Category Archives: History

Book Review: Frederick Lewis Allen – Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s

Frederick Lewis Allen – Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (New York: HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2015 [1931]).

A history of the 1920s, but written in 1931, when the memories were still fresh. The title is almost literal. I read part of it in undergrad and revisited it recently. Many historians would write this type of near-real time history by simply discussing the major news stories of the day in order. Allen goes for a more thematic approach. A typical chapter covers the entire decade from beginning to end, but covering a different theme. Topics include sex and morality, fashion, Prohibition, business and the economy, technology, leisure, sports, politics, and more. But Allen also sees larger overarching themes that tie all these mini-themes together—and this is what makes his book so compelling.

The 1920s saw shared mass culture arise in a way that hadn’t been seen before. It would be a while before there was a television in every room. But every town had a movie theater, and the radio was mass-adopted more quickly than perhaps any other technology. Radio, along with maturing telephone and telegraph networks, enabled instant mass communication. Mass-produced automobiles meant that people lived their lives in a much broader area than before. For the first time, people could live in one city and work in another. Daytrips or weekend trips to other states became commonplace.

This led to an explosion of shared culture. The 1920s were filled with fads, sensations, and cultural icons—flappers, Babe Ruth and his home runs, title fights like Dempsey-Tunney, Mahjong, crossword puzzles, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh and other aviators, and more. Nothing like this had ever happened before, at least on such a scale.

Allen also notes the very different starting and ending points of the 1920s. It began just after the end of World War I, and ended with the onset of the Great Depression. These natural bookends are grist for occasional meditations for an almost life-cycle view of the decade. A young nation began the decade eager and optimistic to rebuild and make something new after the war was won. This exuberance gave way to an industrious middle age filled with work and reward. Finally, a jaded old age kicks in as youthful excesses brought economic ruin. I share the historian William McNeill’s skepticism of these types of stories. Nations and cultures are never young or old, individuals are.

A lot of Only Yesterday is surprisingly contemporary. Maybe not so much the bits about the annual rises and falls of women’s hemlines, where an inch’s change towards or a way from the knee was a major national event. But Allen’s description of how people reacted to the rise of mass media sounds an awful like how people are reacting today to the Internet, smartphones, and social media. People had all kinds of overblown reactions to it, both in favor and against it. And the technologies drove all kinds of fads. Back then, it was Mahjong. Today, it’s Candy Crush. People were able to pay much closer attention to national events than before.

There was a lot of handwringing about the changes in the news and media industries, and the effect this saturation would have on people’s health and happiness, and on America’s political system. Despite all the melodrama, people got through it—just as our generation will. Today’s generation is hardly the first one that needs to calm down about the media industry.

This is one of those books that is surprisingly hard to put down. Allen’s biggest shortcoming is a common cultural failure—an unthinking condescension towards business and commerce. Like a lot of people, he took Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt a little too seriously. And he frequently—almost reflexively, without really thinking about it—makes cutting remarks at businessmen, peoples’ work lives, or almost anything having to do with finance. The unspoken implication is that the author is above such earthly concerns, and his readers should be as well. This tendency is off-putting, and distracts from an otherwise superb volume of history.

Book Review: David Christian – Origin Story: A Big History of Everything

David Christian – Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2018).

A breezy, big-picture history of the universe in the tradition of Bill Bryson. On the plus side, Christian’s approach is less sensationalistic than Bryson’s. On the downside, that means it is a little less entertaining as well. But that’s only in relative terms. In absolute terms, this book is highly enjoyable, and I liked it better than Bryson’s. The early chapters, from the Big Bang on up to the early solar system, are strong on cosmology. From there, the emphasis changes to geology, cellular biology, anthropology, and then a little bit of economics and sociology and a guess at where technology is headed. Maybe not a book for specialists, but they would gain perspective from engaging outside their specialty—which is good all-around life advice as well.

Book Review: Ben Wilson – Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention

Ben Wilson – Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention (New York: Doubleday, 2020).

A wide-ranging world history told through the lens of cities. Wilson bounces around between Asia, Europe, and America, and concludes in Lagos, Nigeria, which is well on its way to becoming one of the world’s major urban centers. Wilson feels at home discussing subjects as diverse as the Epic of Gilgamesh and its relationship to Uruk, the first big city; coffeehouse culture in 18th century London, with its undercurrents of political dissent and rebellion against social norms; the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their fast but difficult recovery; and the birth of skyscrapers in jazz age New York and the dashed grand plans for remaking social orders in glass and steel. For a Brit, he is also surprisingly well-versed in the early history of hip-hop.

Wilson is a cheerful tour guide and has a conversational prose style that reads quickly. Metropolis would go well with any number of books, ranging from James C. Scott’s Against the Grain about the close relationship between early agriculture, the first cities, and the first governments; Monica Smith’s very similar Cities: The First 6,000 Years; and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, the influential urban economist who took on Robert Moses’ machine politics in New York City in the mid-twentieth century.

Book Review: Judith Herrin – Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

Judith Herrin – Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press , 2020).

Less a history of Ravenna, than a history of Europe from about 390 to 813 AD. Herrin’s history ranges from Late Antiquity (Early Christianity in Herrin’s terminology) up to Charlemagne. Ravenna is more of a constant background character in a larger narrative than the star.

Ravenna has a fascinating place in history, and I would have loved to have learned more about the city itself. As the Roman Empire’s focus moved east, the city of Rome lost its luster. Ravenna became something of a second capital city on the Italian peninsula. Emperors would live their entire lives in or near Ravenna, perhaps visiting Rome once or twice in their reign to give a ceremonial appearance before the Senate, which still existed, but had no purpose other than to keep Rome’s remaining wealth squabbling with each other rather than with the Emperor.

But the Empire’s center of gravity continued to move east past Ravenna, to Constantinople. Ravenna never really got its due as the capital of a major empire. First, Diocletian split the Empire into separate Eastern and Western halves in the late third century AD. This would have been Ravenna’s best time to shine, but it was always overshadowed by Constantinople, the Eastern capital. Then the Western half collapsed in 476, and Ravenna slowly descended into obscurity—though as Herrin shows, for this entire period, and for centuries to come, it was still home to fascinating figures and power struggles.

Herrin does not go into great detail about Ravenna’s layout, architecture, daily life and culture, economy, intellectual life, geography, or much else about he city. But she does an excellent job on her narrower focus of monarchs and politics. The amount of times Ravenna changed hands between Romans, Byzantines, Goths, and eventually proto-national dynasties is astounding. Ravenna might rarely have been the center of attention, but it was nearly always part of the action. Most of Herrin’s narrative centers around powerful rulers.

Galla Placidia (d. 437 AD), the daughter of the Gothic emperor Theodosius I and regent to Valentinian III, emerges as a powerful figure at a time when women rulers were extremely rare. She spent part of her early life in the household of the Roman general Stilicho (d. 408), who became a de facto emperor. She was captured by the invader Alaric’s army, and married the Visigothic king Ataulf, becoming their queen. After he was murdered, she eventually married the Roman emperor Constantius II, with whom she had a son, Valentinian III, and served as his regent.

Theoderic the Great (d. 526) was an Ostrogothic king who filled the power vacuum left by the fall of Rome, and fought off the Byzantines, as Eastern Empire had come to be called. As an Arian Christian, he played an outsize role in early Church schisms, which the Arians lost.

Justinian (d. 565) was Byzantine emperor about a generation after Theoderic’s time. He came as close as anyone to reuniting the two halves through his general Valisarius, though he ultimately fell short. He also issued an influential law code in 525, and the Hagia Sophia was built during his reign—though far from Ravenna.

After Justinian’s death, the Lombards (“long beards”), thought to be of Scandinavian origin, took over Northern Italy, including Ravenna. They were in turn displaced by the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled over large pats of what is now France, and then the Carolingian dynasty, which takes its name from its founder Carolus Magnus, which translates from the Latin as “Chuck the Great.” He is today known as Charlemagne.

Charlemagne represents a lot of things. Two of the most important are the power struggle between church and state, and the power dynamics between East and West. Ravenna was home to the Byzantine papacy from 537 to 752, when it moved back to Rome under Stephen III. This represented a shift in the center of gravity from the East back to the West. In 800, the pope crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in St. Peter’s Basilica—in Rome, not Ravenna. This was another data point for the Western revival. It also marked a shift in power from church back to state.

A third Carolingian theme is European unification. After centuries of squabbling between Romans, Byzantines, barbarians, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and Muslims, Charlemagne centralized power over the whole region in himself. And again, Ravenna did not play a starring role. The main locations for this drama were in Rome and Aachen, Charlemagne’s rising capital to the North that had its own symbolic significance. But Ravenna was right there in the middle, taking it all in.

Herrin’s book might have done with either a different title, or with more attention paid to the city in its title. But it is still an excellent history about a period and a city that do not get enough attention from either historians or their readers.

America Really Is Revolutionary

Several scholars I respect, including Daniel Hannan in his 2013 book Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, have argued that the American Revolution was more of an attempt to return to traditional English principles, than to create something new.

He has a point. John Locke’s influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is obvious. The Founders also drew on Magna Carta, the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the rationalism of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, and the larger common law tradition.

Even so, this Burkean interpretation has always sat uneasily with me. I’ve struggled to articulate why, beyond a simple feeling that liberal revolutions–liberal in the original, correct sense–are generally not conservative.

Clemson University historian C. Bradley Thompson puts a finger on it in his 2019 book America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. Here is a passage from page 69, quoting from a June 5, 1824 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright:

Rather than searching into “musty records,” hunting up “royal parchments,” or investigating “the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry,” the Americans appealed to the great principles “of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.” The Revolution, according to Jefferson, presented the Americans with “an album on which we were free to write what we pleased.”

These are not the sentiments of someone who saw himself as defending tradition. Or, as the (English!) comedian Michael Palin put it in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Listen. Strange women, lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government!

Jean-Baptiste Say on Manufacturing Nostalgia and Industrial Policy

There is a reason the classics never go out of style. For example, on page 62 of Charles Robert Prinsep’s translation of Jean-Baptiste Say’s 1803 A Treatise on Political Economy, Say writes:

Production is the creation, not of matter, but of utility.

That one sentence captures one of today’s major debates: the decline of manufacturing. Which matters more: output for its own sake, or the value people get from that output? Most economists agree with Say that utility matters more. It doesn’t matter how much steel a factory can crank out if people don’t get value from it. On the opposite side are economic populists such as Oren Cass on the right and Sen. Sherrod Brown on the left.

Many politicians are convinced that manufacturing is in decline, and are advocating far-reaching industrial policies from Washington to save it. Unlike Say, they seem to believe that there is something intrinsically better about creating physical goods, rather than services, ideas, or technologies. To them, matter is what matters most. This is not a reductio ad absurdum. Cass, in his book The Once and Future Worker, advocates subsidizing industries and even entire towns engaged in manufacturing, even if their products create so little value that few people want to buy them. Rather than doing more with less, Cass argues for the opposite.

This view is mistaken in two ways. First, according to the data, U.S. manufacturing is in good health. Second, the size of this or that sector doesn’t matter anyway. What does matter is that people are able to create as much value for each other as they can. Sometimes that involves manufacturing, and sometimes it doesn’t. Policy makers in Washington will never be in a place to correctly decide that ever-changing mix.

Pre-COVID manufacturing output in the U.S. was at near-record levels, though dented a bit by President Trump’s trade policies. It is still too early to tell what COVID’s impact will be, but it almost certainly will not be good. Fortunately, economic fundamentals remain strong. While recovery will likely take a few years, manufacturing will likely resume its long-term steady climb.

Even when populists do acknowledge the data, they worry that manufacturing output growth is slower than in other sectors of the economy. This is why manufacturing’s share of GDP is smaller than it used to be. This is just a more nuanced version of the same mistake. The percentage of GDP taken up by this or that industry does not matter. What matters is that consumers are free to spend on what gives them value.

The ongoing shift from manufacturing to services is hardly at the same level as the earlier shift from farming to manufacturing. But the impulse to oppose the change is the same. Even Adam Smith, who was no Luddite, distinguished between “productive” labor, which was agricultural, and “unproductive” labor, which was most non-agricultural. Today, Cass and other industrial policy advocates draw a similar distinction between productive manufacturing and less productive non-manufacturing jobs.

The data have a problem with this argument, too. Even back in the 1940s and 1950s, the service sector had roughly triple manufacturing’s GDP share. The populists’ fixation on ratios, rather than how much wealth people are creating, is a similar mistake to the one in the inequality debate Iain Murray and I pointed to in our paper “People, not Ratios.”

Say’s Treatise was published in 1803, about a generation after Adam Smith and right at the point in history when industrialization was becoming noticeable in Say’s native France. This was the beginning of the Great Enrichment that has raised incomes in the richer countries by 30-fold or so, and is still operating today.

This brings up the second flaw in today’s economic populism. Not only do populists often get the data wrong, they make a fundamental error about what people value.

Say’s insight is that if people value something, it doesn’t matter if it was made this way or that way, or on a farm or a factory, or even whether it is a physical product that a person can hold, or sit on, or drive. This is true regardless of an industry’s NAICS code, which is an artificial distinction anyway.

The whole point of labor is to create value for people, not to create it only in ways that Peter Navarro or Elizabeth Warren approve of. As Say says, what matters isn’t matter; it’s utility.

Retro Review: William H. McNeill – Plagues and Peoples (1976)

William McNeill was one of the 20th century’s leading big-picture world historians. Interconnectedness is a major running theme of his work. This reviewer, whose work focuses quite a bit on trade policy, has found McNeill’s approach to history quite useful.

McNeill was a student of Arnold Toynbee, who instead emphasized separation and conflict as key drivers of world history. In a way, McNeill spent his career disagreeing with his teacher, thus living out the dreams of countless frustrated students.

Plagues and Peoples applies McNeill’s interconnectedness emphasis to disease as an engine of world history. This is of obvious interest in the wake of COVID-19. What can we learn from how other societies have dealt with plagues? What were mistakes we can avoid? What things worked that we can adapt to our own time?

McNeill’s book begins in prehistory and goes all the way up to modern times. In a later edition’s preface, McNeill briefly analyzes the AIDS epidemic, although in this reviewer’s opinion, that part has not aged well.

The rest of the book mostly has. That said, its focus on disease means that McNeill, at least in Plagues and Peoples, gives short shrift to other historical factors This is a forgivable sin; books have only so much space, and McNeill gives them plenty of attention in other works such, as his mistitled The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), which spends more time out of the West than in it. But it is up to the reader to remember that history is nearly always multicausal.

As population grew after the agricultural revolution, long-separated peoples gradually came into contact with each other. Each group had suffered from its own local diseases. These depended on climate, geography, livestock, and agricultural choices. Tropical diseases rarely adapt well to cold climates, and vice versa.

An early obstacle to animal domestication was disease transmission between species. Over time, humans built up immune tolerances to their animal companions’ diseases. But different regions had different domesticated species, and hence different immunities. This caused outbreaks when people with different domesticated animals made first contact. Rice farmers, who spend much of their time wading through standing water, face a very different disease mix than farmers of grains or legumes, who deal with land-based diseases transmitted from insects, pests, and animal feces.

When different cultures first came into contact, there were often terrible outbreaks at their borders—this happened throughout Eurasia as agriculture and cities spread across the continent. If people near borders continued to interact, they built up mutual immunities to each other’s diseases, and could then benefit from trade, specialization, and cultural exchange.

But if there were long breaks in contact for whatever reason, the immunization process might have to start all over again. And sometimes people might decide it wasn’t worth the bother. These types of local disease-related decisions could impact generations of economic well-being, as well as decisions of war and peace.

This same process happened on a much larger scale after Columbus. It was also far more intense. The wild versions of the Americas’ domesticated animals, such as llamas and alpacas, did not live densely together enough to sustain highly infectious diseases. That means they didn’t pass them along to humans during domestication. So not only were Amerindian civilizations capable of greater density with fewer diseases than was possible in Europe, people in the Americas also had far fewer antibodies. This is one reason why contact with Europeans and their animals hit so hard.

Some diseases also require a minimum population density to survive. This includes diseases where the sufferer gains lifelong immunity after illness, such as chicken pox. Such diseases need constant access to fresh hosts who have not yet developed immunity. Often the only places with enough density and fresh hosts are cities. Cities, it turns out, were a major development for more than just humans.

At the macro level, high disease rates in cities played a major role in millennia of urban-rural interactions. There were fewer diseases out in the country, so population growth there was often rapid. In cities, deaths usually outpaced births until modern times—and modern sanitation. Cities depended on rural migration to maintain population—at precisely the same time as rural population growth was too high to bear. So rural-to-urban migration balanced out both environments.

This delicate equilibrium was often upset by wars, famines, and other non-disease factors. But this equilibrating tendency was the norm for most of history, and disease rates played a major role in the rate of urbanization until the last century or so.

This had special importance in post-classical Europe. Feudal ties bound rural peasants to nobles and kings. But the rise of cities, who often answered to no king, offered refuge to peasants, who continued to migrate away from kings into cities. A custom evolved whereby an escaped serf who was able to live in a city for a year and a day without being captured was legally emancipated. This is where the phrase “city air makes one free” came from, as well as city names such as Freiburg (“free town”). Disease rates, which kept cities constantly in need of fresh migrants, played an important role in this cultural and political dynamic.

Moreover, these power struggles, with disease always operating in the background, prevented kings from becoming too strong. These checks and balances eventually led to city- and democracy-based modernity as we know it today.

One of the most interesting concepts in Plagues and Peoples is McNeill’s comparison of microparasites and macroparasites. Viral and bacterial pathogens are microparasites. Some of their behavioral tendencies repeat themselves at a macro level in humans. An example of this is in McNeill’s theory of government.

McNeill’s theory of the origins of the state is similar Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory, but with a disease-centered twist. McNeill observes that diseases that are too lethal don’t survive for very long. They kill their host so quickly that they cannot spread. This is why Ebola breakouts, though terrifying, tend not to spread very far. At the macroparasite level, a bandit who completely destroys an agricultural settlement feeds himself for a day. But after that, like Ebola, he might have a hard time finding food.

More “successful” diseases such as colds, flus, or malaria make their hosts ill enough to exhibit contagion-spreading behaviors such as coughing, sneezing, or diarrhea. But they don’t kill them. Or at least, death does not come quickly enough to stop the pathogen’s spread. In the microparasite world, a milder human bandit also does much better for himself. He takes enough to feed himself, but not enough to starve his “hosts.”

The concept of immunity also plays a role. If the bandit “immunizes” his hosts against competing bandits, they gain security. The bandit not only gains a steady food source, but his immunized villagers may actually be happy to have him around; a chronic but mild illness is preferable to sudden death.

Analogous to biological natural selection, destructive roving bandits eventually gave way to milder stationary bandits, who gradually took on the trappings and functions of proper governments. And in social evolution, change need not mean death. A simple change in strategy is enough for a roving bandit to change into a stationary bandit. From this selection process, the earliest states emerged. One needn’t take the disease analogy too literally for it to shed useful light on an important process in human history. James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States has much to offer readers interested in pursuing this direction further.

McNeill then applies this framework throughout world history. Confucianism arose in China as a successful macroparasitic adaptation to “keep exactions imposed upon the peasantry within traditional and, under most circumstances, tolerable limits.” (p. 101) The Confucian examination system limited the number of government officials, and imposed cultural, ethical, and institutional restraints on their behavior. The Confucian system kept Leviathan properly shackled, as Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson might argue (see my review of their recent book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty).

This dynamic, McNeill theorizes, might explain why the earliest known governments in Egypt and Mesopotamia were highly despotic, even compared to later absolute monarchies.

The 14th century bubonic plague pandemic known as the Black Death happened as it did in large part due to interconnectedness. As always in history, there were many factors. The plague bacillus tended to be stable only in rodent communities in remote areas. The rise of the Mongols and their fast-moving horses not only displaced many of these rodent communities, but their swift-moving horses—and enticing grains and other foods—drove rodents across the Eurasian continent. Independently, “Improvements in ship design occurring in the 13th century made year-round sailing normal for the first time,” which “offered securer and more far-ranging vehicles for rats.” (pp. 176-177). These multiple engines of interconnectedness made plague vectors spread faster and farther than they otherwise would have.

The plague response also has a potential lesson for today’s policy makers. On p. 195, McNeill observes:

In contrast to the rigidities of the church, city governments, especially in Italy, responded rather quickly to the challenges presented by devastating disease. Magistrates learned how to cope at the practical level, organizing burials, safeguarding food deliveries, hiring doctors, and establishing other regulations for public and private behavior in time of plague.

The Church was a very different creature than today’s federal or national governments, but the larger principle stands: smaller, closer governments tend to be more responsive than larger, distant ones. People today expect more of Washington than it could possibly deliver during the time of COVID-19. Effective responses will instead tend to come at the individual, local, and state levels.

Retro Reviews: Azar Gat with Alexander Yakobson – Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2013)

Though military historian Azar Gat wrote Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, he gives extensive credit to fellow historian Alexander Yakobson for his comments and advice contributed throughout the book. Yakobson also authored the final chapter. I read this book at the recommendation of my former colleague Alex Nowrasteh.

Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism has become the standard defense of nationalism. The trouble is that Hazony’s defense is not very coherent. In a sense, Hazony wrote a book-length version of “it’s not about race.” Hazony also struggles to say what nationalism might be about instead. Hazony also argues that nationalism is a recent phenomenon. After all, nations as we know them today have only been around for a few centuries.

Gat’s two main arguments cause problems for Yazony-style thinkers. One, nationalism is ancient. In fact, the impulses behind it predate our species. They are an inescapable part of the human condition. Two, nationalism is mostly about race. More precisely, it is mostly about ethnicity. Not exclusively, but mostly. Gat uses a broader, boutique definition of ethnicity for the purposes of his discussion, about which more below. But race is an important part of his use of the term. Unlike Hazony, he does not dodge the question.

Gat also does not defend nationalism. Nor is he interested in attacking it, though he is clearly put off by the cultural chauvinism and belligerence that often accompany nationalism, even in relatively peaceful places such as France. Gat instead seeks understanding. What makes nationalists tick? Why do they hold their beliefs? This 2013 book came out before nationalism regained its current voguishness in populist movements around the world. Nations may be a better book for that reason. It provides light without the heat that current events can inspire.

Nationalism predates the concept of nation, which is one reason why Gat focuses on ethnicity. To Gat, nationalism is just one possible way of expressing a deeper impulse. Gat doesn’t cite Adam Smith’s circle of concern theory from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but his thinking is similar. Basically, people care more about people close to them than they do about people who are socially distant. People care most about themselves. They care very much about close relatives such as children and siblings, though a bit less than about themselves. They care a bit less than that about cousins, aunts, and uncles, still less about second cousins, and so on.

The circle of concern is not an ironclad rule that applies in every single case, as Richard Dawkins convincingly argues in The Selfish Gene—along with any parents who have made sacrifices for their children. But as a guide to understanding human behavior, the circle of concern is a universal tendency.

As Adam Smith put it, a person in England will lose more sleep over losing his little finger than over a hundred thousand people dying in a natural disaster in China. This might sound cold or callous, and it is. Smith himself disapproved of this tendency. But Smith was writing about “is,” not ”should.” Those are separate questions, similar to the difference between fact and opinion. The reason Smith made that point, even though he did not like it, is that it is true.

In fact, growing the circle of concern was one of Smith’s greatest hopes for humanity. In a way, the whole project of modernity and the post-1800 Great Enrichment has consisted of people growing their circles of concern en masse. This moral vision, far more than material gain, was the foundation of Adam Smith’s case for free trade. It is the moral foundation for liberalism as a whole—liberalism in the original, and correct sense of the word.

Where does nationalism enter this picture? Humans have more sophisticated social arrangements than other animals, so our Smithian circle of concern naturally tends to be wider than in other species. For 95 percent of our 200,000-year history as a species, we lived in mostly-related clans of 50 to 150 people or so. But these bands would often slightly overlap with other nearby clans. While these encounters were often far from friendly, they provided a chance for groups to trade and to exchange members through intermarriage. This prevented inbreeding and created opportunities for trade, or for depleted groups to replenish their numbers.

There was an evolutionary advantage to having some social ties between clans between these clans, even if not at the same level as within-clan ties—again, remember the selfish gene. Often these adjacent clans would meet for seasonal feasts, holidays, or religious ceremonies—a form of social evolution that helped to strengthen survival-enhancing bonds.

Evidence from surviving classical sources such as Herodotus, Caesar, and Tacitus, as well as modern anthropologists studying today’s tribal peoples, have all found surprisingly similar pre-national social structures around the world, despite all the local cultural differences.

These networks of 500 to 1,000 people or so are about the outer limit of the number of personal relationships a human is able to maintain. Beyond that, everyone is a stranger. And strangers with no binding ties were as likely to steal food or kidnap mates as they were to trade peacefully. That is why people have an instinct to affirm their in-group and vilify their out-groups—back in the day, it was a survival mechanism.

Natural selection processes chose people whose circle of concern was wide enough to include adjacent groups, not just their everyday in-group. We are their descendants. At the same time, there was no such pressure for the circle of concern to extend wider than this, to perfect strangers—until very recently. Too recently for evolution to catch up to our new social circumstances.

As human societies scaled up into city-states, regional empires, and eventually nation-states, all the different facets of Gat’s concept of ethnicity come into play to progressively greater degrees. Having something in common, such as a language, religion, or a shared hometown or king gave people something in common. It made for an easy mental shortcut to determine if a stranger could be trusted.

Gat argues that language is usually the most important ethnic identifier. If someone does not speak your language, or does so with a noticeable accent, they are clearly other. Religion is another ethnic identifier. Someone who prays to foreign gods probably isn’t from around here. Dress and appearance matter for the same reason. The European divide of beer and butter in the North, versus wine and olive oil in the South, is another point of division. Jews and Muslims took their dietary customs with them throughout their travels, keeping them ethnically apart—in Gat’s sense of the term—from pork-eating peoples regardless of where they settled down. As the comedian George Carlin observed, people will always find excuses not to get along. Just ask sports fans at a Packers-Bears game.

While the genetic view of race is a fairly recent phenomenon, people have also always marked themselves apart by racial appearances. And ironically, the reason we do this is genetic. That means Gat’s argument about ethnicity and nationalism both is and is not genetically based. Race is literally only skin deep. But the reason why people so often fight so fiercely about race and ethnicity has genetic roots that are universal to our species. And race is just one of approximately a million and one ways to express that larger inborn tendency. That is where nationalism comes from—human nature’s in-group-out-group instinct.

Gat combines many of these factors in a very wide concept of ethnicity that varies from place to place and changes over time. Sometime around the invention of agriculture, out of this evolving mush eventually came the concept of fixed political boundaries. These too came about organically, usually in line with ethnic boundaries.

But because different facets of ethnicity have different boundaries, a single geographic line can never accurately reflect ethnic lines. It is literally impossible. Maybe two people with common genetics, language, and territory have a different religion, as in Serbia and Croatia. It is impossible to set a national boundary that fits every facet of ethnic identity, so war ensued. In many places, two or more different ethnicities live enmeshed together in the same cities and neighborhoods. If each wants its own state, how does one create a fair boundary?

These types of questions are difficult, and maybe impossible to answer. And that is one reason why war will likely always be with us. So will other, usually less lethal forms of social division.

This aspect of Gat’s thesis reminds this reader of the virtues of a cultural-national version of Ostrom-style polycentrism. Typical government services such as schools, parks, roads, and police are very different from each other. They each serve different constituencies with different needs and different boundaries. And the city workers providing those services all have their own varying needs. So why are nearly all of these wildly different services administered at just a few fixed levels—city, state, and federal?

This kind of shoehorning often has adverse effects on the quality of those services. Just as more flexible scaling of government services can make them more effective, maybe the same is true of nations. One size clearly does not fit all, as any history book will tell you. Maybe allowing for multiple concurrent sizes of “nation” that adapt over time would allow different people to live together more peacefully.

That, in a nutshell, is Gat’s thesis, plus a few outside applications of it. To illustrate his arguments, Gat spends the last two thirds or so of the book on a survey of world history. He briefly visits nearly every time period on every continent in at least enough detail to show how ethnicity and national sentiments have intertwined, peacefully and not. The same ethnic dynamics were nearly always in play before, during, and after modern nation-states emerged as we know them today. Yakobson’s concluding chapter applies his and Gat’s framework to present-day (in 2013) politics around the world.

Nations is the rare book that makes the reader see the world differently, permanently. It provides a magnifying lens that, when properly held, can bring into focus important details on world history; modern history; why countries exist in the first place; why larger structures such as the European Union (EU) are controversial despite being peaceful; why the EU’s faults are not necessarily random; and on today’s in-progress worldwide political realignment, which is increasingly based around a nationalism-versus-liberalism axis, rather than a socialism-versus-liberalism axis.

It’s Good to Think Long-Term

From Kindle location 710 of Adam Thierer’s excellent 2020 book Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments:

If the primary indictment of technological innovation is that it has inundated us with too much information or too many options, those are good problems compared with the more serious problems our ancestors faced.

You can read about some of those problems in Fernand Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life or William Manchester’s evocatively titled A World Lit Only by Fire.  Today’s political debates would improve if more people had that larger historical arc in the back of their minds.

New CEI Series: Retro Book Reviews

My colleague Richard Morrison is overseeing a new series of retro book reviews. In a fast-moving policy world focused mostly on breaking news, sometimes it’s useful to step back, look at the larger picture, and see how people have reacted to similar problems in the past. Richard’s introductory post is here.

The first retro review is also up. It’s my review of Eric Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which has some surprisingly relevant lessons for the coronavirus response. That review, drawn from a version originally published at this site, is here.

Which reminds me, I have a lengthy backlog of reviews to post from books I’ve recently read, several of which are already written. I will post them when time allows.