Archive | March, 2007

Byzantine Twilight

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I’m currently in the middle of the third volume of John Julius Norwich’s Byzantine trilogy (a generally fascinating work, I should specify, since I’m about to be critical), wherein he naturally enough attempts to explain the Byzantine Empire’s gradual decline and eventual fall. Byzantine mosaic His explanations invariably focus on the personal qualities of various emperors and generals; indeed he seems to agree with the assessment of Emperor Ioannes VI, whom he quotes on page 293:

There is nothing more conducive to the destruction of a nation, whether it be republic or monarchy, than the lack of men of wisdom or intellect. When a republic has many citizens, or a monarchy many ministers, of high quality it quickly recovers from those losses that are brought about by misfortune. When such men are lacking, it falls into the very depths of disgrace. That is why I deplore the present state of the Empire which, having produced so many excellent men in the past, has now been reduced to such a level of sterility that today’s governors possess nothing to elevate them above those whom they govern.

Yet in passing, four pages later, Norwich mentions a rather different fact which one might think has some relevance to Byzantium’s decline:

Such wealth as existed in the impoverished Empire had … become concentrated in the hands of the aristocratic few, while the majority of the population could feel only indignation and resentment. In most Western societies, the cities and towns had gradually produced a flourishing bourgeoisie of merchants and craftsmen [but] in the Byzantine Empire this had never occurred ….

Surely Byzantium’s increasing economic desperation, inability to pay its mercenaries, and so on, has something to do with its failure to develop a prosperous middle class. What explains this difference between the Byzantine Empire and its Western neighbours? What features of Byzantine law, society, or culture were blocking economic progress? One might think that any historian attempting to explain Byzantium’s fall would show an interest in such questions.

But not Norwich. As he explains in the preface to the second volume:

If I tend to give economic considerations less than their due, this is because I am not an economist and a three-volume work is quite long enough already. Similarly, if I concentrate on the personalities of Emperors and Empresses rather than on sociological developments, I can only plead that I prefer people to trends.

Well, he’s perfectly entitled to focus on what interests him (though his contrast between personalities and trends strikes me as rather artificial). But the price of neglecting economic and sociological considerations, or treating them as some sort of optional add-on, is that one will inevitably fail to understand the events one is writing about.

Islands of Chaos

Won't the size and complexity of the database make it impossible to know what's really happening? This Dilbert strip irresistibly reminded me of Kevin Carson’s series of posts on why Mises’ and Hayek’s arguments against the possibility of rational economic calculation under state-socialist central planning apply also to the size of the firm (see here, here, here, here, and here). The obvious corollary is that firms in a genuine free market are likely to be a good deal smaller than those in the kind of governmentally subsidised and artificially cartelised market context that prevails today.

Kevin may be seen as extending and radicalising Rothbard’s “One Big Cartel” analysis here. The strip’s final panels are also relevant to my post on wage gaps here.

Invade Mars, Kill Their Leaders, and Convert Them to Edison

In his classic 1897 novel War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells took aim at complacent Victorian assumptions of human superiority over animals and European superiority over non-Europeans, portraying what it would be like for his British readers to find themselves on the wrong side of natural selection and/or military imperialism. In Wells’ portrayal, the human defenders were hopelessly outmatched by the Martian invaders, whose defeat finally came not through human ingenuity but through accidental infection.

This gloomy message apparently sat ill with American writer Garrett Serviss, who in the following year penned an unauthorised sequel titled Edison’s Conquest of Mars, in which the human race, led of course by the United States, strikes back against the Martian enemy with the aid of weapons and spaceships provided by real-life inventor Thomas Edison.

Edison on Mars I’d never heard of this sequel until recently; turns out it’s a fun read. Stylistically the book owes more to Jules Verne than to Wells, and toward its end begins to anticipate Edgar Rice Burroughs as well – without, of course, being in the same league literarily as any of those authors. There are no great Wellsian lines here on the order of “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us,” or “by the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers … for neither do men live nor die in vain.” In spirit and substance too it departs from Wells in a number of ways, most notably – and unaccountably – in substituting humanoid Martians for Wells’ rather more effective proto-Lovecraftian creepy-crawlies. (Plus, no tripods! Where are the tripods?!) And the appeal of the book’s high-tech can-do optimism is somewhat offset by its tiresomely jingoistic neocon-fantasy militarism. This is the sort of thing against which Wells’ original book was written! But it’s an enjoyable ride nonetheless.

The book’s chief merit, at least for science-fiction geeks like me, lies in the extraordinary scientific accuracy (at least for the most part) of its description of space travel, as well as its pioneering use of such later genre tropes as asteroid mining, disintegrator guns, and extraterrestrial origins of the Egyptian pyramids and Sphinx.

There seem to be more than one version of this book floating around. The version I read is this one from Apogee Books, but I’ve since found an online version from Project Gutenberg. I haven’t looked closely through the Gutenberg version, but a quick glance at the first page alone reveals many differences:

Apogee Version Gutenberg Version
It was supposed at first that all the Martians had perished, not through our puny efforts, but in consequence of disease. Subsequent events proved however that some of those who arrived in the last cylinder had not succumbed, and on discovering the fate of their fellows they fled in one of their projectile cars, inflicting their cruelest blow in the act of departure. The Martians had nearly all perished, not through our puny efforts, but in consequence of disease, and the few survivors fled in one of their projectile cars, inflicting their cruelest blow in the act of departure.
They possessed a mysterious explosive, of unimaginable puissance, with whose aid they set their car in motion for Mars from the Common. The force of the explosion may be imagined when it is recollected that they had to give the car a velocity of more than seven miles per second in order to overcome the attraction of the earth and the resistance of the atmosphere. They possessed a mysterious explosive, of unimaginable puissance, with whose aid they set their car in motion for Mars from a point in Bergen County, N. J., just back of the Palisades. The force of the explosion may be imagined when it is recollected that they had to give the car a velocity of more than seven miles per second in order to overcome the attraction of the earth and the resistance of the atmosphere.
The shock destroyed all of Boston that had not already fallen a prey, and all the buildings yet standing in the surrounding towns and cities fell in one far-circling ruin. The shock destroyed all of New York that had not already fallen a prey, and all the buildings yet standing in the surrounding towns and cities fell in one far-circling ruin. The Palisades tumbled in vast sheets, starting a tidal wave in the Hudson that drowned the opposite shore.

I don’t know what the story is about these two versions; the introduction to the Apogee edition mentions the existence of abridged versions, but “abridged” doesn’t seem like the right word here.

Smoke and Mirrors

According to Wikipedia:

When Katee [Sackhoff, who plays “Starbuck”] decided to quit smoking just before shooting started for Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica, the writers for the show decided to have her character also stop smoking. Both were in response to fan mail from young girls who said they wanted to be just like Starbuck when they grew up.

Oh please. Now it’d be great if these girls grew up to emulate Starbuck’s positive qualities while avoiding her negative ones. Starbuck smokingBut as far as the latter go, does anyone think smoking is anywhere near the top of the list of Starbuck’s self-destructive traits? Ahead of the binge-drinking, moody surliness, picking pointless fights, taking needless risks, wrecking all her personal relationships, etc., etc.? Not to mention deliberately crashing her ship in what looked like suicide a couple of episodes ago?

In fact nearly all the characters on Galactica, despite their many virtues, are self-destructive or otherwise seriously screwed-up; that’s part of what makes the drama so compelling. For that matter, the cylons on the show commit suicide as a handy form of transportation (Sharon) or enlightenment (D’Anna)! If the show’s writers were really to suppress all depiction of behaviour whose emulation might be inadvisable, they’d have to wreck the entire show. So why single out smoking, apart from its being politically correct to do so? (I’m reminded of when Marvel Comics decided to make Wolverine give up smoking, lest impressionable youngsters take him as a role model. Wolverine still leaps into fights and slashes away at people with sharp steel claws built into his knucklebones, however.)

In any case, I vaguely recall seeing an interview where Sackhoff said the reason her character gave up smoking cigars (which is the only thing I can recall the character smoking) is that Sackhoff herself has never liked cigars. So I have my doubts about the whole story!

Sometimes giving up a cigar is just giving up a cigar.

Anarchy Among the Austrians

As aforementioned, I spent last weekend at the Austrian Scholars Conference. Here’s a list of some of the presentations most likely to be of interest to readers of this blog:

  • Irish anarchy Irish philosopher Gerard Casey argued that recent historical research has largely confirmed Joseph Peden’s theses (see here and here) concerning the stateless or near-stateless character of ancient and medieval Ireland.
  • Those who admit that stateless legal mechanisms might work for small tribes often deny that they could be effective in an advanced economy; Ed Stringham countered this objection by explaining how various sophisticated financial transactions in 17th-century Amsterdam received no protection from the state but nevertheless secured compliance via reputation effects.
  • Vedran Vuk presented a paper detailing how a free-market military defense might operate, and in particular how it could avoid the free-rider problem.
  • Gil Guillory presented a plausible and attractive business model for a private security agency.
  • Gerrit Smith Geoff Plauché defended Aristotelean liberalism, whatever that is.
  • Laurence Vance lectured on the libertarian ideas of Gerrit Smith, the 19th-century abolitionist, feminist, free-trader, and land reformer. (Laurence has also reprinted one of Smith’s books, The True Office of Civil Government; go to this page and scroll down to no. 123.)
  • Tom Woods lectured on the significance for Austro-libertarians of the work of Seymour Melman, New Left critic of the military-industrial complex.
  • Tom also described a forthcoming posthumous book by Murray Rothbard, Betrayal of the American Right, which apparently is as much an autobiography as it is a critique of the increased sidelining of libertarian ideas in the 20th century conservative movement.
  • Joe Salerno argued that Lionel Robbins’ classic quasi-praxeological 1932 Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (1st edition here; 2nd edition here) was not only influenced by Ludwig von Mises but, more controversially, was also an influence on Mises.

A few of these talks are online as audio files here.


exploited dude Matt MacKenzie’s Molinari Society paper Exploitation: A Dialectical Anarchist Perspective is now online. A teaser:

[S]hould libertarians be interested in exploitation? It seems to me that, as a matter of fact, many contemporary libertarians are either relatively uninterested in or suspicious of the concept of exploitation …. [I]t often involves assumptions about politics and economics that are unacceptable from a libertarian point of view. Despite these considerations, I will answer the question in the affirmative – libertarians should be interested in exploitation. Furthermore, I will argue that an appropriately comprehensive libertarianism should recognize, 1) that there are both coercive and non-coercive forms of exploitation, 2) that state capitalist societies are pervasively exploitative, and 3) that exploitation deserves an appropriately, though not exclusively, political response.

Also check out Charles Johnson’s comments.

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