Friday, July 3, 2009

The European Miracle

Quotes from The European Miracle by Eric Jones:
Economies are politically embedded, and this is decisive for the way they perform. (P.xxix)
Resources are a function of the available technology, and have no economic meaning until a technology has been invented to employ them. (P.xxxii)
There is an old gibe that economics is about choices, while sociology (and anthropology too on this showing) is about how people do not have choices to make. (P.14)
Where a pattern of behaviour is maintained over a long span, the methodological preference of the economist is certainly to look for evidence that the short-run payoffs are stable. (P.14)
Jones discusses the historiography of very long term economic growth at some length. I had not realised that there are scholars who seriously propose that there is nothing distinctive about European economic performance prior to the ‘great disruption’ of the industrial revolution (which, as Jones says, raises the question of how did that happen there in the first place). Since European imperialism (itself highly distinctive) was well underway prior to 1750, this ‘essentially the same until 1750/1820’ position seems a very odd one to take. Moreover, Jean Gimpel in The Medieval Machine makes it quite clear that even Medieval Europe was very technologically distinctive.

I really like Jones’ point that you cannot really work out what, if anything, is distinctive about one civilisation unless you compare it to others. Who knows England, that only England know? A social science application of using a ‘control’ inspired by the methodology of physical science.
I enjoyed his dismissal of the thesis of an unchanging ‘Asian mode of production’ a la Wittfogel, Marx & Engels. He makes the point that steppe imperialism (the Ottoman, Mughal and Manchu empires, what McNeill calls the ‘gunpowder empires’) had very distinctive forms that changed the dynamics of the societies they were imposed on.

I was struck by the evidence that the Germanic and Celtic peoples had established social structures based on nuclear families in the second millennium BC (i.e. 4,000 years ago) (Pp 11-12), having long been sceptical of the ‘nuclear family is recent and artificial’ line.

The evidence that external European trade was only about 7 per cent of European continental product prior to 1800 doesn’t exactly help the ‘Europe-rich-because-exploited-periphery’ argument (Pp xxxiv-xxxv). Such arguments have always fallen down on a series of hurdles (why is Switzerland – no colonies ever – richer than Portgual – longest history of colonialism?; most European/developed world trade is, and always has been, with the rest of Europe/the developed world; how did they get to be in a position to undertake such exploitation in the first place?, etc.).

Jones cites a nice observation that
the six most likely centres of pristine state development (Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Mexico and Peru) all featured circumscribed zones of production which presented ‘special difficulties to villages that might have sought to escape from the growing concentration of power in the hands of overly aggressive redistributive war chiefs’. (P.10)
Europe was marked from a relatively early stage with a more equal distribution of wealth with the European poor being notably less poor than elsewhere (P.5).

Jone cites another nice observation that Europe west of a line from St Petersburg to Trieste
was distinguished from non-European civilisations by a high age at marriage and a high proportion of people who never married at all,
late marriages allowing a spell for saving and being part of a long-term European preference at the margin for goods over children, a difference Jones suggests was at least partly a result of different disaster-management requirements (Pp 15ff). The point he makes about European disasters tending to destroy labour rather than capital (P. xxxiv) seems to militate against that, though it would foster (however slowly) capital accumulation, perhaps making the choice at the margin of goods over children an easier one.

Later and fewer marriages would also imply a higher status for women (relatively speaking) in Europe than non-Europe. To what extent the abilities of half the population is fostered being not an insignificant factor in long-run social outcomes.

The European Miracle is a great book. Particularly like the way Eric Jones takes medieval Europe seriously and how he is willing to consider technology, politics, culture, family formation, the lot.
More quotes from The European Miracle:
Yet the past in reality was not a mill-pond occasionally ruffled by breeze. It was made up of a ceaseless succession of adjustments to disturbances, big and little. (P.23)
Europe was a mutant civilisation in its uninterrupted amassing of knowledge about technology (P.45)
... industrialisation … was not in any case a thunderstorm that suddenly arrived overhead but a growth deeply rooted in the past. (P.225)
The dismal record of the rest of the premodern world shows that purposive government, regular technological change, and a population response reined back from swamping any gains in income were far from inescapable attributes of human society. (P.234)
Jones’ key point is that differences that are marginal at any one moment can, if they persist, have huge long-term effects. For example, in ecological terms, Asians were r-strategists,
maximising numbers as an adaptation to frequent mortality peaks, so that some might hope to survive catastrophes
while Europeans were K-strategists, living in a more stable environment, controlling fertility more (p.20) so that
numbers were kept below the maximum and incomes above the minimum … Underlying the European response pattern was an adjustment to a more favourable risk profile … the options were simply a little broader. (p.21).
Thus Europeans continued to invest marginally more in capital goods (both physical and human) generation after generation, with all sorts of consequences for standard of living, status of people, status of women, power relationships, individualism, etc.

It was good to see Jones give full credit for the sheer adaptiveness/inventiveness of the medieval period (particularly pp 58-59). As he says, the inventions that ‘kicked off’ the industrial revolution distract too much attention from a traditionally inventive/highly adaptive economy. Organisational inventiveness was often the key (p.65).

But this adaptiveness and inventiveness existed in a profoundly different institutional environment, which technology both grew out of and reinforced. Thus, while the difference in literacy rates in the C18th between Europe and the Ottoman empire was 50% to 5%, the difference in publication rates was a factor of 10,000 (p.67). (This imbalance has persisted, as recent UN reports make clear.) In a similar vein, China published in 1980 its first new forensic medicine textbook since 1247 (p.227).

The key institutional difference seems to have been the European state system, which was competitive enough to force rulers to attempt to attract (or at least not lose) skills and capital, stable enough so that institutional learning could take place yet embedded in a region of sufficient cultural continuity that access to economies of scale was not too badly affected by political fragmentation (Pp 104ff). The other regions of Eurasia veered between Imperial unity – which created complacent, exploitative regimes which had no reason to conciliate their subjects – and unstable disorder.

Why Europe never unified after Rome seems to have been a largely function of geography (although Jones does not make this point, Rome achieved what it did because its military technology was, and remained for centuries, much superior to anyone else’s in Europe. No one else ever achieved a sufficient level of persistent superiority to overcome the geographical difficulties). Europe is a “peninsula of peninsulas” (p.90) with substantial mountain ranges, many rivers and a large off shore archipelago (the British Isles). So a scattering of agricultural ‘core areas’, none of which was naturally dominant, separated by natural boundaries, impeded attempts to politically unify while the navigable coasts and rivers fostered trade, movement of ideas, capital and skills. England in particular benefited from wave after wave of emigres bringing skills, knowledge, capital. As soon as someone developed a good idea, it spread fairly quickly: both because it could (geographically, culturally and institutionally) and because rulers could not afford to fall behind in a competitive environment.

Which certainly was competitive – c.1000 polities in the C14th, 500 at the beginning of the C16th, 25 by 1900 (p.106).

Interestingly, the only other area in Eurasia (or the world) geographically like Europe is Japan. Which is also the only area that generated similar institutions. Disappointingly, Jones notes the Japanese exception (pp 157-8) but does not explore it. Yet it is not hard to see why this institutional similarity might be so. While Japan was a single kingdom, it did not centralise like the other Asian states did. The geography permitted political unity but discouraged ‘deep’ unity – even under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the central authorities had to work with independently powerful (and armed) local notables, which provided much more basis for interest group politics, deals and balances than in the rest of Asia.

Japan and Europe had another similarity–both avoided rule by steppe nomads, unlike the Islamic world, India and China (p.229). Japan because the Mongol invasions failed (largely due to the ‘divine wind’, or kamikaze, which sank the Mongol fleets), Europe because the Mongol incursion was temporary and pulled back by succession disputes.

Jones makes the observation that nation-states are a recent, European invention (p.127).

The European Miracle brings home how different the state as evolved in Europe, and the European experience of the state, was. And how historically naïve it is to think of state action as having any natural tendency to being benign. We in the West think of the state as a service provider, but that was not how the state functioned in non-European societies. As Jones says of the Manchu regime in China, but equally applies to the Mughals in India or the Ottomans in the Mediterranean, Balkans and Middle East,
The empire was an Asian revenue pump concealed by a mask of solidarity and any notion of an implicit social contract in which services of material consequences were supplied by the emperor in return for his share of the national product is spurious. (p.206).
The ratio of military to court to civil expenditure by the Chinese state was 25:7:1, so only 0.03 to 0.06% of GNP was available for infrastructure spending. (pp 208-9).
For the populace, the bargain was a poor one. The Chinese paid 24 per cent of G.N.P. to two percent of their number in return for defence and the co-ordination of irrigation and flood control. No other important services were provided, no civil policing for example. Villagers kept their own watch. (p.209)
Those running European states were, presumably, equally self-interested, but they lived in a competitive environment. They found it expedient to offer services (such as the administration of justice) and to reduce arbitrary actions (such as confiscating property) in order to conciliate interest groups who could either go elsewhere or whose extra efforts were needed to ‘keep up with the Plantagents/Valois/Habsburgs/Bourbons/Hanoverians ...’ As Jones says of the European ancien regime, it matters not what the motives of those running the state were.
The results were out of all proportion to the motives. (p.237)
Another difference Jones explores was that, although in Europe, India, China and Islam, it was customary to grant land temporarily in return for military service (the practice of Karl-lo-Magne, aka Charlemagne, and the Otto’s of the early German Reich), only in Europe did this turn into hereditable tenure and genuine ownership ( The difference in incentives for elite land management, and thus long-term investment patterns, between being granted temporary taxing rights over a group of villages (Asia) and actual hereditable ownership (Europe) is obvious. One is tempted to cite the persistence of Roman legal forms as a reason, except the evolution into hereditable rights also occurred outside the areas of the former Roman Empire and the other place where such a pattern developed was – guess where – Japan.

Though Jones does not discuss it much, only Europe developed the representative principle. Clearly this is no accident, it was a result of wider processes in the development of the European state.

Reading Jones, I was brought up short at how Eurocentric my understanding was of death-tolls in wars. I thought of the 20 million dead (mostly combatants) of WWI as something new. I was vaguely aware that the Taiping rebellion of mid C19th China resulted in 25 million dead (mostly civilians). The shock was that the Mongol conquest of China in the early C13th resulted in a loss of one-third of the Chinese population (about 35 million dead, again mostly civilians). But the Mongols were the ‘pyramids of skulls’ people who regarded clearing peasants out of grazing land as a form of pest control. Jones discusses how Europe has a long history of attempting to control the violence of wars, something Asia conspicuously lacked (p. 235). Again, this accords with the different incentive structures and their effects.

There are also amusing tidbits, such as the name ‘America’ may have come from Richard Ameryk, collector of customs at Bristol, who gave explorer Cabot his pension, rather than the latter Amerigo Vespucci (p.72).

Overall, The European Miracle is a classic work of economic history, which greatly deepened my knowledge of European, and non-European, civilisations.