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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Agricultural Improvement in Ancient Athens

In 594 BC, Solon tried to persuade the struggling farmers of Athens to switch from grain cultivation to growing olives. They refused, apparently mostly because they were set in their ways.

A few decades later, the tyrant Pisistratus (at the time, tyrant simply meant an unconstitutional ruler) forced the change on them, while also lending them money to tide them over until the trees would bear fruit.

The farmers stopped struggling and prospered. Athens became a major exporter of olive oil, and as a side effect the leading manufacturer of pottery. In a few decades its golden age would commence.

Often, private initiative achieves the best economic results. Sometimes, government economic schemes do better.

25 comments:

  1. For every Pisistratus with olives, I'll bet there's more than one Khrushchev with corn.

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  2. Is this true in expectation?

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    1. I'm not sure if this is what you mean, but the Athenian farmers clearly didn't like the plan ex ante, or they would have embraced it in 594.

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    2. I believe the argument is not that the government has never tripped into doing something that works (Taiwan's government seems ex post to have done a wonderful job choosing winners), but that the chance changing crops would cause famine outweighed the chance that it would improve output. That is the argument I make, anyway.

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    3. And that is a much better argument than "The government can never make things better with these policies."

      But in this case, two very smart people both saw the same solution to a problem which a lot of stick-in-the-muds refused to consider. I don't think describing that as "tripping into doing something."

      And it no doubt helped these guys that they were doing "economic planning" for an area about the size of NYC with only tens of thousands of people and a far less complex economy.

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    4. Can't really blame the first stick-in-the-mud farmers for not wanting to take on the risk of switching crops if Solon didn't offer the same loan guarantee that Pisistratus did.

      Although I doubt this to be the case, but did Pisistratus' five year plan include a provision that he'd be dangling off the end of a rope had he brought famine instead of riches through his scheme?

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    5. "for not wanting to take on the risk of switching crops if Solon didn't offer the same loan guarantee that Pisistratus did."

      There was a private loan market.

      "Although I doubt this to be the case, but did Pisistratus' five year plan include a provision that he'd be dangling off the end of a rope had he brought famine instead of riches through his scheme?"

      The penalty for any policy that goes badly should be death?!

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    6. "There was a private loan market."

      If the lenders were anything like the farmers, getting a long term loan for such a risky venture would have been out of the question.

      "The penalty for any policy that goes badly should be death?!"

      Let's say Pisistratus' men come to my farm and tell me "if you don't switch over to olives in thirty days, polloi, we are going to confiscate your farm"

      I'll be planting olives. But if in ten years it turns out that switching to olives led to widespread famine and the death of my children, you bet the people responsible for forcing this policy on me should be strung up.

      At least if he had left me alone and my family died because I didn't switch to olives, I'd rightly have only myself to blame.

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    7. And that is a much better argument than "The government can never make things better with these policies."

      The claim is that *in expectation*, that will be true, not that (as traumerei noted) the broken clock will *never* reflect the proper time.

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    8. "The claim is that *in expectation*, that will be true..."

      No, Silas, that is *A* claim, not *THE* claim. I certainly have also seen people claim that "government cannot create economic goodness" is true ex post as well as ex ante.

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    9. Didn't you just say something about being charitable in interpreting people's arguments?

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    10. Silas, I had already acknowledged that the ex ante argument is much better than the ex post one. So if you were not claiming that no one makes the ex post argument, just what was the point of your comment?

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    11. I was pointing out that the intelligent version of the argument -- the one you should be replying to -- is that, in the large, government more often makes Soviet-type decisions than Solon/Pisistratus-type ones. That yes, the government will guess right occasionally, just that these will be the exception, not the rule.

      That, therefore, the charitable interpretation of "government economic planning sucks" is not "every single government economic plan will turn out to have been stupid".

      (Note: "in expectation" was probably a bad term for that, as it doesn't make the before/after -- sorry, sorry, ante/post -- distinction)

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    12. "I was pointing out that the intelligent version of the argument... is that, in the large, government more often makes Soviet-type decisions than Solon/Pisistratus-type ones."

      Right. The question is, SINCE I HAD ALREADY ACKNOWLEDGED THAT WAS THE INTELLIGENT VERSION OF THIS ARGUMENT, why were you "pointing it out"?! Would you also like to "point out" that Pisistratus was a tyrant, or that Solon had already tried a similar reform?

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    13. Yes, you say one argument is more intelligent. I'm not "pointing that out" to you. I'm pointing out that charity requires that you reply to the intelligent argument, not that you stomp on the pedestrian version of the argument, and lecture me about how "oh, no Silas, I really did see the dumb people".

      Thanks for bringing up the level of the debate so that I don't have to "point out" the nuanced versions of your opponents, and for not deleting comments that make you look bad.

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  3. You are correct on the definition of tyrant, but my question is what standard was imployed to earn someone the label of tyrant?

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    1. There was some constitutional process for becoming the leader: an election, inheritance, selection, lottery, whatever. If you instead simply seized power, you were termed a tyrant.

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    2. I asked the wrong question (I do that from time to time without realizing it) so let me rephraze:

      Once constitutionally elected, was there any standard one had to rule by or was it just a free for all just do anything you want? If it was the former and one violated it would they be considered a tyrant?

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    3. As far as I understand, they would be a bad ruler, not a tyrant. The word meant specifically someone who seized power. (But I'm no expert on Greek history! Write Worthington (link below) if you want to be sure.)

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    1. It's lectures by a university professor of Greek history.

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  5. I'm sorry Gene but this means virtually nothing to me. I realize you will think I'm an anti-empirical ideologue but look at how people distort history that happened just within the past decade. Some people report matter-of-factly that the Community Reinvestment Act caused the housing bubble, others report matter-of-factly that it was the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

    So, because you read in some history book (?) this narrative, means virtually nothing to me. I'm not saying the writer is consciously lying, but that this narrative involves a lot more than a simple report of facts. (And you and I both agree that all history does this, I'm saying this kind of thing is more subjective than, "They lost a battle in 594 BC.")

    In any event, it sounds like they were forced to go Primal.

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    1. Hmm, so you never use examples like "The Soviet Union's experiment with planning was a disaster," because such things mean virtually nothing to you?

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