Category Archives: History

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.

Book Review: A.J. Liebling – The Earl of Louisiana

Review of A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961)

A colorful book by a colorful author. I read this as preparation for a work event in New Orleans, which I had not previously visited. Liebling was a journalist for The New Yorker who was assigned to write about Earl Long’s 1959 campaign for governor of Louisiana. Liebling’s enthusiasm for food and drink were legendary, and his accounts of his and his interviewees’ restaurant meals are almost unbelievable. Earl Long, the younger brother of the legendary Huey Long, had a mental breakdown during the campaign and was forcibly institutionalized in Texas for a time before returning to the campaign trail.

Liebling gives a vivid portrait of Long. But he paints an even more vivid portrait of Louisianan politics and culture. As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, people in Louisiana don’t expect their politicians to be corrupt; they insist upon it. The people Liebling meets, whether high-ranking officials or ordinary man-in-the-street types, speak to this truth, often hilariously so. Liebling draws frequent parallels between Louisiana’s political system and Middle Eastern oil dictatorships. There are obvious differences, but also enough parallels to give one pause.

Charles Davenant on the Need for Humility in Policymaking

Douglas Irwin, on page 53 of his 1996 book Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade, quotes from page 32 of Charles Davenant’s 1696 Essay on the East India Trade:

“Wisdom is most commonly in the wrong, when it pretends to direct nature.”

This wisdom applies to much more than trade restrictions and government-granted monopolies.

Immanuel Wallerstein – The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

Immanuel Wallerstein – The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

Wallerstein was the primary creator of the core-periphery framework that many historians use to view world economic history. This 1974 book started it all. Several publishers rejected his initial manuscript, but when he did finally get it published, it caught on quickly. Wallerstein eventually completed four volumes in the series before he passed away in 2019.

In the context of the 16th century, the first major core country was Spain, though the Netherlands and England eventually overtook it as silver-induced inflation and the costs of empire caused Spanish decline. The two periods of Spanish dominance and Dutch-English dominance make up what Wallerstein calls the long 16th century. The periphery economies were the somewhat nearby countries that traded with these core economies throughout the long 16th century, and on through later periods.

Typically, periphery economies provide raw materials and food, which the core countries either consume or turn into more finished products. At this stage of the world economy, there were still countries outside of the European core-periphery network. For Wallerstein, these are simply separate economic systems. The boundaries are fluid, and Wallerstein was quick to point out that his categories are not categorical. Countries such as Poland and the Ukraine were nearly always periphery countries in this period. Russia went in and out of the periphery over the years. Farther-off countries such as India and China had their own independent core-periphery networks.

By the 20th century, with industrialization, mass media, and air travel, the entire world was unified into a single core-periphery system. In this book’s focus, the two-part “long 16th century,” this had not yet happened. But this was also the period when that process began in earnest, which is why Wallerstein’s larger project began there.

Wallerstein was a Marxist, and it shows in his hyper-materialist view of history, and his neglect of individuals in favor of focusing on aggregates such as nations, regions, and classes. It also causes him to ignore non-material factors such as culture, art, social norms about openness and progress, and more. Though he favorably cites Douglass North a few times, proving at least some engagement with the economic history literature, he also is not the most astute economic analyst, especially in matters of monetary policy. He seems not to grasp the concepts of equilibrium, the neutrality of money, or the law of one price. These shortcomings are not fatal to his core-periphery thesis, but they don’t help his case.

As the world becomes ever more prosperous in the 21st century, Wallerstein’s core-periphery framework is quickly becoming obsolete. It’s not the worst way to view the history of empires of colonialism, which are based on exploitation and hierarchy. But the world of the post-1800 Great Enrichment is based increasingly on equal exchange and cross-cultural tolerance and respect. There is a long way to go, obviously, and there will be stutters and reversal. But if the process continues, Wallerstein’s thesis will age as poorly as his Marxism already has.

William Dalrymple – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

William Dalrymple – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

The East India Company (EIC) was one of history’s largest monopolies. Its story is relevant to today’s antitrust debate, and the larger question of where the private sector ends and the public sector begins. Dalrymple seems eager to paint a portrait of capitalist and corporate greed, but the facts won’t quite allow it. He grudgingly allows that the EIC was not a free-market institution, but he often insists on treating it that way just the same.

The EIC was a public-private partnership from the start, and received government bailouts. It had de facto taxing authority in India, a power no fully private company enjoys. The EIC had its own 200,000-strong army, twice the size of the British army. The East India Company was a government in everything but name, and it acted like it, to the point of toppling India’s existing government in 1765 and replacing it with itself.

Contemporary economists and philosophers such as Adam Smith and even the conservative Edmund Burke opposed empire and its accoutrements not just on moral grounds, but on fiscal grounds. Ventures such as the EIC cost the government more than they made from it.

Dalrymple doesn’t go into this as much as he should, but the EIC’s story shows that there is no bright line where the private sector ends and government begins. This kind of philosophical discussion would have been very useful for clarifying his message.

The lessons from the East India Company’s story apply to today’s climate of too-big-to-fail, bailouts for politically connected industries, and subsidy programs for businesses big and small. All of these nearly always come with political strings attached, and mix together the public and private in ways few outside of the economics profession expected. Beneficiary companies become executors of government policy, rather than engines of value creation.

In the EIC’s case, this meant corruption, coups, atrocities, war crimes, and racially motivated mass murders. Today’s rent-seekers’ interests are mostly limited to greed, fortunately. But they are still worth fighting about, and EIC’s cautionary tale is useful for that fight.

Paul Kriwaczek – Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

Paul Kriwaczek – Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

A survey history of Mesopotamia from about 8,000 years ago until the sixth century B.C., with a special emphasis on Babylon, from its rise around 1800 B.C. to its collapse.

The chapters on cuneiform writing, commerce, the birth of trade, and the Sumerian education are especially fascinating. One of the most common archaeological finds are clay writing tablets that students used for practice. From these, we can glean much about how writing was taught, as well as what was taught. Another useful insight is that Mesopotamian language was a lot like ours. It depended heavily on context and inside cultural knowledge. In our time, a sign with a picture of a car can mean many things—a warning for pedestrians, or to mark a parking spot or a garage, and so on. Many cuneiform words were the same way. Their base-60 numbering system treated decimal places similarly—the only way to tell, say, 26 from 206 or 2,006 was context. One imagines this was grist for many a court case.

The famously severe legal codes of Hammurabi and other Mesopotamian figures had a similar lack of literalism. The more severe punishments, including a horrific precursor to Roman crucifixion, were either written down only to instill fear, or were carried out extremely rarely for the same reason. A Gary Becker-inspired economic analysis of how the severity and frequency of Mesopotamian punishments affected crime rates would make for an interesting historical study, though the data collection problems are rather obvious.

Carrie Gibson – El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America

Carrie Gibson – El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America

The history of North America from the British perspective is a fascinating story. But it’s been done a thousand times. Gibson takes a different approach, visiting the period from the Spanish side. For a fuller picture of North American history than most people get, El Norte would pair well with Bernard Bailyn’s British-focused The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations. Bailyn’s book is a fascinating, if overly detailed, account of the early years on the Eastern seaboard—and the barbarism in his title applies at least as much to the British at least as much as the people they thought barbaric.

But when the British landed at Plymouth Rock, Spanish explorers had already been on the continent for a century. That’s where Gibson come in. She focuses mostly on North America, bringing in South America only where relevant, and also giving some attention to the Caribbean islands, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico. Their interactions with mainland North America have taken many turns over the years, many of which were new to this reader, who is not well-versed in Caribbean history.

For example, the baseball bug bit Cuba early, with the game becoming its national pastime and the island exporting star players as early as the 1920s; Fidel Castro’s passion for the game did not emerge from a vacuum. Today’s Cuban major leaguers, including stars such as Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, and Yoenis Cespedes, are part of a long tradition that predates Cuba’s disastrous revolution that they defected from. Gibson also goes into what Cuban cultural and economic life was like before the revolution. Cuba was well on its way to emerging from a brutal sugar-based economy to one with vibrant business, entertainment, and tourism sectors when the 1957 Revolution turned out the lights, often literally.

Gibson also goes into Puerto Rico’s complicated relationship with the United States that is somehow both close and distant, even today, and the origins of its large expat community in New York City.

The meat of the book dances around from state to state across the southern United States. Gibson spends a lot of time on Louisiana, which spent time in Spanish hands as well as French, as well as in Florida, which remained a Spanish possession even after American independence—Spain and the U.S. were once technically neighbors.

The Southwest also gets its due. The political, ethnic, and cultural boundaries between Mexico and Texas were more fluid back then they are today; today’s border is essentially an accident that stayed in place. There is nothing special about the Rio Grande river, as anyone who has been there will likely tell you. Gibson takes the read from Texas’ Gulf coast through the hill country, and on through New Mexico, Arizona, and California, including the Baja peninsula, from roughly the 16th century up to the present.

Gibson does tie Hispanic-American history somewhat into current events at the vey beginning and end of the book. This makes some sense given the tensions over immigration and nationalism the Trump administration has been stirring up, which will almost certainly outlast it. But Gibson’s focus is more on the history. This is ultimately more effective. Besides being mostly free of off-putting political posturing, Gibson shows that borders, when seen in larger context, are not so sacred. People, language, and culture are fluid, always in motion, and always evolving. The same cannot be said of parochial politics.

Simon Winchester – The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Simon Winchester – The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

After a brief appreciation of the notion of precision and how it differs from accuracy, Winchester begins with the story of longitude and John Harrison’s precision clocks. The general organizational theme of the book is chronological, with engineers’ precision capabilities increasing over time.

Winchester is at his best in the lengthier middle chapters. In one, he compares two different kinds of precision—those espoused by Henry Ford and by Rolls Royce. In a Ford assembly line, workers needed almost no skill to fit the precision-made interchangeable parts together in mass quantity on the precisely designed assembly line. The handmade Rolls Royce instead emphasized that every aspect of the car must be hand-made to the most exacting precision by the world’s most skilled craftsmen, to the point that its factory could muster just two cars per day, compared to a new Model T every 40 seconds at Ford’s factory.

His chapter about the birth of the jet engine and the mind-boggling precision needed for its fan blades and other parts is similarly excellent. And the chapter on optics, beginning with how lenses are made and climaxing with the story of the Hubble Space Telescope, its initial blurry pictures due an almost unthinkably small mistake, and its 1993 repair done in space, is also a tour de force.

From there, Winchester goes into the history of the transistor, which nowadays requires atomic precision. Before too long, quantum computers may bring precision requirements down to the quantum realm. The book ends by returning to timekeeping. John Harrison’s famous H-4 clock has since been surpassed by atomic clocks and time-based GPS systems so precise they must take the theory of relativity into account.

Thomas Paine – Common Sense

Thomas Paine – Common Sense

A few years ago, I had a brief conversation with Tom Palmer in which he drew a contrast between the bourgeois Paine and the more aristocratic Edmund Burke. Paine is direct, unsubtle, and efficient, both in writing style and in his revolutionary fervor. Burke has a more lengthy, detached, and tradition-minded prose style, and a cautious, almost tentative political philosophy to match it.

Having finally sat down for a serious study of Paine for the first time, Tom’s point makes a lot of sense. Both men were liberals, in the correct sense of the term. But they were also very different from each other. Both supported the American Revolution. But where Burke opposed the French Revolution, Paine not only supported it, he participated in it. The two men also engaged in a war of words so heated that, while living in France, Paine was convicted in absentia in England for his attacks on Burke.

But that was all in the future for Thomas Paine in January 1776. Common Sense is a masterpiece of the pamphlet format, which was popular in 18th century America, as Bernard Bailyn describes in great detail in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Shorter than a full book or even a monograph, but longer than a magazine story, pamphlets were a common persuasive tool during Revolutionary times. They were also often read aloud, since literacy was far from universal in those days. This fact of life influenced pamphlets’ short length, their direct, simplified writing style, and their common use of universally-understood metaphors and references that everyone knew. Paine, though he was a deist and not a Christian, devotes a significant portion of Common Sense to the Bible’s warnings against the dangers of kings–many of which had come true under George III. In an appendix added later on, Paine appeals to Quakers to drop their pacifism and join the Revolutionary cause.

Among Paine’s more practical insights is that America and Britain essentially separated as soon as British troops fired their first shot. There was no going back to the way things were, even if people wanted to. Additionally, continued union would cause economic harm to the American people through no fault of their own. Otherwise-willing European buyers and sellers with no grudge against American merchants would keep their wallets closed and their ships away from Americans for as long as they remained British subjects. Continued allegiance to the crown was also potentially bad for American soldiers’ life expectancies if Britain were to press them into its military and its America-unrelated conflicts. Paine’s foreign policy non-interventionism was integral to the Founders’ thought, and today’s political leaders would do well to move in that sensible direction.

Eric H. Cline – 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Eric H. Cline – 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

The Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean, roughly 1500-1200 B.C., is an under-studied period of history. Egyptians, Minoans, Myceneans, Phoenician, Hittites, Akkadians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Cypriots, and more all had thriving civilizations and a complex web of regional interconnectedness. It was, to that point, the most prosperous period in all of human history. Some of their interactions were peaceful, such as in the spread of trade, language, and writing. Other interactions, less so. The first battles with written eyewitness accounts date from this period. Ramses II of Egypt had his epic Battle of Kadesh against Muwatalli II of the Hittites around 1250 BC, of which interested readers can find a dramatic retelling in Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings. The Trojan War happened sometime around 1200 BC.

Most of Cline’s book is a narrative regional history of roughly a 300-year period ending around the time of the book’s title, 1177 B.C. Around this time, most of those civilizations collapsed. Archaeological records show most major cities were burned, and surviving written sources tell of invasions by Sea Peoples, about whom little is known beyond their ferocity and foreignness. Cline chose 1177 B.C. as a landmark date because in that year, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III fought the Sea Peoples’ second invasion, and lost. Just as historians use the sack of Rome in 476 A.D. as shorthand for a longer-term process of collapse, Cline doesn’t literally mean the Late Bronze Age ended in 1177 B.C. That invasion was simply the most visible event in a multi-generation process.

Historians have long thought these Sea Peoples were the main culprit of the rapid region-wide collapse. Cline is not so sure, and many modern scholars agree. Cline also explains recent attempts to figure out just who they were. At present, the best guess is they were not a unified civilization. They likely came from the Northern Mediterranean. One such people are the Shekelesh, who were from Sicily, and likely gave the island its name.

It takes Cline until almost the end of the book to get to the freaking point, but his thesis is essentially a “systems collapse” argument. One thing didn’t go wrong around 1177, everything did. The Late Bronze Age civilizations endured long-term drought, famine, foreign invasions, political changes that lopped off an elite class, wars with each other, and even some earthquakes, all around the same time. None of these factors on their own would have been enough to topple civilizations. Taken together, the cascade effect was fatal.

Cline also argues that the region’s cosmopolitan interconnectedness was a factor in their undoing. When one fell, the others were weakened, and on it went, in a domino effect. Here, I disagree, for much the same reason that investors diversify their portfolios.

Suppose a famine strikes one city-state. At any given time, it is unlikely that the entire region is simultaneously having poor harvests. The stricken city can reach out to others for help. By the Late Bronze Age, agriculture was already five or six millennia old. If, say, every fifth year or so would be a bad year in a given place, then every place knew to plan on growing about a fifth more than what it needs for itself. During good years, it would trade this surplus to needy neighbors. During their own bad years, neighbors in better shape would have their own surplus available for trade. This interconnectedness smooths out year-to-year volatility, making each part of the whole stronger.

The troubles of 1177 or thereabouts happened because drought and other disasters hit region-wide, instead of in select local spots. Even a diversified trading network couldn’t overcome that shock.

If anything, the limits of interconnectedness played a role. Transportation was slow and costly back then. Even though there was likely some long-distance trade with the breadbasket regions of Eastern and Northern Europe and with India, it would have been limited to durable goods such as wood and metals. Wheat and other crops would not have survived the trip—or might not have arrived in time to help. There is a reason why today’s only famines are politically created. Global interconnectedness today is stronger than even the forces of nature.

Wars and skirmishes among Bronze Age kings did not affect the vast majority of people, who were busy in the fields. The biggest battles and sieges of cities were one-time events involving tens of thousands of people. This is out of a population of millions, or perhaps tens of millions. These rare catastrophes dominate the written sources, hence why historians focus on them so heavily. But proportionally, they were often unimportant for the region’s standard of living. Written records can only be made by people who know how to write, and in the Bronze Age that was only a select few people, mostly state functionaries and merchants. This availability bias in the sources means that historians who single out war or invasion as a primary culprit for the 1177 B.C. collapse are likely overselling their case.

Cline’s wider system collapse argument has merit. But his argument that interconnectedness was a source of weakness is almost certainly in error.