The Fruits of Civilization (16-2) Ethical Qualms continued


Trade as inimical to communal cohesion was long a staple of European intellectual thinking. In writing at the onset of the 18th century that trade and wealth extinguish virtue, Charles Davenant – mercantilist economist, politician, and British establishmentarian – was reciting a hoary civic cliché.

Mercantilism is the economic doctrine that the military security of a country depends upon its balance of trade. Based upon the assumption that global wealth was a fixed constant, governments should control foreign trade so as to maximize exports and minimize imports, thus gaining a favorable balance of trade.

Mercantilism dominated western European political policy from the 16th century to the end of the 18th century. It motivated both colonial expansion and frequent wars in Europe, as well as co-opting the political class into acting as a plutocratic patsy, favoring the concentration of wealth by keeping wages low.

The intertwining of economic and political power was as inevitable as the axis of thought regarding the desirability of both. In the early 16 century, Italian historian Niccolò Machiavelli and other civic theorists revived the classical, pagan ideal of citizenship. This included the need for self-sacrifice for the sake of the common good: a social virtue well paid in preparing for and promoting war as a means for enrichment.

Civic virtue was aligned with devotion to public interests and liberty in participating in political life, including helping preserve the freedom of the commonwealth from foreign domination. Construing virtue and liberty as such required citizens to be financially independent. Possessing property was a prerequisite for citizenship, as it freed men from the need to work for a living. This was a consistent political axiom all the way from Aristotle to slaveholders in the antebellum South and beyond.

Christian civic tradition got its rulebook from ancient Rome, notably the Code of Civil Law, compiled by Justinian I in the mid-6th century. That came with a built-in irony. In contrast to Christian suspicion of commerce, the pagan Roman system was thoroughly commercial: a posture which befit a sprawling empire.

Rather than valuing liberty as a ticket for participation in government, Roman law valued freedom from government: unencumbered enterprise, excepting taxes. The Romans were concerned with individual rights, including protection of private property. This attitude goes a long way in explaining the long success of the Roman Empire and the lasting impression that it made.