12 May 2010

Civilization, migration and the median man

Arnold Kling calls attention to this passage:
Gene Expression | Razib | Cross-societal comparisons then & now

I think it is critical to emphasize why ancient barbarian elites were so keen on conquering civilized states, and why there seems to have been less mass migration of the peasantry. In the modern world when we think of differences between societies in regards to wealth, complexity or glory, we consider the median man on the street. This would tell us little for most of human history, rather, we would have to focus on the top 10% to truly get a sense of the difference, and in particular the top 1%. To a great extent civilization has been a racket which operates to the benefit of the tiny elite by making rent-seeking much more efficient.
[I will run the risk of commenting without reading the rest of the piece, so continue at your own risk.]

Is this really true? Certainly it's worth keeping in mind, but is the condition of the median man really that uninformative? I'm sympathetic to the view of civilization as a racket for the powerful, but has civilization been that useless for the little guy?

If you were going to be a middle-of-the-pack farmer in 150 BC would you care whether you were a citizen of the Roman Republic or Ptolemaic Egypt or Han China or in the wilderness with the wandering Gauls or Tocharians? I certainly would. Maybe I just don't know enough about it though.

The condition of the median man, hell even that of the very bottom guy on the ladder, has improved immensely as history has marched on and "civilization" has spread. Maybe most of the regime changes between now and then have been beggars changing places and lashings going on, but on aggregate it seems to have worked out well for everybody, top, middle and bottom.

Maybe this is in spite of, and not due to, the conflicts of civilizations an barbarians though?

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PS — Listening to this week's History of Rome Podcast on the Marcomannic Wars I learned that there were three basic ways the Romans of the 2nd century bought off the Germanic tribes: with cash payments, with exemptions from Roman import duties, and by granting permission to move east and south to settle in imperial territory.  The latter was apparently the most sought after, so those Germans at least valued migration into civilization.

1 comment:

  1. I feel the need to compliment your taste in podcasts - I listen to that one too...