Sunday, July 19, 2015

Practice Makes Perfect

Today leaders promise peace and prosperity. In early modern Europe, their job was to wage war.

By Edward Rothstein, WSJ
July 17, 2015 4:51 p.m. ET

How did the West win—or at least dominate the world for half a millennium? How did the nations of Europe end up conquering, at one time or another, more than 84% of the globe? Why didn’t the Ottoman Empire or Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate come close to such dominance? How was the Incan Empire’s army of tens of thousands thoroughly defeated in 1532 by Francisco Pizarro and some 160 Spaniards? Why didn’t it happen the other way around, with the Incan emperor, Atahualpa, triumphantly marching through Madrid?

There have been many attempts to answer such questions in recent decades, but it is safe to say that, until now, no one has related Western dominance to expressions that include such terms as (ci yt+1,i)/(At+1,i). In “Why Did Europe Conquer the World?” Philip Hoffman, while seeking an answer to the question posed by the book’s title, offers up algebraic representations like this one, which is connected to a way of measuring the gains a ruler might expect from a war, if innovations in weaponry make resource use more efficient.

Why Did Europe Conquer the World?
By Philip T. Hoffman
Princeton, 272 pages, $29.95

Such abstract formulations—mainly relegated to footnotes and appendices—make an appearance because Mr. Hoffman, who teaches at the California Institute of Technology, uses economic theory to scrutinize the supremacy of the West. He notes that scholars have ascribed Europe’s success to a variety of features: geographical and ecological advantages (Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” 1997); competitive markets and military rivalries ( Paul Kennedy in “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” 1987); a culture that stresses adaptability and a fierce defense of democracy ( Victor Davis Hanson in “Carnage and Culture,” 2001); a style of detached investigation and scientific inquiry ( David Landes in “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” 1998); and principles like private property and the rule of law ( Niall Ferguson in “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” 2011). Mr. Hoffman, finding many of their answers unsatisfactory, suggests something different: the West’s mastery of gunpowder.

(More here.)

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