Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The dangers of academic history


Sometimes it is amazingly inaccurate. Sometimes it is amazingly corrupt in its values.

I am currently reading about government in ancient India, in particular the views of Kautilya (a kind of Machiavelli figure from the third century BCE). The book I am reading, which I will not name, is the product of an Indian scholar who lectured on this material for decades before writing it down. He sees Kautilya's Arthasastra, a book on how a monarch can create an ideal state, as an actual description of something that really existed, an ancient welfare state. Not only does this scholar think that Kautilya's prescriptions were actually carried out, he has nothing but good to say about Kautilya's ideas.

On taking prescription as reality, here is what he says about preparations for putting out fires:

The master of the house had to keep ready tubs full of water, ladder, leather bags, winnowers, hooks; but besides individual house-owners government saw that at places near crossroads thousands of pitchers filled with water were kept always ready to fight any outbreak of fire. Thus something like modern fire brigades were available at short calls.

Imagine that!

Then there is this policy, which the author finds quite understandable, though in need of some defence.

According to Kautilya, "traders, artisans, musicians, beggars, buffoons, and other idlers who are thieves in effect if not in name shall be restrained from oppression of the country people." It was with this view of protecting the simple village folk that Kautilya provided that no ascetic other than a vanaprastha, no company of other than of local birth, and no guilt of any kind other than local cooperative guild will find entrance in the village; nor shall there be in the village buildings intended for plays or sports, nor in view of procuring money, free labor, commodities, grains and liquids in plenty, shall actors, dancers, singers, drummers, buffoons, and bards make any particular disturbance to the work of the villagers, for helpless villagers are dependent upon their fields. Indirectly these provisions highlight the state's deepest concern for production the villagers even at the cost of depriving mirth, frolics and entertainments available in the cities.

This was written in 1976, the "year zero" of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I once read a collection of official documents of the revolution, and it sticks in my mind that the official economic plan promised that after years of slave labor the surviving population of Cambodia would eventually, after the revolution was a success, be provided with extra dessert several times a year.

I have nothing against the welfare state that really is a welfare state, but it angers and terrifies me that smart people cannot or will not see the difference between dealing with preventable or predictable problems, and this kind of serfdom.

Image: Kautilya

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