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washingtonmonthly.com What the Ancient Greeks Can Teach Us About Human Capital | Ten Miles Square May 31, 2015 8:31 PM What the Ancient Greeks Can Teach Us About Human Capital Unsupervised, cooperative Athenians developed an economy powerful enough to escape the Malthus trap By Daniel P. Tompkins Must it not then be acknowledged by an attentive examiner of the histories of mankind, that in every age and in every State in which man has existed, or does now exist, That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence. That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase. And, That the superior power of population it repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice. Thomas Malthus posed this challenge in 1798, at the conclusion of Chapter 7 of his Essay on the Principle of Population , as if anticipating the massive changes in England that would end the “long Malthusian nightmare” and shatter the ceiling imposed on productivity by population growth. In recent decades, historians have wrestled with the causes behind these changes, suggesting new institutions (property rights, legal changes, patent rights), demographic developments, and shifting norms in the workplace and in society. Escapes from the “Malthusian trap” occurred, we are told, at various other places and times, including Qing China in the seventeenth century, late Medieval England, and the Netherlands in the 17th century. Many additional “escapes” proved transient, the victims of population growth. In The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece , Josiah Ober argues that ancient Greeks between 800 and 300 BCE anticipated later cultures that “broke through the low Malthusian ceiling.” Ober takes his cue from New Institutional Economists (NIE below) Douglass North, Barry Weingast, and John Joseph Wallis, but moves the clock back, locating the “open access orders” that enabled massive growth to the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. The Greece Ober portrays achieved surprising levels of prosperity and population growth, annulling Alfred Zimmern’s once-canonical judgment that “the pioneers who created our European civilization were stricken with poverty all their days … it was the doom of Athens that Poverty and Impossibility dwelt in her midst from first to last.” Remarkably, Ober’s “wealthy Hellas” inverts Zimmern’s image. Even more remarkably, the “wealth” is directly related to his other major theme, Greek democracy. In Ober’s hands, “democratic Athens,” a cliché for most of us, becomes potent and productive. For nearly three decades, Ober has been a leader in heralding the achievements of democratic practice in ancient Athens. One of a distinguished group of ancient social and economic historians at Stanford University, he is noted for utilizing social science research in ancient history and for building “models” of ancient behavior. Historians
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