All posts tagged empires

Book review: State, Economy, and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s – 1850s, by Peer Vries.

Yet another book on why Britain and China diverged dramatically starting around 1800. This one focuses on documenting the differences between the regions, with relatively little theorizing.

Some interesting differences of possible relevance to the divergence:

  • British per capita tax collections were 15 times China’s [1]; Vries emphasizes the underlying British bureaucratic competence.
  • Britain changed its tax rules often; China treated tax rules as if set in stone.
  • British tax policy caused it to promote standardization of a wide variety of weights and measures, which helped long-distance trades; China had nothing similar.
  • Britain’s taxation was more egalitarian than China’s (but still much less egalitarian than today).
  • British government debt looked recklessly high; China consistently had a surplus.
  • British elites wanted to keep the masses poor (to make them industrious); China’s elites seemed neutral or had slight preferences for the poor to prosper.
  • Most British workers were nearly slaves – laws restricted their mobility due to the expectation that most who left their area of work were beggars/thieves; China was less restrictive.
  • Britain condoned or supported powerful monopolies; China broke up concentrations of merchant power / capital under the assumption that they came at the expense of ordinary people.
  • Britain had three times as much farm land per capita as China.
  • Britain was more urban, so it had more commercial / monetary activity.
  • China denied that anything outside its borders mattered. Britain had a fairly global worldview.

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Book review: Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama.

This book describes the rise of modern nation-states, from the French revolution to the present.

Fukuyama focuses on three features that influence national success: state (effective bureaucracy), rule of law, and autonomy (democratic accountability).

Much of the book argues against libertarian ideas from a fairly centrist perspective, although he mostly avoids directly discussing libertarian beliefs. Instead, he implies that we should de-emphasize debates over big government versus small government, and look more at effectiveness versus corruption (i.e. we should pull sideways).

Many of these ideas build on what Fukuyama wrote in Trust – I suggest reading that book first.


War! What Is It Good For?. Fukuyama believes that war sometimes causes states to make their bureaucracy more efficient. Fukuyama is more credible here than Morris because Fukuyama is more cautious about the effects he claims to see.

The book suggests that young nations have some key stage where threat of conquest can create the right incentives for developing an efficient bureaucracy (i.e. without efficient support for the military, including effective taxation, they get absorbed into a state that does better at those tasks). Without such a threat, states can get stuck in an equilibrium where the bureaucracy simply serves a small number of powerful people. But with such a threat, politicians need to delegate enough authority that the bureaucracy develops some independence, which enables it to care about broader notions of national welfare. (Fukuyama talks as if the bureaucracies are somewhat altruistic. I think of it more as the bureaucracies caring about their long-term revenue source, when individual politicians don’t hold power long enough to care about the long term).

It seems plausible that China would have helped to lead the industrial revolution if it had faced a serious risk of being conquered in the 17th and 18th centuries. China’s relative safety back then seems to have left it complacent and stagnant.


Fukuyama hints that the three pillars of modern nation-states (state, law, autonomy) have roughly equal importance.

Yet I don’t buy that. I expect that whatever virtues are responsible for the rule of law are a good deal more important than effective bureaucracies or democratic accountability.

Fukuyama doesn’t make a strong case for the value of democracy for national success, presumably in part because he expects most readers to already agree with him about that. I’ll conjecture that democracy is mostly a byproduct of success at the other features that Fukuyama considers important.

It’s likely that democracy is somewhat valuable for generating fairness, but that has limited relevance to what Fukuyama tries to explain (i.e. mainly power and wealth).


Full-fledged rule of law might be needed to get all the benefits of the best modern societies. But the differences between good and bad nations seems to have originated well before those nations had more than a rudimentary version of rule of law.

That suggests some underlying factor that matters – maybe just the basic notion of law as something separate from individual leaders or ethnic groups (Fukuyama’s previous book says Christianity played an important role here); or maybe the kind of cultural advance suggested by Greg Clark.

Fukuyama argues that it’s risky to adopt democracy before creating effective states and the rule of law. He’s probably right to expect that such democracies will be dominated by people who fight to get the spoils of politics for their family / clan / ethnic group, with little thought to national wellbeing.


National identity is important for producing the kind of government that Fukuyama likes. It’s hard for government employees to focus on the welfare of the nation if they identify mainly as members of a non-majority ethnic group.

He mentions that the printing press helped create national identities out of more fragmented cultures. This seems important enough to Europe’s success that it deserves more emphasis than the two paragraphs he devotes to it.

He describes several countries that started out as a patchwork of ethnic groups, and had differing degrees of success at developing a unified national identity: Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I was a bit disappointed that the differences there seemed to be mostly accidents of the personalities of leading politicians.

He talks as if the only two options for such regions were to develop a clear national identity or be crippled by ethnic conflict. Why not also consider the option of splitting into smaller political units that can aim to become city-states such as Singapore and Dubai?


He makes many minor claims that sound suspicious enough for me to have moderate doubts about trusting his scholarship.

For example, he tries to refute claims that “industrial policy never works”, mainly by using the example of the government developing the internet. (His use of the word “never” suggests that he’s not exactly attacking the most sophisticated version of the belief in question). How familiar is he with the history of the internet? The entities in charge of internet tried to restrict commercial use until 1995. Actual commercial use of the internet started before the government made a clear decision to tolerate such use, much less endorse it. So Fukuyama either has a faulty understanding of internet history, or is using the phrase industrial policy in a way that puzzles me.

Then there’s the claim that the Spanish conquered important parts of the New World before the native nations had declined due to European diseases. Fukuyama seems unfamiliar with the contrary evidence reported by Charles C. Mann in 1491 and 1493. Mann may not be an ideal source, but he appears at least as reliable as the sources that Fukuyama cites.


That leads into more general doubts about history books, especially ambitiously broad books aimed at popular audiences.

Tetlock’s research into the accuracy of political pundits has led me to assume that a broad range of “expert” commentary is roughly equivalent to random guessing. Much of what historians do [1] seems quite similar to the opinions of the experts that Tetlock studies. Neither historians nor political pundits get adequate feedback about mistaken beliefs, or get significant rewards for insights that are later confirmed by new evidence. That leads me to worry that the study of history is little better than voodoo.


In sum, I can’t quite decide whether to recommend that you read this book.

[1] – I.e. drawing inferences from aggregations of data. That’s not to say that historians don’t devote lots of time to reporting observed facts. But most of those facts don’t have value to me unless I can generalize from them in ways that help me understand the future. Historian’s choices of what facts to emphasize will unavoidably influence any generalizations I draw.

Book review: War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris.

This book’s main argument can be broken down into two ideas:

  1. War creates powerful leviathans and occasionally globocops.
  2. The resulting monopoly on the use of violence is important for (or necessary to) creating low-violence societies.

(2) overlaps a lot with Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s version is sufficiently better that reading Morris’ version adds little value.

(1) is an old idea (“war is the health of the state”) that seems mildly controversial in its stronger versions. But Morris is relatively cautious here, admitting that many wars were destructive.

He goes around labeling many wars as productive or not, in a way that had me wondering whether he thought that was observable while the wars were in progress. When he got to World War II, it became clear that he considered that at least sometimes impossible: World War I initially looked harmful (ruining Britain’s globocop status), but when seen in combination with World War II he is able to classify it as productive (enabling the US to become a globocop).

Morris sometimes hints at a stronger version of (1) that would say leviathans or equivalent civilizing institutions couldn’t have been created without war. Morris never attempts to make much of an argument for such a strong claim. He does provide some arguments for the hypothesis that wars sped up the creation of peace-keeping leviathans. Whether that makes some wars good depends heavily on what would have happened without those wars, and Morris provides little insight about that.

If Morris were interested in testing his claims, wouldn’t he have discussed Switzerland? Swiss involvement in war over the past 200 years seems to consist of just a civil war in November 1847 with fewer than 100 deaths. Morris’ beliefs seem to imply Switzerland has lots of violence, yet Swiss homicide rates are unusually low (lower than the rest of western Europe). Maybe responding sensibly to the threat of war provides the benefits that Morris talks about, with few of the costs?

Much the book’s claims seem reasonable: wars did have some tendency to create stronger leviathans, and those leviathans did have some peace-keeping benefits. Yet those claims don’t come close to demonstrating the existence of “productive war”.

Book review: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, by Ian Morris.

This book gives the impression that Morris had a halfway decent book in mind, but forgot to write down important parts of it.

He devotes large (possibly excessive) parts of the book to describing worldwide changes in what people value that correlate with the shifts to farming and then industry.

He convinces me that there’s some sort of connection between those values and how much energy per capita each society is able to use. He probably has a clue or two what that connection is, but the book failed to enlighten me about the connection.

He repeatedly claims that each age gets the thought that it needs. I find that about as reasonable as claiming that the widespread malnutrition associated with farming was what farming cultures needed. Indeed, his description of how farming caused gender inequality focuses on increased ability of men to inflict pain on women, and on increased incentives to do so. That sounds like a society made worse off, not getting what it needs.

He mentions (almost as an afterthought) some moderately interesting models of what caused specific changes in values as a result of the agricultural revolution.

He does an ok job of explaining the increased support for hierarchy in farming societies as an effect of the community size increasing past the Dunbar Number.

He attributes the reduced support for hierarchy in the industrial world to a need for interchangeable citizens. But he doesn’t document that increased need for interchangeability, and I’m skeptical that any such effect was strong. See The Institutional Revolution for a well thought out alternative model.

I had hoped to find some ideas about how to predict value changes that will result from the next big revolution. But I can’t figure out how to usefully apply his ideas to novel situations.

See also Robin Hanson’s review.

Book review: The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations, by Ian Morris.

The ambitious attempt to quantify the sophistication of societies is a partial success.

His goal is to compare the development of the two leading centers of human progress over the past 16000 years (western Eurasia and eastern Asia).

I read this book before looking at summaries of his previous book. The Measure of Civilization was designed to provide support for the claims in the prior book, but was objective enough that I didn’t infer from it what the main message of the prior book was.

When I focus on the numbers in this book and ignore other ideas I’ve read, the most plausible hypothesis I see is that the east followed a more risk-averse strategy than the west. The west suffered at least one crash (200-700 CE) that was a good deal worse than anything the east is known to have experienced.

He tries to measure four different quantities and aggregate them into an index. But the simplest way to scale them leaves two (information use and military power) insignificant until about 1900, then rising at a rate which seems likely to make them the only factors that matter to the index fairly soon. He briefly looks at some better ways to aggregate them, but they still seem inadequate.

In sum, the basic idea behind measuring those four quantities seems sound. If he wasn’t any more arbitrary about it than I suspect, then the book has been somewhat helpful at clarifying the trends over time of the leading human cultures, and maybe added a tiny bit of insight into the differences between east and west.

Book review: How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, by Rodney Stark.

This book is a mostly entertaining defense of Christian and libertarian cultures’ contribution to Western civilization’s dominance.

He wants us to believe that the industrial revolution resulted from mostly steady progress starting with Greek city-states, interrupted only by the Roman empire.

He defends the Catholic church’s record of helping scientific progress and denies that the Reformation was needed, although he suggests the Catholic church’s reaction to the Reformation created harmful anti-capitalist sentiments.

His ideas resemble those in Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, yet there’s little overlap between the content of the two books.

The early parts of the book have too many descriptions of battles and other killings whose relevance is unclear.

I was annoyed at how much space he devoted to attacking political correctness toward the end of the book.

In spite of those problems, he presents many interesting ideas. Some are fairly minor, such as changes in privacy due to the Little Ice Age triggering the invention of chimneys. Others provide potentially important insights into differences between religions, e.g. “many influential Muslim scholars have held that efforts to formulate natural laws are blasphemy because they would seem to deny Allah’s freedom to act.”

Alas, I can only give the book a half-hearted endorsement because I suspect many of his claims are poorly supported. E.g. he thinks increased visibility of child labor in the 1800s caused child labor laws via shocked sensibilities. Two alternatives that seem much more plausible to me are that the increased visibility made the laws feasible to enforce, and the increased concentration of employers into a separate class made them easier scapegoats.

Book review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.

This ambitious attempt to explain the rise of civilization (especially the rule of law) is partly successful.

The most important idea in the book is that the Catholic church (in the Gregorian Reforms) played a critical role in creating important institutions.

The church differed from religions in other cultures in that it was sufficiently organized to influence political policy, but not strong enough to become a state. This lead it to acquire resources by creating rules that enabled people to leave property to the church (often via wills, which hardly existed before then). This turned what had been resources belonging to some abstract group (families or ancestors) into things owned by individuals, and created rules for transferring those resources.

In the process, it also weakened the extended family, which was essential to having a state that impartially promoted the welfare of a society that was larger than a family.

He also provides a moderately good description of China’s earlier partial adoption of something similar in its merit-selected bureaucracy.

I recommend reading the first 7 chapters plus chapter 16. The rest of the book contains more ordinary history, including some not-too-convincing explanations of why northwest Europe did better than the rest of Christianity.

Book review: War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, by Peter Turchin

This book describes a plausible model of how conflict between hostile cultures such as Islam versus Christianity can create the kind of large-scale cooperation (asabiya) needed to create empires, and that the absence of a nearby border with such a conflict results in the decay of that empire.

It is very hard to evaluate how accurately he analyzes the evidence for his theory without a really complete knowledge of the history of several empires.

Asabiya resembles what Fukuyama calls trust, but is stronger, and includes some willingness to risk ones life for other members of ones society. Turchin implies that this is a desirable quality (although I can’t recall anything explicitly saying that). I wonder whether the wars it contributes to outweigh the benefits. The answer might depend on the extend to which it is possible to have trust without much asabiya (Turchin’s analysis suggests a pessimistic answer).

Much of the book contains standard style histories, mostly of times and places that haven’t received much attention. I often found these parts annoying because I couldn’t figure out which parts contained evidence for Turchin’s model, and most of them didn’t seem important enough for me to remember.

He suggests that inequality within an empire reduces its stability. Most of this isn’t very original nor backed up by much evidence. One idea that I hadn’t heard before involves the upper class intentionally reducing the asabiya of lower classes, especially with extreme forms of inequality such as slavery. It seems quite likely that the upper classes sometimes attempt this. But the other parts of the book suggest that this may backfire – conflict normally increases asabiya. Turchin writes as if geographic separation between the conflicting cultures is needed for this effect, but it isn’t obvious to me why.

The book is in some ways gloomy, suggesting that it would take an alien attack to create a big increase in worldwide cooperation. But he does leave some hope that recent technological changes may have made his model obsolete.

Historical Dynamics

Book review: Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall by Peter Turchin.

Turchin uses the tools and perspective of population biology to model some important aspects of the growth and collapse of empires. The relatively dry and mathematical style of the book makes it slow reading, but it leaves less ambiguity than most books about history. He has no obvious political biases – it often seems that his main bias is a preference for the tools of biologists over the tools of historians.

One important aspect of his approach is that it models the dynamics of a feature that is roughly described by terms such as solidarity, trust, and cooperation. He convinced me that he has described some of the influences that cause that feature to increase and decrease (the section title “Frontiers as incubators of group solidarity” says a good deal about his model).

Some aspects of the book left me wondering whether his eccentric worldview added anything to my understanding of history, but occasionally he comes up with ideas that have implications that are clearly new to me, such as his suggestion that monogamy can help an empire continue it’s expansion for a longer time.

He makes some serious attempts to test his models against the available data. It’s hard to tell whether enough data is available to adequately test such ambitious claims.

The biggest limitation of the book is that he assumes Malthusian conditions. While it is likely that some of his analysis applies to the industrial world, he thinks it’s premature to ask how much of it applies today. That means it ought to be of interest mainly to historians for now.

I’ve occasionally heard claims about Africa being poor because it was exploited by Europeans and Americans, and I’ve dismissed those claims because they were clearly based on superstitions.
Recently I’ve come across some scholarly writings on the effects of interactions between these cultures.
A paper on Colonial legacies and economic growth confirms my suspicions that areas which were colonized for longer times have higher economic growth.
As I mentioned recently, the book The Bottom Billion shows a connection between poverty and sale of natural resources, but explains several mechanisms by which the revenues could make bad governments more likely, independent of whether the buyers of those resources exploit the sellers. This suggests it’s not easy to resolve claims that such exploitation caused harm.
The most interesting study is The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trade (via Freakonomics and Andrew Sullivan), which demonstrates that slave trade between Africa and other continents between 1400 and 1900 is significantly correlated with poverty now. The paper presents a good argument that the causal connection was mainly increased violent conflict due to rewards for enslaving people from neighboring villages (as opposed to prior forms of slavery which resulted from conquest by ethnic groups from somewhat farther regions). This caused social and ethnic fragmentation and corruption. I have doubts about whether the details of the paper’s causal model are correct, but they appear to be approximately correct.