What's Wrong With the Cartoon Guide to American History
By Bryan Caplan
Despite my admiration for Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe series (which includes his Cartoon History of the Modern World), I can’t recommend his Cartoon Guide to American History. It’s good on the Indians and slavery, but the rest is tired social democratic platitudes.
Part of the reason, no doubt, is that excessive attachment is the enemy of good history. Ever notice how wretched historical surveys become in their closing chapter on “recent events”? By itself, first-hand experience is good; but first-hand experience also leads most people to “take a side.” Gonick’s social democratic sympathies don’t mar his analysis of the Protestant Reformation, but his U.S. history is another story.
Gonick’s main problem, though, isn’t politics; it’s economics. Before 1800 or so, human beings were basically fighting over a fixed pie of resources. As a result, the story of mankind really was a record of personalities punctuated by mass murder.
Since 1800, or so, though, per-capita output has grown at a mind-boggling rate. Whether you’re a social democrat or a libertarian, this is a radical change. For practical purposes, prosperity now depends on economic growth, not successful inter-group conflict. In fact, inter-group conflict – most obviously warfare – has become little more than an obstacle to economic growth.
Unfortunately, Gonick writes the history of the U.S. as if this sea change never happened. Sure, he mentions technological and industrial progress, but he spends about as many pages talking about labor unions. What’s wrong with that? Simple: Economic growth, not changes in income distribution, explains virtually all of the rise in our standard of living since 1800. Before the modern economy, it was impossible for most people to enjoy a high standard of living. In many ways, it was impossible for anyone to do so – Genghis Khan himself didn’t have basic cable or a low-speed modem. Whenever a modern economy exists, in contrast, almost everyone does ridiculously well by pre-modern standards – whether or not they’ve got unions, or Social Security, or safety regulation.
If you’re not convinced, consider: Unions and/or government have never managed to completely equalize incomes without affecting incentives to produce. They’ve never done either, actually. But if they did achieve this incredible feat, people would still only receive the per-capita income for their society! And by modern standards, the per-capita income of 1850 or 1900 was a pittance. Struggles over income distribution might still be an interesting historical footnote; but these days the main reason to study these struggles is that they retard economic growth.
Gonick’s a good enough historian to know a few counter-examples. But my basic point is sound: Economic growth isn’t just one of many things that happened in the last two centuries. It’s the key difference between the Bad Old Days and today. Consider: What would Genghis Khan have thought if you told him that the Germans became incredibly rich after their abject military defeat in World War II?