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Commerce and coalitions


The theory of comparative advantage is one of the really great theories in the behavioral sciences. It implies that even if country E has an absolute disadvantage at producing every kind of good compared to country P, it can still gain by finding goods for which it has a comparative advantage, and specialize in producing those, and trading for other goods with P.

But the theory of comparative advantage (like another great theory,  the theory of kin selection) needs to be handled with care. Even if a country benefits in the aggregate from international trade, there may be losers as well as winners. As the world came to be increasingly tied together by international trade, conflicts over free trade and protectionism moved to the fore of politics. In nineteenth century England, the free traders, representing industrialists and urban workers, took control, opening the country to cheap imported food. But in the 1870s, both Germany and the United States arrived at political settlements that favored protectionism over free trade.

Germany was unified in 1871. The densely populated country had a comparative advantage in labor and a comparative disadvantage in capital and land. Free trade for Germany would have meant specializing in labor intensive goods, and importing capital intensive goods from more industrialized countries like England, and cheap food from the more thinly populated Americas and Eastern Europe. Instead, Germany put up high tariff barriers to protect her industrialists and landowners – a “marriage of iron and rye.” Germany’s industrial working class was pro-free trade (so was Karl Marx), but their main political vehicle, the Social Democratic Party, was excluded from the government. This political settlement lasted right up to the First World War; on some accounts, the fraying of the protectionist ruling coalition was a factor pushing Germany toward war.

The United States had a different protectionist coalition. In the 1870s the country had an abundance of land, but it was short of labor and still in the early stages of industrialization. Protectionism, supported by Republicans, promoted national industry, and kept high-wage American workers from having to compete with low-wage workers overseas. The agricultural South and West were the big losers under this scheme, but there was a compensating advantage for the South. The compromise of 1876 put the Republican, Hayes, in the White House in exchange for ending Reconstruction in the South. White Southerners then had a free hand to set up a one party state under the Democrats, committed to white rule. When the upstart Populists started winning support in the South and West on a free trade platform, they were beaten back by Southern Democrats playing the race card. The condominium between Republicans and Democrats lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In Latin America at the same time period, the free traders were largely in the ascendant. In Brazil, for example, the ruling coalition stood for café com leite – coffee with milk – São Paulo coffee planters and Minas Gerais cattle ranchers committed to an export oriented economy. Brazil had a lot of vacant land that could be opened up for coffee production, and was able to attract European immigrants to help with the harvest.

In Guatemala by contrast, free trade took a more sinister turn. From 1871, a “liberal” government facilitated the expropriation of Indian lands to promote coffee production, all in the name of progress. Indians were recruited to work on the plantations by a combination of forced labor and debt peonage. The country came to resemble a penal colony under the control of a large standing army.

Joseph Conrad spent his early life as a sailor, and had plenty of chance to see the dark underside of globalization, most famously the Congo rubber trade as depicted in Heart of Darkness. In Nostromo, set in a fictional Latin American republic, he wrote

Liberals! The words one knows so well have a nightmarish meaning in this country. Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government – all of them have a flavor of folly and murder.


Big in Japan

Japan with its purely feudal organization of landed property and its developed petite culture gives a much purer picture of the European Middle Ages than all our history books.

Karl Marx. Capital

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement … instead of a salary …; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and … assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State … seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism … [But] feudalism was not an event which happened once in the world. Like Europe – though with inevitable and deep-seated differences – Japan went through this phase.

Marc Bloch. Feudal Society

After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forcibly opened to the modern world with Commodore Perry’s visits in 1853 and 1854.


Japan is an interesting case for those who think there are laws of human history – that history is more than just a collection of narratives – because of the similarities between European and Japanese social structure, in spite of wildly divergent high culture. Here are some theories (not necessarily incompatible) about the convergent social evolution of Europe and Japan.

Marxism. According to Marx, there is a limited number of “modes of production” – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and so on – defined by how the ruling class squeezes a surplus out of the exploited. There are quasi-scholastic arguments among Marxists about how many modes there are, and what society belongs to what mode. Some Marxists define feudalism so broadly that it covers most complex societies before capitalism. Others however (and probably Marx himself) would apply a more limited definition that confines feudalism to Europe (maybe just Western Europe) and Japan. On this view, all feudal societies, even if they are not historically related, will show some generic similarities. Thus (so the story goes) it is no accident that Japan is the one non-Western society to make a relatively rapid and easy transition to capitalism. Even if you don’t buy the whole Marxist package, Perry Anderson’s two volumes, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (from which I got the Marx quote above) are well worth reading.

Cliodynamics. According to some theories, state formation takes place along “meta-ethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures and ways of life abut. In Eastern Europe and most of Asia, the mother of all meta-ethnic frontiers is the one dividing settled farmers from pastoral nomads. The vast majority of really huge empires in history have formed on one side or other of this frontier, or straddling it. In Western Europe and Japan, however, history played out differently. There was less pressure to corral everyone into one monster state, or to overcome the fragmentation of authority by consolidating Church and State, or Emperor and Shogun. (Although consultation and consent between king and vassal didn’t develop in Japan as it did in Medieval Europe.)

Anthropology of kinship. Across a band of territories running from the Middle East through India to China, states developed in conjunction with patrilineal descent groups. In northern Eurasia, and its western and eastern periphery, such groups were not as strongly developed. I wrote a paper once tracing the “deep history” of this and other macro-geographic contrasts in kinship systems. (I should caution that parts of the prehistory need updating.) Feudal society in Western Europe and Japan depended on non-kin-based personal ties. This may have facilitated the later development of non-kin-based institutions like the public corporation and the nation-state. Certainly many Chinese were aware of the difference in social cohesion between their country and Japan. As Sun Yat Sen would remark, “The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit…they are just a heap of loose sand. But the Japanese are sticky rice.”



We’re now doing one decade per day on the blog.

The Taiping rebellion in China began in 1850 and was finally put down in 1864. It was led by a former school teacher who discovered, after repeatedly failing his civil service exams, that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, destined to bring China over to his own brand of Christianity.

The rebellion was by far the most destructive conflict in the nineteenth century. It illustrates a general characteristic of Chinese history: Chinese wars were fewer but more destructive than European ones. China was unified for most of the past two millennia, governed by dynasties which established peace for long periods of time, among a huge population, over a vast area. But when things fell apart in China, whether from invasions (usually involving steppe nomads) or internal rebellions, vast numbers of people died. Here’s a chart comparing estimated numbers of war deaths for major wars Europe (red) and China (blue)  between 1 and 1800 CE. China’s population during this period was somewhat less than twice that of Europe, so even per capita, China’s military catastrophes were more demographically catastrophic than Europe’s.


The Taiping rebellion comes too late to show up on the chart, but cost the lives of about 20 million people.



Charles Lyell’s great work, Principles of Geology, came out between 1831 and 1833. Lyell advocated an uncompromising uniformitarianism: the same geological forces at work today, causing small changes over the course of lifetimes, were at work in the past, causing massive changes over the course of geological ages. We’ve seen over the course of this blog that uniformitarianism is not a completely reliable guide either to geology or to human history, which have been punctuated often enough by catastrophes – asteroid strikescontinent-scale floodsvolcanic eruptions, and devastating wars and plagues. But the theory is nonetheless at least part of the story of history, and Lyell’s work was deservedly influential.

In 1837 Charles Darwin, a careful reader of Lyell, published a short article entitled On the Formation of Mould. This would eventually led to his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Darwin’s work on soil formation was Lyellianism in miniature. He demonstrated, through a combination of careful reasoning and experiment, that the surface layer of pasture soil is formed by earthworms. “Although the conclusion may appear at first startling, it will be difficult to deny the probability that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasturelands springs, has passed through the intestines of worms.” Reading Darwin on worms you get the feeling he identifies with his humble subjects, gradually remaking the world through their patient industry.

The doctrine of progress through gradual change was appealing not just for scientific reasons. In the 1830s, English liberals (of whom Darwin was one) were attempting to reform their society gradually, without the violence of the French Revolution, and without turning over politics to a Great Man in the style of Napoleon. (Darwin was also a gradualist with regard to his own work: he came up with the theory of natural selection in 1838, but England at the time wasn’t ready for anything so radical, and he didn’t publish On The Origin of Species for another twenty years.)

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), a friend of Darwin’s, set her greatest novel, Middlemarch, around the time of the Reform Act of 1832, which moved England one big step closer to a genuinely representative government. The novel’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, might in another age have been a famous saint, another Theresa of Avila. In the England of her time she has another fate. Here is the famous conclusion of the novel, a paean to gradualism and the cumulative force of small deeds:

Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen


The last time we got romantic on Logarithmic History was back February 14, Valentine’s Day, and also around the time when sexual reproduction evolved on our calendar. Then I posted When you were I tadpole, and I was a fish. But there’s no reason we can’t celebrate romance again.

A huge fraction of music is silly love songs; it’s possible that music evolved among humans, as among songbirds, as a result of sexual selection. (That was Darwin’s theory.) All the major operas of Mozart (1756-1791) are celebrations of love – in its enduring monogamous form – in the face of various threats: a lustful sultan (The Abduction from the Seraglio), libidinous aristocrats (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni), the sexual curiosity that even nice girls feel (Cosi Fan Tutte), and an interfering mother-in-law and a bitter custody battle (The Magic Flute). Here’s an aria from The Magic Flute on this theme, with Lucia Popp as Pamina and Wolfgang Brendel as Papageno

Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

PAMINA Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen, fehlt auch ein gutes Herze nicht. PAMINA In men who feel love, a good heart, too, is never lacking.
Die süßen Triebe mitzufühlen,
ist dann der Weiber erste Pflicht.
Sharing these sweet urges
is then women’s first duty.
Wir wollen uns der Liebe freu’n,
wir leben durch die Lieb’ allein.
We want to enjoy love;
it is through love alone that we live.
Die Lieb’ versüßet jede Plage,
ihr opfert jede Kreatur.
Love sweetens every sorrow;
every creature pays homage to it.
Sie würzet uns’re Lebenstage,
sie wirkt im Kreise der Natur.
It gives relish to the days of our life,
it acts in the cycle of nature.
Ihr hoher Zweck zeigt deutlich an:
nichts Edler’s sei, als Weib und Mann.
Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann,
reichen an die Gottheit an.
Its high purpose clearly proclaims:
there is nothing nobler than woman and man.
Man and woman, and woman and man,
reach towards the deity.

We are MacApes, O’Monkeys, and Ben-Reptiles


A couple years back, Jonathan Marx and Jerry Coyne had an online spat on the question “Are humans apes?” (Marx says noCoyne says yes; see also John Hawks, who says no.) I offer my own solution below, after talking about Linnaeus (1707-1778) and biological categorization.

There’s a branch of cultural anthropology that studies “folk biology,” also known as “ethnobiology,” which is (among other things) about how different groups classify living things. Folk biological categories don’t vary randomly across cultures; there are some general principles at work. A quick summary: the basic level of categorization is roughly the genus. American folk genera include oakcrow, and fox (although a lot of Americans today are really bad at folk biology, maybe using that part of the brain for Pokemon.) Many peoples, and most hunter-gatherers, only take categorization down to the genus level. Others (especially horticulturalists) take it down to the species level, often with two part names (red oak, silver fox). Going toward more inclusive groups, genera are lumped together in larger, intermediate-sized, non-overlapping categories (palmhawk), which belong in turn to the more inclusive level of “life forms”: (bird, snake, fish, tree, grass/herb).

From an anthropological perspective, Linnaeus’s famous scheme of classification is an elaboration of these universal principles, with more species and more taxonomic levels (the famous Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).

A version of Linnaeus’s scheme served evolutionary biologist well for centuries. But starting in the later twentieth century, many biologists turned to another approach that was claimed to be a better fit for evolutionary principles: According to cladists, the classification of living things should be based on clades: groups containing all and only the descendants of an ancestor. This requires overturning or revising many familiar categories. For example, monkeys are not a clade, since Old World monkeys are more closely related to apes (including humans) than to New World monkeys. Reptiles are not a clade, since crocodiles are more closely related to birds than to lizards and snakes. Fish are not a clade, since lungfish are more closely related to amphibians and reptiles than to most other fish.

After some bitter disputes. cladists seems to have won the battle among scientists. But cladism has made less headway among non-scientists. In Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, Carol Yoon argues that cladistics is just too much at variance with the way the human mind understands biological categories. Most people are never going to take to cladistics any more than they’re going to take to twelve-tone music, or Loglan. So different answers to the question “Are humans apes?” reflect disagreement about how far we can or should bring folk categories in line with the austere logic of cladism. Apes, including humans, are a clade. Apes, not including humans, are not (since chimpanzees are more closely related – but not really more similar – to humans than to gorillas).

I suggest a compromise. Folk categories like ape, monkey, reptile, and fish, defined by shared ancestral traits, are useful, even if they aren’t clades, defined by shared derived traits. But the concept of a clade is also important one for biologists. So maybe when we want to talk about the clades associated with folk categories, why don’t we use a prefix – the Scottish Mac, Irish O’, or Hebrew/Arabic ben/bin. (Any of these will serve.) So human beings are not apes, monkeys, reptiles, or fish. But we are MacApes, O’Monkeys, Ben Reptiles, and/or Bin Fish.

(For other We Are posts see We Are Upside Down Bugs and We are Stardust.)

Debt and democracy


General rule: one can raise higher taxes, in proportion to the liberty of the subjects; and one is forced to moderate them to the degree that servitude increases. This has always been, and will always remain so. It is a rule drawn from nature, which does not vary at all; one finds it in all countries, in England, in Holland, and in all states in which liberty becomes degraded, right down to Turkey.


The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a bunch of major powers (Austria, France, Russia) ganging up to cut Prussia down to size. The English joined in on the Prussian side, on the theory that an enemy of France was a friend of theirs. The war was also a world war, long before World War One, involving fighting as far afield as North America and India. On the international side, it was a win for England, and a loss for France, with the French losing Quebec and India.

The war brought home an important advantage of a constitutional state over an absolutist one. England was able to raise higher taxes per capita on its subjects because they were voting for the taxes themselves, through Parliament. And England was able to borrow money for the war on easier terms than France, because English lenders were more confident that Parliament wouldn’t default on its debts: many of those who bought English war bonds either stood in Parliament, or voted for those who did. In spite of the “absolutist” label, French kings had a harder time squeezing money out of their subjects, and resorted to a lot of dubious expedients. For example, the government raised money by selling life annuities to investors: pay a lump sum for the annuity, and the government would pay back a fixed amount for every year the beneficiary was alive (sort of reverse life insurance). This led, among other things, to a syndicate of investors buying annuities on behalf of groups of young girls (such as The Thirty Geneva Maidens), judged the best bet, actuarially, for long life expectancies.

Generally they had to have reached the age of seven so as to be beyond the risk of smallpox. These maidens received the finest medical care, and Geneva’s wealthy bourgeoisie followed their health in the newspapers – not surprising given the huge investments that rested on their shoulders.

But the government was in such financial straits that it eventually started paying only a fraction of the promised annuities. The military weakness of the French state, stemming from its fiscal weakness, was the major cause of the French Revolution.

It would be nice to follow Montesquieu, and draw an improving moral lesson from this: constitutional liberty beats absolutism. But things played out differently in Eastern Europe, where there was less of a commercial sector to tap, and governments depended more on coercion – serfs serving their lords, lords serving the state – to keep up as great powers. There, the great constitutional state – the elective monarchy of Poland – was reduced to a second rank power, and eventually eliminated entirely. The most impressive military power, relative to its size, was Prussia, “not a country with an army, but an army with a country.” This was not the last time that military exigencies would push social evolution in very different directions in Western and Eastern Europe.

See A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy