Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Free Trade in Ancient Greece

Over on EconLog, Arnold Kling repeatedly claims that there was no trading of produced goods in the ancient world (or before the Modern Era), but only of plundered goods. While there is little doubt that there were plundered goods as a part of economic activity in the ancient world, there is a great deal of evidence of actual market activity. Certainly the Silk Road, the famous trading route, was an important element of ancient trade.

I'm reading Bill Greene's book "Common Genius" and in it he talks about how late intellectuals are to recognizing what is happening in the world. The other thing intellectuals do is come up with theories that, no matter how much evidence to the contrary there is against it. will stick with that theory. I and many others have provided quite a bit of evidence for ancient trade practices, but no amount of evidence seems sufficient for Kling. Never mind the textual evidence I have supplied. Never mind the archeological evidence. Kling has a theory, and he's sticking to it! I guess free market intellectuals are no less prone to this than are Leftist ones. It was not uncommon until the Modern Era for writers to be concerned only with heroes and leaders and not with the common man (who would have been doing the trading). One of the benefits of comedians is that their material was often the common man. This is why I repeatedly recommended Aristophanes to Kling as a source, since Aristophanes repeatedly talks about the disruption of trade as a problem caused by the Athenian war with Sparta.

In the "Acharnians," Dicaeopolis is in Athens and complaining about the war and how he is "longing hopelessly for peace, loathing town and homesick for my village . . . where you don't hear cried of "Buy my charcoal," "Buy my vinegar," "Buy my oil." My village doesn't include the word "buy" in its vocabulary but simply produces all that's needed --- with not a "buy" person in the offing." (7, Paul Roche, tr.)

Dicaeopolis here is complaining about all the people in Athens trying to sell him things. Realistically, did these people who were trying to sell him charcoal, vinegar, and oil get those goods through plunder? Or did they grow and produce those things?

The translator himself supplies evidence of trade between towns in a footnote on pg. 10 that "Sardian dye was one of the many items of luxury from the city of Sardis, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor." Yes, that's right, "exported."

In the play, Dicaeopolis manages to get a private treaty with those Athens is at war with, and then announces "And I for my part announce free trade between me and all Spartans, Megarians, and Boeotians" (33). In other words, goods he has will be traded with goods from these three cities. Of course, one could argue that he will only be getting plundered goods. Well, fortunately, Aristophanes provides us with a list of goods from these cities. A Megarian comes to sell his two girls (a case for plunder, true, as these are to become slaves), but Dicaeopolis asks him if he has salt or garlic (40), so he's expecting something the Megarian has gathered, grown or bought from someone else. Later (42), he mentions "figs from Phibalis." Phibalis was "a district in Attica known for its early figs." They no doubt made good money shipping their early figs to the various cities before their fig crops came in.

Later a Boeotian comes to sell the following to Dicaeopolis: "oregano, chamomile, lamp wicks, doormats, daws, ducks, cormorants, coots, plovers, snipe, quail" (46) and "geese, hares, foxes, moles, hedgehogs, cats, badgers, weasels, Lake Copais eels" (47). Dicaeopolis decides to buy some eels, complaining that he had had to wait "six years for her" (47). It seems that Athens was lacking all of these things they had commonly received from Boeotia in trade, which had been disrupted due to the war with Boeotia.

There is even something as modern as a "market tariff" (47) Dicaeopolis charges.

And what does the Boeotian want? "Something Athens 'as and us Boeotians 'aven't" (47). Sounds like the very purpose of trade to me. In fact, when Dicaeopolis offers sardines or pottery, the Boeotian refuses them, saying they have plenty of them at home (48).

When it becomes obvious to everyone that Dicaeopolis is making a fortune engaging in free trade for goods produces inthe cities Athens is at war with, other come begging him for a piece of his peace treaty.

Dicaeopolis is a simple man, not a leader of Athens by any means, who simply wants some peace so he can engage in free trade and live the good life. You won't read about people like Dicaeopolis in the Histories or in the works of Plato or Aristotle, or in the tragedies, but this kind of common man is typical of comedies. The comedies can thus, if we know how to read them, give us some insight into the way the common man lived, and thus too how the economies of the time worked. Sure, there was a slave trade -- but this was found throughout the world at the time, in every culture. Naturally, slaves were originally created through capture in wars and raids. But many countries engaged in trade -- particularly the Greek city-states, where language, religion, and culture were shared. It seems quite clear to me from just this one play by Aristophanes that free trade of freely grown, gathered, hunted, and/or traded goods was common between the city-states during times of peace. If this were not the case, how could Aristophanes be lamenting its loss?


Anonymous said...

What do you really know about the ancient geeks?

And what has "free" trade in ancient geekdom got to do with todays quantum world of total interconnectedness, 24/7 electronic (media/TV/internet), instantaneous "communication", rapid mass transport, over-population and the consequent (looming) resource wars, more than a billion people living in slums, and a world awash with weapons of mass destruction which are capable of destroying all of life on this planet.

Troy Camplin said...

I know quite a bit. One of my areas of expertise for my Ph.D. was tragedy, meaning I had to learn a lot about the ancient Greeks, especially Athens.

It has to do with the fact that free trade is something humans have engaged in for a long, long time and should not be viewed as something new and unique to recent times.

Free markets did provide all but the last two mentioned. Poverty is the natural state for humans. Wealth is a much more recent phenomenon and it the result of free trade. Throughout the vast majority of world history, people have lived in poverty. As individual rights, including property rights, became more and more protected, there was an increase in wealth.

Insofar as free markets resulted in the incredible technology that has made people's lives much better than living in caves, they are indirectly responsible for WMDs, true. But they are really only an extension of the fact that humans have always fought wars (as do chimpanzees, btw) and have thus felt a need to engage in arms races. Fortunately, the worse the weapons, the fewer deaths as a percentage of population in wars. The only exceptions have been in Leftist regimes, where the slaughters have been truly devastating. Of course, take guns away from the Left and they will slaughter those who don't fit in with machetes or simply starve their people to death. One of the great things about countries with free markets is that over time they kill fewer and fewer people (hard to trade with and get rich from the dead, after all) -- as opposed to socialist countries, which tend to kill more and more people over time.

Hud said...

I was a bit surprised to hear you claim that some generalised class of 'academics' denied that the ancient Greeks traded produced goods rather than those obtained from tribute or plunder. All the academic books I've read on the subject emphasise the fact that the Greek city states are well known for their large scale trading activities. The Athenians had extensive trade links with communities around the Black Sea for instance with whom they traded oil for wheat. Since then, trade has waxed and waned over the centuries depending on time, place and circumstance.

The statement that poverty 'is the natural state for humans,' is as surprising, as it is both vague and over generalised. Ethnographic studies show that many modern band hunter gatherer populations who are the remnants of very ancient egalitarian cultures that once covered much of the tropical regions of the planet meet their needs very adequately. To be sure, they do not have access to the vast array of consumer goods that are available to those of us who can afford them in our modern capitalist cultures, but poverty is relative to need. They see themselves as living in conditions of abundance and not scarcity. Marshall Sahlins went so far as to refer to hunter-gatherer kinship networks as 'the original affluent societies.' Though this characterisation was intended polemically it still contains a great deal of truth.

Wealth increased with advances in technology, productivity and the social relations that developed from them. But the wealth of a society does not eliminate poverty. Many very wealthy societies including our own contain a vast a mount of poverty. In 14th century England constant famine and plague decimated the population. The average life expectancy from birth at this time has been estimated at 17. You lived longer if you were wealthy, or for a shorter span if you were not. And that figure of 17 was greater than for the cities of Liverpool and Manchester in the UK in the early 19th century in the early days of the industrial revolution and the factory system.

And though markets existed, they were mostly not free. The earliest markets as well as the earliest forms of coined money we know of were creations of the Lydian state (possibly for military purposes.) The Greek Agora and the Roman Forum which emerged later, consisted of an open space for market trading flanked by government offices, testifying to the close relationship in both societies that existed between the institution of the market and the state. And throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern times control of markets was almost universal in Europe.

Human beings have not always fought wars. And modern warfare which is a commercially organised affair whose logistics require a vast amount of conscious and premeditated organisation cannot be equated to social aggression among chimpanzees. Once again, propertlyless, egalitarian band hunter gatherers with their long histories, live in profoundly unwarlike forms of society. And that is largely because they lack private property. Without private property there is no possibility of hierarchies developing among them, and they therefore lack the ability to wage organised warfare. Pinker has already had to acknowledge that his early estimates of death through warfare are unreliable since he has confused hunter gatherer bands with other forms of social/economic organisation.

Troy Camplin said...

Note I was specifically responding to Kling and his claims.

If the poor in the U.S. were to take up the life style of humans 30,000 years ago, they would be far, far, far wealthier versions of those people. Wealth does eliminate poverty -- but the wealthier we get, the more we move the goal posts.

Humans have always fought wars. Chimpanzees fight them. The nature of war has changed over time, and differs depending on the societies in question, is all. But saying humans haven't always fought wars is like saying people haven't always engaged in trade because capitalist trade is a recent development.