Books of the Year

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 200 CE initiated a process that narrowed the possibilities for growth. The weather became colder and more variable. North Africa became more arid. In the language of economics, this was a contraction in the economy’s production possibility frontier.

Concurrently, Rome was hit by a series of massive epidemiological shocks: the Antonine plague (165–180), the Plague of Cyprian (249–262) and then the most devastating of all such shocks, the Justinian Plague (541–542), Europe’s first experience of bubonic plague.

Harper discusses how this combination of climatic and disease shocks undermined the basis for Roman prosperity, eventually eroding the fiscal basis of the empire itself. Emperors and generals feature in this account, but the importance of a good emperor, such as Marcus Aurelius (160–180) or Maurice (582–602), fades into insignificance relative to the size of negative demographic shocks that the Mediterranean economy experienced.

The bubonic plague of the 6th century was the most transformative of these. Trade contracted and cities shrank. The Roman state struggled to find recruits for its armies and, as its tax revenues dried up, it found it increasingly difficult to pay what troops it had on time. As a result, it was simply too weak to resist the Arab invasions of the 7th century. The fall of Rome was not a event but a gradual process, the beginnings of which can be traced back to the mid-1st century.

2. The Allure of Battle by Cathal Nolan. Nolan argues that attrition rather than decisive battles tend to win wars. This is especially so in modern warfare. A single battle — even one as seemingly decisive as a Cannae — is unlikely to destroy the enemy’s capability to fight. In total war, it is the resources of a country that determines ultimate success rather than the ability of individual commanders. Despite this, historians and military strategists continue to celebrate aggressive battle commanders like Hannibal, Robert E. Lee, and Marlborough.

Several insights deserve emphasis. First, from the many battles and campaigns Nolan studies, it is evident that there is tremendous uncertainty in any battle and even the greatest commanders made many mistakes.

Second, military historians glamorized offensive tactics such as the oblique line of Frederick II, at the expense of underemphasizing how quickly defensive tactics were able to nullify them. Despite his undoubted ability on a battlefield, Frederick II was nearly annihilated when France, Austria and Russia combined against him and survived largely due to chance.

Third, the emphasis on decisive battle elevated the importance of operational tactics over the development of long-run strategy. This led military planners in countries like Germany and Japan to plunge into wars in which they were hopelessly outmatched. The celebration of aggressive generalship and decisive battle thus helped to usher in the two most costly wars in human history.

3. The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel. A tour de force history of inequality from ancient times until today. I reviewed it for Public Choice. Here is an excerpt from my review:

the only events that have consistently brought down inequality have been catastrophic ones. Scheidel focuses on the several ‘‘horsemen of the apocalypse: war, revolution, societal collapse, and disease. Total war can make a sizable and lasting dent to inequality. It took the Thirty Years War and massive demographic loses, for example, to reduce inequality in 17th century Augsburg. Similarly, the egalitarian decades of the 1950s–1970s in Western Europe and North America, admired and remembered nostalgically by social democrats, were the product of warfare, mass destruction, inflation, and confiscatory taxation between 1914 and 1945. Communism can also bring about a major leveling through violence and destruction. Revolution, land reform, massive famine, and violent persecution reduced the Gini coefficient for income in China from perhaps around 0.4 in the 1930s, to just 0.23 by 1984. But this came at the price of millions of deaths.

Inequality is here to stay. Historically widening levels of inequality have almost always been a consequence of peace, prosperity and economic development. This pattern of increasing stratification and inequality has only been interrupted by catastrophic wars and natural disasters. In the absence of such large-scale shocks, most feasible economic policies are only likely to affect patterns of inequality at the margin. Scheidel’s book is recommended for anyone who enjoys social science and/or history!

4. Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall, a detailed yet highly readable account of the English Reformation. Fair minded both to reformers and traditionalists, Marshall makes it clear just how challenging this period of English history was. It is a good antidote to those who tend to dismiss the sixteenth century as an age of religious fanaticism and unreason.

Heretics and Believers is a traditional narrative history of the Reformation in England. The book succeeds in immersing the reader in the thought-world of the sixteenth century, while also providing overview of causes and consequences of the decisions made by rulers. Throughout, Marshall makes it clear that the Reformation was a process that unfolded in ways that were unanticipated and difficult to predict. Few were more opposed to Luther in the early 1520s than Henry VIII. Then there were reformers in the 1520s and 1530s who had become traditionalists by the 1540s such as Edward Bonner. The Protestants who fled persecution in the Marian England of the 1550s soon split in the 1570s over whether the new Church of England was the finished product or whether further religious reformation was necessary. The fragility of the Elizabethan settlement is brought home by Marshall’s discussion of the Rising of the North in 1569. The Reformation could have been reversed had Elizabeth died or been overthrown.

5. The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hansen is an excellent overview of World War 2 by a distinguished expert on ancient warfare.

Hanson begins by asking how the Axis Powers made a series of mistakes in 1941 that turned a series of regional and continental wars into a single world world that they had no chance of winning.

The Germans and Japanese had no means of destroying the industrial capability of the United States yet they went to war with America anyway in December 1941.

German military forces were roughly equivalent to those of England and France in 1940 (the Allies actually had superior armor) but the Wehrmacht had come out on top largely due to a combination of superior generalship, luck, and the failure of the French military and political leadership. But by the end of 1941, German was at war with the greatest industrial power in the world (the US), the greatest naval power (the UK), and country with the largest land army (USSR).

In rational choice theories of conflict, wars happen because opposing parties misestimate their own or their rival’s military capabilities. It took the most terrible conflict in human history to establish the military superiority of the Allied over the Axis powers.

Hansen’s book complements Nolan’s. The German high command were enraptured by the idea of encircling and destroying their enemy à la Cannae. Because they believed that they could destroy the core of the Soviet army in less than three months, they paid little attention to Soviet industrial capacity. In fact they massively underestimated it — the USSR produced over 80,000 T34 Tanks during the war and over 500,000 artillery pieces. In addition the British and Americans supplied the USSR with 14,000 tanks and 375 trucks and motorized vehicles making the Soviet army by 1943 the most mechanized infantry force in the world.

The Second War Worlds does not skimp on the human side — Hansen assesses the relative qualities of the statesmen and generals involved on each side (Churchill comes out most favorably) — and he acknowledges the terrible human cost, much of it paid by civilians, but it is a World War 2 book that will appeal most to those looking for an analytical overview rather than a detailed chronological narrative or solder’s eye view.

In addition to these, two books related to my own research came out this year: Rulers, Religions, and Riches by Jared Rubin and Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth. Both of these were important contributions to the ongoing Great Divergence debate in economic history. As I have reviewed these elsewhere, I will simply point to these reviews rather than describing them again here (here and here).

I enjoyed many other books this year. The one that came closest to making the top 5 was The Infidel and the Professor: by Dennis C. Rasmussen. Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe was a fantastic thematic overview of medieval European history.

Also worthy of interest and attention were The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart, The Ideas Industry by Daniel Drezner, Catherine Nixey’s flawed but extremely fun and engaging The Darkening Age, Yuval Noah Harai’s Homo Deus, Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Revolution.

Finally, as an economist, I also got a lot from Roger Backhouse’s Founder of Modern Economics: Paul A. Samuelson. Finally, by far the worst book I read cover to cover last year was the incompetent (to the point where it can be called fraudulent)was Democracy in Chains. Untold hours were wasted both reading the book and keeping up with the ongoing debates on social media that it has spawned.

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