Category Archives: History

17th Century Fart Jokes

A commentary on the rule of law from p. 95 of Nicholas Vincent’s Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction:

Oliver Cromwell, chief architect of the most violent of the 17th-century revolutions, informed as Lord Protector that he was acting contrary to Magna Carta, is said to have replied that ‘their Magna Farta should not control [Cromwell’s] actions’.

The author also did an excellent podcast with Russ Roberts on EconTalk, which you can listen to here.

CEI Podcast for November 22, 2013: Daniel Hannan on Inventing Freedom

Have a listen here.

Daniel Hannan is a member of the European Parliament, representing South East England. He discusses his latest book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. He argues that “What raised the English-speaking peoples to greatness was not a magical property in their DNA, nor a special richness in their earth, nor yet an advantage in military technology, but their political and legal institutions.”

Markets in Everything: Rat Tails

During the Korean War, the Chinese government accused the U.S. of engaging in germ warfare–air-dropping canisters filled with germs and bacteria-infused insects and pests not just in Korea, but in China, too. The accusation sounds ridiculous now, but at the time, it sounded somewhat plausible. General MacArthur, after all, openly mused about using nuclear bombs in Korea, and nearby Japan used biological weapons just a few years earlier during World War II.

The propaganda campaign caused a nationwide scare, as well as major cleanup efforts. As historian Frank Dikötter explains on p. 148 of his new book, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957,
the campaign also caused a most unusual market to form:

From north to south, people were also required to kill the ‘five pests,’ namely flies, mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs[,] and rats. In Beijing every person had to produce the tail of one rat every week. Those who greatly exceeded the quota were allowed to fly a red flag over the gate of their house, while those who failed had to raise a black flag. An underground market in tails rapidly developed.

Market orders emerge, even during some of history’s darkest hours.

The Founding Free Traders

Here’s a letter I sent to the Racine Journal Times, my hometown paper:

Alderman Dan Sharkozy’s July 11 op-ed argues that the founding fathers built trade protectionism into the Constitution. He is mistaken. The Constitution, by banning trade restrictions between the states, created what was at the time the world’s largest free trade zone. This was on purpose.

Imagine if the only outside products that Racine’s consumers were allowed to buy must come from Kenosha. Or if companies like S.C. Johnson were allowed to export to Kenosha, or nowhere at all. Even Pat Buchanan would have to admit that these trade barriers would be less than helpful to Racine’s economy. Our forebears were similarly forbidden from importing or exporting most goods from anywhere but Britain; hence a certain revolution we just celebrated on July 4.

Adam Smith, who unlike Pat Buchanan was an economist, wrote of our natural “tendency to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” The desire to forcibly stop people from doing so because they speak different languages or look different from each other comes from a morality that one can only hope remains foreign.

Ryan Young

Fellow in Regulatory Studies, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.

Racine native, Walden III alumnus

An Evolutionary Banquet

Chapter 5 of Brian Fagan’s excellent Cro-Magnon opens with the following quotation from the paleontologist Björn Kurtén:

“Imagine a dinner table set for a thousand guests, in which each man is sitting between his own father and his own son. At one end of the table might be a French Nobel laureate in a white tie and tails, and with the Legion of Honor on his breast, and at the other end a Cro-Magnon man dressed in animal skins and with a necklace of cave-bear teeth. Yet each one would be able to converse with his neighbors on his left and right, who would either be his father or his son. So the distance from then to now is not really great.”

It’s a similar conceit to the Evolution Stadium described by Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, which remains one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read.

The Dark Ages Weren’t so Dark, and Neither Is Modernity

I’m currently reading Barbarians to Angels by Peter Wells, which is a mostly successful attempt to rehabilitate the Dark Ages’ dismal reputation. The written sources are mostly from the Roman perspective, so one understands their rampant pessimism. Wells, an archaeologist, prefers a different historiographical method: archaeology. There is more to history than mere texts.

Roman inventions such as concrete were lost, and though literacy did not disappear, it wasn’t anywhere near where it was in Roman times; there was decline. But civilization did not die. International trade stayed alive, and with it the swirling exchange of ideas, customs, religions, and inventions that accompany commerce. Artifacts from as far away as India, Sri Lanka, and China have been found in Dark Age sites in Sweden and Ireland.

The visual arts remained vibrant, even if the written arts didn’t. Of course, illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells provided their own vibrancy, even if in their illustrations and not in their actual text.

All in all, Wells has not persuaded me that early medieval Europe was the technological and cultural equal of the Roman Empire. But he has certainly vanquished the myth that the Dark Ages were as dark as the popular imagination believes.

Much as I love history, the real reason for this post is to point out just how well we moderns have it. In chapter 12, Wells writes the following about one of the 8th century’s greatest scholars:

The most prominent scholar of this period was Bede, a man of Anglo-Saxon origins who was born in northern England about 672 and died in 735. At the age of seven he entered the monastery that was based at the neighboring sites of Wearmouth and Jarrow, in Northumbria, just at the time that this monastic complex was reaching its apex of cultural achievement. The library at the monastery contained some five hundred books, making it on of the most extensive in Europe at the time.

Let’s put this in context. My Kindle e-reader, which fits in my hand, can hold more books than the finest library in all of 8th-century Europe had to offer. Just imagine what a mind of Bede’s caliber could accomplish with today’s intellectual resources.

That’s not all. Now think about today’s 7-billion-strong global population, and compare it to the fewer than one billion people alive in Bede’s time. There are at least an order of magnitude more people alive today with Bede-level intellects. And most of them have access to university libraries and the Internet. What will they accomplish?

We truly live in amazing times.

Globalization Has Been Happening for a Long Time

Apparently some Roman artifacts were found in a 5th-century A.D. Japanese tomb:

Researchers from Japan’s Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties announced Friday that three glass beads recovered from a Fifth Century burial site near Kyoto bear signs of Roman craftsmanship. This suggests that Roman influence reached as far as East Asia.

“They are one of the oldest multilayered glass products found in Japan, and very rare accessories that were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan,” researcher Tomomi Tamura told AFP.

Six thousand miles was a long way for goods to travel back then. Our innate tendency to truck and barter, as Adam Smith put it, is very strong indeed.