statism and government control. The elements of what became medieval serfdom and the medieval economy were introduced in the time of Diocletian and Constantine. The Middle Ages were a continuation of Roman society in a barbarized form. The peoples whom Rome conquered did not understand the Roman concepts of government and the manorial system that existed under feudalism was a degeneration of the Roman model.

De Jouvenal traces how what he terms "Power", the centralizing force of kings over local fiefs, was a constant theme throughout the Middle Ages. This had in fact begun with Diocletian and really with Augustus, the creator of the Roman model of progress. This centralizing effort over many centuries was merely a reassertion of the Roman model. Part of the reason that the notions of liberty and decentralization were able to take hold were the barbaric feudalism that was an assertion against the Roman model. The assertion of the liberties of the aristocracy was not a continuation of the Roman model but a barbarian assertion of power by co-conquering barbarians.

The question is, though, how the decentralizing model of Locke, Montesquieu, Trenachard and Gordon, Adam Smith, the American Anti-Federalists and Jefferson evolved. The Reformation unquestionably played a role. The emphasis on individual conscience, direct reading of the bible, predestination and a direct relationship with God are powerful inducements to individualism.

The Romans might have been right about the development of much of the world, but not completely so, for the Persians and other oriental cultures had reached levels of development comparable to Rome's. Few today would argue that one civilization has the right to interfere with another. Today's critics of globalization argue that globalization interferes with local cultures. Yet, the same critics argue for centralization in their home countries, which involve greater degrees of compulsion and are less defensible on humanitarian grounds. A firm that builds a factory in a Third World nation compels no one to work there. Economic development leads to objectively better outcomes such as improved access to health care. The same advocates who would compel all Americans to participate in the same health plan would deny any access whatsoever to health care by the population of undeveloped countries.

In response to the individualist philosophy that appeared in England around the time of the Reformation, some began to argue for a divergent approach to progress that deviated from the Roman and hearkend back to the insight of the Hellenic states: businessmen experiment with alternative production methods and technologies, and so profit from their good ideas and suffer losses from the bad ones. This approach was relatively untried, yet it was productive of far greater economic progress than the Roman model.

The individualist model limits state power. But there are always moral issues in life that are difficult to settle voluntarily. These include how much to give to charity; whether bosses ought to be mean or kind to their employees; and the degree of compulsion the state ought to use in assessing taxes. Individualism did not permit a wide degree of choice with respect to the resolution of moral conflict. Henry David Thoreau's response to the ills of the liberal state were to reject the state altogether. But this would not have solved the moral problem with which he was most concerned: slavery.

Many will argue that the Civil War was about states' rights and the conflict between two economic systems, but historically its most important outcome (besides being the first example of what Thomas X. Hammes has called second generation warfare--and the killing of 600,000 human beings) was the abolition of slavery. This is a moral end, but to achieve it Roman means were necessary. The model of civilization and economy of the industrial north had to be imposed on the agrarian south. Thus, laissez-faire capitalism adopted the Roman approach to modernization in enforcing its economic model. Slavery and the kind of agrarian capitalism that the south practiced were themselves remnants of the manorial agricultural capitalism that was the basis of the Roman Empire.

Progressivism in turn was an amplification of the Roman approach to imposition of moral and developmental solutions as a form of development.

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