Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Poor You Will Always Have With You

I’m gradually reading through responses to the Anti-Reactionary FAQ, but I’ll take a moment to respond to this excellent and well-argued post from Habitable Worlds in particular because it points out an especially deep disagreement.

Scharlach from Habitable Worlds objects to my point 3.1.1, which claims that progressive ideals aren’t particularly novel or modern because classical Rome shared many of the policies we most associate with progressivism. I mention welfare, strikes agitating greater rights for the poor, multiculturalism, religious syncretism, sexual libertinism, and utopianism.

Scharlach disagrees. He first points out that classical Roman “strikes” were not about greater rights for the “poor”, per se, but for plebians, a class of non-nobles that actually included some very wealthy people. I accept his clarification, but I would add that modern progressive movements are happy to conflate “class made up of disproportionately poor people” with “poor people” as well, whether we are talking about the unemployed, inner city youth, minorities, high school dropouts, inhabitants of the Third World, or whatever. Heck, modern progressivism calls women a “minority” even though they make up 51% of the population just because it is a convenient way to lampshade their less privileged status. So I don’t think it’s especially unprogressive that “more rights for plebians” was the classical Roman rallying cry, rather than “more rights for the poor” per se.

But the crux of his objection is more philosophical:

But the question is: do these seemingly “progressive” policies stem from what today we would consider progressivism? Do they have anything to do with “social justice”? We should remember that when looking back at history, curious similarities arise, but they do so at incongruous joints, and their existence may not signify anything but the fact that large-scale political ecologies have limited practical expressions. Think of it this way: A society whose political discourse and ideals sanction welfare to the poor because it is believed that the underclass is genetically inferior, incapable of taking care of itself, and might revolt if not given enough food . . . that’s a very different society from one whose political ideals sanction welfare because it is believed the poor have a right to good living standards or that the poor deserve welfare because it re-distributes goods rightly theirs but taken from them through an oppressive economic system.

Contemporary progressive policies emerge from ideals and discourses about morality, justice, oppression, and rights. The poor (especially the dark-skinned poor) deserve the welfare they get; it is theirs by Constitutional right. It is a moral and political imperative not to take away the welfare they receive and to give them more if possible. Progressives actively try to alleviate the shame once associated with receiving welfare. Pointing out that the poor in America have it pretty good is a distinctly right-wing thing to do. ”Food stamps” are now “EBT cards” that look and function like debit cards. Medicaid patients sit in the same waiting rooms as patients paying high insurance premiums, and you can’t tell the difference. (Well, you can, but . . .) Welfare in America has become a right, a moral imperative, a matter of justice and just desserts, a thing that brings no shame, a thing to be proud of, a thing to demand, a thing to stand up for…

So Scott Alexander is correct that social policies in ancient Rome look similar to contemporary progressive welfare policies. But were the motives the same? Did the poor and the plebians get free or reduced-cost corn, grain, wine, and olive oil . . . . because they deserved it? because it was theirs by moral and legal right? because it was a matter of social justice?

I’m not a classicist, so I’m willing to be corrected on this, but as near as I can tell, the Roman dole was wrapped up in discourses about a) the might and wealth of Rome and b) goddess worship. Welfare policies in ancient Rome were built upon very different ideals and emerged from very different motives than contemporary progressivism’s welfare policies. Nowhere have I been able to fine a discussion of the Roman congiarium in terms of rights or justice. The dole was there because it made the emperor more popular and demonstrated the wealth of Rome to the people. What’s more, the dole was personified as Annona, a goddess to be worshiped and thanked. Scott Alexander even recognizes this difference in motive when he says that ancient Romans “worshiped a goddess of food stamps.”

Indeed they did. And that’s the whole point. When was the last time you heard welfare policies discussed in terms of worshipful gratitude, mercy, and thankfulness? If that were the discourse surrounding welfare policy, America would be a very different country. It seems that Roman welfare and American welfare are as different from one another as Jubilee is from abolitionism.

I will agree that the Romans used different philosophical justifications for their welfare state than do moderns, but before discussing this, a lengthy and kind of pointless also-not-a-classicist digression on why the difference may not be as big as Scharlach suggests.

If the essay is trying to compare the grateful Roman poor and the entitled, demanding modern poor, I propose that the Roman recipients of the annona were as entitled and demanding as any modern. Ancient Roman leaders automatically assumed any hiccup in the flow of free grain would lead to riots, and their assumption was justified. You may for example read the section on Roman food riots here. Particular high points are the riots of 22 BC, during which rioters threatened to burn the senators alive if they didn’t produce enough free grain, and the riots of 190 AD, when Papirius Dionysius, the prefect in charge of the grain supply, accused political enemy Marcus Aurelius Cleander of threatening it – the disturbance ended when the Emperor Commodus killed Cleander and his son and threw their heads out to the angry mob (which instantly calmed down and dispersed).

Or the essay may be trying to compare a Roman attitude of giving small strategic grants of welfare to the worthy with a modern attitude that everyone deserves as much welfare as they want at all times regardless of situation or else their human rights are violated. But here, too, I do not think the distinction is as great as is claimed. 83% of Americans believe people on welfare should be required to work, and only 7% oppose such a requirement. 69% believe that there are too many people on welfare and the criteria need to be stricter, compared to only 24% who believe the opposite. People who want welfare benefits need to jump through various bureaucratic hoops (some of which are actually kind of stupid) and usually receive them only for a limited amount of time.

(this interpretation would remind me of my frequent complaint that some reactionaries say “X is an unquestionable dogma of our modern society” when they mean “I heard about a college professor who believes X”.)

So much for our pointless digression. Scharlach probably means something more like “Ancient Rome didn’t have modern concepts of human rights and social justice.” I agree with this. I just don’t think it matters.

I assume Scharlach read my FAQ part 3.3, where I claim that progressive values are closely linked to urbanization and technological/economic growth. But he may not have read my We Wrestle Not With Flesh And Blood…, so I’m worried he might have interpreted me in 3.3 as claiming something like:

Urbanization + Growth -> Progressive Values -> Social Change

If that had been my thesis, then it would indeed be relevant that the ancient Romans didn’t have our version of progressive values. Their social change would be a coincidence, unrelated to ours since it missed the crucial middle step that determined the shape our social change would take.

But I’m not proposing that model. I’m proposing one that looks more like this:

Urbanization + Growth -> Social Change -> Progressive Values

(really the “social change” node should be called “pressure for social change”, and it and the “progressive values” node should have little circular arrows both pointing at each other, but let’s keep it simple)

Let me give an example of what I mean.

A 25th century historian, looking back at our own age, might notice two things. She would notice that suddenly, around the end of the 20th century, everyone started getting very fat. And she would notice that suddenly, around the end of the 20th century, the “fat acceptance movement” started to become significant. She might conclude, very rationally, that some people started a fat acceptance movement, it was successful, and so everyone became very fat.

With clearer knowledge of our era, we know better. We know that people started getting fat for, uh, reasons. It seems to have a lot to do with the greater availability and better taste of fatty, sugary foods. It might also have to do with complicated biological reasons like hormone disrupters in our plastics. But we have excellent evidence it’s not because of the fat acceptance movement, which started long after obesity rates began to increase. If we really needed to prove it, we could investigate whether obesity is more common in populations with good access to fat acceptance memes (like, uh, Wal-Mart shoppers and American Samoans).

To us early-21st century-ites, it’s pretty clear why the fat acceptance movement started now. Its natural demographic is fat people, there are more fat people around to support it, they feel like they have strength in numbers. and non-fat people are having trouble stigmatizing fat people because it’s much harder to stigmatize a large group than a small group (no pun intended).

Does this have any relevance for the sort of thing reactionaries talk about? Yes. Let’s look at divorce.

From a historical perspective, no-fault divorce was legalized in the early 1970s, and divorce rates were skyrocketing in the early 1970s. It is incredibly tempting to want to attribute skyrocketing divorce rates to easy-access no-fault divorce.

It’s also wrong. From an excellent article I entirely recommend:

Just from the graph it should be clear how little no-fault divorce mattered, but if you need more formal research it has certainly been done. Even the conservative Institute For Marriage and Public Policy admits in its review article on the subject that “divorce law is not the major cause of the increase in divorce over the last fifty years”, and that even the small bump from no-fault provisions “while sustained for a number of years, eventually fades and the divorce rate moves back to trend”.

I’d guess that the explanation for why skyrocketing divorce rates and no-fault divorce both happened in the early 70s is a lot like the explanation for why skyrocketing obesity rates and fat acceptance both happened in the early 2000s. Lots of people started getting divorced. Under older, stricter divorce laws, this required couples who wanted divorces to manufacture some bogus complaint with the help of lawyers, an embarrassing and expensive process. Eventually the number of people divorcing or wanting to divorce became sufficiently large to form a good political lobby, and the people not involved in the divorce process couldn’t keep stigmatizing divorcees because there were too many of them for it to be easy or convenient. So the divorce lobby won and passed no-fault divorce laws.

I don’t deny that sometimes these ideological movements and the laws they pass have some effect, like the small, quickly fading effect of divorce laws mentioned in the quote above. That’s why I wanted little circular arrows between “Social Change” and “Progressive Values” above. I’m just saying these effects are small and not particularly interesting. They’re the tail wagging the dog.

And I don’t deny that the progressive movement pushing a social change often exists before the social change does. If 100 years from now the existence of vat-grown meat causes all factory farming to shut down, no doubt PETA will claim victory. But just because PETA pushed for the event, and then the event happened, doesn’t mean PETA was the main cause. At best, they kept pushing but it was only the technological change that helped them gain power and respect and enact their positions. At worst, if they didn’t exist then within ten minutes of the invention of vat-grown meat some other group would have sprung up to accept the easy moral victory it provided.

So let’s get back to Rome.

Scharlach points out that the value system associated with Roman welfare was different from the value system associated with our own welfare system.

Ancient Rome had a population of about a million people crowded together, a government vulnerable to the mob, and resources to spare. I propose those situations will, more often than not, inspire a welfare system. They did it in ancient Rome, and they’re doing it in modern DC.

According to legend, Frederick the Great declared of his conquests: “I will begin by taking. I shall find scholars later to demonstrate my perfect right” (okay, Reactionaries, I will admit Frederick the Great was hella cool). If Frederick was in the welfare business, he might have said “I will begin by giving welfare. Later, I will find scholars to come up with a philosophy supporting welfare.”

And just as any historical account of why Frederick conquered new territories should focus on his self-interested goals rather than on whatever justifications his scholars later cooked up, so an account of why we give welfare should focus on the economic, material, and technological conditions that inspire it, rather than fretting over how one society talked about the goddess Annona and another talked about social justice. I’m sure if Frederick conquered both classical Rome and 21st-century America, his Roman supporters would declare he was following the will of Jupiter, and his American supporters would declare he was trying to help disprivileged minorities. It would be the historian’s job to see through that (and also to sort out what I expect would be a very confusing timeline of Frederick’s life).

Which brings us back to Rome one last time. I didn’t discuss the Roman welfare state in isolation. I mentioned it in the context of Rome being surprisingly progressive in a lot of other ways – its plebian “strikes”, its multiculturalism, its religious syncretism, its loose sexual morals.

If the resemblance between Roman and modern welfare systems is a mere coincidence, then we have to add a striking number of other coincidences to the list. Eventually the conjunction of all these coincidences starts to look unlikely.

But there is a neat explanation for all of them. States that are militarily secure, economically advanced, multicultural, and urbanized tend to adopt progressive policies (here I am confusingly lumping some values like multiculturalism in as policies, but you know what I mean). Ancient Rome and modern America are both militarily secure, economically advanced, multicultural, and urbanized. In between stand a bunch of countries the Reactionaries like to talk about like the Holy Roman Empire, which were not militarily secure, economically primitive, monocultural, and more rural. Those countries didn’t have progressive policies or values.

The original question was whether ancient Rome could be called a progressive society. I say it was. Scharlach objects that it wasn’t, because it didn’t have the particular brand of progressive philosophy we do today. But I respond that the philosophy is irrelevant to what we presumably care about – social policies and social outcomes. Policies (like welfare) and outcomes (like the existence of a large class of welfare-dependent poor) were the same in classical Rome and modern America, and for the same reasons. Therefore, it is correct and useful to call classical Rome an early progressive society, though with the obvious caveat that it did not go as far in that direction as our own.