Dan Drezner, at his blog at the Foreign Policy blog site, lists his selections for the top ten books of international economic history. Let me raid his list plus commentary:
1. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (2007). I’ve already tagged this book as an interesting read. If nothing else, the first chapter of this book – “The Sixteen-Page Economic History of the World” – actually matches the audacity of the title. As I said, I don’t completely buy Clark’s explanation of Malthus + genetics = Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. His attempt to explain away the irrelevance of institutions doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Still, I will say I better appreciated the heyday of mercantilism after reading Clark. (KA: I agree with the criticism, but think the book is better than the critique suggests. I think Dan thinks so too, but doesn’t want to get into any extended arguments.)
2. Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich (1986). Perfect when paired with Clark, because Rosenberg and Birdzell present the classical argument for why Western Europe was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. (KA: read this first.)
3. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). The third leg in the triad of “why did Europe dominate the globe?” explanations. If Clark focuses on genetics/culture, and Rosenberg and Birdzell focus on institutions, Diamond proffers a geographical determinism. Simply put, he thinks the temperate climate of Eurasia was bound to produce the most sophisticated societies with the most advanced animals, germs, and technologies. Diamond’s argument compliments rather substitutes for the institutions and culture arguments. If nothing else, it is impossible to read this book and ever buy the ending to War of the Worlds. (KA: you already know everything about this book.)
4. John Nye, War, Wine and Taxes (2007). David Ricardo’s classic example of comparative advantage was English wool for Portuguese wine. Nye explodes the “natural” aspect of this trade, demonstrating how high tariffs against French wine proved a boon to both the Portuguese and English beer distillers. Nye stretches his argument too far at times, but the interrelationship between war, protectionism, and statebuilding is pretty damn fascinating. (KA: this one I have not read.)
5. Douglas Irwin, Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade (1996). Irwin’s book is more a history of economic thought than economic history, but nevertheless tells a remarkable story: how did the idea of free trade knock off mercantilism, protectionism, strategic trade theory, and other doctrines? (KA: since I think one of the big problems with current economics teaching is its deliberately obscuring ahistoricism, I always appreciated this book.)
6. Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, Globalization and History (1999). A lucid, detailed and fascinating study of how the nineteenth century of globalization went down. When anyone argues that the current (fast fading?) era of globalization is historically unique, take the hardcover version of this book and whack them on the head with it. (KA: I have not read this.)
7. Jeffry Frieden, Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (2006). This book is to the twentieth centiury as Williamson and O’Rourke’s book is to the nineteenth – except it’s written for a wider audience, so it’s a more accessible read. Accessible doesn’t mean simple, however – this book is chock full of interesting arguments, cases, and counterarguments. (KA: I haven’t read this, but think now that I should.)
8. Barry Eichengreen, Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System, second edition (2008). A more narrow work than Frieden’s, Eichengreen’s book is the starting point for understanding the classical gold standard, the Bretton Woods regime, and whatever the hell system we have now the Bretton Woods II regime. (KA: This is a great book. I also like Robert Solomon’s The International Monetary System, 1945-1981, although it is too time limited and out of print; I read it in Costa Rica one summer, when I supposed to be filing documents for the Interamerican Court of Human Rights.)
9. Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights (1997). Yergin and Stanislaw tell a cheerleader’s tale of how the Washington Consensus displaced the old quasi-Keynesian, quasi-socialist economic order that had its apogee and downfall in the 1970s. What’s particularly interesting is their argument that what mattered was the content and spread of the ideas themselves, and not some coercive power, that led to the re-embrace of markets. (KA: I once skimmed this at a London bookstore and alas none of it comes back to me.)
10. Paul Blustein, The Chastening (2001). Blustein, a reporter for the Washington Post, tells the you-are-there version of the Asian financial crisis and the reaction from the U.S. Treasury Department. If you want to know why Pacific Rim economies started hoarding foreign exchange reserves beginning in 1999, read this book. (KA: terrific book!)
He asks what readers would add to the list. I put the same question to you, gentlereaders. This list is a fine one – I’ve read most of them, and tend to agree. What would I add?
First, a book I have mentioned here before – the absolutely superb James Macdonald, A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy (2003 FSG). I think it’s stronger than just about any other entry in the field interlinking finance, economics, and a strong, provocative, well supported thesis about politics in history.
I would also probably add something from the traditional of radical economic history – Perry Anderson, I guess – Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism or Lineages of the Absolutist State. Not precisely economic history, but Marxist historical materialism. (Perry Anderson is one of the most graceful writers to appear in the academy of the last fifty years; every paragraph, I find, is a pleasure to read, even when I don’t agree with a word of it.)
What would you add to this list? Leaving aside my Perry Anderson suggestions, please stick with international economic history. What’s missing? Good alternatives welcomed, too, especially as some of this stuff is a bit hard to locate.