What Rome can teach us about ‘Founding vs Inheriting’

In response to Balaji Srinivasan’s post on founding vs. inheriting, I want to reflect on that most classic of historical analogies: Rome.

The Roman Republic had an odd mixture of founding and inheriting in its political system. There was a formal aristocracy, enshrining a privileged group (of men) at the top of society. But they had to compete with each other for the chance to rise up the cursus honorum, through public service and, crucially, military campaigns. You had to hold office at lower levels before you could ascend to the top, and that ascent was dependent on political support, which in turn was at least partly dependent on performance. Political leadership was in the hands of a group who had to follow particular rules and perform better than their peers. Time in the top offices of state was limited; kings were not allowed. There was some inheritance, politically speaking, but in military campaigns there was also something not dissimilar to founding.

This worked well for a while. Rome expanded through military conquest as aristocrats competed for the adoration of the crowds in the capital. But gradually the rules of the competition broke down, and stability was only regained through the elevation of a single man as emperor. And, importantly, the empire ran out of frontier. It was not possible to conquer and hold onto territory beyond the Rhine and Euphrates, and so the empire couldn’t grow any richer that way. The competition for prestige and resources became zero-sum.

What can Rome teach us about politics and institutions today?

The need for an infinite frontier: Economic growth is the lifeblood of our political system. Without it, we end up in cycles of violence in competition for a share of available resources. It’s only if we create new resources that we can break this cycle. The Romans couldn’t do it – there was no culture of growth and innovation. But we can.

Technological change offers the chance for riches through invention and trade rather than theft and plunder. As Balaji is fond of saying, technology can be our infinite frontier. Most people don’t realise this.

The importance of training your elite: There was a degree of meritocracy in the Roman system (among the pool of elites who were allowed to compete, at least). Martial virtue isn’t everything, but conquering a hostile territory or running part of government shows more about your ability than who your dad is, or whose family you married into. The cursus honorum forced would-be winners to prove themselves in real-life situations before they took on more responsibility. Maybe there is a less radical alternative to re-founding everything – instead, we could create new systems for training elite-aspirants.

Although inheritance is a key feature of East Coast elites, they have made an attempt at meritocracy for several decades now, at least nominally. Could this be reshaped into a more meritocratic system, with more first-principles teaching and real-world experience?

If you don’t deliberately train your elite, you will still end up with one, whether by fair means or foul. It might be time to consider inculcating the next generation of elites with new values: techno-optimism, openness to non-elite outsiders, but also a noblesse oblige towards the rest of society who might not be in the same bracket.

Legitimacy and performance: There was lots wrong with the cursus honorum and Roman Republican system, but it did at least confer legitimacy on Rome’s elites. Legitimacy appears to be in short supply today, likely because the internet has exposed the failure of Western institutions in recent years.

Balaji is rightly harsh on such failures. But do we really think this was unique? As Martin Gurri shows us, we can critique our ruling elite in real-time like never before, but that doesn’t mean their failings are new (see Pearl Harbour, the Bay of Pigs, the Iraq War, the Financial Crisis, and more). The system often fails, and you have to have a way to handle that, or it will collapse catastrophically.

Balaji rightly notes that some institutions have performed well in the pandemic, and they are often well-regarded by the public in turn (see here for data which predates the pandemic). But is it clear that they can survive getting involved in politics? When companies like Facebook and Twitter had to deal with national politics, they get sucked into culture wars and demonised. Inherited institutions get upset when founded ones step onto their turf, whether in the 18th century or the 21st – business is used to creative destruction, political institutions much less so.

I do think we need to see change — a new set of principles for modern government, for example. But trust and legitimacy are really important too. A random blogger can optimise for being right and ignore politics in a way that government can’t. Government, or an institution aspiring to replace it, has to think about its legitimacy as well as its performance.

If we are to make new institutions, they won’t be seen as legitimate immediately — good performance at scale takes time, and you have to bring lots of people on board before you can really supplant these old institutions. If the old institutions don’t resort to violence against us first, that is.

This will be slow, difficult work. You can bring some people on if you perform well, but you need good memes and cultural attraction if you’re to appeal to a wider group. People won’t care about new ideas from government unless you can turn it into a story that has wider appeal. If there are no myths or memes backing up your system, you’ll be entirely dependent on performance, which you won’t always nail. Balaji seems to realise the importance of culture, but there’s so much more to be done.


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2 comments

  1. The key, I think, as you allude to lies at intersection of striking the right balance between technological development as a key route of economic expansion, without succumbing to technological ‘envelopment’, i.e. the subsuming of key elements of political and social culture at the alter of technological progress for technological progress’ sake. I would argue we find ourselves increasingly at this key juncture, evidenced by the broadening dominance of “big tech” in not only technological innovation but politics, society, and even in altering the composition of human emotional intelligence.

    What books would you recommend to explore some of the concepts of lessons from ancient Rome to societal development (that goes beyond the “empire” specific analysis that plagues modern political theory)?

    1. I think we’re a lot more in danger of going too slowly with technological change right now rather than too fast, so I’d prefer to see more political/institutional innovations than slow down progress in tech. I don’t think we can put the genie back in the bottle as regards a lot of the technological change that is already straining our political systems…

      Tom Holland’s Rubicon is very good on the late Roman Republic, and people say Peter Heather and Kyle Harper’s books on the later empire are worth reading, though I haven’t got to them. Not sure what to read for the in-between part of history!

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