The ABCs of European supremacy

A recent book by Louise Levathes showed that in the early 15th century China was ahead of Europe in the art of exploration.  It’s fleet sailed throughout Southeast Asia and all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa.  I don’t have the book with me in China, but I recall that for some reason the Emperor of China simply decided there was nothing out there of interest, and the government basically banned any further exploration.  I think the ships might have even been destroyed.  BTW, the book shows the Santa Maria next to the Chinese flagship, and Columbus’ boat looks like a little dingy by comparison.

I’m about to give you my pet theory for European supremacy after 1500.  Keep in mind that whenever I think I have a clever idea, it either later turns out to be wrong, or else unbeknownst to me someone else got there first.

First a brief digression on languages.  The Latin language had spread throughout much of the Mediterranean by 300 AD.  After the Roman Empire collapsed, the Latin zone gradually split up into the various Romance languages.  Linguists say that language formation is roughly like species formation.  As long as a species lives in a confined area, it is hard for a new species to form.  Why?  Because any genetic differences get smoothed over as animals inter-breed.  A species may evolve, but it won’t split into two species.  Now supposes some climate or tectonic shift splits the population into two zones.  Each zone will begin evolving, most likely in different directions.  Eventually the differences will be so great that they are considered two entirely different species. 

The same occurs with languages.  Once the Roman Empire collapsed, there was less contact between Spain, France, Italy, and especially Romania.  Over time the languages diverged.  At first the educated classes continued to use Latin for written communication.  But over time the nationalistic impulse led to the vernaculars being written down, on a roughly phonetic basis.  In many ways, China experienced the same pattern.  It is a huge country, so over time the way that Chinese was spoken began to diverge.  The spoken languages are called “dialects.”  I’m told that Cantonese is about as different from Mandarin as Spanish is from Italian.  My wife cannot understand Cantonese, and must read Mandarin sub-titles when we go to see a Hong Kong film.   

In my view the language splits in Europe contributed to the formation of national cultures, and then later to nationalism.  Thus today there are many countries in Europe, roughly corresponding to the linguistic regions.  Why didn’t something similar occur in China?  Why isn’t Guangdong province (the Cantonese area) a separate country?  I believe it is all because of the Chinese written language.  The Chinese do not have an alphabet; they use “characters.”  These roughly correspond to short words, or syllables.  Simple words like ‘house’ or ‘tree’ require only one character, whereas ‘telephone’ requires characters for electric and speech.  Because Chinese has no alphabet, the writing is not phonetic.  Thus as the spoken versions of Chinese diverged, the written versions stayed the same.  Suppose my wife meets someone from Hong Kong who doesn’t know Mandarin.  She can still communicate with this person by writing a note on a piece of paper, and passing it to the other person.  They both read the same language, Chinese.  One of the reasons that China did not split into many countries is that with a single written Chinese language there was one literature, one culture, and one language by which bureaucrats could communicate throughout the far-flung empire.

OK, so let’s say I am right, what does that have to do with European supremacy?  Isn’t that an advantage to the Chinese?  In some ways yes, if they have the right model for governance.  I have to be careful here, because the Chinese are sensitive to “splitism.”  But even the modern Chinese government would admit that those early Ming emperors did not have the right model.  They were oblivious to the need for China to progress through the absorption of outside ideas.  So that “bad model” was imposed on the entire country.  Contrast that with Europe.  An Italian wonders into Portugal, asking for royal support for his plan to sail west to the Indies.  He is turned down.  So he goes to Spain where he eventually gets government support for his expedition.  The rest is history.  (Actually, even what I just said is history.)

[BTW, here is some history that not everyone knows.  Why did Columbus first go to tiny Portugal?  Because the Portuguese discovered about 50% of the globe for the Europeans.  Had they financed Columbus it would have been about 75%.  If you ever go to Lisbon don't forget a side trip to Belem.  See the gorgeous monastery and the wonderful nautical museum.]

You may know that I favor small governments and decentralization.  I believe that this leads to a healthy competition.  Let’s suppose that the reason why China fell behind Europe is that they didn’t have this sort of healthy competition that one observed between European states.  Then how can this explain why today China is the fastest growing country in the world?  The answer is that by 1978, China had fallen far behind not just Europe, but also its smaller neighbors in East Asia.  This was too much for even the insular “Middle Kingdom” to accept, and they responded by adopting some foreign technologies and economic practices.  The fast growth reflects their catching up to the rest of East Asia. 

So the root cause of European supremacy was their alphabet, the ABCs.  This led to language fragmentation, national cultures, nationalism, the nation state, economic competition, and growth.  Does this mean China must fragment?  No.  (Well, I am in China right now, so what do you expect?)  In my earlier post I discussed the success of Zhejiang province.  This has led neighboring provinces such as Jiangsu to adopt some of its market friendly ideas.  Thus competition at the provincial level can be healthy, as long as the central government sets the appropriate rules.  (I’d like to see China adopt a ban on inter-provincial trade barriers, like our “Commerce Clause.”)

There is a cottage industry among economic historians in trying to explain why Britain was the first country to industrialize.  I wonder if there is an advantage to being a large fertile island that lies close enough to the mainland to absorb its ideas and technology, but far enough away to be difficult to invade.   The problem is that this theory is based on a single observation.  Too bad we don’t have another continent with another great civilization on the mainland.  A continent that also has a nearby large, fertile island that is close enough to absorb ideas from the mainland but far enough away to be difficult to invade.  With the island being the first to industrialize in its neighborhood.  Any suggestions?

Miscellaneous:  The first two days in Beijing it was cloudy and gray, and very polluted.  Yesterday it cleared up and this morning the air is crystal clear.  For you people interested in PPP estimates, I can report on our dinner yesterday.  It was in a nice restaurant in a non-touristy area.  There were nine of us in a separate room with a big round table.  Seventeen dishes of Sichuan food were brought out, including the ever-popular pigs ears.  Much more than we could all eat.  The total bill for everything (including tax, tea, and tip) was under $100 US.  Warning: Westerners eating in 5 star hotels should expect to pay much more.   On the other hand Chinese diners in average restaurants in more typical cities would pay considerably less.

Beijing is developing a really nice subway system.  The cars have attractive soft seats with plush fabric upholstery.  In NYC how long would it take before some punks slashed those seats with a knife?  And no graffitti. 

When my 10-year old daughter and I visit department stores in non-tourist areas, she is uncomfortable with all the stares we get from the young salesgirls.  At age 53 I’ve come to develop a much more enlightened attitude toward different cultures.  

I have limited access to the internet here, although I am not sure why.  I cannot connect to most blogs, for instance.  It may be just my computer, but I now have to rely on Yahoo to know what is going on.  It is also more difficult to write blog posts on this computer, so I will probably slow down for a while.


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59 Responses to “The ABCs of European supremacy”

  1. Gravatar of Current Current
    20. August 2009 at 03:37

    That was interesting.

    I agree with you about language. I hadn’t thought of the written language thing though.

    I agree with you that being on an island is helpful. From the state’s point of view there is a great benefit to a set of islands like Britain or Japan for war. Any force that wants to invade Britain must deal with a hostile landing invasion, they must make a beach-head. This isn’t so on the continents, if Britain (or Japan) wanted to invade the continent in the past it was reasonably simple. They could invade via some smaller country that they ally to then move from there over land. The interesting thing about this is that whenever the continental side has tried to even up the odds they have always been attacked.

    There is an alternative history novel called “Pavane” by Keith Roberts where Europe is centralized as China is, through the power of the Catholic church.

  2. Gravatar of JasonD JasonD
    20. August 2009 at 04:55

    Great thoughts. For a reference on the idea of geographical size and language as barriers to moving, see David D.Friedman’s first published economics article: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Size_of_Nations/Size_of_Nations.html

    Although Friedman’s argument is a bit different- that language was endogenous and that in the absense of language splits, there would have been even more competition between gov’ts in Europe- there are still some striking similarities between that paper and your arguments.

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  4. Gravatar of Eric Eric
    20. August 2009 at 05:08

    Jared Diamond has proposed a similar ideal, although he focused more on geography. The multiple peninsulas and islands deterred empire formation and allowed for competitive nation states.

  5. Gravatar of david david
    20. August 2009 at 05:25

    If you’re interested, there’s also another similar theory that posits that China remained much more united than Europe due to the two rivers connecting most of medieval China (the yellow river and the yangtze, of course). In contrast Europe is harder to traverse.

    Sadly I cannot recall the originator of this theory, but I do know Jared Diamond has mentioned it in his books.

  6. Gravatar of Lorenzo (from downunder) Lorenzo (from downunder)
    20. August 2009 at 05:32

    The Chinese use of a single ideographic script obscures the fact that it is a country with several languages. Languages are really just collections of dialects (see John McWhorter’s excellent The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language).

    Yes, unification was bad for China, just as it was bad for the Muslim Middle East under the Ottomans. But a single script was effect not cause. (Islam had a single script too.)

    The issue is geography. The biggest issue in Chinese history is nomad pressure. We talk of “The Great Wall of China” when in fact there were the Great Walls of China.

    Latin Christendom and Japan developed very similar institutions without any contact prior to the 1500s because they had similar geography. Temperate (good for agriculture, major irrigation not needed, cold enough to encourage technology not too cold to stop civilisation developing), lots of coasts (encourages trade in things, people and ideas), lots of mountains (discourages tight central control) out of range of the nomads (so lack the “institutional flattening” effect of nomad conquest (including how it affected basic peasant-warrior property rights and interactions) or the “autocracy effect” of resisting it — see the history of the Islamic world and China for the former, see the history of the Islamic world, China and Russia for the latter).

    Geography matters. It is a constant feature, affecting human responses and possibilities. After the Romans, no one had the sustained organisational superiority which allowed them to overcome the geographical barriers to European unity. Competitive jurisdictions allied to cultural diversity gave Europe a profound advantage in the evolution of institutions. Japan had much (though less) of the former and much less of the latter, so was merely the non-European civilisation which found it easiest to modernise since its institutional structures were already very similar in crucial ways.

    So, competitive jurisdictions matter. A lot. But language and scripts are effects not causes.

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  8. Gravatar of Current Current
    20. August 2009 at 06:31

    I agree about geography. In Europe seas are very practical forms of transport. So are rivers, where they are suitable.

    Until canals were built in the 18th century taking goods overland using roads was very time consuming and expensive.

    Old european cities are almost always built at the lowest bridging point of a river which is navigable to the sea.

    All that said, it is very difficult to pick through all these factors and say which ones are really important. Impossible perhaps.

  9. Gravatar of Ignacio Ignacio
    20. August 2009 at 08:10

    Your theory describing the difference in development between China and Europe is similar to the one described by Jared Diamond in the epilogue to his book “Guns, Germs & Steel”, although he expands it a little bit. If you have not read it, do so; it is quite interesting.

    Ignacio

  10. Gravatar of MarkP MarkP
    20. August 2009 at 08:22

    Too bad we don’t have another continent with another great civilization on the mainland. A continent that also has a nearby large, fertile island that is close enough to absorb ideas from the mainland but far enough away to be difficult to invade. With the island being the first to industrialize in its neighborhood. Any suggestions?

    Would Taiwan count?

    I have been on a trip to China, and currently live in Taiwan. In my experience, Taiwan is a lot different than China (I can only compare urban areas though due to my experience). It’s got major cultural and economic differences, but many similarities, much like Spanish and Italian people would live much different lives.

  11. Gravatar of caveat bettor caveat bettor
    20. August 2009 at 10:02

    I attribute industrialization and other economic growth phenomena to the Scottish Enlightenment. Great Britain was the first to adopt the ways of Smith, Hume, Reid, et al. The island nation’s GDP/capita (not a pure measure, I concede) then surpassed China’s to take the #1 spot in the world.

    One contrast worthy of consideration is the different causes and outcomes of the American and French Revolutions. The institutional inertia of class in France diminished the influence of the invisible hand in that nation.

    Another contrast worth considering is the respective church polities: following your theory on ‘smaller and decentralized’ institutions, there was more parity in Great Britain between the Presbyterian/reformed (which provided the fertilizer for the Scottish Enlightenment), Catholic, and Anglican traditions than the monolith of the Catholic church in France. Even the Puritans within the Anglican environ seemed to wield more influence than the Huguenots in France. This trend continued in the US; for instance, the the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, a tiny demographic in American history, provided us Syracuse and Rutgers universities as institutional legacies. I doubt this could easily have occurred in France, or a even French colony, for that matter.

  12. Gravatar of Lord Lord
    20. August 2009 at 12:24

    The counter would be Gregory Clark’s exposure of low literacy and numeracy in China of the day. Hard for written language to make a large difference under those circumstances though the administration was probably unified.

  13. Gravatar of Thorfinn Thorfinn
    20. August 2009 at 14:05

    I don’t think language is the key issue. India is a similarly large, diverse region as Europe or China–but it has commonly been politically united. The large flood plains of the Ganges, Krishna, etc. encourage political centralization in India as well as in China, while a rougher terrain encouraged numerous polities in Europe (again, often organized around smaller flood plains).

    As a couple of other people have mentioned, Japan is another perfect example. However, it was not immune to war pressures–warfare within Japan was high, and a centralized state developed (in contrast to England, where development was fostered by property rights and decentralization). Given the huge differences in the route to development across England and Japan, I’d be hesitant to ascribe a causal role from island identity to growth.

  14. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    20. August 2009 at 15:16

    Language seems plausible, but many historical geographers (geographic historians?) argue that the it’s the existence of physical barriers and many different ecological systems. The Swiss Alps, the Pyrenées, the ocean (separating greenland/iceland), which essentially propagated competition between regions.

    In a sense, although the widespread uniformity of Rome (which wasn’t all that uniform) brought wealth and stability, it arguably stifled innovation. Dominant ideas (paradigms) become entrenched, along with powerful interests. At some point, societies become so static that change only occurs through collapse, external force (invasion/conquest), or internal response to external competition.

    Which brings me back to one of the great things about China… Increasingly (and I think the psychological effect will only intensify), the US views itself through a Chinese mirror. This is the first time in 20 years (since the collapse of the Soviet Union) that the US feels truly challenged. And the US seems unable to make substantial change without real external challenge. (And even so, we remain remarkably complacent.)

    In a world in which we cannot see counterfactuals (history only happens once, at least in so far as we can experience it), it is easy for defenders of the status quo to make their case. Without external challenges, countries often ossify.

    But that raises a poignant question: As the world becomes homogenized by the spread of information and ideas, will we arrive at a point in time where there is a dominant social/economic paradigm that gains acceptance everywhere, and thus can never be dislodged until we ultimately suffer collapse?

    If you think about Darwin’s evolutionary ideas, one of the key ideas in the separation of species was isolation. It is relatively hard for species to separate when they are permitted to interbreed. Thus, geographies with more micro climates have richer diversity.

    The argument could be applied to Europe’s path for advancement. And the antithesis of that argument (lack of isolation limits diversity) could be signal a reduction in long term social innovation even as (for the next hundred years) our various cultures benefit tremendously from frequent contact and borrowing of ideas.

    Just a half-glass-empty thought for the day…

  15. Gravatar of Current Current
    20. August 2009 at 15:24

    caveat bettor: “I attribute industrialization and other economic growth phenomena to the Scottish Enlightenment. Great Britain was the first to adopt the ways of Smith, Hume, Reid, et al. The island nation’s GDP/capita (not a pure measure, I concede) then surpassed China’s to take the #1 spot in the world.”

    Though I’m a brit I tend not to agree with this idea. I think that liberty was likely very important. But, liberty wasn’t really caused by the enlightenment, it was recognized and aided by it. The ideas are older. What Smith and those of his era in the late 18th century were doing in a large part was trying to understand what *had* happened. On the other hand Sir Edward Coke had recognized a great deal of this, and he died in 1634.

    What made the UK different though was older than the enlightenment. It had been bubbling up for centuries before. Liberties had been tied to old customs, they had been chosen out of expediency to arbitrate between groups. And at times they had been chosen for solid reasons. (I think it’s quite likely that the industrial revolution was similarly bubbling up for a lot longer than is recognized).

  16. Gravatar of Daniil Gorbatenko Daniil Gorbatenko
    20. August 2009 at 23:21

    Prof. Sumner,

    Thanks for an interesting and novel hypothesis. I never thought about the differences between Europe and China in these terms.

    But if you want to explain the divergence of China from Europe this way what do you make of the divergence of the Islamic World. The Islamic World is split into lots of language groups and yet despite the fact that it was much better developped than Europe for some time, it still failed to catch up later on.

    I think there are three macro features that loosely explain the rise of Western Europe:

    1) the absence of strong centralised states for the most part of the Europe’s history (what you point to);

    2) the unique way of thinking about the world (abstract science (natural pholosophy) combined with practical application) discussed by Joel Mokyr in his papers on the causes of the Industrial Revolution; and

    3) the focus of the European culture (Christianity) on the individual (In this regard, Deepak Lal’s Unintended Consequences is a must read).

    What caused each of those three features and how their emergence was intertwined, we will never know for sure but without any of them Europe and the US would not be what they are now.

  17. Gravatar of Tim Worstall Tim Worstall
    20. August 2009 at 23:41

    Worth pondering on the idea of “water empires”. Where irrigation (ie China, Egypt is also often mentioned) is an essential part of the agricultural system one would tend to see centralised bureaucracies.

    One definition of a strong state impervious to outside influences is of course a strong centralised bureaucracy.

    It’s possible for that central state to be conquered from outside (as happened in both places many times) but the essential features of the state continued.

    Contrast with the European experience where there was no such strong reason for strong control from the centre…..

    I don’t think anyone claims that this is everything about it (I certainly don’t) but only that there is some explanatory power to the idea.

    Central Chinese control has always been much weaker outside the irrigated areas for example….

  18. Gravatar of azmyth azmyth
    21. August 2009 at 01:33

    I think you have more data points than you think. In addition to Japan, Taiwan industrialized very quickly after they set their defenses up. Also in Africa, it’s much smaller, but Mauritius is quite well off. That might be more due to their tourism + stable democracy combo.

  19. Gravatar of caveat bettor caveat bettor
    21. August 2009 at 02:31

    Current: I appreciate a Brit perspective to inform mine. To clarify, I was thinking less about liberty though, and more about Smith and Hume’s respective musings on trade, labor, and money supply. I’m not sure David Ricardo would have carried the baton so far in his study of economic growth, had these scottish precedents not first presented their thoughts to him.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. August 2009 at 03:28

    Current, Of course Europe once was centralized under a single language (Latin.) I am interested in figuring out why China stayed centralized and Europe didn’t.

    Thanks JasonD, I’ll try to take a look at it, but it will have to wait until I return.

    Eric, Yes, I need to read Diamond’s book. I have merely read some articles he wrote. But I am not convinced by the geography explanation. Even the Holy Roman Empire was not able to stick together, and it was in a central part of Europe. China is huge, and there are many mountain ranges. The one thing that does fit is Korea, I will give him that.

    David, Thanks, but I just don’t see that as enough. The country is very big, and those rivers only get you so far. There are many areas in the north and south of China that are very far from those rivers. As far as Spain and Sweden are from the Rhine and Danube.

    Lorenzo, I agree in part, but a couple responses:

    1. Europe also faced persistent nomad pressures (Huns, Mongols, Turks, Arabs, etc).
    2. I don’t see a common language as an effect of unification. Europe had a common language, why did it not continue using that language?
    3. The issue is why did industrialization begin in Japan and not Korea, and Britain rather than France. I don’t think the comparison between Chistendom and Japan gets at that specific issue.

    Current, Yes seas and rivers are important, but East Asia also has lots of rivers and coastline. Europe has a better climate, I don’t know if that is important.

    Ignacio, Thanks, I’ll look at it.

    MarkP, I expected everyone to say Japan, as they industrialized before the rest of Asia. Taiwan is another good example. It was difficult to invade, and thus avoided the setbacks of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

    Caveat better, Thanks, I am also a fan of the Scottish enlightenment. I don’t know how to separate cause and effect, but classical liberalism fits in the picture somewhere.

    Lord, Good point. But what was the level of literacy in Europe at the time when nation states starting forming around language? I can imagine it might have been a bit higher than China, if the European alphabet is easier to learn than the Chinese characters. But I really don’t know. But I agree that weakens my argument.

    Thorfinn, That’s a very good point about India, but I don’t understand the Japan example. Your argument is that Europe fragmented politically due to its uneven geography. But Japan is even worse. Why are the southern and northern islands united?)

    I will do the rest later. BTW, I can’t get any other blogs in China. Did someone like Tyler Cowen or Mankiw link to me, there seems to be a flood of new commenters.

  21. Gravatar of Current Current
    21. August 2009 at 03:32

    caveat bettor: “I appreciate a Brit perspective to inform mine. To clarify, I was thinking less about liberty though, and more about Smith and Hume’s respective musings on trade, labor, and money supply. I’m not sure David Ricardo would have carried the baton so far in his study of economic growth, had these scottish precedents not first presented their thoughts to him.”

    I think you’re probably right about that. But I’m not sure how much of an effect it had on the industrial revolution at the time. International trade liberalization was a very gradual process, it began in Smith and Hume’s time and progressed very slowly for many decades. During the start of the industrial revolution there was free trade in only a few goods and quite high tariffs on many important goods.

    Also, the idea of “sound money” predates Smith and Hume. They were again describing what existed at the time. I think a lot of the adherence to sound money in Britain came from the experience of John Law’s Mississippi bubble. British investors lost a lot in that. But I don’t really know much about that.

    Maybe the idea of regulations restraining trade and preventing division-of-labour did make an impact though.

    I think the industrial revolution is one of the most interesting areas of Economics. I’m from the north of England where much industrialisation took place, it’s an interesting place from that point of view. Many important inventions were made in a very small geographical area at around the same time. For example, most of the important innovations in making cloth came from Lancashire.

  22. Gravatar of Current Current
    21. August 2009 at 03:54

    Scott: “Of course Europe once was centralized under a single language (Latin.) I am interested in figuring out why China stayed centralized and Europe didn’t.”

    Yes, I think the non-phonetic aspect may be important there.

    Scott: “Yes seas and rivers are important, but East Asia also has lots of rivers and coastline. Europe has a better climate, I don’t know if that is important.”

    Yes. On reflection I think you’re right, both are quite similar.

    Maybe though it can help explain the rise of the offshore islands. They get more gain from cheap sea transport than the inland countries do. Though the inland countries may get the same if they have suitable rivers, that depends on the situation.

  23. Gravatar of q q
    21. August 2009 at 04:09

    @ssumner Current, Of course Europe once was centralized under a single language (Latin.) I am interested in figuring out why China stayed centralized and Europe didn’t.

    i’m not an expert here; i took one class in college 20+ years ago. the teacher asked a similar question. he said that conquerers who took over china took it over at the point of centralized rule and were co-opted by it and became chinese. this didn’t happen in europe.

  24. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    21. August 2009 at 06:30

    “Let’s suppose that the reason why China fell behind Europe is that they didn’t have this sort of healthy competition that one observed between European states.”

    As you surely have been keeping track, the latest argument is that is the UNhealthy competition that helped Europe escape the Malthusian trap.

    http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3823

    Cruel windfall: How wars, plagues, and urban disease propelled Europe’s rise to riches

  25. Gravatar of Current Current
    21. August 2009 at 07:04

    Statsguy,

    That’s an interesting idea. Like most theories that use Malthusian effects it doesn’t tackle Malthus’ deux ex machina.

    Why do people spend their extra wealth on more children? It has rarely made logical sense for poor people to do this. The only way it makes sense is as a pension plan. It seems unlikely that the planning decisions around childbirth didn’t change in hundreds of years.

    That said it’s about as good as anyone elses theory. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of it.

  26. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    21. August 2009 at 10:53

    You mean, aside from the biological imperative to engage in the procreative act?

    I suspect it has to do with statistical variance around progeny survival. If the chance of a child surviving is hightly random (e.g. uncontrollable), and is relatively unimpacted by how much you educate the child, then the optimal survival strategy (for your genes) is to have many children. This might be the case, for example, when a plague is rampant. Or war.

    If the chance of progeny survival (until future reproduction) is highly impacted by investment in the child, then the opposite is true.

    In the “homo-economicus” worldview, it could be modeled as a simple optimization problem… People may have done this in the literature on human capital and birth rates, I believe.

    In terms of demonstrating this dynamic applies to developmental civilizations, one could do a comparison of case studies in non-industrialized societies, looking at birth rate per female vs. death rate by cause.

    For example, most of rural Africa vs. aboriginal Austrialians. The education of an aboriginal Australian is substantively as complex as getting a PhD in botany. The cause of death is less social (war and communicable disease) than starvation/natural threats.

    But I don’t know this really proves anything…

  27. Gravatar of Current Current
    21. August 2009 at 11:25

    Statsguy,

    I largely agree with what you’ve said. My point is that I can’t think that non-industrial societies have been that uniform. Even the same society can’t have been that uniform over time. We can only say the war/plague effect in Europe has been strong if it is sensible to compare them. But it doesn’t really seem sensible does it.

    These days Greg Clark is saying that there is a socially determined reproduction rate. As such there is a socially determined income in the malthusian trap.

    Surely this is fudging the issue?

  28. Gravatar of Rich Rich
    21. August 2009 at 12:24

    Mandarin is very, very different from Cantonese. I speak Spanish but not Italian, yet I can make out a fair amount of Italian, and can struggle through a newspaper article if I say the words aloud. A better analogy would be: Mandarin is to Cantonese what German is to English.

  29. Gravatar of Rob Rob
    21. August 2009 at 14:52

    Current:

    “Why do people spend their extra wealth on more children? It has rarely made logical sense for poor people to do this.”

    In a primitive agricultural setting it makes sense. The children become workers at a young age.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. August 2009 at 15:45

    Statsguy, Good points, and many parellel my own thinking. I think the geography of Europe may be part of the answer. Someone mentioned the greap floodplain civilizations of India and China. Last night I was thinking about that, and it occurred to me that Europe is to China and India roughly what Greece was to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Greece was more fragmented by geography, less populous, and initially not as “great”. But it’s more liberal political system unleashed greater innovation, and it eventually surpassed its much more populous neighbors, and indeed conquered them. I’m sure others have noted this analogy.

    But on the other side, there are lots of mountain ranges in China, even eastern China. And there are two big pennisula’s in the north. And two pretty big islands. And in Europe one finds nation states where there are language differences, even without physical barriers. The whole France/Belgium/Holland/Denmark/Germany/Poland area is pretty flat.

    Current; You said;

    “Though I’m a brit I tend not to agree with this idea. I think that liberty was likely very important. But, liberty wasn’t really caused by the enlightenment, it was recognized and aided by it. The ideas are older. What Smith and those of his era in the late 18th century were doing in a large part was trying to understand what *had* happened. On the other hand Sir Edward Coke had recognized a great deal of this, and he died in 1634.

    What made the UK different though was older than the enlightenment. It had been bubbling up for centuries before. Liberties had been tied to old customs, they had been chosen out of expediency to arbitrate between groups. And at times they had been chosen for solid reasons. (I think it’s quite likely that the industrial revolution was similarly bubbling up for a lot longer than is recognized).”

    This is a good point. I know this isn’t enough observations, but I can’t help thinking how the Brits, Americans and Icelanders all had a sort of fiercely independent culture. Could there be a selectual bias–a certain type of person is more likely to cross the ocean to settle a new area? Or does it come from less frequent invasions from the outside. After 1814 the US had little to fear from invasion, and of course the UK hasn’t been sucessfully invaded since 1066. (Someone correct me if this is wrong–were there successful Viking invaders after 1066?)

    BTW, Readers from other countries shouldn’t take this as a sign of me professing cultural superiority. For instance the French have in many ways a more sophisticated culture than us or the Brits, and are better at certain types of big infrastructure projects.

    Daniil, That is a good question, and I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. You have some good ideas. I think others may have mentioned climate–for some reason colder countries developed first. Isn’t the southern part of Europe a bit like North Africa? Of course today places like Andulucia, Sicily and Greece are developed, but before they were influenced by the industrial revolution in northern Europe, there were pretty static societies that didn’t seem to be advancing on their own. I mention climate because it does seem to be correlated with the timing of the industrial revolution in not just Europe, but also Asia, (south) Africa and the two America’s, where the colder areas industrialized first. Obviously lots of other people have mentioned this, and I guess there are lots of theories as to why climate matters. It could be that disease is more common in hot areas, or that it is harder to work in the heat, or that cold climates encourage a culture of saving to survive long winters, etc.

    Tim, You said;

    “Worth pondering on the idea of “water empires”. Where irrigation (ie China, Egypt is also often mentioned) is an essential part of the agricultural system one would tend to see centralised bureaucracies.”

    Very good point. I did not know that Chinese control was weaker outside or irrigated areas. That supports your point. But Holland is a bit of a puzzle, as there did need to be some central control to get all the dykes built, indeed arguably more than elsewhere in Europe. And yet Holland was a leader in the capitalist revolution of the 1600s. So as always it’s probably the interaction of the factor you mentioned, and some other things as well.

    More to come . . .

  31. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. August 2009 at 16:09

    Azmyth, Those are good points. In the 1970s I thought Sri Lanka was going to move far ahead of India, as they seemed to be about to adopt more open economic policies. But then civil war intervened.

    I’m off to spend a couple days hiking up by the Great Wall, I don’t know if the hotel has computers that one can use. I’ll pick up when I return. (Check out the website for Commune by the Great Wall.)

  32. Gravatar of Current Current
    22. August 2009 at 07:51

    Scott: “This is a good point. I know this isn’t enough observations, but I can’t help thinking how the Brits, Americans and Icelanders all had a sort of fiercely independent culture. Could there be a selectual bias–a certain type of person is more likely to cross the ocean to settle a new area? Or does it come from less frequent invasions from the outside. After 1814 the US had little to fear from invasion, and of course the UK hasn’t been sucessfully invaded since 1066.”

    It was a very common view in the past that the more adventurous sort had set out for the Americas, and therefore America was settled with a more adventerous and individualistic people. I think this is very hard to confirm.

    I think it’s impossible to say for Britain and other islands.

    For Britain I think there is some good evidence against it. Hayek points out in “The Constitution of Liberty” that England was not especially blessed with more liberal laws than Europe in the middle-ages.

    Traditions similar to those in the Magna Carta existed in other parts of Europe. In Germany there was a law from 1037 “that no man be deprieved of his fief but by the laws of the empire and the judgement of his peers”. The difference was that in many other parts of Europe they didn’t last. The power of monarchs encroached upon them.

    (Which brings us onto the view that the British civil wars of the 17th century were important.)

    Scott: “(Someone correct me if this is wrong–were there successful Viking invaders after 1066?)”

    After the Norman conquest Britain was still being periodically successfully raided by the Vikings. In some parts of northern England and Scotland they had settled before the conquest. The Northern English local chiefs pledged allegiance to the Normans after the conquests. In the north of Scotland they finally pledged allegiance in the 13th century.

  33. Gravatar of Current Current
    22. August 2009 at 08:33

    Scott: “But Holland is a bit of a puzzle, as there did need to be some central control to get all the dykes built, indeed arguably more than elsewhere in Europe. And yet Holland was a leader in the capitalist revolution of the 1600s. So as always it’s probably the interaction of the factor you mentioned, and some other things as well”

    Although dyke building involved central control it also involved a lot of capitalism. The interactions between it and banking are interesting. On of the main reasons the dutch government started issuing bonds was to pay for the repair of dykes. (I understand the worlds longest running government bonds were some dutch bonds for this purpose).

    In England the Great Fen was drained by some Dutch and English. This was a set of lakes and bogs, the town of Ely you visited was an island in the midst of it. This was done by a form of crony capitalism. The big landlords, entrepreneurs and the state would agree to drain an area. The entrepreneurs, the “adventurers”, would put up the money, take the risk and hire the draining engineers. At the end every group would get a cut of the drained land. This lives on in the names of the areas of land “The lots”, “Upper Cuts”, “Adventurers fen” and “The Undertakers”.

    I don’t know if the process used there is similar to that used in the Netherlands though.

  34. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    23. August 2009 at 14:18

    This is a great idea. The distinction between phonetic and non-phonetic languages is really valuable. I think you should write an academic paper on this idea (I say this as an economic historian). In addition to Diamond, the relevant things to look at would be Eric Jone’s book The European Miracle. He argues that Chinese geography made it likely that whenever the empire split up i.e. during the Song period, it would always come back together at a some point, whereas Europe is naturally divided by mountains etc.

    Of course the benefits of not being unified should not be overstated. South-Asia has always comprised competing states and no-one unified the India subcontinent until the British in the mid-19th c.

    You should also look at the working papers by Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and R. Bin Wong. They are working on a book that compares China with Europe and a couple of chapters are available online.

    For comparisons with Islam, Eric Chaney has a great working paper on how a lack of competition within the Islamic world stunted Islamic science (he is assistant professor at Harvard).

    For the British case, Joel Moykr’s new book The Enlightened Economy is coming out soon. Plus Bob Allen’ recent book is relevant.

  35. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    23. August 2009 at 14:49

    There is also obviously Ken Pomaranz’s famous book The Great Divergence which spanned the mini-industry of articles comparing China to Europe that Scott mentions.

  36. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. August 2009 at 20:11

    Current, I agree that economists often describe changes that have already occurred. Much of modern macro is simply reacting to events. (Soon we’ll be hearing about “bubble” theories of business cycles–and I expect they will be completely worthless.)

    q, That’s a good point. I vaguely recall that the Yuan and Quing dynasties match your description.

    Statsguy. That’s an interesting article. Am I correct in assuming that they aren’t claiming that these problems caused Euopean growth, but rather that they allowed it, by postponing the Malthusian trap? Obviously other places have been devastated by war, disease, etc, without developing.
    I also assume war would deter capital formation. The industrial revolution occurred in England, a country that was spared the devastation of war on its own soil.

    More later . . .

  37. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. August 2009 at 21:03

    q, I meant Qing dynasty (I’m not a good speller.) Not to be confused with the Qin dynasty. Pinyan is a weird spelling system. The Chinese province of Shanxi is right next door to the province of Shaanxi.

    Thanks Rich, You are probably right that Spanish and Italian are even closer than Mandarin and Cantonese.

    Current, Thanks for filling me in on the history. When I read your stuff it makes me think I have no right even venturing into these debates.

    Mark, Thanks for the compliment. Right now I have neither the time nor the expertise to venture into any new areas. I’m not even keeping up with things that I really do need to be doing. But if you want to do something expanding on my blog post that would be fine. I’d let you decide whether my contribution in the blog post is enough for me to be a co-author.

    One area where I might be able to slightly contribute is geography. I think people have a tendency to put too much weight on geographical explanations. China is riddled with mountain ranges, even eastern China. I do agree that mountain ranges explain the northern boundaries of Spain and Italy, but I also think it is rather ad hoc to draw any sweeping generalizations about the differences between Europe and China that are based solely on geography. As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of political boundaries in Europe that occur in relatively flat land, or low mountains.

    To conclude:

    Despite all the very strong and valid objections raised by various commenters, I still think the non-phonetic nature of Chinese might have played at least a modest supporting role in political centralization. It doesn’t seem any more ad hoc to me than does geography.

  38. Gravatar of Current Current
    24. August 2009 at 03:38

    Scott: “I agree that economists often describe changes that have already occurred. Much of modern macro is simply reacting to events. (Soon we’ll be hearing about “bubble” theories of business cycles–and I expect they will be completely worthless.)”

    Yes. But there is a difference between reacting to events and looking at the past in a structured manner. I agree that we will probably immediate reactions to current events. Some of these may not be helpful, but some may.

    More generally though I think looking at changes that have occurred, even if very long ago, is a useful exercise. History can never replace economic logic, but it can supplement it usefully.

    Smith, Hume and the classical economists and others such as historians did us a great service by their looking back.

    Scott: “Thanks for filling me in on the history. When I read your stuff it makes me think I have no right even venturing into these debates.”

    I’m not meaning to criticize your theory too strongly. Or to say that you shouldn’t speak on this subject. I’m talking about it and I’m not a professional economist.

    My point is though that this area is difficult. We can think of many reasons why one place may be successful. It’s just like in evolutionary biology we can think of many reasons why a particular adaptation was useful at some time. It is very difficult though to say which of the reasons is correct. Yours seems quite a reasonable one though.

    I think this is particularly true when we’re talking about “institutional differences”. Recently we discussed Robert Allen’s idea that England had cheaper coal and energy than other countries making industrialization using steam power easier. Something like this could be tested by indexing the price of coal in various places against other commodities. (As I pointed out at that time it seems quite unlikely to me that Allen is right because steam engines were first used in a part of Britain that is far from coalfields).

    To verify or refute your idea though it would require much more evidence though. It’s hard to see in retrospect what decisions people had over language. It’s hard to see how precisely language exerts it’s influence on society.

    Scott: “I also assume war would deter capital formation.”

    This is a good point. In the paper Statsguy mentions there are things assumed about capital.

    For example, do we really know if war was capital or labour intensive? It’s not immediately clear since many weapons we consider simple now were very difficult to make at the time. Great amounts of labour and other resources went into making them.

    So, consider two different early modern europes. One if the one that we had with it’s many wars and large death tolls. The other is a hypothetical one with fewer wars and lower death tolls. Now, the Malthusian effect prefers the former over latter. However, capital accumulation favours the latter over the former. Since resources would be spent on other things if not on war materials. Also, as Scott points out there is the question of motivation for capital formation. In unstable places that is lessened. This also favours the latter over the former. So, it seems to me difficult to say without a great deal of evidence that the Malthusian effects are more important.

    The situation is a bit different with plagues of course.

  39. Gravatar of Lorenzo Lorenzo
    24. August 2009 at 10:51

    China was unified, and centralized, due to the efforts of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, whose armies destroyed and co-opted all competitors and their lands. It was military power that kept China unified, and centralized, over the centuries since Qin Shi Huangdi lived. As we can see from Tibet’s recent history, the lessons of unification and centralization taught to the Chinese by Qin Shi Huangdi, so many centuries ago, are alive today. Until Charlemagne, nothing similar was attempted in Europe, after the fall of the Roman empire. And even Charlemagne’s empire didn’t include all of Europe.

  40. Gravatar of Current Current
    25. August 2009 at 02:52

    Lorenzo,

    The question though is why didn’t military power keep Europe unified. It was certainly the intention of many of it’s rulers, such as the Roman, Charlemagne and Napoleon.

  41. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    25. August 2009 at 05:12

    I don’t know enough about China to write a paper on this! I think someone should since it is a richer idea that the geography hypothesis. It is an explanation of why when China fragmented into separate states, it was always reunified within a century or so and not necessarily. The thesis that it was a lack of political competition that prevented China from industrializing first needs to be established and there are plently of competing theories.

    Rosenthal and Wong argue that the frequency of wars in Europe and China affected where manufacturing located. Since China was more peaceful, manufacturing was rural (since labour was cheaper in the countyside although capital was more expensive there). In Europe however, wars were more common so that manufacturing located in the towns where labour was expensive but capital was cheap. Then you add to this Bob Allen’s relative prices drive innovation story and you generate a possible explanation of the industrial revolution!

    By the way, regarding Scott’s hypothesis it interesting to reflect on the role Latin played as the language of educated people throughout the middle ages. All scientific treatises were written in Latin until 1700 as was all philosophy until 1650. This suggests that perhaps the lack of a single language was not the major barrier to political reunification . . . .

    Another random but related thought is that the elites of both England and France spoke the same language during the middle ages (French) and king’s like Richard I or John did not feel that there possessions in France were any different to their possessions in England. Had a unification of England and France been feasible in administrative or military terms during the 12 to 14 centuries, then lack of a common langugage would not have been one of the factors preventing such a union from taking place.

  42. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    25. August 2009 at 10:26

    From the time of Justinian, European population was decimated by a series of plagues. Would-be authoritarians had to make concessions to acquire labor and population because people voted with their feet.

    The intellectual climate, as wrestled with in the excellent From Plato to NATO, borne of Christianity, Germanic tribal customs, and (notional) Greek democracy/Roman republicanism had healthy strains of anti-authoritarianism, spheres of freedoms, inviolable rights and historic prerogatives.

    Or, if you prefer longue durée history, the ecological diversity of Europe combined with easy travel (because Europe’s peninsular shape is intersected with navigable rivers) promoted human mobility and large exchange networks. See Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans: Themes and Variations: 9000 BC–AD 1000.

    However you look at it (Mobility and trade, ecological diversity, population depletion, intellectual heritages, language), when rulers must compete for population and riches they can win militarily or through what Adam Smith called “sympathy”—understanding how to win hearts and minds. Rulers became more adept at both strategies in Europe than anywhere else.

  43. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    25. August 2009 at 10:35

    Lorenzo-

    I think the Chinese Emporers succeeded where Europeans didn’t because the dense Chinese population along the coast was captive– all possible refuges were inhabited or uninhabitable. When Germans pressed the Gauls, they moved west. Vandals went to Africa. Vikings inhabited sparsely populated Iceland and Greenland. Northern Italians fled Huns and created Venice.

    European populations, when pressed, did not always succumb and become subjects, they could run away and retain cultural and linguistic diversity that set them apart from each other.

  44. Gravatar of Winton Bates Winton Bates
    25. August 2009 at 17:20

    Scott
    This has hardly any relevance to this topic, but I would be interested in your thoughts on why average life satisfaction in China does not seem to have increased over the last couple of decades, despite the large increase in real per capita incomes that has occurred. An article I have recently read on the topic suggests that the problem is “relative deprivation” i.e. increased income inequality. I think this is an unlikely explanation for reasons I have just posted on my blog: http://wintonbates.blogspot.com/2009/08/chinese-are-becoming-wealthier-so-why.html

  45. Gravatar of Lorenzo Lorenzo
    26. August 2009 at 11:12

    Current, the answer is culture, without which humans are savages. The Chinese had it for senturies before the Europeans. Inter alia, culture allows people to understand the benefits of unification and centralization: peace, stability, and prosperity. [There are also deficits to unification and centralization, but that's another story.] Savages don’t have this understanding, and are willing to fight against military power that promotes the understanding.

    Bababooey, it was continental China that was brought under control, and not just the coast. I don’t think that Europe had a greater land mass, and the possibility of evading military force, that were greater than China’s. I do think that what you write is consistent with European savagery. Savages ringed the Roman Empire, and sacked Rome, during its fall. Nor were the Europeans of the Middle Ages much better.

  46. Gravatar of Current Current
    26. August 2009 at 11:47

    Lorenzo,

    The people who ringed the Roman empire were not savages. Have you seen Terry Gilliam’s series “The Barbarians”? He over-eggs the pudding in places, but I understand he is right about a lot.

    Why, when Europe had a degree of civilisation was there no central empire as in China?

  47. Gravatar of scott Sumner scott Sumner
    26. August 2009 at 17:07

    Current, I agree that a knowledge of history is very important to doing good macro. I just don’t like people overreacting to current events—as in the 1970s when they suddenly decided oil shocks (not monetary policy) was the cause of high inflation.

    I agree that this stuff is hard to test, but I find the coal availability theory of England’s development to be highly implausible. During the 1700s England was advancing far beyond countries like Spain on many different fronts, coal can at best explain only a tiny fraction of England’s success. It’s dynamism was almost surely linked to much deeper cultural and political factors.

    Lorenzo, First a minor point, China was not always unified, there were occasional splits. But your basic point is correct. However I think that begs the questions of how the military was able to keep it unified, whereas other military forces in Europe (such as the Roman army) failed. And even when China was defeated by the Mongols, it remained unified. So the military cannot be the whole explanation.

    Current#2, I agree.

    Mark, I agree with much of what you say, but I’d like to respond to this point:

    “By the way, regarding Scott’s hypothesis it interesting to reflect on the role Latin played as the language of educated people throughout the middle ages. All scientific treatises were written in Latin until 1700 as was all philosophy until 1650. This suggests that perhaps the lack of a single language was not the major barrier to political reunification . . . .”

    The key point I was trying to make is that as literature began to be written in the vernacular, it contributed to the rise of nationalism. Yes, scientists could and did converse in Latin well into the 1600s, but it is also true that people like Dante were already writing in Italian much earlier.

    Bababooey, I think you make some very good points about cultural factors such as Christianity and the northern Europeans’ love of freedom. But I would slightly disagree with the following:

    “Or, if you prefer longue durée history, the ecological diversity of Europe combined with easy travel (because Europe’s peninsular shape is intersected with navigable rivers) promoted human mobility and large exchange networks. See Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans: Themes and Variations: 9000 BC–AD 1000.”

    The ease of travel is a factor cited by many people as explaining why China stayed unified. I.e there were fewer barriers such as mountain ranges. So I am not convinced this can explain the differences between Europe and China.

    Winton, I really don’t know why this has occurred. I doubt it has much to do with inequality, more likely it is due to instability—people losing safe life-time jobs in state-owned firms, the loss of health insurance, etc. My hunch is that today there is more satisfaction in the market-oriented parts of China, where living conditions are better. I would add that one needs to be skeptical of these surveys, at least if you are trying to draw implications about good governance. Mexicans often come out near the top of world happiness rankings, and yet many millions have voted with their feet to leave Mexico. I regard that fact as far more signficant that the survey results.

    I would also be very skeptical of survey results from before the Chinese economic reforms began, as people were afraid to express their true opinions–for very good reasons. People are increasing free to “gripe” in China.

    I have also seen surveys that show something like 85% of Chinese are optimistic about their future (or the country’s future, I don’t recall the exact wording), a far higher number than you see in developed countries in the same survey. I do believe that most Chinese people think their country is improving.

  48. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    27. August 2009 at 12:01

    “The ease of travel is a factor cited by many people as explaining why China stayed unified. ”

    It was much, much easier and cost-effective to trade (move bulk) via water than land. I believe China had only 2 major navigable rivers and none running north-south until they built the Grand Canal. So Europe enjoyed more mobility notwithstanding flat, contiguous land.

    The second part of the Annales School argument is the ecological diversity in the living spaces of Europe led to more variety in people and culture. I’m not doing it justice, but you would really enjoy Cunliffe’s book, which received accolades from worthier people than I. Same with From NATO to Plato.

    I don’t know enough on these matters to have my own opinion.

  49. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. August 2009 at 20:00

    Bababooey, I am pretty sure that China has more than two major rivers; the Yangtze, Yellow and Pearl all come to mind. And the Yangtze has some big tributaries. The diversity argument sounds plausible, and indeed lots of factors probably played a role. I think that culture is more important than geography. My hunch is that geography matters to the extent that it affected culture–which also seems to be the argument you cited from the Annales School.

    BTW, China also has a lot of ecological diversity—arguably more than China

  50. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    31. August 2009 at 14:54

    I assumed that you were discussing the ancient world, during which period there were few navigable rivers in China. The history of China is filled with stories about canals and river improvement projects because of this fact. And the Gobi desert might be ecologically diverse, but its not terribly habitable. Most of China’s population lived and lives along the coastal region. I don’t think these points are controversial.

    I’ve read about it in a variety of books, but shortcut to Wikipedia:

    “In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond postulates that the lack of geographic barriers in much of China (essentially a wide plain with two large navigable rivers, and a relatively smooth coastline) led to a single government without competition. At the whim of a ruler who disliked new inventions, technology could be stifled for half a century or more. In contrast, Europe’s barriers of the Pyrennes, the Alps, and the various defensible peninsulas (Denmark, Scandinavia, Italy, Greece, etc.) and islands (Britain, Ireland, Sicily, etc.) led to smaller countries in constant competition with each other. If a ruler chose to ignore a scientific advancement (especially a military or economic one), his more-advanced neighbors would soon usurp his throne.”

  51. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. September 2009 at 14:59

    Bababooey, It’s a bit misleading to say most Chinese live near the coast, unless by “near” you mean 100s of miles away. I am pretty sure that most don’t live within 100 miles of the coast.

    And there is huge diversity between subtropical Yunnan and the frigid northeast, both of which contain large populations. The province of Sichuan contained over 100 million people (before the split-up), and it’s right in the center of the country.

    Again, I just don’t find the Diamond argument you present very persuasive. North of the Pyrennes and the Alps the barriers in Europe are no worse than those in eastern China (which has lots of modest-sized mountains), and yet there are many countries—why not just one?
    And the Roman Empire even surmounted those two mountain ranges for centuries.

    You point about river improvements is a good one, however.

  52. Gravatar of Rama Rama
    3. September 2009 at 12:50

    As Thorfinn pointed out India is an interesting example. Very diverse , numerous langauages , during significant periods of History not all that centralized , a great tradition of technology and maritime skills , yet did not evolve in the European model. Also an example of amn island next toa great civilization would be Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

    @ Statsguy : Why do people spend their extra wealth on more children? ————————. The only way it makes sense is as a pension plan.

    Mahmood Mamdani has elaborated on this concept in a book called
    “The Myth of Population Control.:

    @ Daniil: Thanks fr the Dipak lal reference. Looks very interesting.

    @ Scott: yes, Tyler likned to your review of his book.
    Also more recently to your comment on Urban vs Rural in context of Democracy in China’s future.

  53. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. September 2009 at 18:19

    Rama, Yes, that is a good point about India. I guess my fallback position is that multiple languages make nationalism more likely, but not certain. I mentioned that the rise of nationalism was associated with separate literay traditions. This made each European group seem like a “nation.” How does that compare to India? I recall that Bengal has a proud artistic tradition, but is that true for other regions as well? Do they each have their own literature, in their own language?

    Thanks for the information on Tyler. I haven’t been able to get his blog in China. I don’t know why, as I can get the idologically similar Econlog, so I think it is a technical issue.

  54. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    4. September 2009 at 11:03

    Like navigation on rivers, where people congregate now is a poor proxy for where people congregated at the point in time under discussion.

  55. Gravatar of Rama Rama
    4. September 2009 at 15:15

    Scott,

    In languages other than Bengali , there have been great literary traditions ; however except for one language (Tamil) , all the other major languages derive from Sanskrit ( the equivalent of Latin in India) , so the conflict or differences are perhaps not as significant.
    Also unlike Catholicism vs Protestantism ( ref. the importance given to the Protestant ethic in the rise of Capitalism by Max Weber et al.) , there was no major schism in Hinduism ( other than the conflict of the Great Tradition versus the Little Traditions). As and when the schisms appeared in the form of Buddhism or Jainism , Hinduism enveloped the new offshoots in its rubric , calling for example Buddha as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu .
    So the diversity of competing states that existed in Europe probably did not exist.
    Perhaps Tyler’s blog is getting filtered out due to “R” word in its title.

  56. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. September 2009 at 17:45

    Bababooey, Yes, I agree.

    Rama, Thanks. That was very informative. The Sanskrit/Latin angle is particularly interesting, as I knew almost nothing about Indian languages.

    You might me right about the MR blog. I wonder whether discussions of the “industrial revolution” go through. Right now I can’t even get Yahoo in China, but earlier I could.

  57. Gravatar of mike mike
    18. October 2009 at 08:13

    Culture has its role as well as geography. See Eccentric Culture by Brague. The Chinese & Islamic Empires were much less open to foreign ideas and closed themselves off in a deliberate move- that was never acceptable in the West- where it was commonly accepted that foreign ides/advances could be used and adapted. The Romans were masters of adoption & adaptation & much of this remained after they were gone. Diamond places too much emphasis on geography- it is not destiny.

  58. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. October 2009 at 10:45

    Mike, Yes, I agree that geography is overrated, at least in terms of explaining why some civilizations advanced steadily and others didn’t. Obviously geography has something to do with the location of the first civilizations.

  59. Gravatar of Mike Mike
    9. October 2011 at 05:57

    I think geography does play a role – more specifically climate. Think of the hottest countries in the world and their progression, cooler countries have almost always developed faster compared to hotter ones, simply because manual there are less usable hours in the day because of heat

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