Antonia Frazer’s new book The King and the Catholics brings to light a neglected topic in British history, the removal of legal restrictions on Catholics. Catholic emancipation was a critical moment along the path to religious freedom — the theme of my book with Noel Johnson, Persecution and Toleration (see our new website for the book here).

Religious toleration is important to Britain’s historical self-image as a bastion of liberty against continental tyrants like Hitler, Napoleon, and Louis XIV.

But for much of the 18th century, Catholics in Britain were barred from government service, the army and navy, the law…


Antisemitism has returned to mainstream politics in Europe and America. One fundamental misconception about antisemitism is that it is simply another form of racism. Thus Jeremy Corbyn responds to charges of antisemitism with “ ‘I’ve spent my whole life exposing racism in any form”. But of course, Corbyn is, at the very least, an enabler of antisemitism (and there is evidence he holds antisemitic prejudices himself — see here).

Why is antisemitism different from other forms of racism? And what makes antisemitism unique. When Noel Johnson and I began writing Persecution & Toleration, we didn’t envision antisemitism returning to prominence…


Why was religious persecution common in the premodern world? This is the question Noel Johnson and I address in Persecution and Toleration.

Answers that rely on the alleged barbarism of the times or the brutality or narrowed-mindedness of individual churchmen or rulers are unsatisfying. We need to understand why religious dissent was so alarming that political and religious authorities resorted to violent repression.

In Persecution and Toleration, we outline why states often had an incentive to enforce religious conformity.

Suppose the ruler wants to pass a law. The religious authority can choose to legitimate this law or to oppose it…


I was fortunate to be invited give the Epstein Lecture at LSE this March. The series is named after the great LSE economic historian Larry (Stephen) Epstein. Here I’ll summarize why it was such an honor to give the lectures. The content of the lecture will be another post.

Epstein was a historian whose origin field of expertise was medieval Italy. I encountered him through Freedom and Growth. Published in 2000, I first read it a couple of years later, perhaps in 2002 or 2003. …


The following 2017 books seized my imagination. I’ve focused on non-fiction here rather than fiction.

  1. The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper. I’ve previously discussed this original and fascinating take on how Rome fell in this essay.

Harper depicts the Roman empire at its height in the 2nd century AD as populous, urban, and prosperous. But it was the unwitting beneficiary of a fragile climatic equilibrium: the Roman warm period.

Beneficial climatic conditions allowed the expansion of agriculture into more marginal lands. Viniculture and wheat farming spread into higher elevations. Harper documents how the erosion of these climatic conditions after…


This question is prompted by Kingdom of the Wicked, a new book by Helen Dale. Dale forces us to consider Jesus as a religious extremist in a Roman world not unlike our own. The novel throws new light on our own attitudes to terrorism, globalization, torture, and the clash of cultures. It is highly recommended.

Indirectly, however, Dale also addresses the possibility of sustained economic growth in the ancient world. The novel is set in a 1st century Roman empire during the governorship of Pontus Pilate and the reign of Tiberius. But in this alternative history, the Mediterranean world has…


Historians often appear skeptical of counterfactual arguments. E.H. Carr argued that “a historian should never deal in speculation about what did not happen” (Carr, 1961, 127). Michael Oakeshott described counterfactual reasoning as ‘a monstrous incursion of science into the world of history’ (quoted in Ferguson, 1999). More recently, Eric Foner is reported to have found “counterfactuals absurd. A historian’s job is not to speculate about alternative universes …It’s to figure out what happened and why” (cited in Parry, 2016, here).

Such skepticism is striking to the modern economic historian, who since Robert Fogel’s work on the impact of the railroad…


James C. Scott, the Yale political scientist, and the author of some of the best books on the history of states, has a new book coming out, entitled Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (here). Scott’s latest book (which is excellent) encouraged me to reflect on Seeing Like a State his celebrated critique of high-modernism in state planning, architecture, and economic development, a book I frequently recommend to students and friends.

Seeing Like the State, like Scott’s other work, is widely admired by many libertarians and classical liberals (see here, and here). This is unsurprising…


Crossposted on Notes on Liberty

Why did Japan successfully modernize in the 19th century while China failed to do so? Both China and Japan came under increasing threat from the Western powers after 1850. In response, Japan successfully undertook a program of state building and modernization; in China, however, attempts to modernize proved unsuccessful and the power of the central state was fatally weakened. The failure to build a modern state led to China’s so-called lost century while Japan’s success enabled it to become the first non-western country to industrialize. …


(crossed posted at Notes on Liberty)

On Branko Milanovic’s recommendation, I read Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past. Scholarly and elegantly written, it provides one of the best imaginative reconstructions of the ancient Roman economy.

Previous posts have touched on the economies of late antiquity, the modernist primitivist debate, and diagnosed problems in many recent assessments of the ancient economy (here, here, here, and here). I want to use Schiavone’s book to revisit a question raised by Peter Temin in The Roman Market Economy. How advanced was the Roman economy? Specifically, how did it compare to the economy of…

Mark Koyama

Economist at George Mason University specializing in economic history, law and economics and institutional economics.

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