Friday, October 30, 2009

The economic and political evolution of the Roman Republic

To some, history may be a dull subject. But if you approach it with the objective of uncovering patterns, it offers the most fascinating of lessons. Particularly if it is about the Roman history because written historical records and physical artefacts abound for many writers to posit their own perspectives about the Romans.

From the Romans, many useful lessons can be gleaned, especially on economics and politics. Economics however is the more important of the two since in statecraft, economics underpins politics.

The Roman history consists of three periods of governance: monarchy, Republic and Empire. The rule of kings lasted 250 years while the other two roughly 500 years each. For this post, we focus on the Republic because Rome's rise occurred during this period. The Roman Empire will be the subject of my future post. Although Rome's territorial conquest peaked during the time of the Empire, specifically under Emperor Hadrian, the new territories were no longer prime territories and holding on to them proved to be more costly than leaving them outside the borders.

Political leaders during the Republic were initially composed of senators. Although there were elections, it was a rule by aristocracy not democracy because only patricians (the land owning nobility) could be elected to the senate. Gradually the plebeians (commoners) who had grown rich through trade were allowed into the senate.

In ancient Greece and early Roman Republic, only the propertied class and the aristocrats had the right to vote. Even in the West in the 19th century, when voting was first introduced, only those with landed property were allowed to vote. Then, as now, democracy has always been biased towards those with wealth. Over time, this requirement was relaxed. The Roman electorate citizens eventually numbered more than a million. Rome was the first to introduce the secret balloting process. After the Republic faded away, it took 1,900 years for male universal suffrage to reappear in Western Europe.

The economic wealth of the Romans was derived from agriculture, trade and conquests. Conquests brought new lands (including metals mined therefrom) and increased tax revenue to the state coffers. Trade also rose because the security provided by the Roman rule encouraged exchange of produce between distant lands.

As is commonly the case with unchecked movement of goods and labour, in the long term, the impact on the social patterns and structure can be disruptive. Arising from the conquests, thousands of prisoners-of-war were sold as slaves. Only the wealthy aristocrats could afford them and their use on the large farms outdid the yields of the peasant farms. Unable to compete, the peasants sold their farms to the aristocrats.

Cheap grain imports from Sicily and North Africa also made the small peasant farms uneconomic. Gradually wealth tended to accumulate with the aristocrats and the merchant class. It's not surprising that in modern societies, as the economy prospers, the wealth concentration as reflected by the Gini coefficient gets more polarised.

The peasants flocked to Rome and the big towns where they survived on the assistance of the wealthy citizens. Later, the state took up this responsibility and also, to keep them from getting restless, the task of providing entertainment in the form of gladiator games, chariot races and theatre plays. Modern day political leaders are well advised to dish out subsistence assistance and cheap forms of entertainment to ease the pain of economic hardships and forestall social instability.

In the provision of public services, the Republic contracted them out to private parties, known as publicani. The contracts were auctioned off: for revenue collection to the highest bidders while for the expenditure on services and goods to the lowest. Even for military duties, there was no standing army. The army was conscripted from citizens of working age who had to pay for their own armour. The wages paid to them were barely enough.

With a growing citizenship and, consequently, electorate in line with Rome's territorial expansion, the stability of the leadership could no longer be guaranteed. New citizen voters could upset the balance of votes. In 27 BC, Augustus made himself emperor and thus ended the era of the Republic to be replaced by the Empire.

Under the Empire, the state bureaucracy expanded and the public services that had been carried by private contractors were now conducted by the state. The citizen army also turned into a standing one as pre-emptive defence replaced the former strategy of post-invasion counterstrike. As with any bureaucracy, once started, it could only enlarge even though the income of the state stagnated or receded. Even in modern times, increasing budget deficits are the logical evolution of governments moving towards the end-state of their life cycles. Any attempt to minimise deficits through balanced budgets unnecessarily hastens the demise of the governments.

The Romans had no significant technology wave. As described earlier, their growth mainly came from territorial conquests which also increased trade and agriculture. Such conquests also allowed Rome to transplant its idle people to the newly conquered areas. Whatever energy technology they had was based on the muscle power of humans and animals. The main contributor of that power was captured slaves. The water mills were far and few between.

The other critical leg of any technological progress, communication, was manifested in the Roman roads - running 85,000 km across the Empire - and the Mediterranean Sea, which after the defeat of Carthage, became mare nostrum (our sea or the Roman Lake.) Beyond these, the absence of further technological advance condemned Rome to a secular decline.

In contrast, the prosperity that we are now enjoying is the fruits of the Industrial Revolution that began in the 1780's. And it's not one cycle of progress. In fact, it has been renewed four times. We are now past the midpoint of the fourth wave and there is only one wave left to power us before our civilisation sputters like that of the Roman. These waves have enabled us to be liberal with human rights, giving political freedom that heretofore can't even be imagined.

Nowadays, champions of freedom and human rights are ignorant of the fact that such rights can be conferred only if the economic needs of the populace are well taken care of. Democratisation of wealth precedes the democratisation of politics. As the world nears the end of the technological progress, the incompatibility of liberalism with an economy in its last gasps is a sure-fire recipe for political turmoil.

It is also telling that in times of crisis, the Senate of the Roman Republic elected a dictator who had absolute power for a period of six months. Later, when the Roman Republic turned into an Empire, it was partly due to a lack of opportunities for economic growth. The need for stability entailed the firm rule of emperors. Even then, usurpations of power became common reflecting the hard times that prevailed in latter day Roman Empire.

Iron rule is not the answer but merely a predictable response to tough economic times. The eventual outcome would be pluralism, a fracturing of society into self-contained units last seen in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, also known as the Medieval period. In modern times, we are witnessing the shift towards pluralism in Somalia and Afghanistan. Waiting on the sidelines are many others: Pakistan, Iraq and most of the Sub-Saharan African countries. The world's refusal to face this reality means more bloodshed ahead without affecting the final destiny one whit.

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