If Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz didn’t say it, it’s probably not worth saying.
So wrote Colin S. Gray in the official Committee of Public Safety English translation of Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy. Though we can quibble about this exception or that, this statement is essentially true. One reason it’s true is that the same constants of human behavior “discovered” by contemporary observers are merely rediscoveries of what dead men uncovered centuries or millennia ago. The ancient sources tell the same tales of Fear, Honor, and Interest™, only without the performance penalty imposed by superfluous modern jargon.
Jargon is an ancient technique of political fortification, a continuation of political intercourse with the addition of a ten volume glossary with 312 footnoted technical appendices. Part of the increasing complexity of complex societies at any point in their lifecycle is caused by increased optimization in the means those societies use to extract, refine, and apply power. This is necessary and inescapable if complexity is on the agenda. However, a significant though fluctuating share of social complexity comes from intentionally introduced complexity.
Groups within a society deliberately inject four kinds of complexity into social interaction:
- Complexity to keep themselves entrenched within their niche.
- Complexity to keep or even push peers out of their niche.
- Complexity to keep those above them tolerant of their niche.
- Complexity to keep those below them down.
When a complex society is in its earlier phases, intentional complexity can be a small drag on social intercourse. As density of social complexity increases, intentional complexity becomes an increasing burden. It may even overwhelm a society’s ability to process the complexity, causing a partial or even complete break down after a complex society reaches the culminating point of complexity. Ancient observers like Polybius documented such processes but without the modern jargon I use.
Just as the constants of strategy are often more clearly presented in works composed before Fuller and Liddell Hart’s Great Muddling, the constants of political economy are often more clearly presented in works composed before Samuelson’s Great Muddling of “economics”. What we call economics is a subset of the broader field of studying politics. Classical political economy studied the overall process of dividing power within and without human groups. Economics, dealing with the division of material goods and services within and without human groups, shares the logic of politics but differs in its logic. Strategy, especially military strategy, is another subset of political economy. It has the same fundamental logic to economics but a vastly different grammar.
The most prominent grammatical difference between economics and strategy is violence, Clausewitz’s “other means”. For much of history, economics was little different from strategy: the most lucrative economic activity was plundering the small cumulative surplus produced by agrarian laborers as either a roving or stationary bandit. Stationary banditry is the primal form of the state and the most primal of economic actors.
Since political communities in a pre-industrial and pre-financial state hovered tenuously a few calories above survival, their expositions of the constants of political economy are often clearer and to the point than modern offerings: their margin of error was smaller than industrialized and financialized communities. The logic of political survival was often strong enough to overcome a drift towards jargon and intentional complexity. Following that drift could be, and often was, fatal for community survival.
This morning, I finished reading an obscure 1907 monograph The economic policy of Robert Walpole by Norris Arthur Brisco, an academic at Columbia University. Since Mr. Brisco missed the benefits of a modern post-Samuelsonite economics, he accidentally uncovers the constants of political economy in a way that current practitioners would find scandalous.
Robert Walpole was the Bismarck of the English-speaking world. I recall one military historian’s conjecture that Alexander the Great, with a brief refresher, could have commanded any army in existence up to the Swedish army that Gustav Adolf landed in Pomerania in June 1630. James Schneider, a unique American voice on strategy who seems to be largely and unfortunately absent from American discussions of strategy except for here on FHI, went even further. He (implicitly) argued that Alexander could have commanded any army between his time and that moment when the alien operational level of war first burst through Little Mac’s chest sometime in 1862.
Since Alexander was the master of Macedonian economics as well as Macedonian strategy, he probably could have successfully managed the political economy of any leading political community up to the time of Robert Walpole. After Walpole, he would only enjoy the sort of international prominence a Robert Mugabe or Mobuto could reach. Though you see the first stirrings of modern management of political economy in the Netherlands with Johan de Witt and in England itself after the Dutch Conquest of 1688 led by the Dutchman Willem III, stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders, and Overijssel, it was only under Walpole that the full modern triangle of mercantilism, institutionalized faction, and permanent fractional debt that undergird the modern state emerges in a recognizable form.
Each element in this triangle had existed separately for centuries. However, it was only under Walpole that they were combined to form a single package. Permanent fractional debt crowded out but did not eliminate the plunder, personal patronage, and bribery that traditionally constituted state financing. However, Walpole’s system, with its innovative sinking fund dedicated to predictably payment of English debt, was able to extract more funds more predictably from English elites than traditional plunder could consistently produce. As a permanent and dedicated cash flow, it reinforced the Whiggish attachment to Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hannover, and increased toleration of Georg Ludwig’s tenuous regime by Jacobite Tories whose hearts still inwardly burned for the Pretender Over the Water. English debt was fractured into enough distinct pieces and distributed among enough people that it created a solid constituency for Walpole’s system but not a concentrated constituency that could threaten the health of the system. Permanency and broad division in government borrowing were features that later students of Walpole like Alexander Hamilton borrowed with great success. It was the most enduring form of the Higher Corruption than Walpole pioneered. More modern descendants of the Higher Corruption are the more socially benign forms of government exacted plunder that, when discretely and elegantly distributed to political favorites, are the grease that kept modern states going between Walpole’s time and our own.
Institutionalized faction within the English Parliament kept Walpole and his successors in a state of insecurity because the opposition could rain snide remarks and suggestions of scandal on the Head of Government instead of missiles and stones. This sublimation of political violence beneath a veneer of manners and civility kept Walpole on notice that, while he could continue to build a system based on the Higher Corruption, there were limits within which he had to keep or some one would inflict a deadly bon mot on him. Someone might leak a sordid detail or two to the pamphleteers. As it was, Walpole’s posthumous reputation was permanently tarnished by his contemporary opposition. It’s a testament to Walpole’s pioneering tolerance of his opposition that they and their tarnishings survived his premiership to blacken his name afterwards.
Mercantilism, the management of a political community’s material inputs and outputs to maximize its raw power relative to other political communities, was based on older financial innovations. Much of Walpole’s mercantile framework was stolen without attribution from the strategy of Jean Colbert in France. However, it was joining mercantilism with the other two legs of Walpole’s triangle that brought it to its most efficient application in history. Within the ancien régime, with its curious mix of centralized absolutism and decentralized regional privileges, could not guarantee either regular interest and principal payments on French debt nor channel faction into constructive channels. Colbert’s innovation was fruitless in the end.
However, Walpole’s version was so effective that, when used in a combined arms framework with fractional permanent debt and institutionalized faction, it eventually destroyed Dutch hegemony on the seas and French hegemony on the land and brought England to global primacy. It’s not Walpole’s fault that his successors one hundred years on unilaterally dismantled his system and left England vulnerable to even more effective variants of the triangle adapted from Walpole’s original by Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, and Grant in the United States, List and Bismarck in Germany, and Matsukata in Japan that ultimately ended British global hegemony by 1945.
Underlying such works is a clear understanding by past masters of political economy of some constants of political economy throughout history:
- efficiency in applying violence trumps efficiency in distributing of material goods and services
- while the economic pie may grow and a rising tide may lift all boats, it does so in an uneven, patchy, and lumpy way
- even if the pie grows for everyone in the long run, in the short-term the division of coercive power between political communities is a zero sum game
- power is fungible: economic power can, with effort, become coercive power
- comparative advantage in material goods is for naught if it ultimately contributes to a comparative disadvantage in coercive power