Procrastinating on May 28, 2016

Why No Byzantine Road to Modernity?

Fall of constantinople 22 jpg 400×311 pixels

The extremely-sharp Branko Milanovic asks a very good question that I had never considered before:

Branko Minanovic: Economic Reflections on the Fall of Constantinople: This Sunday, May 29 marks the anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453...

...Thinking of... what is called (somewhat inaccurately) the Eastern Roman Empire, led me to two, I hope interesting, observations. First, why did the Industrial Revolution not happen in the Eastern Roman Empire?... There are many answers... from... ‘barbarians at the gate’... inability to incorporate lower classes... ‘dead hand’ of a rising military bureaucracy... slavery: cheap labor that provided no incentive for the use of labor-saving machines... [to] those who... thought, like Moses Finley and Karl Polanyi, that Roman institutions did not contain at all the seeds that could have led to capitalist development.... Constantinople become the capital in 330 AD... and that lasted for another 800 to 900 years with no interruption. (That is, if we want to date the end of the Roman Empire in 1204 when Byzantium was conquered by the Crusaders). Wasn’t there enough time to find out if ancient institutions could become capitalistic? Eight or nine centuries seems plenty.

Moreover, what, culturally and institutionally, better place to develop than the Eastern Empire: direct continuator of the larger Roman whole with an educated elite, same institutions, stable currency (solidus, ‘the dollar of the middle ages’), reasonable protection of property rights, people knowledgeable of Greek and Latin and thus able to read everything from Herodotus to Columella’s agricultural treatises without the intermediation of translation, with Roman laws codified and simplified by Justinian. Why did not there develop ‘bourgeois virtue’, ‘inclusive institutions’, Landes’ ‘culture’?  Or does it all have to do with ‘serendipity’ of having coal and expensive labor in one place? Yet despite all of these advantages, no one reading the history of the Eastern Roman Empire would come thinking that there was any chance of it developing in the capitalistic direction. It was as feudalistic as they come.... There is plenty of recent scholarly work on why China failed to become capitalist and start the Industrial Revolution... but it seems to me that equally revealing and rewarding would be to study why the  Eastern Roman Empire, seemingly full of all the necessary prerequisites, failed to do so....

It is a very good question. Why had I never considered it before? I have thought about Hellenistic and classical Greece, medieval India, the long history of China, the Aztecs and the Incas, Rome proper, the Mashriq late in the first millennium, medieval Japan, and the interesting time from 1400-1550 when the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires are all on the march with what look like much more effective ways of mobilizing and directing resources than anyone else in the world. But I never thought about Byzantium.

Why not? I think in the back of my mind that I assumed that the Plague of Justinian landed it with a very top-heavy aristocracy that maintained control and was used to exacting much more in the way of resources out of the productive sectors of the economy that they could bear and still grow. And then the empire comes under severe military pressure from both Avars and Sassanids. Tiberius and Maurice hang on--and then with Maurice's assassination everything goes to hell. From 602 on the empire is always under immense military pressure, and the need to scoop up every possible bezant and to make military mobilization primary precludes any relaxation of taxation or social control that could produce intensive economic growth.

There was a substantial military recovery under the Macedonian Dynasty--perhaps some succession-luck after Basil II the Bulgarian-Killer's reestablishment of the Danube frontier in the west and conquest of Aleppo in the east could have created breathing-space for economic efflorescence. But, unfortunately, the Normans and the Turks then show up...

So I don't think you ever get to the second-line question: How to develop governmental institutions that are developmental rather than extractive--to merchants rather than princes, as Andrei Shleifer and I like to put it? The military pressure is overwhelming (and, when it isn't, inter- and intra-dynasty fratricide is).

And you definitely don't get to the third line of questions: autocratic rule by emperors under immense land-focused military pressure is enough. And, unlike sea warfare (cf.: Athens, Venice, Genoa, Holland, England), land warfare is inevitably a resource sink rather than a resource source. You never get to the two questions of: How to invent a steam engine with very cheap labor and not-cheap coal? And is there an alternate road to produce enough productivity growth to set a virtuous circle in motion without a steam engine as a non-human power source?