Steve Davies is perhaps the most knowledgeable person I know, almost infallible when quoting dates and events. His book on the “nature and origins” of the modern economy is an excellent one. Different than others (including Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy), Davies focuses more on presenting competing theses than on advancing a new, apparently original one. I found his book very valuable and reviewed it for our sister website, Law & Liberty.

A key point of the book is the extent by which it is concerned with politics.

The author reads political history not only as a succession of powerful men on the top (though the Emperor Taizu of Song, Tamerlan, and Charles V all play roles in his story), but as a Meccano of institutions and power relationships.

One feature of modernity that is notably absent from most of the human societies before the Industrial Revolution (with, again, the exception of Song China), was the tendency to embrace experimentation and novelties rather than opposing them. Another is a positive attitude on the part of the rulers toward economic improvement, which they embraced as a way to enfranchise their fellow citizens rather than fearing it as a source of social disarray.

It takes a post-Malthusian world to even think that the pie can be expanding for all. This has to do with the emergence of critical rationalism and the successes of modern science, but also the persistent pluralism (political and, after the Reformation, religious) of the European Continent. The “great consequence” of this pluralism “was that the ruling classes in Europe faced quite different incentives as compared to their counterpart in Asia. They were now part of a system of constant and intense competition.” This pluralism was strengthened, Davies argues, in the late 16th and the early 17th centuries as Habsburg Spain failed to become a hegemonic power in Europe.

Some of the competition was military and destructive, but some was not. Consider David Hume’s wisdom: “Nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning, than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy.” Competition in commerce in fact means being part of a joint enterprise, in learning and experimentation.