Europe’s former glories

[amazon_link id=”0691139709″ target=”_blank” ]Why Did Europe Conquer the World?[/amazon_link] That’s the title of a new book by Philip Hoffman of CalTech. His answer is a very neat development of part of Jared Diamond’s famous [amazon_link id=”0099302780″ target=”_blank” ]Guns, Germs and Steel[/amazon_link] and Paul Kennedy’s equally famous [amazon_link id=”0006860524″ target=”_blank” ]The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers[/amazon_link].

[amazon_image id=”0691139709″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)[/amazon_image]

[amazon_image id=”0099302780″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0006860524″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000[/amazon_image]

Hoffman is not impressed by the germs part of the story, but does believe a combination of technological advances in weaponry, the ability to turn resources into tax revenues to fight wars, and competition between European states constitute a good explanation for the literal and cultural conquest of so much of the world by Europeans.

However, historical contingency also played a huge part in his telling of the story, the contingency of the long Dark Ages that kept European states of a similar size to each other, without a single hegemon becoming much larger than its rivals. This turned the competition described by Kennedy into a tournament – and an appendix models this formally. Rulers were in a contest for a big enough prize – glory or land – and incentivised to use resources – revenues that they could raise at low political cost especially as financial innovations came along in the modern era – to pour into new military technologies based on gunpowder to get an edge over each other. War was frequent, and there were few obstacles to adopting the new technologies.

Having set out the model, the book shows quite persuasively why only the European states met these tournament conditions. For example, China was much larger than neighbouring states and used its resources on old technologies to fight the horsemen of the steppes. India had plenty of rivalrous states but was unable to raise revenues at a low enough political cost because the raising of tax revenues was decentralised to local rulers.

Hoffman’s argument makes sense to me, although I’m sure historians could find some of the generalisations too sweeping. This book is a very interesting addition to the flourishing history of the world genre, including Ian Morris’s enjoyable [amazon_link id=”1846681472″ target=”_blank” ]Why the West Rules for Now[/amazon_link] as well as Diamond and Kennedy. The tournament model is not a complete explanation. For instance, it does not fully explain things like the origins and role of financial innovations or scientific discovery. However, this is a terrific example of the insight you can get from a simple model.

[amazon_image id=”1846681472″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why The West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the Future[/amazon_image]

10 thoughts on “Europe’s former glories

  1. Pingback: Europe’s former glories | Homines Economici

  2. Personally, I like to think that for Britain and its Empire the invitation to place yourself under the protection and wisdom of Queen Victoria was irresistible.

  3. Pingback: Europe’s former glories | The Enlightened...

  4. In the beginning of Kennedy’s book, he made it clear that other centres, like China and the Ottoman Empire, had shown a greater capacity for scientific and technological progress. His main argument against these civilisations was that their overly centralised governments could hinder the use of these technologies. The Chinese destroyed their ships that had sailed around the coast of Africa, for example, because of the xenophobia and insularity of a new elite.

    Even if innovation is exogenous to the model, other features of the model – like the openess of elites to such innovation, the incentives for incremental improvements – can still account for the differing outcomes.

    And since innovations often feed off of previous innovations, maybe the prime mover of innovation is not as important as its use and diffusion.

    I agree it would be nice to explore the sources of innovation, but models don’t have to capture everything to be useful.

  5. I’d also add, that weren’t the benefits to winning the tournament – conquering the world! – a one-off? In doing so, Europe raised up competitors against itself (especially in its own colonies), and fell prey to the over-stretch Paul Kennedy warned against.

      • I guess the rules of the game eventually changed. European colonialism gave a very messy birth to a globalised economy. The exponential growth after the Industrial Revolution turned a zero-sum fight for territory into a positive-sum game of trade.

  6. I’m reading The Invention of the Individual right now which I wholeheartedly recommend. It’s more into cultural history, but he uncovers the transformational power of Christianity in the story. Of course Christianity was transformed itself through it all, but it’s a fascinating story of the emergence of the idea of all people as equal ‘souls’ set the scene for various diffusions of power, many of which are scarcely noticeable early on (like the idea that swearing allegiance to a lord might seem like a relationship of bondage, and yet it does at least capture the volition of the swearer of the oath unlike slavery). Anyway I’m only half way through it but it’s truly fascinating.

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