Category Archives: History

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.

Anna Fifield – The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

Anna Fifield – The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

The best biography of Kim Jong-un available. Fifield goes into his basketball- and 1990s Chicago Bulls-obsessed boyhood, including schooling in Sweden, to how he climbed the order of succession in time to be groomed for power beneath the scenes. He might not have been entirely ready to take over when his father Kim Jong-il died in 2011, but he did have some preparation, and learned the political game quickly.

Given his health, he may not have the longest of life expectancies. Kim is reportedly a heavy smoker and drinker, and judging by appearances, now weighs as much as 300 pounds despite his modest height. He also shows signs of gout despite being under 40, which would indicate he is quite sedentary and gets little exercise, which also bodes poorly. But he seems to have reached an equilibrium both domestically and internationally that will keep him in power for the long term.

Domestically, the elites enjoy roughly a Western middle class living standard, despite north Korea being one of the world’s poorest countries. Kim has allowed some modest market reforms that relieve, to a small degree, the worst sufferings of poverty for commoners. That eases social tension, while still making elites fear even a non-lethal fall from grace. Internationally, north Korea’s nuclear capabilities will almost certainly never be used, but occasional bellicosity and successful attempts to appear irrational are enough to keep foreign threats to the regime at bay.

Kim Jong-un remains a mystery, and his personality remains unknown. He does come across as venal and not particularly restrained in his personal life. But he also seems intelligent, and quickly learned how to play a game that can be lethal—and for many of his opponents, including close family members, has. He is not the sort of person a president of the United States should be falling in love with.

Ruth Goodman – How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts

Ruth Goodman – How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts

This book is hilarious and edifying. Not least because it actually is a how-to guide, complete with instructions on how to cuss, insult, gesture rudely, properly bow, and more. It is also a delightful offbeat history that melds the strange and unfamiliar with the somewhat familiar.

It also provides insight on why different things are considered rude or polite in different times and places. One could take a deeper, Hayekian approach to this book, marveling at how unplanned spontaneous orders can result in ever-evolving systems of manners, language, and customs. Or, seen through the lens of Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature and declining violence over time, we can see how strict formal norms provided protection against unprovoked violence, and how looser dress and conduct codes usually correlated with peace, prosperity, and physical safety. Or one can have a hearty laugh at the truly outrageous stories Goodman shares. Better, one can do all three.

Joel Mokyr – A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Joel Mokyr – A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Mokyr’s larger thesis is that technology is the most important driving engine of growth. It’s not the only factor, but the most important one–and it isn’t the direct factor. Lurking one level beneath technology are cultural attitudes about technology and progress. This, to Mokyr, is where the real explanation lies for the origins of the modern economy. The Romans had the technology for the steam engine. But Roman culture wasn’t interested in applying technology to improving production processes the way the 18th-century Britain was when James Watt was a young man. So steam power remained a novelty toy for the wealthy, and was soon forgotten.

Technophobic and neophobic cultures tend to have less technological progress. As such, they tend to be less prosperous and grow more slowly—and even then, much of the growth is “catch-up growth” when technologies long established elsewhere reluctantly enter through osmosis. There is a good deal of intersection here with Deirdre McCloskey’s work, which focuses more on wider bourgeois values. But Mokyr confines himself for the most part to technological norms rather than wider arguments about attitudes about letting people have a go, whether through commerce or life’s many other worthwhile aspects.

Mokyr has written several books applying his technology-and-culture thesis to different historical periods. His thinking has evolved over time, though the general framework has proved sturdy enough to pass the test of time. A Culture of Growth focuses mostly on Europe from 1500-1700, from roughly the end of the Renaissance, through the Scientific Revolution, up to the Enlightenment’s earliest stirrings. Essentially, these two centuries laid the cultural ground the Industrial Revolution needed before it could stand on its own.

See also Pierre Lemieux’s review, which goes into much more detail than this one.

Mary Elise Sarotte – The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

Mary Elise Sarotte – The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

One of the most important events in the 20th century almost happened on a lark—an East German official made a mistake about loosening travel restrictions during a press conference and couldn’t walk it back. At the same time, the Wall’s coming down seemed inevitable. Sarotte explores this tension in gripping fashion—I couldn’t put this book down.

Even Dan Rather’s on-site news coverage was an accident. He and his crew were there to cover a diplomatic meeting, and didn’t think anything big would come of it. Turns out it did, and how. They covered the fateful press conference, and were just able to set up in a spot near the wall when the celebrants starting tearing down the concrete. Even the floodlights they used for tv lighting were a happy accident they had on hand. In all, Sarotte has done justice to one of recent history’s most important, and happiest events. Its mix of spontaneity and inevitability is the perfect microcosm for twentieth-century socialism’s larger collapse.

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

Acemoglu has been on the economics Nobel shortlist for some time. Robinson is a frequent collaborator. When I was in grad school, their papers, often coauthored with Simon Johnson, were referred to in the shorthand “AJR,” especially  “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation” and the debate it set off in academic journals.

Acemoglu and Robinson (AR?)’s previous book, 2014’s Why Nations Fail, contrasts extractive versus inclusive institutions, and finds that inclusive-institution countries tend to be both freer and wealthier. Countries with predatory governments with corrupt legal systems tend to be poor and repressive, while countries with a strong rule of law that keep corruption reasonably in check tend to be wealthy and free. Think of North Korea vs. South Korea. While this should not be a controversial argument, it is one that many politicians and academics resist, so Acemoglu and Robinsons’ reminder, while not original, was welcome.

The Narrow Corridor uses a different framework with a little more nuance, and ultimately reaches a similar conclusion. It also does it in an accessible style—which is important in a time of rising populism that needs to be countered. The more ears that hear about the connection between liberalism and prosperity, the better. Instead of a dichotomy of extractive and inclusive, here Acemoglu and Robinson draw a trichotomy between Absent Leviathan, Despotic Leviathan, and Shackled Leviathan. They are the same awful creature, just put into three different situations.

Absent Leviathan is a government that doesn’t do the things governments are supposed to do. When a government does not protect property rights, provide an accessible and fair legal system, a reasonably stable currency, and on down the line—the list varies with one’s political views—that country tends to be poor and stagnant.

Despotic Leviathan is a government that is too present. Like fire, government burns everything it touches if it isn’t kept in check. The twin terrors of fascism and communism are history’s starkest examples. But other types of Despotic Leviathan have appeared everywhere from most European colonial governments, and often their independent successors, to dynastic monarchies in China, Egypt, and most everywhere else in the world through history.

The goal is some kind of Shackled Leviathan, which Acemoglu and Robinson describe on p. 27: “[R]epression and dominance are as much in its [Shackled Leviathan’s] DNA as they are in the DNA of the Despotic Leviathan. But the shackles prevent it from rearing its fearsome face. How those shackles emerge, and why only some societies have managed to develop them, is the major theme of our book.”

The cage of norms is a key concept in understanding why it is so hard to keep Leviathan in that narrow corridor where it is both present and shackled. This represents a bit of a turn for Acemoglu and Robinson. Why Nations Fail was mostly about institutions; the cage of norms is about culture. Many economists downplay or ignore cultural factors in their work because it is often difficult or impossible to measure or formally model. Deirdre McCloskey is the most prominent exception. Her name does not appear in the bibliographies, but her fellow traveler Joel Mokyr’s does, along with Douglass North, Barry Weingast, and a few other similarly minded scholars.

The cage of norms is a catch-all term for highly restrictive cultures. There are many types of cages.  Some cages confine women from public and economic life. Others place taboos against commerce. Nationalist cages engrain hostile attitudes to outsiders. Traditionalist cages can lock out progress and change. India’s caste system is one example. Honor cultures are another. Religious fundamentalism is nearly always a cage of norms. Nationalism, which is currently returning to a vogue not seen in decades, is a very risky cage at the moment in several countries, including Hungary, Italy, the UK, Mexico, and the United States.

The point is that countries that have strong cages of norms gave a hard time keeping their Leviathans shackled in the narrow corridor, and are generally bad places to live.

The Red Queen Effect is Acemoglu and Robinson’s main metaphor for how Leviathan can stay in its proper corridor. It’s essentially competition. When church and state compete with each other, they direct their energies against each other rather than against people. And as Harold Berman pointed out in Law and Revolution, they were also competing for customers. Successful competitor states had to keep their behaviors in the corridor. Federalism, or competing levels of government, is another area for Red Queen-style running. So is separation of powers, with competing branches running as fast as they can to stay in the same place relative to the other branches. A vigorous civil society, unconfined by a cage of norms, is ultimately the most effective Red Queen racer.

In another intellectual turn, Acemoglu and Robinson rely more on history than on economic analysis to make their argument. They offer plenty of numbers and data, but little of the regression analysis or formal model-building that one associates with MIT or University of Chicago economists.

The wide-ranging first chapter alone travels from Wyoming to Ghana in the 19th and 20th centuries, among several other places. To illustrate Absent, Despotic, and Shackled Leviathans, they tell  stories about free-wheeling Siena in Italy, regimented and militaristic Prussia to its north, and Switzerland caught in the corridor between them. China and India get their own in-depth chapters, and the comparison of Costa Rica and Guatemala, and how coffee affected their different trajectories, is especially instructive.

Acemoglu and Robinson find their framework also applies in the present day. Ferguson, Missouri’s police department is simultaneously an Absent Leviathan and a Despotic Leviathan. It doesn’t do things it’s supposed to do, such as providing safety and security. And it does plenty of things it shouldn’t do, some of which became national news. To a greater degree than in wealthier communities, Ferguson’s majority-black residents are subjected to arbitrary and unpredictable fines for everything from jaywalking to the length of the grass in their yard. Residents are then fined further when they are unable to pay. The department’s 2014 murder of Michael Brown was a flashpoint incident that brought stark attention to how far outside the corridor Ferguson’s government—and governments in many other communities like it—had strayed.

The tangle of metaphors is a bit much, but Acemoglu and Robinson’s larger message is sound—the best government is limited government. They are not doctrinaire libertarians, and as Deirdre McCoskey argues in her new book Why Liberalism Works, they rely too much on the traditional, and mistaken, Marxian conception of capitalism as dependent on capital. Innovation and a can-do ethos of continual improvement are actually far more important. But their message of the need to limit political power is important, especially in the current political moment. Leviathan is an awful creature who can kill by the millions when let out of its cage. If government is a necessary evil, one must remember that both of those words are important.

Timothy Ferris – The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

Timothy Ferris – The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

Ferris has an easy-reading prose style, a refreshing optimism, and an emphasis on reason and science as important ingredients in modern freedom and prosperity. At the same time, he oversells his case. This book is more for a general audience, and doesn’t need to delve as deeply as roughly similar-minded academics such as Joel Mokyr or Deirdre McCloskey. But there are points where Ferris is either painting with too broad a brush, or seems to not know his source material very well.

For example, possibly in his eagerness to link science and liberalism, Ferris claims Isaac Newton as a classical liberal. True, many of Newton’s achievements indeed furthered causes such as reason and empiricism. And Newton did much to raise scientists’ social status. His funeral stunned a young Voltaire, who “marveled at a society where a scientist was buried with the honors of a king.” But Newton was also something of a mystic who dabbled not just in alchemy, but maintained an active interest in millenarianism and the occult, which Ferris does not mention. Newton also had no known liberal political or economic philosophy.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ferris is a little too eager to draw a straight line from Rousseau to Napoleon to Hitler. Again, right impulse, but far too much of an oversimplification.

While I favor a big tent, Ferris’ definition of “liberal” seems to know few bounds, to the point of drawing more than one chuckle as I read. Despite this and other reservations, Ferris has the right spirit, and this book would be good for an interested undergrad or general reader, with the proviso that Mokyr or especially Deirdre are deeper, and more accurate thinkers.

Another quibble—he identifies F.A. Hayek as a Chicago school economist. Hayek did teach at the University of Chicago for several years, but not in the economics department. By that stage of his career, he had mostly moved on from technical economics and was exploring other disciplines such as political philosophy and law. Hayek is more a product of the Austrian liberal tradition of Menger, Mises, and Bohm-Bawerk, and a reaction against the German Historical School. Hayek was also influenced by earlier figures in the study of spontaneous orders such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Bernard Mandeville, and Adam Ferguson. This was a very different set of thinkers than the more concrete and empirical Chicago school, exemplified by thinkers such as Stigler, Peltzman, Gary Becker, Posner, Friedman, etc. If one were to draw a Venn diagram of the two schools’ intellectual roots, there would be some overlap. They still have distinct philosophical and methodological approaches.

Ferris also argues on page 169 that Thomas Carlyle coined the term “dismal science” in response to Thomas Malthus’ pessimism. This is inaccurate. Economic historian David Levy tells the full story in his book How the Dismal Science Got its Name (free PDF courtesy of the University of Michigan Press). Carlyle, a hardcore racist even by the standards of Victorian England, was frustrated with economists’ consistent abolitionism and defense of racial equality. He coined “dismal science” as an angry ad hominem. Malthus had nothing to do with it.

Ferris’ distinction between Bacon and Descartes is similarly broad-brush, but also a useful shorthand he returns to throughout the book. Bacon preferred hands-on experiments, just as liberal democracy is a constant process of trial and, often, error. Contrast this with Descartes, who preferred abstract deductive reasoning. Descartes’ approach to science that has parallels with top-down political orders based on intelligent design rather than messy emergent orders.

Ferris takes this framework through the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and up to today. While he oversells his case and needs to be a little more rigorous in his factual research, this is a good introduction to a powerful thesis: positive cultural attitudes towards science, reason, and progress are important ingredients in making possible the mass modern prosperity we enjoy today.