The Fall of Rome: Am I too Much of a Malthusian-Ricardian to Understand It Properly?

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Comment of the Day: in response to Brad DeLong: On Twitter: For whom was the decline and fall of the western Roman Empire that commenced with the Antonine Plague a decline Carlos Noreña: @carlosfnorena: "Yes, bad for all of those sectors, and devastating in systemic terms for this large-scale political economy. I also agree with Jongman that what he calls the "resilience" of the Roman central state was remarkable..." I respond: Perhaps my problem is that I am too much a Malthusian-Ricardian to see history straight, but...

...Population decline because climate change whomps agricultural productivity I understand: Everyone loses, and complex, civilized society may not survive because such societal systems have a hard time scaling down. Somebody still wants to have the same resources they had in the conflicts that produces go very negative sum very quickly.

But population decline while agricultural productivity stays constant—due to the Antonine and Justinian Plagues, or due to a temporary volcano winter, for example? Those have to raise agricultural productivity per farmer. And, yes, the upper class men will try to extract more from farmers. But if they could extract more from farmers, they would have done so back when they were riding high: they have and never had much charity. So from my perspective it is an uphill climb to clean that present material standards of living would decline.

Now peasant life expectancy and security could decline: the pax Romana was a real thing, and so was the Viking blood eagle. Now landlords could fail to recognize the new situation, and dissipate huge amounts of resources in “wars of attrition trying to extract more than could sustainably be extracted, thus leaving everybody worse off. And as cities take it in the neck the loss of economies of scale and Smithian division of labor could transform the city countryside relationship from one of extraction plus trade-for-conveniences to one of simple extraction.

But I still cannot help but think that it was better to be a serf of Pemmo son of Billo Duke of Friuli in the 8th century than of Marcus Tullius Cicero in the -1st (unless you were Tiro) or (shudder) Marcus Porcius Cato in the -2nd.

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