All posts tagged war

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: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner.

This book reports on the Good Judgment Project (GJP).

Much of the book recycles old ideas: 40% of the book is a rerun of Thinking Fast and Slow, 15% of the book repeats Wisdom of Crowds, and 15% of the book rehashes How to Measure Anything. Those three books were good enough that it’s very hard to improve on them. Superforecasting nearly matches their quality, but most people ought to read those three books instead. (Anyone who still wants more after reading them will get decent value out of reading the last 4 or 5 chapters of Superforecasting).

The book’s style is very readable, using an almost Gladwell-like style (a large contrast to Tetlock’s previous, more scholarly book), at a moderate cost in substance. It contains memorable phrases, such as “a fox with the bulging eyes of a dragonfly” (to describe looking at the world through many perspectives).

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Book review: Hive Mind: How your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, by Garett Jones.

Hive Mind is a solid and easy to read discussion of why high IQ nations are more successful than low IQ nations.

There’s a pretty clear correlation between national IQ and important results such as income. It’s harder to tell how much of the correlation is caused by IQ differences. The Flynn Effect hints that high IQ could instead be a symptom of increased wealth.

The best evidence for IQ causing wealth (more than being caused by wealth) is that Hong Kong and Taiwan had high IQs back in the 1960s, before becoming rich.

Another piece of similar evidence (which Hive Mind doesn’t point to) is that Saudi Arabia is the most conspicuous case of a country that became wealthy via luck. Its IQ is lower than countries of comparable wealth, and lower than neighbors of similar culture/genes.

Much of the book is devoted to speculations about how IQ could affect a nation’s success.

High IQ is associated with more patience, probably due to better ability to imagine the future:

Imagine two societies: one in which the future feels like a dim shadow, the other in which the future seems a real as now. Which society will have more restaurants that care about repeat customers? Which society will have more politicians who turn down bribes because they worry about eventually getting caught?

Hive Mind describes many possible causes of the Flynn Effect, without expressing much of a preference between them. Flynn’s explanation still seems strongest to me. The most plausible alternative that Hive Mind mentions is anxiety and stress from poverty-related problems distracting people during tests (and possibly also from developing abstract cognitive skills). But anxiety / stress explanations seem less likely to produce the Hong Kong/Taiwan/Saudi Arabia results.

Hive Mind talks about the importance of raising national IQ, especially in less-developed countries. That goal would be feasible if differences in IQ were mainly caused by stress or nutrition. Flynn’s cultural explanation points to causes that are harder for governments or charities to influence (how do you legislate an increased desire to think abstractly?).

What about the genetic differences that contribute to IQ differences? The technology needed to fix that contributing factor to low IQs is not ready today, but looks near enough that we should pay attention. Hive Mind implies [but avoids saying] that potentially large harm from leaving IQ unchanged could outweigh the risks of genetic engineering. Fears about genetic engineering of IQ often involve fears of competition, but Hive Mind shows that higher IQ means more cooperation. More cooperation suggests less war, less risk of dangerous nanotech arms races, etc.

It shouldn’t sound paradoxical to say that aggregate IQ matters more than individual IQ. It should start to seem ordinary if more people follow the example of Hive Mind and focus more attention on group success than on individual success as they relate to IQ.

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: 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: Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History, by William J. Bernstein.

This is a history of the world which sometimes focuses on how technology changed communication, and how those changes affected society.

Instead of carefully documenting a few good ideas, he wanders over a wide variety of topics (including too many descriptions of battles and of individual people).

His claims seem mostly correct, but he often failed to convince me that he has good reason for believing them. E.g. when trying to explain why the Soviet economy was inefficient (haven’t enough books explained that already?) he says the “absence of a meaningful price signal proved especially damaging in the labor market”, but supports that by mentioning peculiarities which aren’t clear signs of damage, then describing some blatant waste that wasn’t clearly connected to labor market problems (and without numbers, doesn’t tell us the magnitude of the problems).

I would have preferred that he devote more effort to evaluating the importance of changes in communication to the downfall of the Soviet Union. He documents increased ability of Soviet citizens to get news from sources that their government didn’t control at roughly the time Soviet power weakened. But it’s not obvious how that drove political change. It seems to me that there was an important decrease in the ruthlessness of Soviet rulers that isn’t well explained by communication changes.

I liked his description of affordable printing presses depended on a number of technological advance, suggesting that printing could not easily have arisen at other times or places.

The claim I found most interesting was that the switch from reading aloud to reading silently and the related ability to write alone (as opposed to needed a speaker and a scribe) made it easier to spread seditious and sexual writings due to increased privacy.

Bernstein is optimistic that improved communication technology will have good political effects in the future. I partly agree, but I see more risks than he does (e.g. his like of the democratic features of the Arab Spring aren’t balanced by much concern over the risks of revolutionary violence).

Book review: Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, by Charles W. Calomiris, and Stephen H. Haber.

This book start out with some fairly dull theory, then switches to specific histories of banking in several countries with moderately interesting claims about how differences in which interest groups acquired power influenced the stability of banks.

For much of U.S. history, banks were mostly constrained to a single location, due to farmers who feared banks with many branches would shift their lending elsewhere when local crop failures made local farms risky to loan to. Yet comparing to Canada, where seemingly small political differences led to banks with many branches, it seems clear that U.S. banks were more fragile because of those restrictions, and less competition in the U.S. left consumers with less desirable interest rates.

By the 1980s, improved communications eroded farmers’ ability to tie banks to one locale, so political opposition to multi-branch banks vanished, resulting in a big merger spree. The biggest problem with this merger spree was that the regulators who approved the mergers asked for more loans to risky low-income borrowers. As a result, banks (plus Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) felt compelled to lower their standards for all borrowers (the book doesn’t explain what problems they would have faced if they had used different standards for loans the regulators pressured them to make).

These stories provide a clear and plausible explanation of why the U.S. has a pattern of banking crises that Canada and a few other well-run countries have almost entirely avoided over the past two centuries. But they suggest the U.S. banking crises should have been more unique among mature democracies than was actually the case.

The authors are overly dismissive of problems that don’t fit their narrative. Commenting on the failure of Citibank, Lehman, AIG, etc to sell more equity in early 2008, they say “Why go to the markets to raise new capital when you are confident that the government is going to bail you out?”. It seems likely bankers would have gotten better terms from the market as long as they didn’t wait until the worst part of the crisis. I’m pretty sure they gave little thought to bailouts, and relied instead on overly complacent expectations for housing prices.

The book has a number of asides that seem as important as their main points, such as claims that Britain’s greater ability to borrow money led to its military power, and its increased need for military manpower drove its expansion of the franchise.

Book review: War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat.

This ambitious book has some valuable insights into what influences the frequency of wars, but is sufficiently long-winded that I wasn’t willing to read much more than half of it (I skipped part 2).

Part 1 describes the evolutionary pressures which lead to war, most of which ought to be fairly obvious.

One point that seemed new to me in that section was the observation that for much of the human past, group selection was almost equivalent to kin selection because tribes were fairly close kin.

Part 3 describes how the industrial revolution altered the nature of war.

The best section of the book contains strong criticisms of the belief that democracy makes war unlikely (at least with other democracies).

Part of the reason for the myth that democracies don’t fight each other was people relying on a database of wars that only covers the period starting in 1815. That helped people overlook many wars between democracies in ancient Greece, the 1812 war between the US and Britain, etc.

A more tenable claim is that something associated with modern democracies is deterring war.

But in spite of number of countries involved and the number of years in which we can imagine some of them fighting, there’s little reason to consider the available evidence for the past century to be much more than one data point. There was a good deal of cultural homogeneity across democracies in that period. And those democracies were part of an alliance that was unified by the threat of communism.

He suggests some alternate explanations for modern peace that are only loosely connected to democracy, including:

  • increased wealth makes people more risk averse
  • war has become less profitable
  • young males are a smaller fraction of the population
  • increased availability of sex made men less desperate to get sex by raping the enemy (“Make love, not war” wasn’t just a slogan)

He has an interesting idea about why trade wasn’t very effective at preventing wars between wealthy nations up to 1945 – there was an expectation that the world would be partitioned into a few large empires with free trade within but limited trade between empires. Being part of a large empire was expected to imply greater wealth than a small empire. After 1945, the expectation that trade would be global meant that small nations appeared viable.

Another potentially important historical change was that before the 1500s, power was an effective way of gaining wealth, but wealth was not very effective at generating power. After the 1500s, wealth became important to being powerful, and military power became less effective at acquiring wealth.

Book review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.

Pinker provides a cautiously optimistic view of the dramatic reduction in violence over the past few centuries. He has tied together a wide variety of violent behavior (from genocide to cruelty to animals) into one broad pattern of people becoming more civilized.

He mostly covers the west, and I wished for more about the trends in the mideast and the more peaceful parts of asia. And why does he avoid commenting on the reported homicide rate for Somalia that’s less than the US – does he have reject the data as inaccurate, or does he want to ignore evidence that’s inconsistent with his claim that the rise of leviathan reduced crime?

The substance of the book is less reassuring than a casual glance would suggest. In particular, the section on the power law distribution of war deaths shows that the model he uses says the expected number of war deaths is infinite, apparently due to small probabilities of really destructive wars. It’s easy to overlook this disturbing implication if you aren’t reading carefully. I’m disappointed that Pinker didn’t talk about this more – how is it altered if we try to incorporate the finiteness of the available population? Should we focus a lot of our attention on avoiding unlikely megawars?

He cautiously speculates about possible causes (increased global communications, trade, democracy, self-control, reason, feminization, education, and intelligence via the Flynn effect).

If you’re an ideologue looking for an excuse to be offended, you’re fairly sure to find one in this book.

Pinker exaggerates the evidence for violence among hunter-gatherers (see the book Sex at Dawn for the other side of this debate). And the evidence Pinker does present is quite consistent with the hypothesis that violence increased when people switched from hunter-gatherers to stationary farmers.

The book is very long, and that’s not due to a simple desire to be thorough. Much of the evidence seems selected more for vividness and memorability (e.g. his evidence from fairy tales – not completely frivolous, but insignificant enough evidence that he wouldn’t have put it in a peer-reviewed article).

I didn’t learn enough from it to justify the time spent, but the ideas in it deserve to be known more widely.