The dominant ‘story’ of economic development is that science gives birth to technology, and technology makes money. But who pays for science? That has to be the government, the community, all of us. Because, who else will? So, economic development depends on a strong state, because only a strong state will pay for all that science.
Terence Kealey, in his book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, tells a different story. Strong states destroy freedom. Weak states allow it, and thus allow capitalism, which pays for technology, which stimulates, pays for and is in its turn stimulated by science (the causal link between technology and science is that technology causes science at least as much as science causes technology), and technology also (Kealey accepts the usual causal link about this bit) causes increased prosperity.
The early chapters of this book supply an excellent potted history of pre-industrial Western Civilisation and its development. Here are the paragraphs that describe the fall of the Roman Empire:
So unconcerned with research did the Roman State become, that the Emperors actually suppressed technology. Petronius described how: ‘a flexible glass was invented, but the workshop of the inventor was completely destroyed by the Emperor Tiberius for fear that copper, silver and gold would lose value’. Suetonius described how: ‘An engineer devised a new machine which could haul large pillars at little expense. However the Emperor Vespasian rejected the invention and asked “who will take care of my poor?”.’ So uncommercial had the Romans become, their rulers rejected increases in productivity. In such a world, advances in science were never going to be translated into technology. Thus we can see that the government funding of ancient science was, in both economic and technological terms, a complete waste of money because the economy lacked the mechanism to exploit it.
The fall of the Roman Empire was frightful. The growth of the Empire had always been based on conquest, and the Empire’s economy had been fuelled by the exploitation of new colonies. When the Empire ran out of putative victims, its economy ceased to make sense, particularly as the mere maintenance of the Empire, with its garrisons and its bureaucrats, was so expensive. From the beginning of the second century AD, the State had to raise higher and higher taxes to maintain itself and its armies. It was under the Emperors Hadrian and Trajan, when the Empire was at its largest, that residual freedoms started to get knocked away to ensure that revenue was collected. Special commissioners, curatores, were appointed to run the cities. An army of secret police were recruited from the frumentarii. To pay for the extra bureaucrats, yet more taxes were raised, and the state increasingly took over the running of the economy – almost on ancient Egyptian lines. In AD 301, the Emperor Diocletian imposed fixed wages and prices, by decree, with infractions punishable by death. He declared that ‘uncontrolled economic activity is a religion of the godless’. Lanctantius wrote that the edict was a complete failure, that ‘there was a great bloodshed arising from its small and unimportant details’ and that more people were engaged in raising and spending taxes than in paying them. The origins of medieval feudalism emerged from the Roman Empire as it decayed. To ensure that the peasants continued to work under an economy which had lost its free-market incentives, Constantine promulgated a law in AD 332 which bound all coloni to the state as serfs. Their children were glebe adscripti, tied to the soil. To reinforce state control on all aspects of the economy, the city trade guilds or collegia imposed compulsory, hereditary trades on all. An edict Of AD 390 forbade children of the workers in the mint to marry outside their caste or trade. The towns shrank, and the population condensed on the patriarchal, self-sufficient, isolated estates that adumbrate the medieval European villages. Indeed, the word ‘village’ derives from the Latin villa, indicating that the feudal villages originated as the private estates of Roman magnates. And the Roman Catholic Church, once adopted by Constantine as the official religion, started to burn heretics. Religious and intellectual freedom, the great gifts of the Graeco-Roman period, were extinguished. No new technology emerged.
Contrary to myth, the empire did not collapse in the face of unstoppable barbarian hordes. The numbers of barbarians were always small (a mere 80,000 vandals took the whole of Roman Africa in less than a decade). The empire fell because many of its citizens had emigrated to the freer, more pleasant barbarian lands (under the late empire, the population fell from 70 to 50 million) and, crucially, the invading barbarians found themselves welcomed as armies of liberation by vast numbers of oppressed people. The empire had been warned. In De Rebus Bellicus, published anonymously around AD 370, the author called for tax cuts, new technology, and political freedoms: ‘In the technical arts, progress is due not to those of the highest birth or immense wealth or public office or eloquence derived from literary studies but solely to men of intellectual power . . . [the barbarians] are by no means considered strangers to mechanical inventiveness.’ The author blamed the greed of the rulers for the desperation of the poor: ‘This store of gold meant that the houses of the powerful were crammed full and their splendour enhanced to the destruction of the poor, the poorer classes of course being held down by force. But the poor were driven by their afflictions into various criminal enterprises, and losing sight of all respect for the law, all feeling of loyalty, they entrusted their revenge to crime. For they often inflicted the most severe injuries on the Empire, laying waste the fields, breaking the peace with outbursts of brigandage, stirring up animosities, and passing from one crime to another, supported usurpers.’ Unfortunately, this very sensible tract was never shown to the Emperor, Valentinian I, even though Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that he was one of the emperors who actually was interested in inventions.
The empire collapsed, not for a lack of Hellenistic science – there was plenty of that – but because it abandoned capitalism. It was a plunder empire, not a market empire. For plunder, it forsook free trade, and it therefore forsook the developments in technology that the free market would have fostered, and it also forsook the development of technologically inspired science. Since new technology is effectively synonymous with economic growth (see the discussion in Chapter 7), we can say that, in modern terms, the empire failed to raise its GDP per capita.
The fall of the Graeco-Roman hegemony teaches that the government funding of academic science will not generate useful technology in the absence of an appropriate, capitalist economy. This is so different from the conventional history that we must underline it. A standard textbook like Buchanan’s Technology and Social Progress emphasises, in the author’s own italics, on the very second page, that ‘A strong state, in short, is a necessary precondition of industrialization’ but we have shown that, historically, the reverse is true. In antiquity, it was the strong states that suppressed technology, and the weak ones that fostered it, because the weak ones were too weak to rob individuals of their freedom. As we shall see, it took the Dark Ages and their attendant chaos to liberate the human spirit and so fructify commerce, technology and a healthy science.