Thursday, December 06, 2012

Decentralization in the ancient world

Terracotta soldiers in Xi'an China.

The Terra Cotta warriors of ancient Xi’an are an impressive legacy of the early centuries BC, and they better be: during that period, something like 10% of the Chinese population was involved in Big Government-sponsored construction projects, including those tombs for the Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and many others are distinguished high points of Chinese civilization, and all of them were built by a powerful central non-elected government.

The Chinese legacy puts to shame the comparatively modest monuments that sprang from the market-based democratic economy of Ancient Greece. From the long viewpoint of history, this seems to show the advantages of powerful centralized governments.  A thousand years from now, nobody will remember the achievements of our greatest corporations, but who will forget the government-sponsored Apollo moon landing (or today’s Mars Curiosity probe)?

Or will they?  That’s why I thought this Econtalk podcast interview with Josiah Ober was interesting, because it shows that in fact Ancient Greece was a thriving, economically successful place that in general was almost certainly far wealthier than anything in China at the time. The legacy they left behind, while not visible like the monuments of the Qin Dynasty, is far more influential today.

From Ober’s Princeton/Stanford Working Paper, Wealthy Hellas.

Here are three reasons to believe that, compared to other ancient societies, Hellas was wealthy:

· Premise 1. The Greek economy grew steeply and steadily from 800-300 BC, both (a) in its aggregate size and (b) in per capita consumption. 

· Premise 2. By the fourth century BC Greece was (a) densely populated and (b) remarkably urbanized, yet (c) living standards remained high. 

· Premise 3. Wealth was distributed relatively equitably across Greek populations; there was a substantial “middling” class of persons who lived well above bare substance, yet below the level of elite consumption.

A few more claims:

  • 30% of Greeks lived in cities with populations greater than 5000 (versus only 10-12% of the later Romans)
  • 25-35% of the population lived on imported grain (evidence they were producing important trade goods)
  • The Gini index of 0.7 corresponds favorably to 1472 Florence (0.788) or 1998 USA (0.79)

Many other fascinating thoughts throughout.