Category Archives: History

Book Review: Jennifer Traig – Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

Jennifer Traig – Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

Hilarious, and recommended by Let Grow founder and Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy. Traig performs two valuable services for parents. One, she reminds them that everyone makes mistakes, and that’s ok. Do your best, use common sense, and your kids will be fine. Perfection doesn’t exist. Provided that you are loving, caring, and supportive, there is no need to stress yourself out over falling short of impossible standards.

The second service is historical. Our mistakes are nothing compared to the mistakes people used to make. Before freaking out about whatever threat to children is headlining the evening news tonight, it helps to have some context. Children today are safer, healthier, better fed, and better-parented than at any other time in history. Media freak-outs help ratings, but hurt parents and kids. Traig looks at how previous generations treated their kids, and is thankful that today’s kids have it better in almost every way. Some of our parents and grandparents’ shortcomings are hilarious; others are more tragic.

Doctors performed quack remedies that were as likely to kill as to cure. School was even more drudgerous than it is now, and physical abuse was common. Parenting “experts” clearly had no idea what they were talking about, and many advocated what today would be considered abuse. Playground equipment was hazardous. Children’s literature, such as the Brothers Grimm, was often nightmare-inducing. Crib accidents used to be multiples more common due to poor design. Once kids were out of the crib, child labor was routine until the Industrial Revolution raised adult earnings enough for them to afford to put kids in schools instead of fields or factories.

Traig makes these serious points with laugh-out-loud humor and a conversational style. This book is excellent for nervous parents, nervous parents-to-be, and anyone else worried about what the world is coming to. As long as we put a little effort into it and stop freaking out about everything, our children and grandchildren will have better childhoods and better adult lives than we did, just as our lives have been healthier and wealthier than those of the generations before us.

Book Review: Marc Levinson – The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America

Marc Levinson – The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America

This is an excellent history that is playing out again in today’s antitrust revival. A&P was the first nationwide grocery store chain. Though it barely exists today, in its prime it was the nation’s largest retailer. A&P inspired fear among its competitors and outrage among populists.

People made many of the same arguments against A&P in the popular press and in antitrust cases that people make today against Walmart, Amazon, and other big companies. The word choices, hyperbole, and breathless tone are almost identical. And yet, A&P was no match for consumer preferences, which eventually shifted elsewhere. The company chose not to adapt, and today exists on roughly the same scale as Blockbuster Video, which is down to a single store in Oregon.

Some of the very same charges, such as A&P’s selling self-branded products at lower prices than outside brands, are being revived today against Amazon. A&P-era arguments are even being repurposed to argue against Apple and Google’s app stores and search results. Not only were their business practices never anti-competitive, they clearly weren’t enough to save A&P from the competitive process. Nor will it be enough to save today’s big tech companies. Consumers are harsh sovereigns, and as soon as someone does it better, they’ll move on.

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Levinson digs up some of the lost stanzas of a poem being rebooted all over Washington today. There are lots of lessons here for people on both sides of the antitrust revival.

Book Review: Marc J. Seifer – Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius

Marc J. Seifer – Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius

Seifer more than once goes into Freudian analysis of Tesla’s personality. I’m going to go ahead and guess that he is not a particularly rigorous biographer. I probably should have chosen a different volume, but this one was on sale. Seifer’s cringy Freudianism is enough to automatically make suspect his conjectures about Tesla’s more out-there research on things such as death rays, worldwide wireless transmissions, and his theories about faster-than light transmissions and extraterrestrial life.

These are better seen as products of Tesla’s time, similar to Isaac Newton’s forgotten works on alchemy and mysticism. In Tesla’s time, Einsteinian relativity wasn’t yet universally accepted or understood in the scientific community. Nor was its implication that light is an absolute speed limit well thought out. Reputable scientists were still searching for workarounds, and there was not yet the sheer preponderance of experimental evidence for the cosmic speed limit that we take for granted today.

Tesla’s scientific, business, and personal lives are stories worth telling. So is his rivalry with Edison. Seifer gives plenty of attention to all of these aspects of Tesla. And he is a good storyteller. But his Freudianism and other quirks hard to take him very seriously.

Book Review: Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee – The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee – The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014)

This book from two MIT professors is part big-picture history, and art techno-optimism. McAfee is also the author of the excellent 2020 book More from Less, which is better-argued from a public policy perspective.

The opening chapter sets the historical stage. Living standards were poor and stagnant for nearly all of human history, from our birth as a species until about 1750 or so. If you put human well-being on a graph, it runs almost perfectly flat for thousands and thousands of years. Then it spikes sharply upwards starting around 1750-1800, like a hockey stick on its side. This giant wealth explosion is still happening today, and the authors believe it will continue for some time to come. This is one of the biggest changes in human history.

What caused it? Brynjolfsson and McAfee think it was technology. More specifically, it was the steam engine. Even more specifically, it was James Watt’s iteration of the steam engine. Steam power existed as early as ancient Rome, but it was mostly used for amusement purposes, and not industry. That changed in Watt’s lifetime. This was the start of Bynjolfsson and McAfee’s First Machine Age.

The Second Machine Age is the computer revolution. The First Machine Age revolutionized physical power. The Second Machine Age is revolutionizing mental power. Just as Watt’s steam engine took time to influence manufacturing, technological development, government, and culture, so too is the Second Machine Age. It is far enough along where they argue its fundamental difference from the First Machine Age is clear. But it is also early enough where its impact is only beginning to be felt. The future has almost limitless potential—and some tradeoffs.

The larger arc they draw is the right shape, though I don’t know that their need for two separate Machine Ages is much more than a useful gimmick for talking about technology. I would also submit that the true cause of both revolutions goes a level deeper than just technology. Yes, steam engines and computers are necessary for the two machine ages. Necessary, but not sufficient.

They need another ingredient in the mix: culture. Larger cultural values are difficult to quantify, which is why economists and many other social scientists do not use them. They are still significant, even if they are immune to regression analysis and other quantification. Statistically significant? No. Real-world significant? Very.

Culture shifted in the centuries leading up to Watt’s generation. People were gradually becoming a little more open to change, progress, and improvement. It showed in literature, trade patterns, philosophy, and a new prestige for science and its discoverers. That is why a technology that was already around now began to be used more differently—people allowed it, approved of it, and were willing to countenance large fortunes being made from it.

After setting up their two-machine-ages framework, Brynjolfsson and McAfee go on a tour of new and emerging technologies to see where the Second Machine Age might take us. They take a ride in one of Google’s self-driving cars, among other highlights, and draw encouraging pictures of some of the things new technologies could do for people over the next few decades.

One area where they fall short is their discussion of inequality. They are so focused on the mathematical ratio of the differences between rich and poor peoples’ incomes, that they forget to ask how people at the bottom are actually doing. They also focus almost solely on wage income, which is a significant mistake. This leaves out non-wage income such as employer-sponsored insurance, tuition assistance, free meals, company cars, and other perks that do not show up in income data.

More to the point for a book about technology, Brynjolfsson and McAfee should have asked a question similar to one Don Boudreaux likes to ask: would you rather have 1970-quality medical care at 1970 prices, or today’s health care at today’s prices?

Very few people would rather have 1970’s health care, even at its lower price. That means people view themselves as better off with today’s options. Most people would similarly answer related questions about televisions, computers, cars, appliances, and many other products that both rich and poor people consume.

In fact, society today has substantial consumption equality. Most low-income households have cars that drive at the same speeds on the same roads as wealthy people. They watch the same television shows and have similar Internet connections. More tellingly, rich people are not substantially taller or longer-lived than poor people. In the olden days, one could tell nobles and peasants apart at a glance by their height. Children of nobility got enough to eat, while peasant children were often so malnourished that their growth stunted. There were also substantial differences in infant mortality and life expectancy.

While the very wealthy have orders of magnitude more wealth than ordinary people do, they don’t consume very much of it. Nor do they keep it in a Scrooge McDuck-like vault. They invest it, in an unexpected type of income redistribution. When it’s invested, borrowers use that money to buy homes, go to college, and start businesses. The wealth doesn’t just sit there, people make use of it. It is a subjective question how much of this type of wealth is the “right” amount. But this positive use of wealth is something inequality scholars need to account for, and rarely do. In fact, invested wealth is where most of the capital that funds the amazing technologies Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss in this book comes from.

They make another lapse in quoting a professional trade association for civil engineers in calling for more infrastructure spending. Of course civil engineers want more infrastructure spending, they have a vested interest in it! This is basic public choice theory. While they briefly acknowledge this conflict of interest, they also do not acknowledge the seriousness of the point, or look at data from less self-interested sources.

Their promotion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is similarly idealistic. This model, essentially a straight cash grant, is an objectively better system of poverty relief than the current welfare state. A UBI is easier to administer and more flexible for the recipients. A UBI also makes it more difficult for nanny statists to tell the poor what they shall eat, what things they may and may not buy, what types of health care they may receive, or where they shall educate their kids.

The trouble is politics. Again, a little public choice theory would go a long way in this discussion. Replacing the current welfare state with a UBI would be a fantastic tradeoff, both for the poor and for taxpayers. But the way politics works in practice, this would not happen. A UBI would be negotiated in a Congress led by people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or whoever succeeds them in a few years. Real-world politicians are unlikely to enact a well-functioning UBI, nor will their constituents let them. Public sector unions whose members administer the current system will block any reform they possibly can.

Tis means any politically-possible UBI would be added on top of the current system, preserving the current system’s flaws and minimizing a UBI’s advantages. Unless this problem is addressed, a UBI risks causing more harm than benefit.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are consistently a little too idealistic. Some of the technologies they explore in this 2014 book turned out to be flops, and others are still materializing. Similarly, they assume that their political reforms will actually work as they intend them to.

They are certainly right about the larger arc of progress and prosperity. And though I take their technological hyper-optimism with a grain of salt, it is also inspiring. Books like this one and by other thinkers such as Kevin Kelly give me confidence that my daughter’s life will be richer, longer, healthier, and frankly, cooler than mine. This is a source of happiness for me, and gives me inspiration to continue my work on improving economic policy and defending liberalism against populists who would tear it down for no good reason.

Book Review: Tom Wolfe – The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe – The Right Stuff

I saw the movie years ago without knowing it was based on a Tom Wolfe book. I’d never previously read any Wolfe, mainly owing to a lack of interest in 1960s counterculture beyond some of the music. This turns out to have been a mistake, at least regarding Wolfe. He was a fantastic writer, if a bit earthy. Much as I love the science and the spirit of discovery that many other writers have emphasized, Wolfe showed that it had a more visceral side. For the test pilots and astronauts, it was a thrill and an adrenaline rush. It took a certain kind of personality to want to fly to the moon and back. That, as much as the mission itself, is Wolfe’s topic, and he explores it about as compellingly as a writer can.

That said, Wolfe spends an inordinate amount of time writing about NASA’s bizarre anal fixation. They put the early astronauts through some bizarre probing tests that didn’t always have much to do with space or gravity, and Wolfe describes them in great detail.

Wolfe also does not shy away from the danger of test pilot culture, and how it influenced the early space program. It was thrilling and it was risky. But there were also funerals, and families. They were part of the story, too. The deaths of Gus Grissom and two other astronauts on the Apollo 1 launch pad were particularly jarring. Their capsule on top of a rocket caught fire, and a poor design to the hatch door left them unable to escape.

In the earlier days of test-piloting experimental aircrafts, pilots’ wives knew what happened every time they heard emergency sirens making their way towards the local Air Force base, which was often. It was a roll of the dice which one of them would receive a phone call, and another roll of the dice whether the news was a close call, or something much worse.

The book and the movie are both excellent. Wolfe especially excels at combining thrill, danger, and risk with levity and tragedy. The space race was multifaceted, and so should be the histories by which we remember it.

Book Review: Thucydides – The Peloponnesian War

Thucydides – The Peloponnesian War

Thucydides wrote the second volume in the unofficial trilogy of great Greek historians. He begins almost exactly where Herodotus’ Histories ends. Having defeated Persia, Athens now finds itself at war with Sparta. This time, Athens would lose. But Thucydides, who participated in the war, does not see it through to the end. No one is quite sure why. Fortunately, Xenophon would later pick up the baton and finish the war and the “trilogy” in his Hellenica.

Where Herodotus is filled with legends, exoticism, and fantastical creatures, Thucydides is more earthbound. The gods are absent, he never leaves the Pelopennese, his prose style is plain, he consciously sticks to the facts, and his organization is meticulously chronological. Each chapter covers exactly one year, and if important events and themes do not respect those boundaries, so be it. The contrast in historiography, or historical method, is as interesting as the actual history itself.

The Peloponnesian War also contains Pericles’ famous funeral oration, which is one of the heights of Greek literature. Many of the other speeches Thucydides recounts also have high literary value. He stands out in his attempt to humanize his opponents and to understand their points of view. Rather than smear Spartans with ad hominems the way many modern political writers do their opponents, Thucydides sought understanding and objectivity. He saw his task as leaving a reliable record, not making the case for his side events.

At the very least, Thucydides assumes good intentions and noble deeds among the enemy he fought and lost to. Thucydides understood that if one is going to lose, better that it be to a noble opponent than to a weak and immoral one. There are lessons here for today’s politicians as well as the crass Internet commenters who egg them on.

Book Review: Thomas Hager – Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine

Thomas Hager – Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine (New York: Abrams Press, 2019)

Hager writes as a storyteller, rather than as a chemist. This makes a daunting subject much easier to approach. It also makes clear the significant progress medicine has made over the last several centuries. Though Hager argues that drug companies have already picked most of the low-hanging fruit, the next few decades will still see significant advances.

As he points out early on, he tells the stories of ten-ish drugs, not precisely ten. Each chapter is more about a group of drugs. The first chapter is about opiates and pain relievers, a category that likely includes more than ten notable drugs by itself. The good these drugs have done for surgical patients, women giving birth, and chronic pain patients is coupled with the problems of addiction and the inability of policymakers to deal with the problem with anything other than prohibition and restrictions. These policies, create more problems than they solve, which politicians are naturally proposing to address with more of the same.

Hager also tells the stories of antibiotics, which balance life-saving power versus rapid bacterial evolution; vaccines and inoculations, which have dealt with anti-vaxxer nonsense from the beginning of their thousand-year history; and other fascinating stories of progress and reaction, and innovation and suppression. The final category, of gene-based medicine, is flashing enormous potential right now, much of which is still unrealized. People with cancer, organ damage, birth defects, and genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia are all potential beneficiaries. However, they are threatened by a significant anti-science movement from both the right and the left.

This book came out in 2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic. If Hager writes an afterword or an updated edition on the 2020 pandemic, it would be fascinating to see his thoughts on how the speed of invention has sped up over time.

For comparison, smallpox first appeared in third century, B.C. Egypt. It took more than a thousand years for the first inoculations to be invented in 9th century, A.D. China. It then took another 900 years or so for people like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to popularize the practice in the 1700s, and then another 200 years to eradicate the disease entirely. In modern times, HIV/AIDS took decades, rather than centuries, to move from a death sentence to a chronic, usually manageable condition. Time will tell if COVID-19 is ever eradicated. But its timeline took a little more than a year from the disease’s first appearance to its vaccine being taken by millions. This is a big deal. For all the pain 2020 has brought, this record speed should be a strong source of optimism for dealing with the next pandemic—and for further progress with existing diseases.

Hager does a good job of staying neutral in his stories, though on several occasions he shows the intellectual’s common distaste for the idea that someone, somewhere, might be making a profit by helping people. Fortunately, he doesn’t go much into public policy in this book. He would likely have little to add that would help patients, speed innovation, or reduce costs—all of which profits incentivize.

Book Review: Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Scribner, 2019)

A dual biography of Leo Fender and Les Paul, as well as a history of the instruments that bear their names. Fender, whose full name was Clarence Leonidas Fender, got his start in radio repair. He founded his own company in 1946 and began building his own PA systems and amplifiers for local musicians. By the 1950s, he was building the first mass-produced electric guitars. He was heavily influenced by his love of Hawaiian music, an dsome of Fender’s first electric instruments were Hawaiian-style lap steel guitars with pickups that wrapped around the strings in a circle. Today’s guitar pickups are typically flat slabs underneath the string. Fender’s customers were mainly working musicians who need instruments that were loud, reliable, and easy to repair.

Before Fender, most electric guitars were hollowbodies. They were built similarly to traditional acoustic guitars, but with pickups. Fender’s solidbody designs were almost impossible to destroy. They are also easy to mass produce, since they are essentiallu flat planks of wood carved into a standardized Telecaster or Stratocaster shape. The necks were a bolt-on design, which meant they were interchangeable and easy to replace if they broke—or if the player preferred the feel of a neck from one instrument, but preferred the body of another.

A pre-Fender guitar’s glued-in neck was permanent. One stage mishap could mean the end of the instrument—and a hefty expense for a musician who might not be able to afford it. Fender’s guitars also had a thinner, brighter, treble-heavy sound that belied his Hawaiian influences. In this way, 1930s Hawaiian music had an underappreciated influence on everything from country music to Jimi Hendrix’s searing guitar solos.

Fender also created the first mass-produced electric bass, the Precision Bass. As with Teles and Strats, these were designed for gigging musicians. Electric basses are far, far smaller than a traditional stand-up bass. They were also far louder, which meant they could keep up with modern rock bands—especially when played through a Fender Bassman amp. They had frets, which inspired the “Precision” name. A few years later Fender introduced the Jazz Bass, which has a slightly offset body shape and a brighter, more articulate sound. The two designs remain the standard choices for genres ranging from Motown blues to metal.

While Fender’s company had a rough going in its early days, the success of the Telecaster, introduced in 1952, and the Stratocaster, introduced in 1954, and its basses, allowed Fender to sell his company to CBS in 1965 for $13 million, or about $100 million in today’s dollars.

CBS was a negligent owner and allowed the quality of Fender’s guitars to decline, to the point where the company was at risk of going by the 1980s. Once the company regained its independence, it upped its quality control and embraced overseas manufacturing, established a custom shop, and began a renaissance that continues to this day. Fender is now the largest instrument maker in the world, and is a studious caretaker for other famous guitar brands such as Jackson and Gretsch that had also fallen on hard times.

Les Paul, born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, was one of the first people to make a solidbody guitar. Though he was not the first, as he liked to claim. He built his famous “log” guitar similar to Fender’s. he was the tinkering type, and after moving to New York he convinced the Epiphone guitar to give him the run of their workshop after-hours. He gave his log guitar a more conventional appearance by attaching the sides of an Epiphone hollowbody guitar to the log’s center block. Today’s semi-hollowbody designs, such as Gretsches and the Gibson ES-335, use this center-block approach to reduce feedback and give a different tone.

By 1952, the Gibson guitar company saw Fender’s success, and approached Les Paul about being the endorsee for its first entry into the solidbody market. That guitar, the Gibson Les Paul, remains in production today and has been favored by guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Slash, and Carcass’ Bill Steer.

Les Paul was also one of the first people to use overdubs and multi-tracking, which are now staples of modern recording. When he and his then-wife Mary Ford were at the peak of their popularity, Paul’s production techniques made their sound instantly recognizable.

Paul and Fender knew each other, though their careers were centered on opposite coasts, with Fender in California and Paul usually in New York when he wasn’t on the road. They were usually on good terms, although Fender and Gibson remain the two largest competitors in the instrument business.

Port is a gifted storyteller. While he usually treats Fender and Paul separately, he deftly points out common themes in their careers and their instruments. It helps that both men were a bit quirky. Fender was a bit of the nutty professor type, happier in his shop than working on the business side of his business. Paul was not the best husband to Ford, and he didn’t handle his decline in popularity very well. In his later years he became a gregarious elder statesman, and his talent for spinning a yarn made him particularly endearing, even when he was clearly exaggerating. While musicians will obviously get the most out of this book, it also makes a good case study in invention. As with most other ideas, including calculus and the steam engine, the modern electric guitar had multiple near-simultaneous inventors. There was trial, plenty of error, and the whole process was messy and unplanned. As befits the rock music Fender and Paul helped to make possible—even though neither of them even liked it.

2020 Was Difficult. It Was Not the Worst Year Ever

It’s been a hard year, and I am hardly alone in being glad it’s almost over. But was 2020 the worst year ever? Over at Inside Sources, I argue it was not.

COVID-19 is a novel disease. No human caught it before 2019. Scientists created effective vaccines in about a year. By comparison, smallpox has been around since at least Ancient Egypt in the third century B.C. The earliest evidence of inoculation dates to 10th century China. That’s more than a thousand years between smallpox’s first appearance and its first effective treatment—for a disease with a 30 percent fatality rate. But inoculation was rarely practiced until the 18th century, so it didn’t help very many people for its first 900 years or so.

When Abigail Adams had her children inoculated in 1776, it was still a scary, new technology for most people. It was an act of courage for her to set a positive example like that. And it took an additional two centuries for smallpox to be eradicated altogether, in 1977. Our generation’s COVID timetable is unimaginably better than with which our ancestors had to deal.

Read the whole thing here.

It is important for us to learn the right lessons from our COVID-19 experience. We need cultural and political institutions that are open and adaptable. These will make us more resilient against future crises, and make it easier to apply new things we learn as quickly as possible. CEI scholars spent the better part of 2020 compiling these sorts of ideas, which you can find at neverneeded.cei.org. Former CEI Julian Simon Award winner Johan Norberg offers further perspective in a recent piece in the UK’s Spectator.

Best Books of 2020: Joseph Henrich – The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020)

It’s early, but The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich will likely be one of the new decade’s most influential books. Henrich complements work by Joshua GreeneRichard WranghamJonathan HaidtSteven PinkerMichael Shermer, and others on the psychological underpinnings of modern liberalism—liberalism in the more-or-less original sense of the word.

Henrich’s book has two main arguments. One is historical: The Catholic church, completely unintentionally, set off a social chain reaction that created modernity. The second is psychological: People in modern societies are psychologically distinct than people in traditional kin-based societies.

He uses the acronym WEIRD for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, to describe the unusual people in modern market-liberal societies. If you are reading this book review, then you are probably WEIRD, and so is nearly everyone you know. But we WEIRD people are the outliers in human history. Outside of Europe, East Asia, and North America, there are very few of us.

Most human societies are built on kin-based structures. This was true during our hunter-gatherer past, which was about 190,000 years of our 200,000-year history—95 percent of our species’ time on Earth. Societies remained kin-based through the agricultural revolution, and through the birth of cities about 6,000 years ago. And it is still true today in most countries. Despite occasional flowerings, there were no enduring WEIRD societies in human history until about two centuries ago. This is maybe one tenth of one percent of human existence, and even then, most societies remain kin-based. Again, it is WEIRD people who are unusual.

What is a kin-based society? In these, business partnerships, social networks, and marriages are confined to networks that rarely stray outside the extended family or clan. People tend to be wary of non-kin, and have a strong in-group-vs.-out-group worldview. People tend to look out for their clan’s collective interest over their individual interest. In kin-based societies, nepotism isn’t frowned upon; it’s the norm. WEIRD Americans today look askance when a president appoints inexperienced family members to be senior advisers. But in most other societies, this would have been acceptable, even normal behavior.

By contrast, WEIRD people are more individualistic and more trusting of outsiders. Kin-based families often arrange marriages for their children. WEIRD people usually marry for love. Kin-based people are expected to enter the family business. This is why so many of us have occupation-based surnames, such as Smith, Baker, or Fisher. WEIRD people usually prefer to choose their own line of work, which is one reason why today’s Smiths, Bakers, and Fishers rarely practice those occupations.

Kin-based people are reluctant to do business with strangers and foreigners. WEIRD people are more open to trade and more trusting of potential business partners they have never met. Nobody is purely meritocratic, but WEIRD people are closer to that ideal than most people.

So now that we know the difference between most people and WEIRD people, what is Henrich’s historical argument about the Catholic church accidentally making today’s WEIRD-ness possible?

The Catholic church blew up traditional kin networks through what Henrich calls its unofficial “Marriage and Family Program (MFP).” In short, the Church prohibited cousin marriages. The incest taboo is a human universal. But its boundaries vary from place to place. The church decided to push them progressively further out over a period of centuries. In many places, it eventually prohibited marriages closer than second and third cousins. In a few places it briefly went as far as eighth cousins.

This was a bigger deal than it sounds. Back in, say, the 12th century, people lived isolated lives. Few people lived in cities. Many people lived their entire lives within a 30-mile radius. They met few, if any, people outside of their extended families. And the wanderers they did meet were often beggars, vagrants, or outlaws. The Church’s MFP forced these isolated people to look outside their villages and kin groups for marriage partners. This forced openness, in the long run, ended up wiring people’s brains differently.

Young people are impressionable. When they are of marriageable age and are forced to meet and interact with strangers, and travel among them, traditional closed-kin psychological barriers gradually break down. They are gradually replaced with growing degrees of WEIRDness. It is a long, gradual process with many degrees. But over centuries, the effects add up.

None of the changes Henrich describes are genetic. None of them are racial, and none of them are peculiar to Europe. The conditions that make individuals WEIRD are cultural, intellectual, and psychological.

Using cousin marriage rates as a stand-in for how strong the Church’s Marriage and Family Program operated in different regions, along with historical records, Henrich finds that the MFP was the single biggest cause of everything from per capita GDP to interest rates to murder rates. Interestingly, regional cousin marriage rates closely track religious divisions and regional church influences. Henrich himself was skeptical about the MFP’s cultural influence, so he checked his results every way he could.

So, while openness is the real engine of WEIRDness, in Europe’s case, Church doctrine was what drove the process of opening up.

The differences between kin-based and WEIRD people show up in psychological tests. The Church’s MFP turns out to have changed people’s personalities and psychological profiles. In my recent review of Virgil Storr and Ginny Choi’s excellent Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?, I noted their finding that people from market societies play decision-making games differently than do people in non-market societies. Henrich argues that this is because they are psychologically different.

From birth, WEIRD people from market societies have been more exposed to outsiders and more likely to trust them. No wonder they tend to play lab games that way. They tend to be more trusting of other players and more willing to use long-term strategies. People from kin-based societies are more likely to do the equivalent of a dine-and-dash from a restaurant. If the other player is not from their in-group, they feel fewer compunctions about cheating that other player.

Kin-based and WEIRD people even assign blame differently. Most WEIRD people see classroom teachers’ disciplinary tactic of punishing an entire class for one student’s offense to be morally wrong. Kin-based people see this as normal, and are fine with it. They think more in terms of collective responsibility than individual responsibility. In fact, criminal justice systems in many kin-based societies punish whole families for one member’s crime.

There is a reason for this. In most human societies, life was precarious. One bad harvest could mean starvation. Very strong conformity norms were a survival advantage. Collective punishment helps to reinforce conformity norms. Maybe someone does have a new idea for planting a crop differently. But if it fails, the stakes are life and death. It’s probably not worth it. Better to make sure that everyone sticks with what he or she knows works.

When most people’s only experience with foreigners is with either castoffs or invading armies, they probably aren’t going to trust them. They’d probably return the favor when possible. Unlike trade, theft and war are zero-sum interactions. When these are someone’s sole experience with out-groups, they are less likely to trade with foreigners and realize the benefits of division of labor. Safer to do it all yourself.

Henrich has written a provocative book that builds on an already robust literature. Despite its deep historical and psychological content, The WEIRDest People in the World is also highly relevant to modern public policy. The regulations and legislation that groups like CEI deal with on a daily basis do not come from a vacuum. They come from longstanding political institutions. And these system-level institutions in turn come from culture. All three of those levels matter. A reformer who works on only one of them will fail. Henrich has come up with a plausible framework to explain how they interact over the long run, and how they can shift. Where people are relatively WEIRD, people will build relatively market-oriented political institutions—and eventually, policies. Where they are kin-based, they probably won’t.

Without the Church’s unofficial Marriage and Family Plan, European culture likely would have remained insular and kin-based. That tendency still exists, and is expressing itself in the European Union’s trending towards becoming a protectionist trading bloc. Reformers need to push back and remind people that WEIRD-style openness has massive benefits, especially for the poor.

What about the rest of the world? Fortunately, the Church’s MFP is not the one and only way for people to become psychologically WEIRD. Ideas can be imported and exported, same as goods and services. America was a relatively WEIRD society from the start, as was Australia. The Asian tigers such as Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, saw the economic success of WEIRD countries, and followed their example. China is at a weird midway point psychologically, and its institutions are still extractive and kin-based by WEIRD standards. This may limit China’s future growth as a global power.

The point is that setting a good example can do a lot more good than people think. This puts today’s nationalists and economic protectionists in an awkward position. They are not the future. They are throwbacks to an impoverished, unhappy past.

The post-1800 Great Enrichment that billions of people are enjoying today has deep and distant causes operating at multiple levels. Henrich’s thesis of WEIRD psychology, cultural openness, and economic prosperity will have a major impact on future work in geopolitics, economic development, political polling, immigration, and free trade for a long time to come.