Discover more from Great Transformations
Week of June 28, 2020
Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (2015), by Philip T. Hoffman
In history, there are a series of “big questions” that an exceptionally prominent or ambitious scholar can ask. The most important, essentially, explores the origins of humanity and the various kinds of societies created by that apparently exceptional species—and where once anthropological answers sufficed, modern narratives return to the moment of creation itself. Second place goes to the explanation for the Great Divergence, or why the English industrialized, the West followed suit, and the rest were left behind for over a century. Philip T. Hoffman, an economic historian at Caltech, is certainly both prominent and ambitious, but his task is truly daunting: to answer the question (inextricably linked with the second) presented by his title, Why Did Europe Conquer the World?
His response, presented in just two hundred pages, is straightforward and familiar. Europe surged to global dominance by virtue of a monopoly on gunpowder weaponry, which enabled small parties of conquistadores to level established kingdoms in East and South Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This “proximate cause” has, since Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, popularly been linked with disease mortality; however, Hoffman rejects this second channel. Even the devastating depopulations wrought by Eurasian microbes on the Americas could not reverse the gigantic numerical advantages enjoyed by Moctezuma and Atahualpa over Cortez and Pizarro, whose raiding parties contained mere hundreds of fighting men. Germs may have weakened New World foes, but guns—to Hoffman, a broad definition encompassing naval weaponry and armor—were the sine qua non of European triumph. Even when flintlocks and matchlocks were not markedly superior to opposition counterparts, the otherworldly nature of the gunpowder technology impressed potential allies.
The origin of Europe’s military advantage, however, is more novel. Rather than consult deep geographical or cultural origins, Hoffman constructs a “tournament model” to endogenously explain how warfare, through a “learning-by-doing” process, accelerates weapons innovation. Roughly speaking, states are considered as actors competing in head-to-head contests for definite prizes. Entering a war requires payment of fixed costs, which encompass mobilization and the construction of military infrastructure, and variable costs, which represent the unit prices paid to deploy forces of a certain size. If only one monarch buys in, he collects the prize; otherwise, the two fight a contest probabilistically determined by resources, institutions, and technology. Monarchs have a set chance of acquiring new military skills or techniques per unit of variable cost incurred (Hoffman likens this to draws at straws). In terms of technological progress, then, “four essential conditions” must be met to maximize the possibility of improvement: wars must be frequent, cheap, involve gunpowder weaponry, and facilitate diffusion. These criteria were met in Europe, but never coincided for long enough in any significant region of Asia (Hoffman’s focus) or the Americas.
The simplicity of the tournament model invites immediate skepticism. Historians have already selected a slew of factors underlying the political fragmentation and technological fecundity of early modern Europe; the temptation to merely reconstruct a framework around them is nearly unavoidable. The open-ended nature of Hoffman’s model, however, makes for a useful descriptive heuristic. That the European state system, riven by competition, was a potential hotbed of innovation has been suggested throughout development historiography, and the application of the “Escape from Rome” thesis is even more obvious for militarism. Since no true hegemon arose to assume the imperial mantle, Europe was left with a multiplicity of comparable powers, none too securely ascended to “nation-state” status. None could destroy the others, but all could conceive of scenarios in which limited ends might be achieved through conflict. Smaller states, meanwhile, could leverage their positions through finance to gain temporary parity. The close proximity of European powers facilitated the swift transfer of knowledge, while small size, better-functioning financial and tax systems, and weaker elites kept mobilization costs low. Finally, the ubiquity of guns in Europe ensured their consistent deployment in conflict, whereas the larger empires of China, Russia, and Turkey frequently contended with nomadic tribes against which other weapons systems proved more effective.
Still, Hoffman appears to be missing a fundamental causal agent. If Europe and Asia are distinguished by the emergence of oppressive hegemonic rule, some explanation of these drastically different patterns appears warranted—whether in the form of geographical origins, cultural propensity, or some other primordial feature. Instead, Hoffman rejects the first and significantly modifies the second. Cultures differed non-randomly across Eurasia, but politics and historical contingency conspired to produce a fractious and fractured European order whose leaders valued glory in itself. History, he claims, “can be a cause if past events determine future outcomes or set a society on a path that reinforces itself over time.” Hoffman argues that the fall of Rome and the failure of successor regimes “unleashed a process of cultural evolution that splintered western Europe into hostile groups dominated by warlords and devoted to fighting,” spreading “norms of behavior” (e.g. valor) useful in the tournament model. Shorter-term processes political learning operated alongside the main channel; ultimately, the two created the ideal conditions—cheap mobilization and rampant militarism—required to generate repeated gunpowder warfare.
One might still question whether Hoffman’s causes are truly ultimate, and the application of his framework appears, at times, overly shallow—especially with regard to his comparisons of Europe with pre-Tokugawa Japan and India. Indeed, China’s central power was frequently as hollow as that exercised by the notoriously nominal Carolingian Empire. Russia and the Ottoman Empire, both exceptions to his “imperial stagnation” theory, are not convincingly handled. Surely the latter, which brought state-of-the-art cannons to Constantinople in 1453 and remained a competitor in European Great Power rivalries until 1918, was as capable of devising and receiving innovations (especially in the tournament) as any Western state. Poor business practices and overbearing elites only eroded stability long after 1500, and Istanbul’s competitors were hardly paragons of effective economic governance. Indeed, Hoffman’s contention that European states could easily raise taxes meshes poorly with his argument about scale limitations. Nations and wars were small largely because few vestiges of the Roman tax system survived, rendering Europe a region marked by exceptionally low state capacity. Glory was valuable because warlords had little else to offer followers.
Hoffman’s tournament model, nevertheless, remains a useful system for thinking about the relationship between competition and innovation. A loose form undoubtedly had some causal effect, especially as nation-states coalesced and arms races became explicit from the sixteenth century on. Status among rulers was frequently perceived in military terms—not only in terms of victories won, but shiny contrivances possessed. England’s construction of HMS Dreadnought accelerated the ongoing race in battleship construction with Germany and France, leading the former to construct the improved models that proved so difficult to sink at the Battle of Jutland. “Dreadnought programs” took hold at enthusiastic Naval Departments from Japan to Brazil (under pressure from Argentina and Chile), and the original vessel was soon completely outmoded. Moreover, the spread of Western military technologies in the twentieth century—as nation-states and rivalries went global—has vindicated the original thesis. With states capable of taxation, constantly in competition, and suffused with information, Europe’s weapons monopoly has collapsed. So, too, has the European world-empire that it sustained. Once sovereign over 84 percent of global landmass, the old conquerors, apart from a few island relics, are again shut between the steppe and the sirocco.
Peak Ellipsis, by Sam Dresser
Dresser compares the analytical styles and aims of Rudolf Carnap and Martin Heidegger, primarily focusing on the “nature” of “Nothing” and the former’s efforts to construct a concrete, logical language for philosophy. Interesting, poignant, and revealing throughout.
Why Some State Universities Are Seeing an Influx, by Anemona Hartocollis
The crisis of American higher education is a bizarrely compelling drama, probably because of the schadenfreude inevitably evoked by the collapse of a parasitical and hypocritical system grown bloated even in peacetime. Nevertheless, there are sharp minds in charge of some institutions, including Gordon Gee, on whom this article touches briefly.
The Great Debt Cleanup, by Daron Acemoglu
Acemoglu contends for the avoidance of post-2008 debt restructuring debates, arguing that the imposition of fiscal discipline could reinforce malpractice and despotism while increasing poverty. In light of the Eurozone Crisis, his logic is unfortunately sound; however, one wonders how many episodes will be permitted before bond markets take notice.
Thread on Roman Money, by Eric Tymoigne
An interesting overview of the history of money and coinage in the Antonine empire, which is intertwined with anachronistic debates between the metallist and chartalist schools. Tymoigne adopts a fairly neutral view and sketches the surprisingly complex ways in which Rome monetized its economy.