Wednesday 5 December 2018

The Byzantine cure for bureaucratic cancer

It is interesting that the Eastern Roman ('Byzantine') Empire, which lasted for 1000 years in Constaninople - much longer than any other polity since Christ - managed to get the benefits of bureaucratic organisation but without suffering its tendency to unchecked metastatic growth; by the simple means of restricting membership to eunuchs.

Life as a eunuch bureaucrat was pretty good - and although you were not allowed to be Emperor, you could rise to being Patriarch of the church (e.g St Ignatios) or chief general of the Imperial army (Narses); and (on average) you would live longer (and healthier) than an uncastrated man.

On the other hand...

Note: A further important factor in its longevity was the highly religious devoutness of Byzantine life, which seems to have continued pretty-much unabated throughout the 1000 years. This motivated people; and to a significant unified and directed this motivation outside the individual mortal life and indeed the world itself; which maintained cohesion and kept a check on wholly-selfish short-termism.


Epimetheus said...

As above, so below!

heyjames4 said...

China and other eastern civilizations did eunuch bureaucracies too, with mixed success over the long term. And in the West the Church with celibate priests was the primary bureaucracy for a few centuries. Does a celibate bureaucracy have similar effect on a society as eunuchs?
Either way the great public officers can't "officially" deed their office to their offspring.

Bruce Charlton said...

@heyjames - Yes, it's an interesting phenomenon of some successful complex agrarian societies:

Lorenzo said...

In the longevity stakes, people seem to regularly overlook the Republic of Venice -- 697 to 1797.
The Kingdom of Denmark has lasted from 936 to the present.
The Kingdom of England dates from 927.
The Japanese state has a continuous existence from at least 539.

There are more long lasting states that folk realise.

Islam does not make the big time in longevity. The longest lasting Islamic dynasty was the Shirvanshahs, 861-1539.

Chiu ChunLing said...

It's really much simpler than all that.

As long as society doesn't have a surplus of wealth such that it remains a commonplace to blame taxes for literally killing enough people that everyone knows someone who was killed by taxes, the incentives for increasing tax burdens remain balanced by the danger of being killed for doing so.

Bureaucracy requires taxes.

If increasing taxes carries a very real risk of the bureaucrats (and their masters) being killed, bureaucracy can't experience uncontrolled growth.

Yes, people associated with the bureaucracy (whether or not bureaucrats themselves) do find ways to control the growth of bureaucracy, and some of them are...colorful.

The Japanese methods particularly so.