Streetwise Professor

February 3, 2007

More Historical Parallels

Filed under: Military,Russia — The Professor @ 11:07 pm

My winter break reading has included Richard Pipe’s “Property and Freedom.” It is an enjoyable read, like most of Pipes’s books. To an economist it is somewhat unsatisfying, because although Pipes does an excellent job describing the historical differences in property rights and political and civil rights in England and Russia, he does not provide a plausible explanation as to why these countries evolved so differently. Why were the nobles, and eventually the commons and cities of England able to resist the power of the crown, whereas they were not able to do so in Russia? Royal ambitions were certainly nearly as lofty in England as in Russia, but these ambitions were checked (albeit with much conflict and bloodshed) in the former while they ran roughshod in the latter.

There are certainly some hints. The Tatar Yoke certainly tilted things in favor of centralized power early on in Russia, but then too the Norman Conquest certainly enhanced central power in England as well. The difference is that central authority retained its grip much longer in Russia, but eroded steadily in England. What underlying factors were at work? An interesting question that Pipes does not raise, much less answer.

Off the top, I conjecture two important considerations, both relating to differences in the physical landscape that affected the balance of military force between the center and the periphery.

First, Russia’s sprawling extent and abysmal transportation system made it more difficult for the nobility to coordinate and cooperate in opposition to the crown than was the case in small, and relatively accessible, England. The Tsars further impeded coordination and undermined cooperation by moving servicemen from place to place, making it difficult for them to form lasting connections with a web of nearby peers, whereas tenures in England were more settled. [This of course begs the question why the difference in tenures—perhaps I’ll explore this at a later date.] Unsettled tenure also undermined the incentive to invest in defensive works, the benefits of which would have likely accrued to some later occupant.

Second, Russian terrain and distance made it difficult to defend territory against an incursion by the central government. There were few natural obstacles to impede a determined foe, and the massive distances put each serviceman out of mutual support from potentially like-minded fellows, thereby facilitating a divide-and-conquer strategy. Relatedly, England’s proximity to foreign powers, including especially France but also Scotland (which was often the French cat’s paw), allowed the disaffected to gather some foreign support that credibly threatened the crown. In contrast, in isolated Russia, this threat was much less severe. For years, the most important outside power that had the capacity to threaten the Tsars—the Mongols/Tatars—was firmly allied with the Tsars, who were their tax collectors. In other times, foreign powers such as Poland-Lithuania or Sweden posed only intermittent and weak threats to Moscow-centered power.

In the end, in England, the military balance between the crown and nobles affected the parties’ relative bargaining power. Property rights were not granted out of the monarch’s beneficence, but as the result of negotiation in which force was the ultimate arbiter—the ability to resort to force that credibly threatened the monarch determined the fall back position that defined the bargaining powers of the contending parties. Bargaining power in Russia was determinative too, but the “correlation of forces” was much more favorable to the center due to the objective military conditions which made noble revolt an unrealistic option.

Despite my quibbles with “Property and Freedom”, I highly recommend the book as providing interesting grist for thought. After all, a book can be enjoyable because it provides information that stimulates provocative questions even if it doesn’t answer them.

Not surprisingly, given his stature as perhaps the greatest living American historian of Russia, Pipes’s discussion of the Russian Patrimonial state is the best part of the book. What really struck me were some of the historical parallels to today. (Note again my earlier caveat about reading too much into these—but they are fascinating nonetheless.)

Among them:

• In the 16th-17th centuries, “Russians had no certainty that government agents would seize any object of value in their possession and forbid trade in any commodity by declaring it a state monopoly.”
• Under Peter the Great, the use of any pretext to expropriate property: “In the first half of the 18th century the crown seized many estates for such offenses as the landlord’s failure to show up for service . . . negligence in performance of duties, embezzlement of state property, political dissent, or simply falling into disfavor.” Inasmuch as the Tsar or his/her minions were the ultimate arbiter, unconstrained by third party courts, the holders of property were largely powerless against the predations of the state.
• The formation of a “Chancery of Confiscations” to systematize state expropriation of property.
• The failure of Catherine the Great’s well-intended attempts to reform Russian government and economic policy (especially as related to property rights) because these efforts were “[p]erceived as self-serving license for the few rather than a basic human right, and moreover acquired at the expense of millions of human chattel.” That is, the reform efforts empowered and enriched a few and actually impoverished the many.
• Catherine the Great implicitly conditioned the loosening of the tie between property tenure and state service on the nobility’s staying out of politics. The nobility was free to exploit their estates—and their serfs—but were to stay out of politics. [This argument is actually set out in Pipes’s “Russia Under the Old Regime,” another book I highly recommend.]

La plus ça change, la plus la même chôse

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