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Impearls: 2007-09-16 Archive

Earthdate 2007-09-22

Autonomy and the trajectories of Rome vs. Athens in history

Volokh Conspiracist Ilya Somin has an interesting post on the question of “How Federal is Star Trek’s Federation?”, which you can read here.  (See also my other post deriving from Ilya’s piece, which you can find here, or use up-thread/down-thread controls in the navigation panel above.)

Ilya gets into (and the comments further explore) questions like whether the Federation was socialistic (and during which period), while commenters raise the issue of just how the presence of technological replicators affects — perhaps even eliminates the meaning of — the Federation’s (or perhaps just humanity’s within it) economy.

Going in a completely different direction, however, this time I’d like to explore the applicability and consequences of a statement that Ilya made (in the context of making an analogy between it and the Federation), having to do with the ancient “Athenian Empire,” otherwise known as the Delian League.  As Ilya asserted in that piece:  “As long as the allies paid their tribute, Athens mostly left them alone and did not try to influence their domestic policies.”

I suggest this wasn’t true.  On the contrary, Oxford professor of ancient history G. H. Stevenson wrote a book with the (seemingly boring) title Roman Provincial Administration (which actually was very interesting), in the first chapter of which a striking comparison between the Athenian Empire (aka Delian League) and the Roman Empire (including the Republic) is made.  Stevenson writes: 1

At a time when Rome was an obscure Italian city an attempt had been made by Athens, the most brilliant city-state of antiquity, to found an empire in the Aegean, and to extend it as far west as Sicily.  No state in history may seem to have been so well qualified as fifth-century Athens to embark on a career of Imperialism.  Her efforts had been largely responsible for saving Greece from incorporation in the Persian Empire.  She represented the best qualities of the Greek race, and counted among her citizens men of the highest intellectual and military ability.

But her attempt to found an empire was unsuccessful.  Though no one cause can be given for her failure, it must in the main be attributed to the fact that she was merely one city state among others.  So long as each Greek city was content with nothing less than complete autonomy no political union which aspired at creating more than a system of alliances was possible.  The cause of the failure of Athens was not so much that she was a democracy, as Cleon said in the speech attributed to him by Thucydides, as that she was a city state.  Oligarchical Sparta was even less successful than democratic Athens in uniting the Greeks under her leadership.

Athens and Sparta alike were unable to refrain from an interference in the internal affairs of Greek states which even the smallest of them bitterly resented.  Athens favoured the democratic parties against the oligarchs, and sometimes even imposed a democratic constitution on her so-called “allies.”  She deprived the local courts of much of their power, and insisted that important cases should be tried at Athens.  Finally, the tribute, which at first had been willingly paid as a contribution to the defence of Greece against Persia, came to be regarded as an imposition when peace was made with Persia and the revenues of the League were expended on the beautification of the Acropolis or on a war with Sparta with which many of the allies felt that they had little concern.

As a result, Athens’ empire possessed little inherent cohesion and staying power, and when push came to shove, it simply fell apart.

Contrast that (as Stevenson does) with the Roman experience, where first under the Republic the Italian allied cities of Rome were granted full membership together with autonomy within the Roman State.  (Those Italian “allies” actually went to war against Rome — in the so-called “Social War” of 90-89 b.c. — in order to obtain, not their independence, but to force Rome to admit them into the Roman State!  And they won, or rather lost, whereupon the Republic did ultimately admit them, as autonomous cities, into full-fledged inclusion within Rome.)

During the Empire, this autonomy principle was extended further across the whole empire (without necessarily including Roman citizenship — rather, each city-state possessed its own citizenship), to such an extent that Edward Togo Salmon (Professor of History at McMaster University) could write, in Encyclopædia Britannica’s article “Rome, Ancient”: 2

In the empire at large, Flavians and Antonines, like the better Julio-Claudians, aimed at stability in order that its inhabitants might live in security and self-respect.  In this they largely succeeded.  Gibbon’s famous description of the 2nd century as the period when men were happiest and most prosperous is not entirely false.  […]

The empire was a vast congeries of peoples and races with differing religions, customs, and languages, and the emperors were content to let them live their own lives.  Imperial policy favoured a veneer of common culture transcending ethnic differences, but there was no deliberate denationalization.  Ambitious men striving for a career naturally found it helpful, if not necessary, to become Roman in bearing and conduct and perhaps even in language as well (although speakers of Greek often rose to exalted positions).  But local self-government was the general rule, and neither Latin nor Roman ways were imposed on the communities composing the empire.  […]

Where possible, the emperors kept direct administration from Rome to a minimum (except perhaps in Egypt), and the 2nd century was the most flourishing period of urban civilization that the empire ever knew.  […]  It is impossible not to be impressed by the spectacle of the Roman Empire in its 2nd-century heyday, with its panorama of splendid and autonomous communities.

Thus we see an origin, perhaps, for the radically differing trajectories of Rome and Athens in history.


1 G. H. Stevenson (Fellow and Praelector in Ancient History, University College, Oxford), Roman Provincial Administration, G. E. Stechert & Co., New York, 1939; pp. 4-5.

2 Edward Togo Salmon (d. 1988; Messecar Professor of History, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1954-73; author of A History of the Roman World from 30 b.c. to a.d. 138), “Rome, Ancient,” Section IV: The early Roman Empire (31 b.c.-a.d. 193), Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1974, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago; Macropædia Vol. 15, pp. 1116-1117.

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Impearls: 2007-09-16 Archive

Earthdate 2007-09-21

Replicators in a robust capitalist economy

Volokh Conspiracist Ilya Somin has an interesting post on the question of “How Federal is Star Trek’s Federation?”, which you can read here.  (See also my other post deriving from Ilya’s piece, which you can find here, or use up-thread/down-thread controls in the navigation panel above.)

Ilya gets into (and the comments further explore) questions like whether the Federation was socialistic (and during which period), while commenters raise the issue of just how the presence of technological replicators affects — perhaps even eliminates the meaning of — the Federation’s (or perhaps just humanity’s within it) economy.

I certainly agree with those in the thread who maintain that the mere advent of replicators per se isn’t going to eliminate economics nor an economy.  In this regard, I was surprised no one (but me) recalled perhaps the granddaddy (SF) story concerning replicators’ possible effects on a vigorous capitalist economy — to wit, Ralph Williams’ (pseudonym of Ralph W. Stone) “Business As Usual, During Alterations,” from the grand old days (1958) of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction — which delves into many of the issues considered here.

In the story an alien interstellar society decides to bring down human civilization (then at a more or less mid 20th century stage of development) — quietly, without much of a fuss, so they can simply take over — by providing humanity with several instances of a functional replicator device, capable of replicating most anything (’cepting your baby or pet), including notably the devices themselves.  In addition to brief instructions on their use, an inscription provides fair…  “Warning!  A push of the button grants your heart’s desire.  It is also a chip at the foundations of human society.  A few billion such chips will bring it crashing down.  The choice is yours.

So, naturally, as anybody would expect, the carefree capitalist society of the West (along with the rest of the world) immediately snatches up the new technology, oblivious to all warning (and all doomsayers), replicating everything in sight.  But — funny thing — at least in the story, Western capitalist society and its economy doesn’t collapse.  Oh, it goes through major changes, the basis of the economy turning on its head in only about a day, but it survives and thrives.

As the tale goes, from within the midst of the upheaval: 1

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, he’s right, you know, not very many people will buy beans and chuck roast, when they can eat wild rice and smoked pheasant breast.  So, you know what I’ve been thinking?  I think what we’ll have to have, instead of a supermarket, is a sort of super-delicatessen.  Just one item each of every fancy food from all over the world, thousands and thousands, all different—”

“It won’t work,” George said with weary kindness.  “That’s what I’ve just been explaining to John here.  Why should I buy my pickled hummingbird tongues from you, when I can keep a can on my own shelf and duplicate it ad nauseam?”

“Ad nauseam, that’s why,” Simond said earnestly.  “Beans, you can eat every day.  Pickled hummingbird tongues, you can’t.  You know, when we first started selling these frozen TV dinners, we ran into something funny.  The first couple of weeks, they’d go like crazy.  Then they’d die.  We’d change suppliers, same story.  Hot, then cold.  Finally, somebody got an idea.  You take the Mexican dinner, that’s a good seller, I like it myself.  You taste the first one, it’s delicious.  The next, not quite so good.  The third or fourth one, eating’s a chore, and by the tenth you can’t stand the sight of even the wrapper—”

“C rations,” I put in.

“That’s it, same thing.  The trouble is, each one is as exactly like the other as they can be made.  You eat one, you’ve had them all.  So, we passed the word to our supplier.  Now, he changes the formula every week, a little more pepper, a few less beans, a different cut of meat, so forth.  People think they are getting the same thing, but it’s just enough different to keep them coming back for more.”

“I see what you mean,” I said thoughtfully.  “In the past, we’ve sold standardization because it was a scarce commodity.  Now, the shoe is on the other foot, we’ll sell diversity.  Instead of offering the customer as choice of GE or Westinghouse refrigerator, we’ll offer a choice of any refrigerator built, anywhere—”  a sudden thought struck me.  “Damn it,” I said unhappily.  “We still can’t get away from suppliers.”

“Not only that,” George offered helpfully.  “Those samples you’re going to offer a choice of are practically all going to be hand-made models, remember that.  Also, you’re not going to get away with duplicating them for nothing.  I think you already broke the law when you duplicated the trademarks on those cartons.  Even if you didn’t, it’s not going to take much extension of present legislation to make it illegal to copy any manufactured article without paying royalty.”

Not bad foresight from half a century ago into the stage we’re at now, I’d say, as a result of the advent of “replicators” in the computer software, game and media industries, not to speak of such things as automobiles that one can now have built incorporating a wide variety of individually tailored options.

Also, as longtime readers of Impearls are aware, farsighted physicist Freeman Dyson wrote a terrific piece concerning the likely impact of replicators (of a kind, both mechanical and biological) in his fascinating essay “The World, The Flesh, and The Devil,” which very much rewards perusing in its own right.

UPDATE:  2007-10-07 12:00 UT:  A reader on another thread points to this site (scroll down to “The Duplicators” and “replicator”), which does mention Ralph Williams’ story.  However, they then get it fundamentally wrong (kind of like Microsoft vis-a-vis the UNIX filesystem), missing one of the major lessons of “Business As Usual, During Alterations.”

As the site asserts:  “Lacking that” (i.e., “some substance that cannot be replicated”) “there is no way to prevent either currency or cheques from being counterfeited.  Counterfeits so good they cannot be distinguished from genuine money.”

This is incorrect, as Williams insightfully realizes.  On the contrary, while currency as such immediately becomes valueless with the advent of high-quality replicators, cheques (and charge cards) do not.  As the author points out, one can already (pre-replicators) write just as many bad cheques as one wants, and still end up in prison over it — that won’t change with replicators.  Thus, in his story the entire economy flips over instantaneously to consist solely of cheques, credit card and like transactions — no cash.


1 Ralph Williams (pseudonym of Ralph W. Stone), “Business As Usual, During Alterations,” originally published in John W. Campbell, Jr.’s (editor) Astounding Science Fiction, July 1958 [1958-07].  Reprinted in Prologue to Analog, edited by John W. Campbell, 1962, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York; pp. 230-258.

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