. . . the plundering, the lack of invention, the barbarians and above all Diocletian’s red tape did for Rome in the end. As the empire disintegrated under this bureaucratic burden, at least in the west, money lending at interest stopped and coins ceased to circulate so freely. In the Dark Ages that followed, because free trade became impossible, cities shrank, markets atrophied, merchants disappeared, literacy declined and — crudely speaking — once Goth, Hun and Vandal plundering had run its course, everybody had to go back to being self-sufficient again. Europe de-urbanised. Even Rome and Constantinople fell to a fraction of their former populations. Trade with Egypt and India largely dried up, especially once the Arabs took control of Alexandria, so that not only did oriental imports such as papyrus, spices and silk cease to appear, but those export-oriented plantations in Campania became the plots of subsistence farmers instead. In that sense, the decline of the Roman Empire turned consumer traders back into subsistence peasants. The Dark Ages were a massive experiment in the back-to-the-land hippy lifestyle (without the trust fund): you ground your own corn, sheared your own sheep, cured your own leather and cut your own wood. Any pathetic surplus you generated was confiscated to support a monk, or maybe you could occasionally sell something to buy a metal tool off a part-time blacksmith. Otherwise, subsistence replaced specialization.
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, p. 175
May 30, 2010
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