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Posts Tagged ‘New Institutional Economics’

Ancient Athens continues to be used as a big stick with which to beat modern Greece. “Once upon a time there was a model kingdom,” begins Roman Pletter’s article in Die Zeit this week (not yet on the website as far as I can see); yes, they had slaves, but they were democratic, the many has the power rather than the few, the people were equal before the law, appointments to public office were based on ability rather than patronage, and it could be taken for granted that everyone was free. “That sounds like a country that would fit very well in the European Union,” and of course it’s classical Athens. The punchline is signalled from miles away: “Of this model kingdom there isn’t much left.” Hey, Greeks, you invented the idea of strong social and political institutions as a means of ensuring the well-being of all the citizens, but you know what? These days you’re rubbish. (more…)

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Certain strands of contemporary ancient economic history have a tendency to suffer from economics envy, rather as some social scientists suffer from science envy: partly it’s the apparent solidity and certainty of the knowledge that it generates, and the confident assertions of its practitioners, unconstrained by the sorts of wishy-washy historicist doubts that plague humanities scholars; partly it’s the fame and the money; and partly, at least some of the time, it’s about the possibility of direct engagement with the world, the fact that ‘real’ people (i.e. policy makers and governments) will actually listen to economists now and again. This envy is then one of the drivers of the adoption of economic theory in the study of the ancient economy – by no means the only driver, as there are entirely sound reasons why some economic ideas can be useful, but it’s surely a factor; hence (again, if we’re being pedantic, among other reasons) the popularity of the New Institutional Economics, which allows ancient historians to align themselves ostentatiously with contemporary (well, only slightly dated) economic approaches without actually having too abandon too much of the complexity and historical specificity that is our bread and butter. It also fuels the ongoing disparagement of alternative approaches to pre-modern economies as naive primitivism, obsessively raking over the fruitless debates of the 1970s rather than facing up to post-1989 reality. As I’ve argued elsewhere – can’t for the moment remember whether it’s here or in a forthcoming publication, or possibly both – the neoliberal agenda is pretty unmistakeable in ancient economic history as elsewhere. (more…)

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The most interesting aspect of Donald Engels’ 1990 book Roman Corinth: an alternative model for the classical city, and the reason why it’s still worth reading (at least in parts), is not its account of archaeological work at Corinth (very useful then, now outdated), nor its substantive attempt at disproving the ‘consumer city’ model (which, if I recall correctly, included the argument that if the non-producers were in a minority it couldn’t be a consumer city), but his excursus into a historicising intellectual history: Engels sets M.I. Finley’s approach to the economy of antiquity in a wider context of suspicion of modernity and capitalist values, a climate of thought whose most prominent exemplars were Pol Pot and the Sendero Luminoso. Guilt by association, at however many removes; forget the common assertion that all the ideals of communism are irrevocably tainted by the crimes of Stalin’s regime (see recent discussion over on Crooked Timber), in this discourse any deviation whatsoever from the wholehearted celebration of industry and the market leads directly to mass murder. In retrospect, one is simply surprised that he didn’t chuck in the Manson Family and Altamont for good measure.

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