Imperium did make the least of us richer

After reading the section on Rome in War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, I realized I had changed my mind over the past 10 years on the issue of differences in wealth in the past. Following the treatment in A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World or Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History, I held to the position that before the pre-modern world, and back to the Paleolithic, the vast majority of people had been roughly at the same standard of living at the Malthusian limit.

Basically, a British peasant in 1500 was no more poor or rich than a Japanese peasant in 1500 who was no poorer than a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer who lived in 15,000 BC. The reason being that in the pre-modern world economic growth rates were so slow that population growth always caught up, and the populace was back to immiseration on the Malthusian margin. Yes, there were some differences of detail, but not worth mentioning.

In David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations there is a great deal of emphasis on economic growth being driven by gains in productivity, which are driven by innovation. This is common sense. We all know that people are wealthier and healthier because of technological growth and development over the last few hundred years. But there’s another variable: the demographic transition. After all, modern middle-class Westerners could have huge families and spend all their discretionary income raising children. They don’t.

Malthus’ logic was actually right. He even understood that productivity gains and efficiency were going to occur. But the iron law of human reproductive fecundity seemed to be an inevitability…until it wasn’t. It is always important to move beyond logic. It seems clear that productivity gains in the pre-modern world were low…but there was variation in consumption and quality of life, even though it was nothing like what we see today.

Books like The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire and The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization have convinced me that the Roman Peace wasn’t simply a propaganda coup. That it wasn’t simply a great con by the elites to steal surplus wealth from the masses and channel it into public works which reflected their glorious and status and secured their immortality in the memory of future generations (though it was that!).

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’d rather be a Roman citizen or subject than a barbarian living beyond the frontiers. That depends on how much you value your life as opposed to your freedom. But whereas 10 years ago I would stay that the attraction of Romanitas was simply a function of elites attempting to capture the best extractive institutional mechanisms, I do think there was a “trickle down” in consumption goods through classical dynamics described in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Trade, specialization, and peace did bring dividends, both to the high and the low. On the margin being 25% wealthier on a low base may not seem like much to us, but it was probably a lot to them. How much do you value dishware?

8 thoughts on “Imperium did make the least of us richer

  1. I’m not sure I follow. You seem to put “the Malthusian limit” in contrast to dishware. But can’t you have both? Indeed, didn’t the Romans have both? (Is that exactly what you’re saying?) Pottery wasn’t just a luxury good, at the expense of calories, but probably increased the productivity of the peasant farmer. (On the other hand, that means that the farmer spent a larger proportion of time farming. You could ask: how much do you value the diversity of work that comes from lack of specialization?)

  2. The Wealth Of Nations By Adam Smith 1776. BOOK II. Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment Of Stock. CHAPTER III. Of the Accumulation of Capital, Or Of Productive and Unproductive Labour.

    But though the profusion of government must, undoubtedly, have retarded the natural progress of England towards wealth and improvement, it has not been able to stop it. The annual produce of its land and labour is, undoubtedly, much greater at present than it was either at the Restoration[1660] or at the Revolution[1688].

    John Locke Second Treatise of Civil Government:

    § 41. There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i. e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniencies we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a daylabourer in England.

  3. One highly important trait of the Roman middle and upper class was similar to the one of modern Europeans and other people living the same lifestyle: Low fertility, not enough children, even though they could have afforded more. When fate hit Rome, they were too specialised, dependent on foreign military forces and their reproduction was too low.
    Romans were so specialised, that losing certain elements of the functional elite in the army, but also in the administration, trade and so on, without being replaced in time, made them so weak even small contingents of medium level foreign armies or revolting mercenaries could conquer the pacified masses which were no warriors any more. At the time of the Punic Wars or Augustus, Rome could afford to lose 5 legions of its own Roman elite soldiers. After the civil wars, epidemics and the demographic collapse in late Rome, they couldn’t. The farmers were no warriors any more and those people which kept Rome together were too few, had too low of a birth rate over generations.

    This relates to what you said about the Roman cities, being a sink like cities are to this day, especially for those population elements which keep the state together and on a higher level. But it even starts with soldiers being in service for decades, but not allowed to marry, which was an insane measure.

    At home there were Roman commentators lamenting about a wealthy Roman citizen ruining his families wealth by having too many children. The tribals beyond the borders of Rome didn’t thought that way, which is why they finally overrun Rome and Rome was unable to expand on even centuries before. Thats one of the main reasons, if not the reason.

    If you try to keep your inheritance together and your family alive on a low, low numbered but wealthy level, driven by materialism and a degenerated form of a social status system, you are very likely to, on the long run, lose both, the wealth and life of your family. Thats just no winning strategy on the long run, because you are unable to keep your strength if external shocks hit you or if you are unable or unwilling to defend your borders. In both cases, you will be overrun by those which are more fertile, rather sooner than later.

    There were done some studies on Roman reproductive behaviour and yes, many children died, but fact is, they made birth control too and planned small families. They could have raised more children, they could have expanded with their surplus population. But they didn’t because the materialistic middle and upper class didn’t wanted to! The fathers wanted to keep the wealth together and the mothers preferred their “social life” free of the stress of many children. If they looked after them themselves at all, which further reduced the survival rate of those few children born by the neglect of the mothers.
    Yes, Roman women’s status was dependent on giving birth to children and the son and heir in particular. But their duty was fulfilled with two sons and they were nowhere near the fertility rates of lets say Corded Ware people, Germanics or Slavs. And that’s just part of the story of Roman failure.

    It seems that a society based on urban culture and money is prone to cultural degeneration on many levels and if politics and culture are unable to prevent that failed societal development, the cities might stay but the people are gone. Or even as likely: Even the cities and culture will fall, because the people which kept it together will be gone. Religion might be one of the most important tools to keep things together or to even further accelerate collapse. In the case of Rome Christianity almost certainly just accelerated the collapse and was one important aspect of Roman failure. Christianiy is not exactly a pro-natalist religion, even if some people might think so today. It is definitely not. Its “pro Life”, but not pronatal and in fact antisexual.
    Its an irony of history that it helped to keep many aspects of Roman culture alive in a changed environment after the collapse.

  4. 1) You probably severly underestimate the number of biological children rich romans had by not accounting for children with slaves.

    2) Roman family values were quite psychopatic, they were scheming and plotting against each other in order to gain money and power. Less offspring with the official family meant less risk later in life.

    3) Modern rich man in many legislatures cannot have more children than a normal man, because child support is counted as a percentage of income, rather than as a fixed sum counted as money required to raise a child. What’s worse frequently it is a percentage of “imputed” income, which means paying according to the fantasies of some family court judge…

    Perhaps it’s a conscious regulation for socialism and biodiversity by the legislators? So that the next generation comes from a wider background than 1% of the richest?

  5. Another thing to add is how you measure wealth over different epochs, regions and cultures. If measuring the most important factors, nutrition and health, there were huge differences between different populations even in the same period of time.

    @TomR @3: Wealthier people could have much more children in our current society, if they wanted to. Its no question of options but motivation. If you have a degenerated cultural environment, a lot of things might be much more important than having children or keep your population alive. And I’m not talking about saving humanity or making science, but completely worthless things which only value lies in the short time satisfaction of primitive needs and the gaining a higher social status in the group.

    Reproduction being largely decoupled from sexuality. It doesn’t matter with how many women you had sex, if you have no surviving offspring resulting from that sexual adventures.
    There are a lot of high status males today which have an exceptionally high number of sexual contacts, but the only thing they gain from it in comparison to the average Amish, Hutterites or orthodox Jewish, which have just one wife but are pro-natalist, are lawsuits, financial and social losses, probably even sexually transmitted diseases. But definitely not more children.

    Also, being rich doesnt equal to best genes and most valuable for the group. There are doctors and army officers with a very high genetic and social profile which are of average wealth, and exceptionally rich bankers or celebrities which could never replace them as a pillar of society. Wealth doesn’t equal individual superiority, it never did and it certainly doesn’t now. It can only be an indicator, not individually, but statistically, in a stable and wealthy society with social permeablility, if looking at the bottom. But even then, statistically yes, individually no. If gaining wealth and higher status being translated into small, if at all, families for large parts of the upper and especially middle class, its a suicidal social program for those following it and the population as a whole.
    The current Western society shows many parallels to ancient Rome, this being one of the most important ones. If you can’t fill the ranks with children of your own, you are doomed, your whole system is. Not immediately, but over generations that’s a sure thing.

    @1) I doubt there were that many and even if, they were not raised as free Romans in the fathers tradition. On the whole slaves seem to have been not that fertile themselves.

    2) Don’t judge Roman families by the dramatic stories you read and especially not by what the Caesar or senators did. However, even that relates to a problem known from the modern West: Extreme individualism and egoism. People didn’t care as much for the family any more and personal interests and new ideologies were quite often much more important than family values. Yet familial infights seem to be quite common, especially in the higher and more powerful ranks throughout much of history. To a certain extend its a common theme in human history. Cain and Abel…

  6. This is a timely post as I am working my way through Gregory Clark’s lectures on YouTube at the moment. One thing that occurred to me regarding Malthusian limits is that they really only limit standard of living for whatever the limiting resource is for having additional offspring. I’m guessing that is almost always food. So you could, in theory, have a tremdously high standard of living even at the Malthusian limit, if you have other resources in relative abundance. Are my instincts here right? Wrong?

  7. @obs,

    When you wrote that Roman mothers wanted “social life” free of stress from children, have you also considered the possibility of their fear of death in child birth?

    Every pregnancy comes with the risk of death, not just lack of social life. Whatever the aggregate risk, personal exposure to risk stays constant with each new pregnancy. Isn’t it reasonable they don’t want to face possibility of death if they don’t have to?

  8. @Obs – Brendan Fraser was paying like 900k dollars per year for 3 children in “child support” (in reality – a legal robbery). At such prices they are objectively too expansive. And risky – you can go to jail for not paying those millions to your legal robbers! Remember it’s about “imputed” income, which is what the judge thinks, not what a reality is.

    So the only reasonable ways to have children for a rich person are ways that avoid child support, such a rich person has to be a sole parent. Currently surrogacy is the popular choice – they pay a single upfront fee per child, like 200k $ /child in the west, if done in poorer country like India – much lower eg. 30k $/child. But then, after paying such fee there’s just a normal cost of rearing a child, not a percentage of income.

    The economy of it is that the pregnancy surrogates and egg donors only want this upfront fees and are not interested either in keeping the child or becoming a child suport extractor. Egg donors are usually high-iq women who have or plan to have their own good careers, and pregnancy surrogates are working class women with no practical chance to marry a billionaire.

    This is good for these women – Egg donors get free genetic reproductive success – no money or time wasted, also no loss in looks due to pregnancy. Can concentrate on careers. Pregnancy surrogates get much better paying job than working in a factory, shop or as a bartender.
    All cost are on a rich men. Who in turn pays less than a child support. The big loosers are family lawyers, family courts, and women who plan to live off “child support” extraction.

    Rich men are known to have like 13 kids from such infrastructure:

    The biggest global advantage of such method is the possibility to eliminate mental deficiencies in a population within one generation, without denying anyone having a kid, sterilizing people etc. Just assuring that a lower talendt man has kid with intellectually top egg donor (same with women and sperm). Consider that a woman is born with 300k eggs. If the extraction techniques become efficient – there’d be no practical shortage of genetically high-quality eggs. The bottleneck is with pregnancies of talented women, because talented women have better things to do than being pregnant. But pregnancies overall are not a bottleneck either – there are literally billions of working class women, with spare capacity.

    We also have this in-vitro technology that decouples good genes acquisition from the pregnancy itself, so we can have both at once – lots of good genes from the reservoirs of 300k eggs/talented woman, and the birthpower of masses, combined together. For a superior population of the future.

    This is by the way an absolute opposite to Greg Clark model of winners coupling with winners and winning, loosers coupling with loosers and loosing (going extinct). Such modern technology – if the costs go down – could give loosers the ability to access the best genetic material form the women via getting their eggs.

    As for your assertion that the richest people are not the best ones. Numbers like 4-8 times the percentage of psychopaths among CEOs than in general population confirm this. There’s also more talent among scientist, engeneers etc. than among busines people. So a society where all are descendant from business people would be a worse one morally than the present one. Perhaps more talented than the modern average, but with less of the top talent, which is crucial.

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