It was called the Middle Ages...

And it sucked?

My current frontrunner for worst attempt at a pithy saying this year is from Steve Horwitz, who posted on Facebook one day (I quote from memory):

"We tried localism. It was called the Middle Ages, and it sucked."

What I loved about this is how many bad ideas are packed into a dozen short words.

First off, people in the Middle Ages were not exactly "trying" localism. There had been a terrible demographic collapse, leading to the near disappearance of cities, the decay of transportation infrastructure, and the lessening of the division of labor. Furthermore, trade with the east was sometimes difficult after the rise of Islam. Localism was pretty much forced upon Western Europe, not tried out as an experiment.

And that, of course, makes a big difference if one is going to do comparative political economy. For a people who were already relatively poor compared to those in the West today to have extreme localism forced upon them by their circumstances is a very different thing from someone in Brooklyn, with the Internet, jet planes, oceanliners, and transcontinental railroads available to them, choosing to shop at the local farmers market. Why can't we tilt our shopping towards buying more goods locally while still taking advantage of long-distance trade when those goods are either nonexistent or very scarce nearby without going back to the level of wealth present in the Middle Ages?

The final point the point Steven ahead of the pack here: the idea that the Middle Ages "sucked." Certainly, people in the Middle Ages were less prosperous than people are today. But having spent time in medieval cities, it certainly does not look to me like these people have lives that "sucked": they seemed filled with a sense of beauty that is often missing from people's lives today. Yes, they did not have 84-inch plasma screen TVs. But they did build this.

UPDATE: Oh, and I forgot my last point. If Steve thinks the Middle Ages "sucked," why pick on localism? Why not, "We tried a polycentric legal system. It was called the Middle Ages, and it sucked"?

4 comments:

  1. To be fair, we have to consider the "beauty" of both architectural wonders and what the living quarters looked like. Having seen, for example, the Jewish living quarters in various Spanish cities, if "cathedral" has a big positive impact on "beauty," living quarters have an even bigger negative impact. (Although, I'm not sure by how much living quarters changed between Jews and poor Christians.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. First off, people in the Middle Ages were not exactly "trying" localism. There had been a terrible demographic collapse, leading to the near disappearance of cities, the decay of transportation infrastructure, and the lessening of the division of labor. Furthermore, trade with the east was sometimes difficult after the rise of Islam. Localism was pretty much forced upon Western Europe, not tried out as an experiment.

    And that, of course, makes a big difference if one is going to do comparative political economy.


    Yes! I'm going to use this next time you point to a stateless society as an example of why Rothbard is wrong.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Err, well I'd hardly consider the local towns to be "stateless". If they are indeed "stateless", though, then I don't see much of a difference between them and the city I live in other than the presence of a bureaucracy.

      Delete
  3. First off, people in the Middle Ages were not exactly "trying" localism. There had been a terrible demographic collapse, leading to the near disappearance of cities, the decay of transportation infrastructure, and the lessening of the division of labor. Furthermore, trade with the east was sometimes difficult after the rise of Islam. Localism was pretty much forced upon Western Europe, not tried out as an experiment.

    I remember learning that it was the Moores who nearly conquered all of France. Had they succeeded, then Christianity wouldn't be as big and popular as

    And that, of course, makes a big difference if one is going to do comparative political economy. For a people who were already relatively poor compared to those in the West today to have extreme localism forced upon them by their circumstances is a very different thing from someone in Brooklyn, with the Internet, jet planes, oceanliners, and transcontinental railroads available to them, choosing to shop at the local farmers market. Why can't we tilt our shopping towards buying more goods locally while still taking advantage of long-distance trade when those goods are either nonexistent or very scarce nearby without going back to the level of wealth present in the Middle Ages?

    I think the biggest difference in political economy is that not all of the land in the surrounding area was settled. Today everything (or mostly everything) is packed.

    The final point the point Steven ahead of the pack here: the idea that the Middle Ages "sucked." Certainly, people in the Middle Ages were less prosperous than people are today. But having spent time in medieval cities, it certainly does not look to me like these people have lives that "sucked": they seemed filled with a sense of beauty that is often missing from people's lives today. Yes, they did not have 84-inch plasma screen TVs. But they did build this.

    Yes, but there was also the Black Death. Although that was towards the end of the Middle Ages.

    UPDATE: Oh, and I forgot my last point. If Steve thinks the Middle Ages "sucked," why pick on localism? Why not, "We tried a polycentric legal system. It was called the Middle Ages, and it sucked"?

    Exactly what is the difference between a "polycentric legal system" and a modern one? Non-codification? I mean, this idea of polycentric law is interesting and all, but it sounds kind of sloppy.

    ReplyDelete