Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama on *Persecution and Toleration* (Ep. 59)
How did religious freedom emerge — and why did it arrive so late? In their forthcoming book, fellow Mason economists Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama argue that while most focus on the role of liberal ideas in establishing religious freedom, it was instead institutional changes — and the growth of state capacity in particular — that played the decisive role.
In their conversation with Tyler, Johnson and Koyama discuss the ‘long road to religious freedom’ and more, including the link between bad weather and Jewish persecution, why China evolved into such a large political unit, whether the Black Death proves Paul Romer wrong, scapegoating, usury prohibitions in history, and the economic impact of volcanic eruptions.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello. Today we’re doing a Conversations with Tyler with two authors of a new book called Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom, published by Cambridge University Press. They also happen to be two of my favorite colleagues at George Mason and Mercatus. They’re both very well-known economic historians. Today we have with us Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama. We’re going to start with Noel Johnson. Ready?
NOEL JOHNSON: I’m ready. Thank you for having me on.
COWEN: A lot of historians have suggested that anti-Semitism picked up in the Renaissance compared to medieval times. Is that true? And if so, why did that happen?
JOHNSON: By the time of the Renaissance, anti-Semitism was picking up. One myth that a lot of people believe is that there was a tremendous amount of religious persecution that was going on during, say, the early Middle Ages to the late Middle Ages, up until, say, 1200 or 1300.
By the time you get to the Renaissance, there is more tension that’s emerging in Europe, in part because of states growing more powerful, rising state capacity. States are expanding their territory. States are attempting to impose themselves more in different parts of life, and this is starting to generate certain tensions. This is sometimes called the rise of the persecuting state.
COWEN: If I think of the Renaissance as, overall, more capitalistic than the Middle Ages, then there’s a kind of paradox that arises in my mind. It seems that across countries, at any point in time, the more capitalistic countries seem to be more tolerant: the Dutch Republic, later the Netherlands; England; United States.
But when you view it as a time series, it seems that you get more capitalism or more advanced state structures, and then more anti-Semitism. How do I square those two tendencies? Or am I wrong?
JOHNSON: No, I don’t think you’re wrong. Part of this whole process, as we go through in the book . . . I like to think of it as three phases that Europe is going through. And they’re not necessarily the same phases that every other part of the world has to go through.
But in Europe, you have an initial phase where individuals are being categorized according to identity rules. They’re being placed into legal categories and social categories, that it’s based on things like their religious identity.
Jewish communities are one of the easiest groups to identify this with. They’re forced to live in the same place. They’re forced to wear different kinds of clothes. They can do different sorts of occupations. This is an equilibrium, at first. And during this time, you observe relatively little persecution of these groups. One reason is because they’re in their place, so there’s not the same tension that’s being generated there.
Also, they’re serving a purpose. And it’s often, for Jews, for example, in the sense that they are raising money for non-Jews. For towns, they might grant Jews the monopoly right to lend money. Then, of course, Jews make monopoly profit from lending out at higher interest rates. But of course, the Jews don’t get to keep this money. It’s taken by, say, the town burghers. And then they’re taxed.
This is actually a rather pernicious equilibrium because you also get a cultural byproduct, which is that Jews are perceived as Shylocks lending at excessive interest rates. And this generates anti-Semitism, which in turn makes it easier for them to be taxed by the secular authority or by the Christian authorities. So that equilibrium — you don’t necessarily see a tremendous amount of persecution yet. However, every now and then, that breaks down, and you do.
But then what starts to happen as you get into the Renaissance, and especially as you get more towards the Reformation, you have states expanding. This is the next phase, where you’re moving out of these identity rules, where, importantly, you don’t have to have strong states in that world.
You can rely on — you mentioned capital. You can rely on market mechanisms, often, in order to run your state. Tax farming, or subcontracting to Jews to raise money for you — these sorts of things. This puts them in a precarious position, but there’s not a tremendous amount of persecution that comes out of it.
As you have the states expanding their role, these sorts of institutional arrangements start to break down at the same time. And this is often when you see the largest amounts of persecution that are taking place.
COWEN: So what’s the key change here? That state power is being contested and it’s pretty strong? Or is it something else?
JOHNSON: The key point is that you have a situation . . . Well, first of all, you have economic dynamism, so that there are other individuals who want to, say, trade long distance, and they’re running up against Jews for these sorts of things. You have all of the people who want to be involved in, say, moneylending, and they’re running up against the Jews in these sorts of circumstances.
But over time, you have — for example, the state may want to . . . They might bring in more people, like, conquer more territory. The French might do this, say, in the 16th century or 15th century. And as they’re doing this, they are also realizing that they have a lot more difference, a lot more identities in their midst than they knew before. And this can generate more persecution.
An example that Mark Koyama and I have written about in this case would be the Albigensian Crusades, to take a non-Jewish example. This is something that’s building at the end of the 12th century, at the end of the 1100s.
Then by the beginning of the 13th century, you have the French state expanding its power into the south. As they do this, they run into a different religious group, which becomes known as Cathars, which were not necessarily really that different. But they were different enough that they could use this as an excuse to conquer the territory and take them over.
This is a case where the rules kind of run into this heterogeneity, so you get persecution. And that’s the state’s building power that’s generating some persecution that’s coming out of that.
COWEN: So it’s the cross-connection between states building power, there being something at stake, and there’s more heterogeneity than there had been in the earlier, more zero-sum environment?
JOHNSON: Right, and then at this point, a state — somebody in the state because states don’t make decisions — but there’s some group in it that has to make a decision about, “Do we want to impose the old system? Do we want to have the same rules that we had before, where we were getting religious legitimation, but we were trying to adhere to some sort of dogma in doing this? Or do we have to relax the bounds of tolerance? Because we’re either running into this greater heterogeneity because we’re expanding or because we have to, in some sense, build our state in a different way.”
COWEN: At least for a small group, maybe a small group of bad people, but scapegoating is a kind of public good. You blame something on a minority, say. How does that public good of scapegoating get produced?
JOHNSON: It can either come from the top down, or it can come from the bottom up.
COWEN: But in the period you study, what’s the main mechanism? A political leader uses scapegoating to increase his power, her power?
JOHNSON: Well, this is a complicated question. It can be both. I’ll take a specific example. Again, if we stick to the 13th century, which is right before this Renaissance period you’re talking about . . . I forget the exact year, but I believe the Jews are expelled from England around 1290 or so. The whole state does it.
We don’t know exactly why this occurs. But there’s a lot going on in the 13th century between nobles in England and the crown. You have Magna Carta at the beginning. You have the First Barons’ War, you have the Second Barons’ War, that are taking place at the beginning of the 13th century.
And what a lot of these wars, these civil disturbances are about are, you have nobles who are having taxes extracted from them. They’re having revenue extracted from them by the king, and these individuals also know that Jews are involved in the exchequer. They want to exploit the Jews and take over both the revenue streams that the Jews have, and also get rid of some of their debts.
So you asked . . . we don’t know for sure, but one reasonable explanation that’s almost certainly playing a part in the eventual expulsion of Jews in 1290 is that this is a credible way for the king to give something to the nobles, so that they —
COWEN: So it’s expelling the competition.
JOHNSON: Expelling competition.
COWEN: So you really need to expel a useful scapegoat, if you can hand out rents.
JOHNSON: Yes, in this case. But I have to say, I think one of the more interesting questions that somebody can ask — that I do not fully understand, and I’m not sure anybody does right now — is why do you expel Jews necessarily?
Mark and I have done a lot of work on building datasets of Jewish persecution and Jewish expulsions at the city level and the country level in Europe over a very long period of time. And a question that I, for one, don’t fully understand is, you don’t need to actually kill all the Jews or expel them in order to extract resources from them. In fact, in some way, this is off the equilibrium path. You’re no longer in some optimal equilibrium for both the ruler and for the Jewish community.
Oftentimes, these Jewish communities would be expelled from a city, they would be invited to come back, and they would come back — in 5, 10, 15 years, sometimes even shorter. But that’s a little bit easier to understand.
In the case I gave you in England in 1290s, I think I understand a little bit about why it might have happened that way. I think it was signaling credibility in some political compact between the king and the nobles, but I’m not sure. But that’s an example of top down.
Other times, clearly, people are . . . You have, say, guilds moving against these Jewish communities. An example of this would be in 1614, when the most well-known Jewish persecution was in Frankfurt am Main. It was called the Fettmilch Massacre. Fettmilch was a baker. He was in guild, and he was upset about the terms of the political deal between the city rulers — the city council — and what the guilds were getting. One of the things that the guilds wanted were the Jews to be expelled. This was competition in some sense.
COWEN: In your investigation, when the weather turns cold and the harvest gets worse, Jews and other groups are persecuted more in these societies?
COWEN: Sometimes it’s suggested that the parts of Europe relatively close to Islam were more tolerant of the Jews. Is that true? And if so, how does it fit your model?
JOHNSON: The Ottoman Empire, I can speak directly to on this. But that’s not what your question is. You’re wondering about parts of Europe.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Like Albania?
COWEN: Possibly. Bulgaria, after it’s no longer part of the Ottoman Empire.
JOHNSON: I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. The Ottoman Empire, I could talk a lot about the dhimmi system and how that works into my thinking on this. I know Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire at one point, and some of these regions. This isn’t closer to the Ottoman Empire in my mind, but Poland has a much different equilibrium with Jews that emerges, and I have a story for that. But that’s not about Islam.
COWEN: What’s the Poland story? That’s fine. I’m interested in the Poland story.
JOHNSON: [laughs] Although now I’ve opened it up, it’s a complicated one.
COWEN: But its essence.
JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. In Poland you see, over time, a gradual movement of Jewish communities from the Iberian Peninsula, where they initially come in. Then they’re moving towards the West, and many are ending up in Poland.
Poland has often claimed to be a state without stakes, in the sense that it’s not a persecuting society in the way that other European areas were. The story that Mark and I tell about Poland is that they actually had very weak state authority in Poland. They experienced something called the second serfdom. So after the Black Death —
COWEN: Give us a time period.
JOHNSON: Yeah, sure. So 1350 is when the Black Death is occurring, around then. Europe loses about 40 percent of its population to this bacterial infection that spreads through. And as anybody who’s taken introductory economics might suggest, when the labor supply goes down by a lot, with 40 percent of Europe dying, then wages are going to start going up. This means the bargaining power of peasants, relative to landowners and so forth, are going to increase.
However, what economists often don’t take into account is, one response to this might be for people in power to double down on keeping peasants under their thumb. The second serfdom in Eastern Europe — Poland I’m thinking, in particular — this is that instead of getting better deals, the peasants were put under even greater submission after the Black Death because they were not able to get the market wage. Power played a role there with the nobility.
And the nobility would often take advantage of Jews’ skills in, say, monitoring labor, keeping books — these sorts of things — to help them run this situation. So you have sorts of court Jews, Jews who were integrated into that power structure in that area. Not all of them, by any means. And the story changes dramatically as you move into the 19th and 20th centuries.
But Poland never really goes through these transformations of developing state capacity. And Jews remain in this identity equilibrium in Poland, which insulates them from the persecution that we observe at the time, say 14th century, 1500s, up to 1800 or so, that we see in the other parts of Europe. But of course, you don’t get the emergence of a true form of tolerance. And this comes back doubly bad, much, much worse in the 19th and into the 20th century.
COWEN: You mentioned the Black Death. Let’s go back to 1347, which, I think, is when it all starts.
COWEN: What institutional changes did the Black Death bring to Western Europe?
JOHNSON: That’s a big question.
COWEN: The simplest answer, for someone who knows nothing.
JOHNSON: [laughs] The simplest institutional changes that are coming about because of the Black Death are going to be related to . . . What I’ve looked at are, first, what happens to Jews in the Black Death, but more broadly, you lose a tremendous amount of population. It’s a pure demographic shock in this sense, which we don’t often see in history.
This is going to change the bargaining power, the relative bargaining power of workers compared to nobles or people who are running states and cities and these sorts of things. And so you’re going to see more power for these individuals.
One of the biggest changes that’s going to happen is you’re going to see the emergence of more trading cities in the north relative to the south. And this is going to play a big role in generating the economic equilibrium that comes about from the next couple hundred years. But the main thing that’s going on with institutional change is going to be this shift in the bargaining power that’s letting peasants have more power relative to nobles.
COWEN: If the Black Death raised wages, does that mean that immigration today lowers wages?
JOHNSON: Not necessarily.
COWEN: You would think, right?
JOHNSON: So the Black Death . . . We have a hard time — I have a hard time wrapping my head around the numbers. This is almost half of the population that is dying. And it’s not occurring in a uniform way across all of Europe. Some cities disappear. Some cities get hardly affected by this, which is interesting for other reasons. But it’s a huge shock.
I don’t think we really have examples in the modern period of immigration on that level. And I know from the literature on immigration — which I’m not an expert in — but typically, these movements are not so large that we see them radically affecting wages in the way that I’m talking about.
Initially, when the Black Death hits, the world is ending. Wages don’t go up. Production just breaks down. Every second person or so is dead. There’s disintermediation [laughs] — to use a modern word — in a massive way.
COWEN: Did wages go up at all? Does that mean Paul Romer is wrong about increasing returns? Because you might think, “Well, you lose half your people, society falls apart. Everyone’s wages fall.”
JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.
COWEN: Clearly, that’s not what happened. But it’s what I would expect if you asked me a priori. So Paul Romer’s wrong? There are not increasing returns? You can just have higher wages and be much smaller?
JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah, I think Paul Romer’s right. And in fact, I think one of the things about the Black Death that’s nice is that we can test some theories of increasing returns using it. Something that, again, Mark Koyama, Remi Jedwab, and I have been working on is looking at the Black Death as a test of theories of urban agglomeration, which is very much related to increasing returns in the way that you bring up.
One thing that you can look at if you want to tell whether or not increasing returns are one of the main reasons why you have cities in the place they are — that is, are people in cities where they are because that’s where all the people are? — you can take the people away, and then see if they move to a different location that might have something tied to geography or tied to space which is better.
For example, what I just mentioned is that there is a general shift towards northern trading networks. We know — because of what we’ve been looking at — that the Hanseatic cities, which are the trading network that exists on the Baltic in the north of Europe — those cities recovered much more quickly than cities in the south, cities tied to the old Roman road network that centered on the Mediterranean, for example.
And this makes sense if you think that trade has been shifting with wool trade, for example, over time, since the collapse of Rome. But then, if you have increasing returns, you’re not going to immediately see this shift in the urban network. But if you take away, on average, 40 percent of the population of the cities, then this allows you to let people reshuffle. And in effect, this did happen to a certain extent.
COWEN: Confiscating land from the Church during the French Revolution. Did it enhance economic value or not?
JOHNSON: I believe it did.
JOHNSON: I get in trouble for this because . . . On the one hand, what happened during the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries decided that they needed money to issue. So they issued these things called assignats, and they wanted to back it with a real asset. The real asset that they decided to back this paper money with was land confiscated from the Church. They also took a bunch from émigrés, but that’s a slightly different story that we can talk about, if you want, later.
But the Church land, they take. And there’s a tremendous amount of land owned by the Church in France. I think it approaches up to 70 percent or so of the land that’s there. Then they issued this paper money initially backed on this. Then — this is the initial thing they do, and then they have an auction to distribute this land.
So I get in trouble because sometimes people hear me say that the auctions of this land was good. And they say, “Well, he’s just a GMU economist. And markets are always good, and that’s good. But you have to remember, they also confiscated all the land.” So those are two things going on here.
So they distribute this land by auction. Auctions are pretty good mechanisms to put an asset into the hands of somebody who values it most. And there’s an active secondary market that goes on for this land.
The way that my coauthors on this paper, who are Theresa Finley and Raphael Franck — the way we think about this process is that you have a set of feudal institutions and property that exists up to about 1790 or something like this — the French Revolution, early phases. And in that feudal system, you have lots of overlapping property rights.
For example, if I wanted to build an irrigation canal or make some improvement to my land, I might have to negotiate with multiple parties to do this because they all have some stake in what I’m doing to my land.
So everybody is having these institutions wiped out, in effect, when the revolution comes. However, it’s only a subset of the properties that are immediately put on the market and then auctioned off to individuals and falling into the hands of the people who value them most. What we find is that those people ultimately started to consolidate the land, and they also started making investments in things like irrigation and drainage and having better crop rotation systems and so forth.
So what that really is — it’s a story about what economists are familiar with, the Coase theorem. The Coase theorem, stated simply, says that if there are low enough transaction cost, low enough costs of trading, then it doesn’t actually matter who owns an asset initially. People will trade it, and you’ll end up with the best possible arrangement.
COWEN: We could grab a church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, sell it off, and GDP would go up, right?
JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. But what economists often ignore is that the transaction costs are very high to doing this. And what we have in the French Revolution is a natural experiment where, for reasons unrelated to what I’m interested in, the revolutionary society had to use a market mechanism to put a whole bunch of assets out there with very low transaction costs.
And you see that the productivity of agriculture in places that had more Church land that was auctioned off was higher than places that didn’t have this happen — up until the end of the 19th century — as we might expect, because over time, all these assets are being reallocated, and investments are ultimately being made. So I do think, in that case, this was a circumstance where you had a land redistribution that led to greater efficiency.
COWEN: Why is Switzerland so wealthy and successful relative to the rest of Europe?
JOHNSON: That’s a good question. I had a theory about this once, and I didn’t pursue it. But my theory — when I was in graduate school — was that they were getting a large amount of specie flow because they had mercenaries out there, and they were being paid in gold. Then this created nascent institutions for banks, or gave them some advantage. I didn’t actually look into that more deeply, so I don’t know if that’s true.
COWEN: But Swiss banking has declined a lot, as you know.
JOHNSON: It’s also too early. They were very poor up until —
COWEN: Fairly recently.
JOHNSON: The chemical revolution and so forth. I said that was my old theory, right? I’m not sure.
COWEN: But it’s much higher GDP per capita than most of the rest of Western Europe, maybe Luxembourg aside.
JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. It’s a really interesting thing. They act like they are a culturally homogenous territory, which they are. But at the same time, they have four different language groups packed into a relatively small place. They have a lot of ruggedness, but they still interact.
If you look at the literature, people have looked at preferences over welfare. And there are big differences between German-speaking and French-speaking and Italian-speaking regions within Switzerland. So I don’t know the answer.
I think there’s something in there that has to do with size, that it can work in a place the size of Switzerland. They definitely have a national identity, which is very strong. And I’m not sure exactly how that emerged. One could tell stories about the Swiss being surrounded for so long and cutting off the mountain passes and acting in this way that sometimes I hear. But otherwise, I actually don’t know the answer.
COWEN: Large volcanic eruptions earlier in history. From an economic point of view, what’s the single most interesting thing we know about them?
JOHNSON: I think what’s very interesting about the volcanic eruptions is that we are discovering more and more that they may have played a large role in political change that occurred. Joe Manning at Yale, and I believe his graduate student have been doing work on . . . They looked at a series of volcanic eruptions that led to the end of the pharaonic empire. That ended around 30 or 60 BC, I forget. Right around that time.
That was an empire that lasted for 300 years, but they experienced all these crop failures. And then once you look at it, you see that in Indonesia, all these major volcanic eruptions were happening in perfect timing with these crop failures that were taking place. Actually, they can tell from looking at the Nile and how much it’s flooding and things.
COWEN: Politics becomes nastier when the volcano goes off?
JOHNSON: Well, if you think about the Egypt case, which is Manning — this is a circumstance where you have, I believe it’s a low rainfall, and so this causes . . .
COWEN: And which eruption? Which year is this?
JOHNSON: This is around 60 or 30 BC. I forget exactly when. But it’s a series of them around that time. You basically don’t get the flooding of the Nile Delta. And then this creates a collapse in agriculture. And then this creates revolts on the Nile at this time. And that’s creating political pressure.
Another example of this happening — although one has to be careful — another volcano that went off was in 1257. Samalas?
JOHNSON: This one, I’ve looked at a little bit. And actually, Steve Broadberry and — I forgot his name [Bruce Campbell]— other people have been looking at this as well. The Samalas is happening right around the time of these barons’ wars that I was talking about. Particularly, it happens right before the Second Barons’ War.
While people have been looking at it, you see that the timing’s not perfect, but it did pile on additional agricultural pressure on these nobles at a time when they were all discontented with the king’s power. They might have been individually upset before, but now they’re all becoming upset at the same time because you have crops failing, the king is still asking for revenues, and they all are feeling the pressure at the same time. And you end up getting a coordinated political action against the rulers.
Now, as it turns out, there happened to be bad weather occurring in the two years previous to Samalas as well, so this wasn’t just the volcano in that circumstance. It was the volcano in addition to some other bad luck. But it’s the environment, the climate playing a role, taking on an agency role in generating political change. And that’s through coordinating activity that I think is interesting.
There’s also something interesting to be said, that these events, these large climactic events and large epidemiological events that I’m talking about — they also have a bias, in that they tend to be worse when you have places that are networked together and people that are integrated. So you could also look at, say, 1815 — there’s another big volcano that goes off that’s called Tambora.
In the case of Tambora, you have market integration, more or less, within Europe by 1815, meaning that when you have idiosyncratic shocks, climate shocks hitting places across Europe, you tend to have trade smoothing those over, so you don’t see it in grain prices very much, or anything like this.
But when you have something like Tambora, which is a VEI 7 — it’s a very, very large volcano, the largest since Samalas. And it in the 13th century would go off, it makes it snow in Maine in June and all over the world because of all the particulates in the air and so forth, blocking the sun in April of 1816 and in 1817. And you see very much in that circumstance, the markets can’t handle it.
Another project that I’ve been working on actively is trying to put together as much information as I can about that circumstance, about that event, and to basically see what was the effect that it had on these markets. What sort of effects did it have on how people were impacted with their health? And basically, to ask questions about how robust market institutions are to dealing with basically correlated supply shocks that are very, very large. And we really don’t have many like that, so I find that interesting as well.
COWEN: Returning to your work on tolerance, a speculative question: If you think of prejudice as having become worse when some stakes are higher, and in some ways states are stronger, and there’s more heterogeneity on the table, are you optimistic or pessimistic about tolerance today? That is, do you think we’ve cleared some hurdle, and we’re never headed back? Or do you think it’s back and forth?
JOHNSON: I’m optimistic.
JOHNSON: I’m optimistic about the United States and other well-established liberal democracies. I don’t think we’re going to head all the way back to a situation where . . . the biggest danger is a totalitarian danger. We’ve already seen that happen, and that is completely a danger. I do worry about some sort of Nazi-type phenomenon, which could occur in a Holocaust or something like this. And that can occur.
However, I think there is a general sense that’s been absorbed into the culture that this is no longer a thing that is acceptable. And I think that is a strong sense that still exists, and there are a lot of states that also feel strongly about this. Even if you look at World War II, the worst atrocities that occurred against Jews — they happened in the regions that had states that were weakened at the time, during World War II.
COWEN: And this is somewhat hidden.
JOHNSON: This is point made by Timothy Snyder. It’s not my own. That doesn’t say . . . the Germans played a big role, and they had a lot of very high state capacity. But Hannah Arendt also has talked about similar points. It’s stateless people that are at the greatest risk. And if you have strong states in place, you’re going to tend to have less of the persecution taking place, especially. And the states could also work against each other.
What I’m most pessimistic about is in a developing country context. I don’t see any reason why a developing country, say in Africa, is going to decide to adopt liberal values about toleration just because they observe them in another place. I think they have to go through a somewhat similar process of building up state capacity and running into these practical reasons why a system of intolerance doesn’t work in order to get there. And this can be very hard.
And I think we also push things too hard, as a Western society, in terms of development sometimes.
I like to tell my students about, in England, that the Glorious Revolution is in 1688, which is when we typically place them as having their representative revolution. However, they adopt things like the Test Acts, which are preventing Catholics from matriculating at Oxford or from sitting in Parliament, all the way up until — I mean, without being Catholic — all the way up until 1828, when these things are eliminated.
So when we try to jump the cart, go too fast in a place and say, “Well, you need to have women’s rights now. You need to respect all these different groups in your society, in addition to adopting institutions of capitalism,” these sorts of things. That’s not the way it occurred in places like England. There was actually a lot of restraint. That doesn’t mean we have to wait 200 years or 150 years to move through these phases in other parts of the world. But I think it’s often realistic and destabilizing for us to think we can.
The other thing to keep in mind — if you don’t mind, I’ll say a little bit more — is the amount of homogeneity that was present in a lot of these European states when they went through these transitions was very high.
If you read about the United States, for example — Albion’s Seed. This was basically four different groups from England that came in and then were asked to eventually adopt the US Constitution as we have it today. And these were all white men who were Christian. And furthermore, they were Protestant for the most part. So this is an extremely homogenous group. And then they barely got it, right?
If you look at the literature on voting at the Constitutional Convention, one of my favorite footnotes in the academic literature is from a paper that looks at the economic and ideological factors that generated voting at the US Constitutional Convention. It claims that, according to their model, if three or four more backcountry farmers from Virginia had showed up [laughs], it might not have worked. It was a fairly close-run deal.
So I think we often have a lack of appreciation for the amount of homogeneity and the amount of time it took in order to get the political arrangements to take seed in what we are, the modern Western liberal democracies.
COWEN: To close out your part of this conversation, are you game for a quick round of overrated versus underrated?
COWEN: Okay, number one, amateur astronomy. Overrated or underrated?
JOHNSON: It is underrated, but it depends on where you live. Amateur astronomy is hard to do in a place like Bethesda, Maryland.
COWEN: Which is where you live.
JOHNSON: Which is where I live. You have to drive a little bit if you want to see the stars. But you can still look at planets and the moon and things like this. I think people don’t look at them enough.
I got into it for different reasons than I’ve stuck with it. Initially, I got into it because I thought it was a . . . You know, with science, and I would read the Foundation series by Issac Asimov or things like this. And I was very interested in just learning about the stars. It made me feel good about myself. But then over time, it really does give you an appreciation for the scales involved with the universe, and it gives you a sense of proportion.
I mean, what they say, the closest planet to us right now is TRAPPIST-1 or something like that? It’s 37 light years away. That means if we want to talk to them, it’s going to take 80 years, assuming we can. These are scales that I have a hard time appreciating, but I think everybody has a hard time appreciating, even if you sit under the sky occasionally and look at these stars.
Amateur astronomy is a dying hobby. You can tell that by going to a meeting of amateur astronomers. They tend to be males who are about 20 or 30 years older than I am at these. Nonetheless, if we could get the lights to be turned off — like they do in Switzerland — at 11 o’clock at night, I think we would all benefit from that.
COWEN: Max Weber. Overrated or underrated?
JOHNSON: Rated about right. Perhaps overrated. I think he has a lot of really good ideas, and he had them very early on. I’ve used a lot of what he’s written about, so rated about right. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism had a lot of really good ideas in it, even if he might have been right for the wrong reason, that Protestants built more schools probably? And it wasn’t that — there was this true ethical change. His concept of bureaucracy has been very useful for my thinking as well.
COWEN: Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
JOHNSON: I think rated about right. He received a lot of attention for that book. I tried to switch in my teaching to using Yuval Noah Harari’s book on Sapiens. I found it wasn’t a good substitute for Diamond. Diamond takes an approach which I think is appealing. Even if it might have flaws, I still think Diamond is one of the best books out there, describing the overall arc of geography and history over time.
COWEN: Last call — European Union. Overrated or underrated?
JOHNSON: It is overrated for economics, underrated for politics, in my opinion. When the EU was first being generated, it was, to my understanding, for two reasons: to basically keep the Germans in check and for steel policy. And I think they do a lot of bad things, still, for economics.
The instabilities that are generated because of the EU are not awesome sometimes. And they also have generated a new source of rent seeking. For example, if you’re a French farmer, and you want protection for your cheese, you can go to the EU for it. You don’t have to go to France. That’s not always a good thing.
Politically, though, I think there’s still a great value to having an organization in Europe which is formally meeting [laughs] from time to time and discussing these sorts of issues. And I don’t see NATO doing that necessarily in the same way. But I’m not sure.
COWEN: Noel Johnson, thank you very much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
COWEN: And now we turn to Mark Koyama, also a colleague of mine. He’s an economics professor at George Mason.
I asked your coauthor Noel this question. I’d like your take. It’s often alleged by historians that, as the Renaissance came about, capitalism was more prominent. Prejudice against Jews, other minorities, went up when there was more capitalism. Is this true? And if so, what was the mechanism?
MARK KOYAMA: It’s an interesting question. What I find about capitalism is really on the rise, particularly around the 18th century, it’s certainly hard to ascertain in my view. Because I think eventually, the 13th century, the Commercial Revolution in the 12th century, is a high point of expansion, of new cities being founded in northern Europe, of Italian merchants going to the Middle East.
There’s the Crusades. The Crusades initially exhibited a lot of religious violence and intolerance. But as the Crusaders come back to Europe, they’re bringing with them knowledge of Arabic numerals, and there’s actually quite . . . There’s a cosmopolitan flavor to that period, to the high Middle Ages.
Then you get to the 14th century and the Black Death, which is a terrible economic collapse. But it’s an economic collapse which changes the ratio between labor and land, so incomes go up. Incomes go up, and that changes the nature of the European economy in certain ways which does favor the rise of art. Incomes are higher. People can afford luxuries. So maybe cities, to some extent, are growing.
But whether or not the Renaissance is a period of dramatic economic change is, I think, open to questioning. A lot of merchant ventures and trading ventures are still controlled by charter companies or by royal agents.
So I don’t see it as a decisive break in the same way I see, say, post-17th-century Industrial Revolution period. I see that as a seismic change on the scale of economic activity. The Renaissance is . . . It’s not clear to me that it’s qualitatively different from what went before.
A separate question is, why is violence and intolerance and religious violence going up? And I see that in terms of more conventional noneconomic factors: the printing press, the Reformation, those types, and other shocks you see. That’s what I see as being associated with this kind of greater intolerance in the Renaissance.
COWEN: So you think the best story we have about changes in toleration for this period — it’s ultimately technology driven? Printing press? Communications?
KOYAMA: Yeah, technology interacts with political institutions, so it’s hard to say they’re totally separate. But yes.
There’s historical literature about the formation of religious identities in this period. And it makes the point that . . . John Bossy is one person associated with this. The Reformation Christianized Europe. Prior to the Reformation, people had their local saints. They knew they were Christian in some background sense, but it wasn’t at the forefront of their identity. Whereas, with the Reformation it’s like, “I’m Catholic. You’re Protestant.” This becomes more salient. And that’s partly due to technology, the printing press.
COWEN: If we take early modern Europe, and we look at variations in the degree of toleration of minority groups, what’s the most reliable piece of knowledge or understanding we have about the causes of that variation?
KOYAMA: I’ll try and explain it in a hopefully not too complex way. There are two different types of states or society in early modern Europe. And it’s difficult. We have to almost view them separately.
For example, Poland. Poland is sometimes celebrated by historians as a state without stakes, which is not exactly true. There are some people who are killed for religious beliefs in early-16th-century Poland. But actually, there are a lot of Protestants. Protestantism is spreading, and there’s no oppression of Protestantism. So it looks tolerant.
Why is it tolerant? Well, it’s tolerant because there’s no strong central authority. The nobility are very powerful, so if a nobleman is sympathetic to Protestantism, he can protect it. There’s no state capable of enforcing religious conformity. That’s a reliable predictor — a weak state, federalism, fragmentation, is a reliable predictor of an absence of persecution.
But what you see subsequently going forward is, that’s not a strong predictor of getting a liberal state later, or enduring religious freedom. Whereas England and France are quite different. They see extreme religious violence in the mid-16th century as rulers attempt to maintain or restore religious conformity.
But in most societies, once the tipping point is reached where it is seen as impossible — too costly — to restore religious conformity, then actually you’ve got to set about this task of building a society where there will be religious differences and religious pluralism. This is a 150-, 200-year process. England, in the 16th century, is nowhere close to being that, but it’s on this road which is going to lead to it eventually, say, by the late 17th century, early 18th century.
COWEN: In British history, did the theoretical arguments for toleration even matter? There are a number of famous debates about religious tolerance — John Locke, Bayle in France. Or is this just a side show, irrelevant? What’s the power of ideas over this time period?
KOYAMA: Yeah, it’s a great question. There’s no evidence for the more radical kind of arguments for religious toleration. This is associated with people like Sebastian Castellio in the 16th century. There’s no evidence they have much influence. There’s no evidence . . . Radical Anabaptists, the Anabaptists want separation of church and state, and those ideas are abhorrent to all right-thinking people in 16th-century England.
So what gives rise to greater religious freedom? It doesn’t seem to be the personality of rulers, for example, their beliefs. Elizabeth I in her private beliefs is, we think . . . She claims not to want to make windows into men’s souls. She seems quite eclectic and sympathetic to pluralism. But her state is basically a police state, which kills up to 300 people, basically for being Catholic in the 16th century.
Why does it change? I don’t think the intellectual debates are the forefront of what’s going on. The political economy seems much more important. Charles II — again, he doesn’t really care about persecuting nonbelievers. But the Parliament in his period is a royalist Parliament. They’re desperate to maintain the Church of England, so they’re very cruel towards Quakers and so on.
So yeah, me and Noel, together in our book, we don’t think the intellectual ideas are meaningless. We don’t think they play no role, but they’re always being mediated through the incentives of the actors who have political power.
COWEN: I can see two possible sets of cases. One is, I see a number of somewhat weaker states that maybe persecute more, or they’re less tolerant, or they’re maybe semi-fascistic. If you look at parts of Eastern Europe today, you might see that trend, maybe in a modest form, but somewhat.
Then there’s other cases, maybe like 17th-century Japan, a relatively strong state for Asia, east Asia. And it persecutes Christians a great deal, in part because it is a strong state. So if either weak states or strong states can persecute minorities more, what’s the variable that determines which of those cases you get?
KOYAMA: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think we need to maybe find the perfect terminology for this. But the “strong state” is not my favorite terminology. It’s why I’m always prefacing this with something like “liberal state,” a state which is, in some sense, committed to liberal values.
The Japanese case is interesting. It’s the most thorough suppression, at least of Christianity, that I’m aware of historically. And it’s done precisely because the state has . . . Whether it’s a strong state is a difficult thing to measure. But it has sufficient coercive power, relative to the minority in question. They pay a huge cost, by the way. The main motivation for sealing off the borders of Japan is to stop Christianity seeping through.
So this is a state which is willing to pay huge costs to do this. It’s not a strong state in the sense of . . . Tokugawa shogunate actually only controlled part of the country. The independent daimyo have a lot of power. But they’re strong relative to religion, and the rulers seem committed. They see Christianity as such a threat, they’re committed to paying this tremendous cost of isolating the entire country from trade to do so.
And then, obviously, 20th-century examples. You have the Soviet Union repressing Christianity very comprehensively, and you have the Nazis as well. So obviously, the power of the state is going to be necessary. You need a strong state to really completely suppress a religion.
On the other hand, as a precondition for enforcing liberal values or allowing liberalism to flourish, I’m just not convinced that you have many examples of extremely weak states where this takes place. Because it seems to me that very weak states, like, say, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, are too easily captured by a few nobles or vested interests.
So the state, in some sense, becomes privatized, and the best you’ll get is some kind of almost feudal arrangement. Historically, at least, that’s not been a conducive environment for even markets, actually, to flourish, in my view. Or for human freedom, more generally, to flourish.
COWEN: If I take your book with Noel, and whatever it is you’ve added to our understanding of toleration, if you were to boil that marginal contribution down to a sentence, what would that sentence be?
KOYAMA: The general rules required for liberalism.
COWEN: Say that again.
KOYAMA: General rules . . . In some sense, that’s perhaps a truism. I’m going to have expand on what that is. Perhaps many people would agree. We’re not the first people to say that rule of law — so general rules, treating people equally before the law, is like the sine qua of a state which allows individuals to flourish. And I call states like that liberal states.
What we add to that is, then, the religious story, that religion is at the heart of this rise of liberal states, and it’s at the heart of a rise of the shift from identity rules to general rules.
Again, I’m going way over one sentence. I think that’s the bottom line, what we have. I’d also say another contribution we make is distinguishing between states where there’s no persecution, or there’s de facto . . . There’s some bunch of religions, and people are not being burned alive all the time. We distinguish that from the idea of a liberal state, which is committed to pluralism, to free expression, free thought, and a multiplicity of religions.
COWEN: And what’s the single best piece of evidence for that marginal claim?
KOYAMA: We’re contrasting the experience of what we think . . . Europe, or the West, even today, doesn’t conform to our liberal ideals. But there’s something we can agree upon about modern liberal societies which makes them very distinct from, say, other examples, where people — like historians — have argued there was a so-called religious toleration, such as the Roman Empire maybe, or Spain and the Islamic caliphate, which people claim to be a golden age of religious pluralism.
But when you actually look at the details, it’s quite different to what we see in modern liberal societies. We’re making a claim that political philosophers, social scientists who are interested in liberalism or liberal societies, haven’t actually done a good job of engaging with the actual history of how these societies emerge.
COWEN: It’s sometimes argued that the West has less cousin marriage, and thus is less clan based and perhaps more free, more democratic, more liberal. Agree or disagree?
KOYAMA: Broadly speaking, I agree. I think there’s a distinction. The difficulty is, I’m unpackaging . . . There’s a package of goods which come together. Prohibiting cousin marriage — this is something the Catholic Church was doing in the high Middle Ages or early Middle Ages. That’s part of its package, which seems to rise in Western Europe and seems to be associated with undermining kinship groups.
That comparison really rests . . . It’s most persuasive when you compare the Middle East or Islamic societies with Europe. I’m not sure it’s as persuasive if you want to explain the rise of Europe vis-à-vis the experience of, say, China or Japan, where I know less about the prevalence of cousin marriage, for example.
COWEN: Your most frequently cited article is on the origins of anti-usury laws. Why are there still so many anti-usury laws at the state level in America?
KOYAMA: That’s a good question. My best answer to that is just going to be trying to explain why these laws were common. There’s obviously a widely held moral intuition that . . . The initial cause, I think, is often a misunderstanding of why interest exists.
Aristotle believed that interest was theft. People think that a certain level of interest might be justifiable, but at some level which can’t be explained through underlying economic fundamentals. And it’s a misunderstanding of the fact that we have different preferences, different attitudes toward intertemporal smoothing. And in some situations, the only way I’m going to be able to get a loan is if I’m willing to pay a high rate of interest.
So there’s an atavistic, very common assumption or antipathy towards these types of . . . That said, I have a strong view about regulating them at some level. The fact that we know, in general, these laws are bad doesn’t mean that, in some circumstances, we might want to limit them. For example, one of the… there are accounts — you can write out a model where it makes sense under some circumstances — if it’s a severe moral hazard, or adverse selection, perhaps there’s some justifiable reason for them.
However, to come back to my paper, I tend not to think that’s the reason. So if you see these interest rates restrictions in European history, an economist can come forward with an adverse selection or moral hazard story which would justify the restriction.
But actually, if you look at the history, it doesn’t seem to explain why Europe, for example, banned all interest rates throughout most of the Middle Ages. That seems to be a combination of rent-seeking by merchants who could evade these laws, by rulers who might license some groups — often Jews — to lend at interest, and thereby collect monopoly rents from that practice.
COWEN: Why was China, as a nation or territory, so large so early in world history?
KOYAMA: Yeah, that’s a great question. There are several potential explanations, one of which is geographic. Another one would be an argument from the writing system. But I think the geography story is quite important. Jared Diamond, building on people like Eric Jones, argued that China’s geography . . .
Essentially there are two core geographic regions in China around the Yellow and Yangtze river deltas, which produced a huge amount of grain or rice. If you control those core regions, you can raise large armies. You can have a large population and dominate the subsequent regions.
Whereas, the argument is for Europe that these core regions are, perhaps, arguably more separated by geographical boundaries. The limitation of that argument on its own is that geography is static, so it doesn’t really tell you anything about the timing.
The interesting thing about China, in my view, is not just that it was once unified, or unified early. But it’s persistently unified. It reunifies. Interestingly enough, the periods of de-unification get consistently smaller. So there are always periods where it’s fragmented, like the warlord period in the early 20th century, but over time may become smaller.
Europe doesn’t seem to have that centrifugal force, so a lot of Europe is unified by the Romans, but it’s not able to come back together along those lines later.
And the argument that I put forward in an article with Tuan-Hwee Sng and Chiu Yu Ko of National University of Singapore is that it’s not just the core geographical reason. That’s part of it. But actually, the periodic threat from a nomadic steppe is another key factor.
This is geographic because China has a very sharp slope from really productive agricultural land to land which is only fit for horses, for Eurasian steppe. China could be invaded very easily from the north by these steppe nomads, whereas Europe — it was much less vulnerable to this. And that helps to explain why the Chinese state is often a northern state.
So if I can add, if you think about China today, or even China in the past, the really productive land — a lot of it’s in the quite far south, in Shanghai, Yangtze delta. But the political center of China is near Beijing, or it’s in the north. And that’s due to this political economy threat from the steppe. And it’s these periodic steppe invasions which we argue are responsible for the centralization, an almost militarized character of the Chinese state through history.
COWEN: And would you be bullish on Chinese political unity today? I’m not saying you need to think everything in the country will go well, but just that it will hang together. Not only bounce back, but stay more or less as a unified China.
KOYAMA: I’m not really enough of an expert on China to have a strong view.
COWEN: Is anyone?
KOYAMA: When I talked to Chinese, I was surprised, relative to my priors, that they’re more separatist than I would have thought before I knew as much about the country. People from the Shanghai region, or people from Guangdong and Hong Kong — they have more of a regional identity than you might expect. And they feel that the Chinese state is quite dominated by northerners.
So the most nationalistic, pro-CCP Chinese are often from the north. And it’s there that the identity of the Chinese state and the Chinese people are really bound together. Whereas, the people on the periphery — it seems less so. Put it this way: China has fragmented every couple of hundred years in its history. The most recent one, though, was still not that long ago, so I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
But in the wake of a disaster or some catastrophic collapse, you can imagine it happening. What you can put your money on is that the Chinese state is going to be . . . You know, it’s unthinkable for them. That’s why they’re so keen on Taiwan becoming part of China again. The ideology is based on one China.
COWEN: Why did China and Japan react so differently to the arrival of the West?
KOYAMA: That’s a great question. I think that there are many factors. I’ll describe the one I felt certain of in some of my research with, again, Tuan-Hwee Sng and Chiaki Moriguchi. I think there are several interesting features.
We’re going to focus on the science. The science is very different. China is just vast, so even if the most developed parts of China, like the Yangtze area, are urbanized and commercialized — and they’re probably doing quite well until at least 1750 — you have these peripheral regions which are facing very different climatic and economic conditions.
Both China and Japan are basically insulated from Western threats until the mid-19th century. Then they faced them very . . . It’s very stark. It’s very quick. You have the ability of Americans and British to sail steamships into the harbor of Yokohama. Japan is very small, and all of Japan is vulnerable, so this is a geopolitical crisis of the highest order for Japan.
China, initially — they don’t necessarily care about the British. They didn’t take them very seriously. It’s huge. And once they do take them seriously, they have to face threats from both Russia . . . Russians are really pressing in on the Chinese in the 1850s. And they’ve got these coastal threats from the British.
It’s very difficult for this traditional Chinese state, which has emerged and developed to protect and dominate the steppe. There’s no navy, for example. It’s extremely difficult for that state to adapt to face the threat from Britain and France. Agility is kind of a term — we sometimes think about it with respect to states as well as individuals, that premodern states are not agile. They can’t redeploy resources, reprioritize. So the Chinese state really struggles to do this.
Japan also struggles. Japan undergoes political crisis for 15 years, from Perry’s arrival in 1853 — I believe that’s when the black ships first arrived — to 1868, which is the Meiji Restoration. It’s 15 years of total chaos. Individual Japanese daimyo and statelets are basically going to war with Westerners. English ambassadors are being killed. But once they overthrow the shogunate and restore the emperor, they’re able — partly I think because it’s a cohesive territory — to develop this modern state which can respond to the West.
That said, I don’t think we have a total explanation for it. It’s still a bit of a mystery they were as successful as they were. We are squared of my explanation about the size, and their political histories is quite small. I think a large part of it is very difficult to explain. And one either has to make recourse to luck, to some amazing abilities of specific statesmen, or to cultural factors, which are quite difficult there.
COWEN: But Cortés was also luck, with the Aztecs.
COWEN: To me, it’s striking that you have the British in China, the Spaniards in Mexico, pulling off miraculous military maneuvers. And it seems there’s some common element there, maybe lack of a conceptual scheme, almost, for the victims.
KOYAMA: Yeah, they didn’t know how to interpret it. That’s definitely true.
One piece of research, which I remember — the modern histography, to the extent that I’m up to date with it, on the Japanese — it emphasizes that they’re reading Western texts, the so-called Dutch learning. They’re increasingly reading Western texts in the 19th century, and they’re paying attention to what happened to China. So, for example, when the Opium War happens, the Japanese initially think that the British can be swatted aside, and China will just destroy them. And so they’re shocked.
And the Chinese — the Qing court initially sends word to the Japanese that they’ve destroyed the British. And this is like, they’re the victors. And then the Japanese find out what really happened, and that’s a shock to them. They get that shock in the 1840s, and they have 10 years or 20 years to adjust to the new realities. So maybe that gives them something of an edge.
A final thing is the Chinese minority Manchu state. I think that really shapes their vulnerability. They’re really worried about a Han uprising. And they have the Taiping Rebellion to deal with. The Japanese are ethnically cohesive.
COWEN: Why was England such a coherent nation-state so early? Some people say 13th century.
KOYAMA: Yeah, Alan Macfarlane’s Origins of English Individualism. It’s hard to know how far back it goes, to be quite honest, in my view. You can see nationalist sentiment in England, certainly from the 14th century. That’s Chaucer. That’s when the English elite start speaking English. The monarchy starts speaking English rather than French. Decisively, they stop speaking French, effectively. So the Hundred Years’ War is important.
Now, the question is how much further it goes back before then. How much is the Anglo-Saxon experience crucial? There are about two experts on this, but certainly, Anglo-Saxon England seems to be a fairly cohesive state. That’s the state created out of Wessex in the late 9th and then the 10th century.
I just don’t know enough about how to believe . . . The English Anglo-Saxon historians think of this as a very powerful state for its age. The Domesday Book testifies to the bureaucratic capabilities of the Anglo-Saxon state, which the Normans then take over.
So there is something there. I don’t know quite what causes . . . England ends up being this strong nation-state, and I don’t know if it’s just an artifact of that, that we then look back and see the antecedents of this strong state in all this early medieval stuff. Whereas, had Catalonia become a powerful state, we could find evidence of that in the early Middle Ages. So there’s an element of survivorship bias. But I’m definitely always impressed by whatever I read about Anglo-Saxon England.
COWEN: What was the most undervalued factor behind the British Industrial Revolution? There’s plenty of theories. You could cite 20 or 30 factors. Maybe they all play a role. But what’s being neglected?
KOYAMA: Okay, let’s just think about the ones we should not neglect. You have natural resources. You have coal. You have this idea of high-wage economy associated with Bob Allen, which now seems to be under pressure. You have stories about imperialism and trade. I think people understand those. I don’t know if it’s underrated, but perhaps this cohesive nation-state story is part of it.
One noticeable thing about the English Industrial Revolution is it doesn’t occur in a political center. It occurs in the periphery, in Manchester, Yorkshire, Birmingham, Derbyshire.
If we look at economic miracles or effervescences, I don’t know how many of them arise in the capital region, in the political center, and how many arise in peripheral regions. Maybe more than I think. But something about English society that allows a bunch of entrepreneurs to basically kick-start this revolution far away from what’s going on in London seems to be quite important to me.
And it takes many years of experimentation, that these industrialists are self-funding many of these developments. London has a sophisticated banking sector, but the London bankers are not financing the Industrial Revolution. They’re being financed out of savings. So it does take a long while to get going.
And it’s being neglected. Not many people are talking about it in the 1750s, 1760s, 1770s. Famously, Adam Smith doesn’t really talk much about what’s happening in terms of industrialization at the time he’s writing.
COWEN: At least since Cromwell, England has been relatively tolerant toward the Jews, compared to much of Europe. And if you’re trying to build out a broader theory, compare some amount of English or British tolerance. But then compare that to how the Irish are treated, or how the colonies or India is treated. Is there a unified approach that ties this all together? Or are the British just schizophrenic in some way, with respect to tolerance?
KOYAMA: I think my quick answer would be that rules in Britain are very different than rules outside Britain. For example, slavery — you couldn’t have slavery in England, to the best of my knowledge, at least from the 16th century onwards. Slavery is a huge part of the British Empire. It’s something which is done outside of Britain. But it’s not something which is practiced within the kingdom itself, even in the 17th, 18th century. I don’t know all the ins and outs of why that’s the case.
But the Jews — they’re invited in, in a favorable time. There’s a lot of anti-Semitism in English history. Shakespeare. There’s a crypto-Jewish doctor of Elizabeth I who’s hung, drawn, and quartered or burnt alive — I can’t remember which — in the 1590s. So a lot of anti-Semitism.
But the Puritans, the religious independents, of whom Cromwell is basically the leader, they identify with Zion and Israel. They give their kids Israelite and Abrahamic and Old Testament names.
And the Jews who petitioned Cromwell to settle in England — Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam — they have capital. They have money. They’re allied in a war against Spain and the Spanish Empire. So it’s a very politically opportune moment for them to come, and they secure good terms.
Then subsequently, there’s really not many problems with them. There are some issues. There are some riots. But in general, they’re allies with the Protestants. And they’re small. They’re a small community. So at least until the late 18th century, there’s not really much reason to be really hostile to them unless you’re a virulent anti-Semite.
Whereas other cases, it’s a little bit different. The Irish are coming in large numbers. They’re Catholic, and Catholicism is seen as suspect because of the geopolitical consequences of it. So they’re just less favored for those reasons. Similarly, the British behavior in the colonies is very repressive, often. But that’s again . . . the schizophrenia is not within Britain. It’s between what’s inside and what’s outside.
COWEN: Today, why have so many parts of northern England declined so steeply compared to the industrial parts of Germany, parts of the Netherlands, arguably France? It seems worse in northern England. What’s your account of that?
KOYAMA: Nick Crafts has written some good stuff on this. The only period when the south is not the center of English histories is the Industrial Revolution. And the wealth of these industrial cities was remarkable in the late 19th century. I’ve been to a lot of these places, and some of them are better than others.
The ones which are big, like Manchester and Liverpool — actually, they have cultural amenities, which mean that there are still flourishing parts of them. And they literally revived a little bit in the last 20 years, I would say. It’s places like Doncaster and Barnsley, which were often mining towns or one-industry towns, which have really fallen into disrepair.
Germany, I’m not surprised, because German manufacturing has survived to a much larger extent than British manufacturing. I don’t know if a comparison with France or America might be more salient because you have coal towns, for example. And I think coal towns in Pennsylvania or West Virginia have done very badly as well.
The German example would be manufacturing, which has survived much more compared to, say . . . These British towns, by the way, have been declining since World War II. So Britain lost . . . these are the so-called industries of the first Industrial Revolution. And they were driving Britain’s progress in the 19th century. They’ve been in decline since the 1930s, 1920s.
COWEN: If you think of . . . Just take south England for now, the last maybe 30 years. Do you see that as a time of fundamental break, where south England has become a fundamentally multicultural society in a way that will never be reversed and is unprecedented in English history? And that will just be swallowed? Or will that, in some way, be undone, and Brexit is stage one? It’s speculative, but what’s your prediction?
KOYAMA: First off, I did not predict that Brexit would happen. And I am someone who is from the south of England. And all the time I’ve spent in the UK, most of it — with an exception of one year in York — was in the south of England. So I have a favorable and optimistic reading of that. And I think British society, at least what I observe of it, is actually fairly successful in integrating most migrants.
COWEN: But everyone gets a vote on that, right?
COWEN: Including northern England.
KOYAMA: Yeah, and my experience obviously jars with what you read or see about backlashes or antagonism towards European or non-European migrants in the rest of the country. And I don’t see how it’s reversible. For example, there are many EU nationals currently residing in Britain, and I think Theresa May was pretty bad in not immediately granting them, basically, permanent leave to stay.
And there are many high-skill people leaving. But I think there are just too many of them. There’s no way these people are returning to their countries. They’ve made their lives in the UK. And so as long as they’re there, you’re not going to go back to being in the 1950s, which was quite boring, at least anecdotally.
COWEN: You’re up for our closing round of overrated versus underrated?
COWEN: Okay. Number one, home team advantage in English football. Overrated or underrated?
KOYAMA: Now overrated. It was very salient in the past. It’s definitely gone down. If you look at the best teams, like Manchester City, they do very well away from home.
COWEN: And why did it go down, home-field advantage?
KOYAMA: Well, this is very speculative, but my hypothesis with Jimmy Reid was that . . . Team sports are different than individual sports, and home-field advantage seems to be more prevalent in team sports. Probably the biggest reason for home-field advantage — and it’s still relevant — is swaying the referee. That’s not something we talked about. So you influence a referee, what’s the big deal? Especially in soccer because a referee has a lot of discretion. Until very recently, there were no video replays, so referee pressure is huge.
The other factor we talked about in team sports — there’s a shirking problem. Each individual player might have an incentive to, at the margin, shirk a little bit because they’re on a team. And if their team’s going to win two-nil anyway, they’ll underinvest a little bit.
So the argument is, when you’re following your team just by reading the scores in the newspaper, or maybe hearing it on the radio, I just know the team won, two-nil. I don’t know of individual performances very well. So that might describe English soccer or football in the 1980s or ’70s.
The idea is now, with every game being televised . . . And not just that, to be honest. With the internet, we have — every player’s performance can be rated. And they know with statistics, now, how many kilometers each player is running. Then it’s much harder for any individual player to shirk. And the idea was that the home fan base or audience or stadium — they get much better information on each individual player’s performance.
COWEN: Max Weber. Overrated or underrated?
KOYAMA: Because most people just know the Protestant theory, and they misreport it. Whereas, actually, his most interesting stuff is on Chinese religion and ancient Judaism. And the role of —
COWEN: The history of music, right?
KOYAMA: Yeah, he works so much, right?
COWEN: Could you pick a well-known painter whom you regard as somewhat overrated?
KOYAMA: Plenty. Monet.
COWEN: Tell us why.
KOYAMA: Well, actually, it’s hard to say. If you go to an art gallery, you’ll see people always look at a painting, but immediately look at the name tag. There’s always this tendency if it’s Monet, “Oh, it’s Monet, so we have got to look at this one.” Whereas, actually, it might be the Sisley or the Manet or the Pissarro that might be the better painting sometimes.
That said, this goes back to something you like to talk about. It depends if you’re judging the high points or the average. The high points of Monet are fantastic, and it’s hard to overrate them. But the average is not that special.
COWEN: The movie Schindler’s List. Overrated or underrated?
KOYAMA: I saw this recently. Re-saw it recently. And yeah, it’s been underrated. It deserved to be reissued. It’s an amazing piece of cinema. I think it’s not a perfect piece. It’s far from a perfect piece of cinema because the problem with it — just saying what’s wrong with it — is that it’s a happy story about survivors, about an event from which the vast majority of people did not survive. So it cannot be “the” Holocaust movie, for those reasons.
COWEN: The second half is too sappy for me. But I think the first half is amazing.
KOYAMA: Yeah. Exactly. That’s exactly right. The first half is amazing. It reminds you that Steven Spielberg is just technically an amazing film director. It’s just his sentimentality is his problem. And it’s a shame that he hasn’t done more serious movies.
COWEN: Final question. What is a conceptual or philosophical or historical movie you would recommend that we all see, other than Schindler’s List?
KOYAMA: There are tons. I’m quite a big fan of historical movies. I saw La Reine Margot recently, a 1994 Isabelle Adjani movie about the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and French wars of religion. Queen Margot is forced to marry Henri of Navarre to kind of patch up this peace. But really, it’s a lure to get the Protestants in one place so they can be massacred. And it’s a movie about how the French monarchy kind of unravels.
But there are many, many others. I think the Americans and British don’t do as good a job of historical movies compared to French, Japanese, or many other cultures. Italians.
COWEN: Mark Koyama, thank you very much.