Wednesday, January 20, 2021


The Danger of Specialization

Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 136-137 (note omitted):
I have argued that the end of the ancient economy, and the timing of its collapse, were closely linked to the demise of the Roman empire. However, to understand the full and unexpected scale of the decline—turning sophisticated regions into underdeveloped backwaters—we need to appreciate that economic sophistication has a negative side. If the ancient economy had consisted of a series of simple and essentially autonomous local units, with little specialization of labour within them and very little exchange between them, then parts of it would certainly have survived the troubles of post-Roman times—dented perhaps, but in an essentially recognizable form. However, because the ancient economy was in fact a complicated and interlocked system, its very sophistication rendered it fragile and less adaptable to change.

For bulk, high-quality production to flourish in the way that it did in Roman times, a very large number of people had to be involved, in more-or-less specialized capacities. First, there had to be the skilled manufacturers, able to make goods to a high standard, and in a sufficient quantity to ensure a low unit-cost. Secondly, a sophisticated network of transport and commerce had to exist, in order to distribute these goods efficiently and widely. Finally, a large (and therefore generally scattered) market of consumers was essential, with cash to spend and an inclination to spend it. Furthermore, all this complexity depended on the labour of the hundreds of other people who oiled the wheels of manufacture and com- merce by maintaining an infrastructure of coins, roads, boats, wagons, wayside hostelries, and so on.

Economic complexity made mass-produced goods available, but it also made people dependent on specialists or semi-specialists—sometimes working hundreds of miles away—for many of their material needs. This worked very well in stable times, but it rendered consumers extremely vulnerable if for any reason the networks of production and distribution were disrupted, or if they themselves could no longer afford to purchase from a specialist. If specialized production failed, it was not possible to fall back immediately on effective self-help.

Comparison with the contemporary western world is obvious and important. Admittedly, the ancient economy was nowhere near as intricate as that of the developed world in the twenty-first century. We sit in tiny productive pigeon-holes, making our minute and highly specialized contributions to the global economy (in my case, some teaching, and a bit of writing about the end of the Roman world), and we are wholly dependent for our needs on thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of other people spread around the globe, each doing their own little thing. We would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency. The ancient world had not come as far down the road of specialization and helplessness as we have, but it had come some way.

The enormity of the economic disintegration that occurred at the end of the empire was almost certainly a direct result of this specialization. The post-Roman world reverted to levels of economic simplicity, lower even than those of immediately pre-Roman times, with little movement of goods, poor housing, and only the most basic manufactured items. The sophistication of the Roman period, by spreading high-quality goods widely in society, had destroyed the local skills and local networks that, in pre-Roman times, had provided lower-level economic complexity. It took centuries for people in the former empire to reacquire the skills and the regional networks that would take them back to these pre-Roman levels of sophistication. Ironically, viewed from the perspective of fifth-century Britain and of most of the sixth- and seventh-century Mediterranean, the Roman experience had been highly damaging.

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