Category Archives: History

Official Disdain for Commerce

Most cultures have held trade and commerce in low regard. This is true in nearly all times and places, and whether people are rich or poor, religious or secular, and cuts across political beliefs. Governments don’t much like the merchant class either, even though this disdain is biting the hand that feeds. James C. Scott provides an example from ancient China on p. 131 of his thought-provoking 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States:

One reason for the official distrust and stigmatization of the merchant class in China was the simple fact that its wealth, unlike that of the rice planter, was illegible, concealable, and fugitive. One might tax a market, or collect tolls on a road or river junction where goods and transactions were more transparent, but taxing merchants was a tax collector’s nightmare.

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Slogans and Nationalism

A passage from p. 562 of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris contains an interesting political slogan:

He was replaced by Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, up to then police chief in Potsdam, of Saxon aristocratic descent, former head of the Berlin SA, with a reputation deeply sullied by scandal about his financial affairs and private life, but–compensating for everything–a radical antisemite who, the Propaganda Minister reckoned, would help him ‘make Berlin clean again’.

Spontaneous Order in Roman History

Edward Gibbon, describing a revival of sorts under Cola di Rienzo in 14th century Rome, on p. 2401, near the end of Decline and Fall, channels a bit of Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek:

“As soon as the life and property of the subject are secure, the labours and rewards of industry spontaneously revive: …”

Legalized Plunder in 14th Century Venice

Venice, as much as any other city, was founded on international trade and commerce. Even today, the outward-oriented and freewheeling worldview that commerce inspires is that lagoon city’s defining characteristic. From p. 287 of Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas:

For Venice, piracy was the most detested crime, an affront to business and the rule of law. The Republic preferred its maritime violence organized at state level.

Crowley goes on to describe state-approved instances of piracy by and against Venetians, and other nations’ grievances about the same. If all this sounds familiar in the context of today’s trade debate, you’re not alone. History is alive, and this is a good reason to study it closely.

Trade Is as Old as Humanity

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of long-distance trade going as far back as 200,000 years ago. The artifacts are mainly things such as obsidian tools that are relatively impervious to the ravages of time, found hundreds of miles away from where they naturally occur. In fact, such finds can determine economic health through history. After the fall of the Roman Empire, long-distance artifacts such as foreign coins, papyrus, and oil lamps suddenly disappear from Europe’s archaeological sites. We call this low-trade period the Dark Ages. These and other distant items reappear a few centuries later, both in the ground and in surviving literature. Not coincidentally, times were better.

Trade can also explain such basics of civilization as the birth of cities. Some people settled down in one place for the first time and specialized in agriculture, trading their surplus for goods and services. This led to a better life. As Iain Murray and I point out in our new paper. “Traders of the Lost Ark.”

Over time, people found they could achieve a more stable lifestyle by tending to domesticated crops and animals—at least compared to nomadic hunting and gathering—but this required specialization and trade. For example, some people specialized in farming and traded their surplus crops to others in exchange for tools or shelter. Others specialized in services, such as milling grain into flour or brewing it into beer. Without trade, such specialization would have been impossible.

Trade also made the first governments possible:

The late University of Maryland economist Mancur Olson theorized that the first governments were “stationary bandits,” who traded protection from other bandits—or themselves—for a fee in the form of taxation.

As governments became more established, they later decided to bite the hand that feeds them:

When governments get involved in trade, it is usually to erect barriers to it. While special interests have always benefited from the reduced competition trade restraints bring, historically, most traders have objected to such interventions. Important clauses of [the] Magna Carta enjoin the King of England from stopping traders from entering the country. The American Declaration of Independence, in its litany of offenses blamed on King George III, chides him for “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.”

This is why the first “international” trade system was actually a mechanism for restricting and redirecting trade to fit some government prerogative. The mercantilist system that governed trade during the colonial era was based on the “rights” of monarchs to maintain a “balance of trade” that would allegedly enrich them and their favored commercial partners. It accomplished this by imposing a series of tariffs, import quotas, and prohibitions to affect the balance of trade in favor of these interests. In effect, the mercantilist system was the first example of crony capitalism writ large.

This kind of big-picture historical sketch might seem academic. But when it comes to trade, it’s very practical. It is important to remember our roots. No trade, no civilization. The debate over tariffs and other trade barriers goes back much, much further than the last two years. We are the current participants in a debate as old as our species—and knowing exactly what we have been fighting over for so long gives context for exactly why it is important to fight, and fight hard, against every new trade restriction that politicians concoct.

For more on why the freedom to exchange is so important, read the full “Traders of the Lost Ark” study here.

Trade Made Renaissance Art Possible

Trade and specialization make all kinds of life-enriching innovations possible. In fact, Italian Renaissance art was one of them, a gift that continues to inspire us five centuries later. Re-opening trade with the Middle and Far East is what allowed Europe to climb out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Venice, in particular, was a hub of trading activity, as Peter Frankopan points out at Kindle location 4260 of his 2016 book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World:

By the late fifteenth century, nearly 5 million pounds of spices were passing through Venice each year… It also seems to have been the main point of entry for pigments used in paintings. Often referred to collectively as “oltremare de venecia” (Venetian goods from overseas), these included verdigris (literally, green from Greece), vermilion, fenugreek, lead-tin yellow, bone black, and a gold substitute known as purpurinus or mosaic gold. The most famous and distinctive, however, was the rich blue that came from lapis lazuli, mined in Central Asia. The golden age of European art—of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca in the fifteenth century, and then of artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian—owed much to their ability to use colours drawn from pigments that were part of the extension of contacts with Asia on the one hand nd rising levels of disposable wealth to pay for them on the other.

So the next time you look at The Birth of Venus or the Mona Lisa, remember that trade made them possible, and artificial trade barriers could have deprived the world of profound beauty.

In fact, the process continues today. Michelangelo and his contemporaries had to make their own paints. Long-distance traders brought them the materials, but the artists themselves had to mix the ingredients. And if they didn’t do it just right, it could be a very expensive mistake. Today, you or I could walk into an art supply store and trade money worth a few hours’ labor for oil paints, or watercolors, or any other kind of paint, in almost any color imaginable. Digital art and photography don’t even need paint. Just a computer, a camera, or even a smartphone.

Trade makes humankind’s highest cultural accomplishments possible. This is just one reason it is worth defending. For more reasons, see the new CEI study “Traders of the Lost Ark.”

Quality Insults in History

Gibbon lobs a lot of quality insults in the Decline and Fall. Some of the best are hidden in his footnotes. Here is one from note 44 of Chapter XLVI, on p. 1534 of the edition I have:

[S]ee the Annals of Eutychius and the lamentations of the monk Antiochus, whose one hundred and twenty-nine homilies are still extant, if what no one reads may be said to be extant.