The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Isn't Economics wonderful? It ties in with human behaviour so perfectly that one can imagine a centre in the brain dedicated entirely to the execution of this subject. Consider, for example, the case of food supplies. John Reader describes in his magisterial Cities a plausible chronology of events: with urbanisation proceeding apace and the concomitant strain on natural resources in the area surrounding the town, survival (and entrepreneurship) caused trade to flourish. Trade in grain took off as private parties realised that there was money to be made from their hungry compatriots. Initially, the procurement of food was left to private enterprise; the public sector was interested mainly in the security of the trade routes and the distribution (e.g. the Athenian Assembly maintained a large navy to protect the grain ships coming in from western Russia). Clearly, the benefit was that the people with the smarts could be depended upon to provide the public good (at vast profit to themselves). However, this also meant that the vagaries of supply made prices volatile, leading to social unrest. Gradually, the government of the day (e.g. the Roman Senate) decided to step in to fix prices and even provide appropriate free rations for all its citizens.

Meanwhile, slavery was so wide spread and slaves so cheap that even the poorest citizen owned one. The feeding of these fell outside the government's 'free ration for every citizen' plan. What ensued should be obvious to anyone - even to those without the benefit of a degree in Economics from an Ivy League school - such as myself. Citizens found it cheaper to free their slaves. A law obliging freed slaves to continue to work for their erstwhile masters at low retainers ensured continuity of service for the citizen. At once, too, the burden of feeding these freedmen fell onto the government. Two gains for the price of none!

Successive governments found that even rumours of food shortage brought out the riotous and anarchic among the populace, and were forced to increase the subsidy. Worse, folks poured into the cities from the countryside with genuine or fradulent claims of citizenship just to be on the gravy train. Roman emperors did themselves no favour by increasing the number of subsidised foods (oil and meat in addition to grain, by the time of Septimius and Aurelian). Eventually, of course, this largesse proved economically unviable.

Is this not a good case study for governments trying to please the rabble?


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