The Counterfactual and the Factual

Historians often appear skeptical of counterfactual arguments. E.H. Carr argued that “a historian should never deal in speculation about what did not happen” (Carr, 1961, 127). Michael Oakeshott described counterfactual reasoning as ‘a monstrous incursion of science into the world of history’ (quoted in Ferguson, 1999). More recently, Eric Foner is reported to have found “counterfactuals absurd. A historian’s job is not to speculate about alternative universes …It’s to figure out what happened and why” (cited in Parry, 2016, here).

Such skepticism is striking to the modern economic historian, who since Robert Fogel’s work on the impact of the railroad on American economic growth has been trained to think explicitly in terms of counterfactuals. Far from being the absurdity Foner suggests, counterfactuals represent the gold standard in economic history today. Why? Because they are the sine qua of causal analysis. As David Hume noted, a counterfactual is exactly what we invoke whenever we use the word “cause”: “an object, followed by another, . . . where, if the first object had not been, the second would had never existed” (Hume, 1748, Part II).

Hume’s reasoning can best be understood in the context of a controlled experiment. Suppose a group of randomly selected patients are treated with a new drug while another randomly selected group are assigned a placebo. If the treatment and control groups were ex ante indistinguishable, then the difference between the outcomes for these two groups is the causal effect of the drug. The outcome for the control group provides the relevant counterfactual which enables us to assess the effectiveness of the drug.

The modern revival of economic history is based largely on the skill with which economic historians have been able to use econometric tools to replicate this style of experimental design using observational data. Such techniques enable economic historians to assess such counterfactuals as how much did slavery contribute to Africa’s underdevelopment?, what was the impact of the Peruvian Mita? or the effects of the Dust bowl?

The rejection of the counterfactual approach by historians such as Foner seems to run deep and constitutes a major divide between historians and economic historians; it is therefore well worth exploring its source.


To begin with, let’s set aside some of the reasons why historians have dismissed counterfactuals in the past. We need not, for instance, pay too much attention to the attachment of Marxists (like Carr) and Hegelian idealists (like Oakeshott) to teleological history. Of course, if history represents the unfolding of a dialectical process, then events that did not occur cannot, by definition, constitute the subject of historical analysis. Crude Marxism (and Hegelianism) is, I hope, still out of favor. But another reason why historians are skeptical of the counterfactual seems better grounded. And this is historians’ attachment to the factual.

Consider, Niall Ferguson’s edited volume Virtual History. It provides an excellent defense of counterfactual history. The counterfactuals considered by Ferguson and co, however, are largely in military or diplomatic history: what would have happened had the Nazis’ invaded Britain? etc.

These counterfactuals are a useful way to think through a question. But their power typically depends on reversing a single decision or event, i.e. suppose Hitler doesn’t issue his Stop Order in June 1940 or Edward Grey decides not to defend Belgium neutrality, what then? To be plausible everything else has to be held constant. This means that counterfactuals in diplomatic and military history shed light on the short term consequences of particular events. But the ceteris paribus assumption becomes harder to maintain as we consider events further removed from the initial counterfactual intervention. Thus, we have a reasonable idea of what Nazi rule of Britain in 1940 might have looked like — with the SS hunting down Jews, liberals, and intellectuals and restoring Edward VIII to the throne. But once we consider the outcomes of a Nazi ruled Britain into the 1950s and 1960s, we have much less guidance. Lacking any documentary evidence of the intentions of Britain’s Nazi rulers in the post-war era leaves us in the realm of historical fiction like Robert Harris’ Fatherland or CJ Sansom’s Dominion; there are simply too many degrees of freedom to do conduct historical analysis. Counterfactuals become problematic once we run out of facts to discipline our analysis.

This is the one fact it a valid reason for historians to be skeptical of counterfactuals. The actual historical record has to serve as a constant constraint on historical writing. This goes back to Leopold von Ranke, the scholar responsible for history’s emergence as an academic discipline in the 19th century. Ranke and his followers insisted on rigorous documentation and established the idea that the craft of the historian lay in the discovery, assembly, and analysis of primary sources. Ranke urged historians to focus on what actually happened; simply put, the facts ma’am, just the facts. Many criticisms have been levied at Ranke in the intervening 150 years, and to jaded post-modern eyes this approach no doubt appears hopeless naïve. But we should not dismiss Ranke’s strictures too quickly given what happens when historians abandon them (here and here). What is important here is that the same Rankian strictures that helped form history as an academic discipline, also rule out speculating about things that didn’t happen. They instill in historians a natural skepticism of counterfactual, alternative, history.

Moreover, while military history lends itself naturally to counterfactual analysis, other areas of history such as social or economic history where change is typically more gradual appear less suitable. After all: how is one to assess such complex counterfactuals as the fate of slavery in the US South in the absence of the Civil War?


These are questions which benefit from counterfactual reasoning but which, unlike diplomatic, political or military history, often requires training in the social sciences to answer. For example, take a question that is of interest to historians of capitalism: would slavery have disappeared quickly without the civil war?

From the 1950s to the 1970s, cliometric historians utilized economic theory to try to answer this. They employed economic models to assess the profitably of slavery and to infer the expectations of slave owners in the south (here). The main finding was that, contrary to the suppositions of historians (who at the time were often sympathetic to the southern cause): slavery was extremely profitable in 1860 and slaveholders foresaw the institution lasting indefinitely. In this case, their use of counterfactual reasoning overturned the previous historical orthodoxy.

The issue of the economic importance of slavery to the American economy in the early nineteenth century is also a counterfactual question. Implicitly it asks what would GDP have been in the absence of the slave-produced cotton. Here it is not only economic historians who are making counterfactual arguments. Foner championed Ed Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told. But in it, Baptist argued that almost 50% of GDP in 1836 was due to slavery, itself a counterfactual argument. He is arguing that, in the absence of slavery, the American economy would have been roughly half the size that it was. This claim is certainly false based as it is on double-counting. But the problem with Baptist’s argument is not that he had made a counterfactual claim, but that he conducted counterfactual analysis ineptly and that his estimates are riddled with errors (see here and here).

All of this sheds light on why counterfactuals are so often dismissed by historians. There is an important and deeply shared sense that the counterfactual approach is ahistorical and an unfamiliarity with the techniques involved. A natural lesson from the Baptist affair is that historians should become more familiar with the powerful tools social scientists have to assess counterfactual questions. Taking counterfactuals seriously is a way to make progress on uncovering answers to important historical questions. But there is also a sense in which the historians’ suspicion of counterfactual may be justified.


There remain many questions where counterfactuals are not especially useful. The more complex the event, the harder it is to isolate the relevant counterfactual. Recently Bruno Gonçalves Rosi at Notes on Liberty suggested such a counterfactual: “no Protestant Reformation, no freedom of conscience as we know today”.

But in comparison to what we have considered thus far, this is a tricky counterfactual to assess. Suppose Bruno had said, “no Martin Luther, no freedom of conscience as we know it today”. This would be easier to argue against as one could simply note that absent Luther there probably won’t have been a Reformation starting in 1517, but at some point in the 1520s-1530s, it is likely that someone else would have taken Luther’s place and overthrown the Catholic Church. But taking the entire Reformation as a single treatment and assessing its causal effect is much harder to do.

In particular, we have to assess two separate probabilities: (i) the probability of freedom of conscience emerging in Europe in the absence of the Reformation (P(Freedom of conscience|No Reformation)); and (ii) the probability of freedom of conscience emerging in Europe in the presence of the Reformation (P(Freedom of conscience| Reformation)). For Bruno’s argument to hold we don’t just need P(FC|R) > P (FC|NR), which is eminently plausible. We also need P(FC|NR) to equal zero. This seems implausible.

The problem becomes still more complex once one recognizes that the Protestant Reformation was itself the product of economic, social, political and technological changes taking place in Europe. If our counterfactual analysis takes away the Reformation but leaves in place the factors that helped to give rise to it (urbanization, the printing press, political fragmentation, corruption etc.), then it is unclear what the counterfactual actually tells us. This problem can be illustrated by considering a causal diagram of the sort developed by Judea Perle (2000).

Here we are interested in the effect of D (the Reformation) on Y (freedom of conscience). The problem is that if we observe a correlation between D and Y, we don’t know if it is causal. This is because of the presence of A, B, and F. Perhaps these can be controlled for. But there is also C. We can think of C as the printing press.

The printing press has a large role in the success of the Reformation (Rubin 2014). But it also stimulated urbanization and economic growth and plausibly had an independent role in stimulating the developments that eventually gave rise to modern liberalism, rule of law, and freedom of conscience. The endogeneity problem here seems intractable.

Absent some way to control for all these potential confounders, we are unable to estimate the causal effects of the Protestant Reformation on something like freedom of conscience. In contrast to the purely economic questions considered above, we don’t have a good theoretical understanding of the emergence of religious freedom. Counterfactual reasoning only gets us so far.

Historians need economic history (and this means economic theory and econometrics). And economists need historians. They need historians to make sense of the complexity of the world and because of their expertise and skill in handling evidence.

Minimum Wages: Short rejoinder to Geloso

A few days ago I posted here at NOL a short comment on some reaction I’ve seen with regards to Seattle’s minimum wage study. Vincent Geloso offers an insightful criticism of my argument. Even if his point is quite specific (or so it seems to me), it offers an opportunity for some clarification.

But first, what was my argument? My comment was aimed at a specific point raised by advocates of increasing minimum wages. Namely, that even if Seattle’s study shows an increase in unemployment, a study with a larger sample may say otherwise. My point is that the way I’ve seen this criticism raised is missing the economic insight of minimum wage analysis, namely that jobs will be lost in less efficient employers and employees first. So far so good. The problem Geloso points out is with my example. I refer to McDonald’s as the efficient employers fast food chain (think of economics of scale) and as less efficient employers the neighborhood family-run little food place (neighborhood’s diner).

Geloso correctly argues that different employers react in different ways. It is expected, for instance, that a larger employer such as a fast-food chain would have more options to make a marginal adjustment when there is an increase in minimum wages. Of course, I agree, but the point I’m rising is about where jobs will be lost first (not the specific mechanism in each employer). Geloso flips my example and argues that a small diner has more (in relative terms) to lose by letting go one out of two employees than a fast food joint that has to let one employee go among maybe ten thousand. By letting one employee go, the small employer loses a larger share of its output. Therefore a small employer would be more inclined to keep all of his labor force and cut costs on another front (less hours work in average doesn’t cut it, that’s like a shared unemployment that would also cut output down).

A large employer like a fast food chain, however, can let one out of ten thousand employees go because the loss in output is not that significant. I have two issues with this example. The first one is that a fast food chain is facing the increase in minimum wage ten thousand times, not two. To cut even the rise in cost, the firm fast food chain has to cut down its labor force 15% (1,500 employees.) But I think the problem with this example does not end here. If it were the case that small diners don’t cut employment but fast food chains do, then we should see more unemployment in larger employers than in small neighborhood diners.

A second point I want to make is with Geloso’s argument that the study is about focusing “like a laser” on one out of multiple channels in the group most likely to respond in that manner (unemployment?). That the study, as long as the focus is on unemployment, should focus on the less efficient employers (and employees) first, and not just look at the unaffected employers because that’s where we just happen to have better statistics for is my point. There are two options. The first option is that what matters is focusing on the channel the increase in cost will be managed by employers. But this is neither a focus on unemployment nor on the criticism I’m replying to. Option number two, that the study should focus on the employers “most likely” to reduce unemployment, which is actually my point regardless of how many “channels” are included in the sample.

Adam Smith: a historical historical detective?

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Adrian Blau at King’s College London has an on-going project of making methods in political theory more useful, transparent and instructive, especially for students interested in historical scholarship.

I found his methods lecture, that he gave to Master’s students and went onto publish as ‘History of political thought as detective work’, particularly helpful for formulating my approach to political theory. The advantage of Blau’s advice is that it avoids pairing technique with theory. You can be a Marxist, a Straussian, a contextualist, anything or nothing, and still apply Blau’s technique.

Blau suggests that we adopt the persona of a detective when trying to understand the meaning of historical texts. That is, we should acknowledge

  • uncertainty associated with our claims
  • that facts of the matter will almost certainly be under-determined by the available evidence
  • that conflicting evidence probably exists for any interesting question
  • that interpreting any piece of evidence through any exclusive theoretical lens is likely to lead us to error

To make more compelling inferences in the face of these challenges, we can use techniques of triangulation (using independent sources of evidence together). This could include arguing for an interpretation of a thinker’s argument based on a close reading of their text, while showing that other people in the thinker’s social milieu deployed language in a similar way (contextual), and also showing how helpful that argument was for achieving a political end that was salient in that time and place (motivation).

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Know your data, show your data: A rant

I am finishing up my first year of doctoral level political science studies. During that time I have read a lot of articles – approximately 550. 11 courses. 5 articles a week on average. 10 weeks. 11×5×10=550. Two things have bothered me immensely when reading these pieces: (1) it’s unclear authors know their data well, regardless of it being original or secondary data and (2) the reader is rarely showed much about the data.

I take the stance that when you use a dataset you should know it well in and out. I do not just mean that you should just have an idea if its normally distributed or has outliers. I expect you to know who collected it. I expect you to know its limitations.

For example I have read public opinion data that sampled minority populations. Given that said populations are minorities they had to oversample in areas where said groups are over represented. The problem with this is that those who live near co-ethnics are different from those who live elsewhere. This restricts the external validity of results derived from the data, but I rarely see an acknowledgement of this.

Sometimes data is flawed but it’s the best we have. That’s fine. I’m not against using flawed data. I’m willing to buy most arguments if the underlying theory is well grounded. To be honest I view statistical work to be fluff most times. If I don’t really care about the statistics, why do I care if the authors know their data well? I do because it serves as a way for authors to signal that they thought about their work. It’s similar to why artists sometimes place a “bowl of only green m&ms” requirement on their performance contracts. Artists don’t know if their contracts were read, but if their candy bowl is filled with red twizzlers they know something is wrong. I can’t monitor whether the authors took care in their manuscripts, but NOT seeing the bowl of green only m&ms gives me a heads up that something is off.

Of those 500+ articles I have read only a handful had a devoted descriptive statistics section. The logic seems to be that editors are encouraging that stuff be placed in appendices to make articles more readable. I don’t buy that argument for descriptive statistics. Moving robustness checks or replications to the appendices is fine, but descriptive stats give me a chance to actually look at the data and feel less concerned that the results are driven by outliers. In my 2nd best world all dependent variables and major independent variables would be graphed. If the data was collected in differing geographies I would want the data mapped. In my 1st best world replication files with the full dataset and dofiles would be mandatory for all papers.

I don’t think I am asking too much here. Hell, I am not even fond of empirical work. My favorite academic is Peter Leeson (GMU Econ & Law) and he rarely (ever?) does empirical work. As long as empirical work is being done in the social sciences though I expect a certain standard. Otherwise all we’re doing is engaging in math masturbation.

Tldr; I don’t trust most empirical work out there. I’ll rant about excessive literature reviews next time.

The Return of Cyclical Theories of History

“People and states oscillate between peace and war, freedom and slavery, order and disorder. They tire easily. Even happiness soon grows wearisome. No sooner do they begin to enjoy the benefits of wise and just government than they demand more wisdom and a different kind of justice. Factions spring up. Everyone is on the lookout for new privileges. The equilibrium that was so hard to strike crumbles. Wild hopes are embraced. The system collapses. Everything has to be built up anew on the ruins of the past”.

Jean, D’Ormesson, The Glory of the Empire

This, from D’Ormesson’s excellent 1971 fictional history The Glory of the Empire, could stand in for many such statements from thinkers who have held to a cyclical view of political development: Polybius, Machiavelli, Vico, Spengler, and Arthur Schlesinger. Now, after a period of eclipse, cyclical histories are back in fashion. Tyler Cowen in his excellent new book The Complacent Class heralds their return:

The biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor than a model of ongoing progress. (Cowen, 2017, p. 200)

The leading modern day cyclical theorist is undoubtedly Peter Turchin. For my money Turchin’s best book is Secular Cycles (co-authored with  Sergey A. Nefedov). Their innovation (building on an argument made by my GMU colleague Jack Goldstone in his 1991 book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World) is to take the Malthusian model of economic cycles and add to it a model of elite competition.

Tuchin and Nefedov show that periods of demographic expansion are often associated with the growth of elite incomes and inequality (as population growth causes rents to rise and wages to fall). More elites competing over the surplus, however, puts fiscal pressure on the surplus-extraction machine that we call the state. Elite overproduction thus brings about a political crisis. Secular Cycles applied this model to medieval and early modern England and France, Russia and ancient Rome. Turchin’s most recent book applies it to the United States.

Another recent cyclical account that has caught my attention is that of Bas van Bavel. His recent book The Invisible Hand? (OUP 2016) has been favorably reviewed by Branko Milanovic (strangely Bavel doesn’t cite Turchin). I quote in full from Branko’s review:

Van Bavel’s key idea is as follows. In societies where non-market constraints are dominant (say, in feudal societies), liberating factor markets is a truly revolutionary change. Ability of peasants to own some land or to lease it, of workers to work for wages rather than to be subjected to various types of corvées, or of the merchants to borrow at a more or less competitive market rather than to depend on usurious rates, is liberating at an individual level (gives person much greater freedom), secures property, and unleashes the forces of economic growth. The pace of activity quickens, growth accelerates (true, historically, from close to zero to some small number like 1% per year) and even inequality, economic and above all social, decreases . . .

But the process, Bavel argues, contains the seeds of its destruction. Gradually factor markets cover more and more of the population: Bavel is excellent in providing numerical estimates on, for example, the percentage of wage-earners in Lombardy in the 14th century or showing that in Low Countries wage labor was, because of guilds, less prevalent in urban than in rural areas. One factor market, though, that of capital and finance, gradually begins to dominate. Private and public debt become most attractive investments, big fortunes are made in finance, and those who originally asked for the level playing field and removal of feudal-like constraints, now use their wealth to conquer the political power and impose a serrata, thus making the rules destined to keep them forever on the top. What started as an exercise in political and economic freedom begins to look like an exercise in cementing the acquired power, politically and economically. The economic essor is gone, the economy begins to stagnate and, as happened to Iraq, Northern Italy and Low Countries, is overtaken by the competitors.

This is a great summary of the main idea of the book.  And the idea of endogenous economic cycles is an intriguing one.

But my impression of Bavel’s argument is less favorable. I am more inclined to the views expressed in this more critical review of the book by Peer Vries who lauds the ambition of the project but wishes that the execution was better. Like Vries I think there are issues with defining and measuring the growth of factor markets. I think that purely internalist stories of rise and decline might make sense for some preindustrial societies but are much less compelling for the more interconnected early modern world let alone for the post-1800 period. All in all, the book lacks a clearly laid out theoretical framework and suffers for it.

This said, cyclical patterns in history and in particular what one might call political cycles should get more attention. We should not be looking to date Kondratiev waves or other such pseudo-scientific phenomenon, but we should seek to build models and explanations that explain the pattern of ups and downs, growth efflorescence followed by crises and collapses, that characterized preindustrial history.

From the Comments: Weber, Geloso on inequality

How did I not see these before? Rick chimed in on Zak’s post about inequality and libertarianism awhile back. As usual, he tries to give the opposition the benefit of the doubt:

Taking public choice logic seriously means considering the political distortions/impediments to proposed policy. Taking inequality seriously is the flip side of that. Perceptions of (and attitudes towards) inequality matter and libertarians (and conservatives) would do well to acknowledge it.

I suspect that the problem is that 1) (like any ideology) we’ve got a blind spot, and inequality is in that spot. 2) Our liberal friends can see into that blind spot. 3) They’ve got a blind spot that leads them to make silly policy prescriptions (e.g. ignoring public choice roots of inequality and instead calling for policies that would reduce growth). And as a result, 4) we’re turned off by discussion of inequality before considering it.

Vincent, in the usual French manner, has a different take:

Okay massive disagreement here:

A: Inequality is not something “measurable” in the sense of utility. I chose to be an economist. My income is X% below that of my wife who went to school fewer years than I did and her income grows faster than mine and she will live longer than me (in probabilistic terms given life expectancy differences M/F). According to that definition, my couple is an unequal one and growing more unequal. Yet, I would not trade her job for mine even if her job was twice as remunerative (she is an attorney). I chose a path of lesser income because it made me happy. Income maximization was, in that case, not synonymous with utility maximization. By definition, rich societies will have more cases like that since gains in marginal utility may not be associated with marginal gains in monetary income. See the issue of the backward-bending labor supply curve.

B: The literature on linking growth to inequality is VERY weak. Look at the empirical papers, the results often depend on the choice of variables and the time window. It NEVER accounts for what I mentioned in point A. More importantly, there is NO THEORETICAL LINK with neoclassical theory on this (with the notable exception of Herb Gintis and Sam Bowles and I am working on a paper tackling their logic) that is axiomatically consistent. An empirical observation without a theory that is logically sound (the most repeated is the general Keynesian argument about consumption, but that is very weak and that rebuttal is powerful in the theoretical papers) is basically rubbish.

C: The Great Gatsby Curve is also rubbish since most of the past observations are based on the weird assumptions that mobility based on father-sons is a proper estimate to compare with modern estimates. You can consult the very convincing rebuttals made by Scott Winship. Moreover, the Great Gatsby curve is again a case of empirical observations without theory. I don’t need any of this story to see that mobility is down (modestly) at the same time that labor market restrictions are up.

There is more discussion, too.

The End of the Past


On Branko Milanovic’s recommendation, I read Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past. Scholarly and elegantly written, it provides one of the best imaginative reconstructions of the ancient Roman economy.

Previous posts have touched on the economies of late antiquity, the modernist primitivist debate, and diagnosed problems in many recent assessments of the ancient economy (here, here, here, and here). I want to use Schiavone’s book to revisit a question raised by Peter Temin in The Roman Market Economy. How advanced was the Roman economy? Specifically, how did it compare to the economy of Europe in late medieval or early modern times? Was the Roman economy only as developed as that of Europe circa 1300 or was it as advanced as that of western Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution in say 1700.

This question is not mere idle speculation. It matters for our understanding of the causes of long-run economic growth whether an industrial revolution could have happened in Song China or ancient Rome. This type of counterfactual history is crucial for pinning down the casual mechanisms responsible for sustained growth, especially as historians like Bas van Bavel are now proposing explicitly cyclical accounts of growth in societies as varied as early medieval Iraq and the Dutch Republic (see The Invisible Hand? (OUP, 2016))

Temin’s GDP estimates suggest that Roman Italy had comparable per capita income to the Dutch Republic in 1600. The Empire as a whole, he suggests, may have been comparable to Europe in 1700 (Temin 2013, 261). My gut reaction is that this is plausible as an upper-bound. Schiavone (who was writing several years before Temin), however, raises important points that I had fully not considered previously.

Schiavone opens with an account of a speech given by Aelius Aristides celebrating the wealth of the Roman empire in the mid-2nd century AD.

“Whatever each culture grows and manufactures cannot fail to be here at all times and in great profusion. Here merchant vessels arrive carrying these many commodities from every region in every season and even at every equinox, so that the city takes on the appearance of a sort of common market for the world. One can see cargoes from India and even from southern Arabia in such numbers that one must conclude that the trees in those lands have been stripped bare, and if the inhabitants of those lands need anything, they must come here to beg for a share of what they have produced….

Your farmlands are Egypt, Sicily, and all of cultivated Africa. Seaborne arrivals and departures are ceaseless, to the point that the wonder is, not so much that the harbor has insufficient space for all these merchant vessels, but that the sea has enough space (if it really does). Just as there is a common channel where all waters of the Ocean have a single source and destination, so that there is a common channel to Rome and all meet here: trade, shipping, agriculture, metallurgy— all the arts and crafts that are or ever were and all things that are produced or spring from the earth. What one does not see here does not exist” (Aristides, The Roman Oration).

This is a panegyric addressed to flatter the emperor but its emphasis on long-distance trade, commerce, manufacturing is highly suggestive. Such a speech is all but impossible to imagine in an predominantly rural and autarkic society. Aristides is painting a picture of a highly developed commercialized economy that linked together the entire Mediterranean and beyond. Even if he is grossly exaggerates, the imagine he depicts must have been plausible to his audience. In evaluating the Roman economy in the age of Aristides, Schaivone notes that:

“Until at least mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam, so expertly described by Simon Schama — the city of Rembrandt, Spinoza, and the great sea-trade companies, the product of the Dutch miracle and the first real “globalization of the economy — or at least, until the Spanish empire of Philip II, the total wealth accumulated and produced in the various regions of Europe reached levels that were not too far from those of the ancient world” (Schiavone, 2000, 94).

This is the point Temin makes. Whether measured in terms of the size of its largest cities — Rome in 100 AD was larger than any European city in 1700 — or in the volume of grain, wine, and olive oil imported into Italy, the scale of the Roman economy was vast by any premodern standard. Quantitatively, then, the Roman economy looks as large and prosperous as that the early modern European economy.

Qualitatively, however, there are important differences that Schiavone draws out and which have been obscured in recent quantitative debates about GDP estimates.

Observe that Roman history leaves no traces of great mercantile companies like the Bardi, the Peruzzi or the Medici. There are no records of commercial manuals of the sort that are abundant from Renaissance Italy; no evidence of “class-struggle” as we have from late medieval Europe; and no political economy or “economics”, that is, no attempts to systematize one’s thoughts and insights concerning the commercial world. The ancient world, in this view, only superficially resembled that of early modern Europe. Seen from this perspective, the latter contained the potential for sustained growth; the former did not. Why is this?


The most obvious institutional difference between the ancient world and the modern was slavery. Recently historians have tried to elevate slavery and labor coercion as crucial causal mechanism in explaining the industrial revolution. These attempts are unconvincing (see this post) but slavery certainly did dominate the ancient economy.

In its attempt to draw together the various strands through which slavery permeated the ancient economy, Schiavone’s chapter “Slaves, Nature, Machines” is a tour de force. At once he captures the ubiquity of slavery in the ancient economy, its unremitting brutality—for instance, private firms that specialized in branding, retrieving, and punishing runaway slaves — and, at the same time, touches the central economic questions raised by ancient slavery: to what extent was slavery crucial to the economic expansion of period between 200 BCE and 150 AD? And did the prevalence of slavery impede innovation?

It is impossible to do justice to the argument in a single post. Suffice to say that after much discussion, and many fascinating interludes, Schiavone suggests that ultimately the economic stagnation of the ancient world was due to a peculiar equilibrium that centered around slavery.

One can think of this equilibrium as resting on a two legs. The first is the observation that the apparent modernity of the ancient economy — its manufacturing, trade, and commerce rested largely on slave labor. The expansion of trade and commerce in the Mediterranean after 200 BC both rested on, and drove, the expansion of slavery. Here Schiavone note that the ancient reliance on slaves as human automatons — machines with souls — removed or at least weakened, the incentive to develop machines for productive purposes.

The existence of slavery, however, was not the only reason for the neglect of productive innovation. There was also a specific cultural attitude that formed the second leg of the equilibrium:

“None of the great engineers and architects, none of the incomparable builders of bridges, roads, and aqueducts, none of the experts in the employment of the apparatus of war, and none of their customers, either in the public administration or in the large landowning families, understood that the most advantageous arena for the use and improvement of machines — devices that were either already in use or easily created by association, or that could be designed to meet existing needs — would have been farms and workshops”

The relevance of slavery colored ancient attitudes towards almost all forms of manual work or craftsmanship. The dominant cultural meme was as follows: since such work was usually done by the unfree, it must be lowly, dirty and demeaning:

“technology, cooperative production, the various kinds of manual labor that were different from the solitary exertion of the peasants on his land — could not but end up socially and intellectually abandoned to the lowliest members of the community, in direct contact with the exploitation of the slaves, for whom the necessity and demand increased out of all proportion . . . the labor of slaves was in symmetry with and concealed behind (so to speak) the freedom of the aristocratic thought, while this in turn was in symmetry with the flight from a mechanical and quantitative vision of nature”

Thus this attitude also manifest itself in the disdain the ancients had for practical mechanics:

Similar condescension was shown to small businessmen and to most trade (only truly largely-scale trade was free from this taint). The ancient world does not seem to have produced self-reproducing mercantile elites. Plausible this was in part because of the cultural dominance of the landowning aristocracy.

The phenomenon coined by Fernand Braudel, the “Betrayal of the Bourgeois,” was particularly powerful in ancient Rome. Great merchants flourished, but “in order to be truly valued, they eventually had to become rentiers, as Cicero affirmed without hesitation: ‘Nay, it even seems to deserve the highest respect, if those who are engaged in it [trade], satiated, or rather , I should say, satisfied with the fortunes they have made, make their way from port to a country estate, as they have often made it from the sea into port. But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman’” (Schiavone, 2000, 103).

Such a cultural argument fits perfectly with Deirdre McCloskey’s claim in her recent trilogy that it was the adoption of bourgeois cultural norms and specifically bourgeois rhetoric that distinguished and caused the rise of north-western Europe after 1650 (here, here, and here).


Having taken note of the existence of such a powerful equilibrium — one resting on both material and cultural foundations, we can now return to Schiavone’s argument for why a modern capitalist economy did not develop in antiquity. He argues that given the prominence of slavery and the prestige of the landowning elite, economic expansion and growth of the kind that took place between c. 200 BCE to 150 CE was not self-reinforcing. It generated a growth efflorescence that lasted several centuries, but it ultimately undermined itself because it was based on an intensification of the slave economy that, in turn, reinforced the cultural supremacy of the landowning aristocracy and this cultural supremacy in turn eroded the incentives responsible for driving growth.

Compare and contrast with early modern Europe. The most advanced economies of early modern Europe, say England in 1700, were on the surface not too dissimilar to that of ancient Rome. But beneath the surface they contained the “coiled spring”, or at least the possibility, of sustained economic growth — growth driven by the emergence of innovation (a culture of improvement) and a commercial or even capitalist culture. According to Schiavone’s assessment, the Roman economy at least by 100 CE contained no such coiled spring.

We are not yet at the point when we can decisively assess this argument. But the importance of culture and the manner in which cultural and material factors interacted is clearly crucial. The argument that the slave economy and the easy assumptions of aristocratic superiority reinforced one another is a powerful one. For whatever historical reasons these cultural elements in the Roman economy were relatively undisturbed by the rise of merchants, traders and money grubbing equites. Likewise slavery did not undermine itself and give rise to wage labor.

Why this was the case can be left to future analysis. The full answer to the question why this was the case and a more careful consideration of the counterfactual “could it have been otherwise” are topics deserving their own blog post.