Category Archives: History

Inequality in History

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, had a personal allowance of one thirteenth of national income, per p. 292 of Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

By way of context, this would be equivalent to about $2.7 trillion per year in the modern United States. This annual income is more than the combined lifetime fortunes of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. While that mathematical ratio isn’t particularly interesting, from an ethical standpoint it is crucial that Catherine did not earn this income by creating value for others. She took it away from them in a zero-sum game.

Today’s entrepreneurs gain wealth by creating value for others in exchange–about 50-fold more than their own earnings, by William Nordhaus’ estimate. Rent-seeking remains a significant problem, but fortunately is less severe than in Catherine the Great’s time.

Today’s economy has much room for improvement, but reformers on all sides would benefit from taking stock of how much things have improved over the last few centuries, and why.


David Salsburg – The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century

David Salsburg – The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century

A history of the discipline of statistics that I found immensely useful. Rather than memorizing by rote what a p-statistic is or what regression does, this book tells the stories behind them. Salsburg tells the why and the how, rather than explaining the what and being done with it. Salsburg tells the stories of the people who invented modern statistical techniques and concepts, their historical context, why their innovations were needed, what types of problems they were built to solve, and what their techniques’ drawbacks and limitations are, as well as their positives. This book was recommended by Michael Munger, who heads Duke University’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program, and I am glad I listened.

Edward Dolnick – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Edward Dolnick – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

A look at the 16th-century Scientific Revolution as one of the founding processes of modernity, with a special focus on England and the Royal Society. Pairs well with much of Joel Mokyr’s work on how cultural attitudes affect technological progress. Dolnick’s book is narrower in focus and not as rigorous, but it is more accessible, and provides a good look at the Republic of Letters, though its England-heavy focus doesn’t fully capture the scientific movement’s cross-national and cross-religious character. Dolnick could also have done more on the Scientific Revolution’s greater historical context. Its secular, cosmopolitan, and dynamist outlook built upon earlier Renaissance and Reformation thought, or at least their more liberal strains. At the same time, the Scientific Revolution was a necessary practical predecessor to the more philosophical Enlightenment that flowered in the 18th century in Scotland, France, America, and elsewhere. A useful book, but more of a sketch than a full-fledged investigation of the beginnings of modernity.

Ron Chernow – The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance

Ron Chernow – The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance

More of a corporate history than a history of the Morgan family. But this 1990 book, Chernow’s first, also chronicles the evolution of banking and finance from the Industrial Revolution up to about the 1980s. I picked this up due to an interest in antitrust law, competition, and the rise of big business. While this book is ultimately more useful for financial regulation scholars, I still found it useful. And though its characters are not as compelling as Chernow’s Rockellers in Titan, it is an enjoyable read.

Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

This book-about-a-book is a colorful history of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things with the larger purpose of shedding light on the origins of modernity. Lucretius argued for a materialist view of science and philosophy that has far more in common with modern thought than with early Christian doctrine.

Perhaps not coincidentally, On the Nature of Things was nearly lost for nearly a millennium. During this long post-Roman dormant period, Lucretius was occasionally copied by monks and forgotten by the secular public. But a nascent humanist movement led to a growing number of book-hunters interested in finding and reviving old texts.

This movement eventually became the Renaissance, and Lucretius was unknowingly one of its leading intellectual inspirations. As far as afterlives go, Lucretius has had a good one.

Greenblatt writes well, and his accounts of the early humanist bookhunters and their interactions with disinterested monks in their monasteries are particularly vivid, though the contrast between the two camps was probably not quite as dramatic as he portrays it. He also has a good eye for the big picture, and traces the arc of Lucretius’ influence over an impossibly long timeframe. If you ever doubt the power of books, Greenblatt puts up a strong affirmative case.

The Swerve would pair well with Christpher Krebs’ similar but rather darker A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich.

Harold J. Berman – Law and Revolution, The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

Harold J. Berman – Law and Revolution, The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

Berman’s thesis is beyond my ability to state succinctly. This is in part because he thinks in a spectrum of grays and colors rather than a simple binary black-and-white. Unlike many scholars, Berman admits that many things are multi-causal, and defy simplistic explanation. His goal is to explain why legal systems look the way they do, and where they come from. Berman’s thesis ties into the larger rise of modernity itself and the modern economy we enjoy today, but intentionally confines himself to the law, his area of expertise. To highlight some of Berman’s main themes, which all intertwine:

  • Modern legal systems are a result of competing jurisdictions. Just as the U.S. has separation of powers and federalism, Europe had church and state competing against each other, as well as kings and nobles squabbling among themselves, free cities adding another sovereign unit to the mix. Eventually, nation-states emerged as a major unit as well.
  • The rise of trade also played a role. If two traders had a dispute, it was difficult to determine which legal authority had jurisdiction. The king of the origin country? The destination country? Traders responded by developing their own mercantile law over time. This spontaneous order competed with both church and state laws, adding another element of competition.
  • Berman doesn’t use the term, but scholars from Elinor Ostrom to David Friedman call such legal systems “polycentric” (many-centered).
  • This process pre-dates the Reformation, which is where most scholars place the beginning of modern legal systems as we know them today. Berman instead dates the key event as the Papal Revolution, a multi-generation movement which peaked in the 1170s.
  • This marked the rise of the church as a major source of trans-national legal authority. For the first time, it competed directly against kings and nobles, and on equal footing. Church and state had separate but overlapping jurisdictions, and competed with each other to attract “clients” and patronage.
  • The competition was not always peaceful.
  • Berman doesn’t operate on a strict back-and-white, church-vs.-state axis. Nothing in history is that simple. There are many other important factors in play.
  • This isn’t quite a market process in action, but there are similarities.
  • This was a process, not an on-off switch. Even when change was at its fastest, the change would only be noticeable over the course of an entire lifetime. It was not centrally directed or planned, and it did not happen suddenly.
  • Nor was the process unidirectional. There were reactions against it, and there were countless other factors in play. Berman doesn’t go this far forward in history, but the French Revolution is an excellent example of such a reaction. The Revolution swept away the ancien regime and was secular, so on the surface it appeared to weaken both church and state. Its intellectual underpinnings rejected hodge-podge evolutionary polycentrism in favor of a more orderly, centralized, and aesthetic top-down legal ethos. Think the Napoleonic Code-vs.-common law debate that continues today.

This is a deep and dense work, and I have almost certainly not done it justice in this capsule review. But it is a rewarding read, and as someone who works on regulatory issues and institution-level reforms, this book was a game-changer. It changes how I view where today’s debates, legal conventions, and implicit assumptions come from, how they evolve over time, and where needed reforms might fit into larger historical trends.

Berman, who passed away in 2007, also wrote a sequel, Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition. When I am feeling ambitious, I hope to one day attempt it.

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon: A Life

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon: A Life

This recent Napoleon biography has quickly garnered a stellar reputation. It strikes a healthy balance between telling the story of the person and the story of the times, tending a bit more towards the personal side.

The justification for writing yet another Napoleon biography in a flooded market is that Roberts is the first biographer to be given access to more than 33,000 pieces of Napoleon’s written correspondence, and he draws on them heavily. He gives new details and insights from these primary sources about Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine, his thoughts before and after critical battles and inflection points in his career, and more. Unlike most other biographers, Roberts also traveled to the island of St. Helena. His portrait of Napoleon’s final exile is all the more vivid as a result, and even a little touching.