July 29, 2006

Entrepreneurship in America and Beyond

A few months ago, Internet entrepreneur and essayist Paul Graham published an essay entitled Why Startups Condense in America. He adduces ten reasons why America is so entrepreneurial (or, more specifically for his purposes, why America has Silicon Valley):

  1. It allows immigration
  2. It is rich
  3. It is not a police state
  4. Its universities are better
  5. It has less restrictive labor laws
  6. Work is not strictly identified with having a job
  7. It has fewer regulations
  8. It has a large domestic market
  9. It has venture capital funding
  10. Americans change careers more often

Graham argues that these factors lead to more examples of successful entrepreneurship in America (or in certain parts of America) and that attitude or "culture" doesn't have much to do it. (Inexplicably, he also associates startup-friendly environments with places that have lots of public transportation, which doesn't seem to have especially helped, say, Prague or Brussels.) And he says it doesn't hurt to have low (or no) taxes on capital gains.

How realistic is it that another will beat America at encouraging startups? The prospects don't look encouraging if you're not American...

First, very few countries in the world encourage immigration -- the short list is probably America, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and to some extent Britain. It is unlikely that, say, China, Korea, Japan, Mexico, or Germany will suddenly welcome people from all over the world. It is even less likely that such countries will not only allow immigration but become a destination for immigrants in the way that the Anglosphere seedling countries (especially America) are.

Second, one reason America has traditionally been entrepreneurial is that labor costs have been much higher in America than they were in Europe or other parts of the world (i.e., America has been rich for a long time). This has driven the need to innovate in order to save costs. There is little incentive to save human labor in, say, India or China, since the costs are so low there.

Places like China don't come out so well on the "not a police state" score. Even democracies such as France, Spain, Germany, and Latin America have a long history of state regulation, centralized decision making, inflexible labor markets, and economic ossification (even corruption, in the case of China, India, and Latin America). It is extremely difficult to overcome that kind of history, especially since it's much easier for a would-be entrepreneur to leave for America or Canada or Australia than it is to reform one's home country.

Graham seems to think that the problem of creating a large domestic market will be overcome in Europe through the efforts of the European Union (and that national languages such as French and German will die out in favor of English), but those who have absorbed the point that there is no such thing as Europe know that this is more fantasy than reality. India and China perhaps have a better chance of creating large domestic markets, but they are still so poor that this will take many, many decades (if it ever happens).

Finally, I think Graham underestimates the importance of cultural attitudes. Why does America have a more flexible labor market, fewer regulations, and a more competitive educational market? Why do Americans have a greater propensity to welcome immigrants, invest time and money in risky ventures, devalue status in favor of accomplishments, and change careers or pick up stakes in pursuit of new opportunities? These phenomena do not exist in a vacuum and are expressions of the American culture of freedom, opportunity, flexibility, openness, rebelliousness, novelty, optimism, hard work, pragmatism, and all the rest. American attitudes provide a cultural medium for the organic growth of new organizations in many fields -- not just high tech companies (consider American entrepreneurship in, say, retailing and logistics) and not even just companies (consider American entrepeneurship in religion, philanthropy, education, and even government -- we have 50 state governments, over 3,000 county governments, countless town and city governments, and an ever-increasing number of special-purpose entities that cross jurisdictional boundaries). In a way, the first American settlers were entrepreneurs, and most subsequent immigrants were attracted by the entrepreneurial opportunities of the New World. Americans have thus by and large self-selected for entrepreneurship. It's difficult to see how any other nation could come close to building that kind of culture (especially nations outside the Anglosphere). Not that they shouldn't try -- but it would be unrealistic to expect strongly positive results anytime soon.

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at 11:18 PM | Comments (10)

July 25, 2006

Nanotechnology in India

Two interesting items on nanotechnology and India on the Foresight Institute blog. One is the announced plans by Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia to build a Nanotech City there -- although it does not seem to be focused primarily on nanotechnology in the usual sense, it is an interesting approach to a science-research oriented city.

The other item is a Google Trends ranking on origins of searches using the term "nanotechnology." The top ten cities worldwide are:

Top ten cities
1. Hyderabad, India
2. Chennai, India
3. New Delhi, India
4. Delhi, India
5. Mumbai, India
6. Tehran, Iran
7. Bangalore, India
8. Singapore, Singapore
9. Washington, DC, USA
10. Houston, TX, USA

The Foresight blog notes that it is an Asian sweep pretty much. True, but it is even more an Anglosphere sweep. Except for Tehran. Hmmm.

Posted by James C. Bennett at 03:39 PM | Comments (4)

July 21, 2006

Reynolds -- An Army of Davids

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

Reynolds, Glenn, An Army of Davids: How Markets and technology empower ordinary people to beat big media, Big Government, and other Goliaths, Nelson Current, 2006, 289 pp.

Glenn Reynolds (the Instapundit) has carved out a unique niche in the blogosphere for the last five years with an amazing stream of interesting links (often with brief commentary), an eclectic set of hobbies and intellectual enthusiasms, and a law professor's expertise in sorting through the legislative and legal whims of American society. Mostly libertarian, with a proactive attitude on personal and national safety, he remains as one of the few prominent "one-man band" bloggers to remain active through the years since 9/11. His energy and productivity are legendary and his influence, I believe, is substantial and growing.

In Army of Davids (AoD), he summarizes his personal experiences with the changes wrought by technology in the last decade, especially those which allow ordinary people to create goods and services which were once the province of large organizations. And he investigates topics that have long held his interest: beer-making, music, the Internet and broadcast media, games, nanotechnology, politics, space exploration, and life extension.

Regular readers of the Instapundit blog will find little that's surprising in this book, but readers with little or no exposure to the Professor will come away with a great encapsulation of one of the social trends affecting our world. Little guys, talking to each other, turn out to have many useful things to say. And their ability to mobilize in support of, or in antagonism to, large organizations is certainly having a big effect in American society and politics, if less so around the world. For people with an interest in the history and dynamics of the Anglosphere, Army of Davids is an up-to-the-minute description of something we've seen in the English-speaking world at least since the Reformation, if not earlier. It's a reflection of a society that values individual contributions (of information and consideration), leverages the "wisdom of crowds," (per James Surowiecki) and has the mindset to establish high levels of trust among strangers ... or at least has the appetite to develop new ways that strangers can productively work together. To borrow the "wisdom of crowds" summary of scifi writer John Brunner ... "while nobody knows what's going on around here, everybody knows what's going on around here."

Reynolds has been accused of being a Pollyanna in his blog and in his book, of only seeing the sunny side of technology and the future, but in his defense, Army of Davids provides plenty of caveats about the impact of small groups gaining new powers. And he takes the time to offers suggestions on how individuals and communities can begin to protect themselves from unexpected dangers in the wider world ... especially when the larger organizations of governments may be unable to provide protection and assistance.

But I think much of the criticism of Reynold's writing is better attributed by the Reynolds persona. He's friendly in manner, scarily bright and productive, lucid as a writer, curious, and not given to "woe is me" prognostication. He's "a really smart guy you'd like to have a beer with." The neighbour that everyone on the street likes, and depends upon. Anyone projecting that kind of personality is going to have trouble communicating gloom and doom successfully.

One reason I believe that he has hundreds of thousands of online visitors to his blogs (and thousands downloading the "podcasts" he creates with his wife, Helen Smith) is that his take on the world is adult, but not morose. Each day's posts leave one better informed, often amused, but rarely paralysed. I can't recall any topic, of any degree of seriousness, that he's been unwilling to address directly, or unwilling to provide a link to someone who is discussing the subject seriously. It's just that he's living his life in a free country, amongst lots of people who have some fun in their regular lives. It shows.

The "Army of Davids" can certainly become an Army of Freebooters or an
Army of Fagins
... and the great burst of sociability across the Internet of like-minded individuals can easily slide into a 21st century version of the farflung amateur "army" of people who sent Darwin barnicles to further his research. In other words, the new technologies of communication and information-sharing can be used for malicious and deadly purposes, and it can be co-opted or swamped by the fascinating but totally irrelevant. Nonetheless, the Army of Davids in Reynold's book seems just as likely to deploy itself in serious issues as in those which are "merely" fun.

In a post entitled A Parsec Too Far, I've compared the Professor's book to Jim Bennett's Anglosphere Challenge because both made no effort to hide the personal inspirations of the authors ... and that entailed taking readers on trips into realms of science and speculation (especially relating to the Technological Singularity) that challenged, or confused, or offended many. By I cannot hold it against Mr. Reynolds for writing the book he wanted to write, and populating it with interviews of people like Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey ... people he wanted to talk to. The thousands of loyal Instapundit readers will all find parts of the book that they'll skim ... and other parts where they'll mutter to themselves "you missed a spot."

From the perspective of the Anglosphere, however, the Army of Davids fits into a small but growing constellation of books that describe a social psychological and technological trend that appears to be most dynamic in the English-speaking world. The titles would include Surowiecki's Wisdom of Crowds and the newly released The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. It's not that other cultures aren't immediately able to take good advantage of the new tools of creativity and communication. It's that the common law countries have the least obstructed civic space in which to establish communities, and establish new businesses that cater to those communities (both with general tools and with specialized applications or services). It's entirely possible that some non-Anglosphere country will come up with great new ways to encourage an Army of Davids, to some positive purpose. We'll have to wait and see. I think the tale of the French Minitel is an excellent example of what happens when the State provides your online environment.

One new, or rather strongly reinforced, pattern does seem clear. The new citizen publication tools: news sites, blogging, podcasts, video-logging (vlogging) -- have almost instantly created the threads of social community that stretch from the Big Six (UK-Eire, US-Canada, Australia-NZ) to vast numbers of people who rightly feel they have important information to contribute (drawn from wherever the common law has touched down ... or where British or American culture resonates). That will have serious implications for how political thought evolves ... especially as Democrats and progressives in the US (shut out of power for some years) turn to UK and Canadian commentary to find succour and form their political narratives. The booming growth in cable subscription to BBC channels in North America, and readership of the Guardian Online are a reflection of the perceived need for a left(er)-wing megaphone than that provided domestically by the NYT, WaPo, and LAT.

The "Army of Davids effect" should logically leverage whatever civic space, and civic appetite, exists in a culture. In the right circumstances, it should build up such space and appetite (as examples in Asia, Iran, India, etc. seem to confirm). For cultures with a strong volunteer, or non-profit/non-state, ethos, the new and inexpensive tools for content and service creation will fit "hand in glove." The good news is that this should be a very positive trend for the revitalization of local community -- reducing the cost of communication and co-ordination in small towns across the Anglosphere. The bad news, as Reynolds touches upon, is that these tools for co-ordination can also be used for destructive purposes. It will take yet another wave of technical change, and legal/social adjustment, for open societies to adjust to malicious and dynamic "free riders," whether criminal or politically homicidal.

So here's where I get to join the crowd and play "Missed A Spot" -- the favourite game of blog lurkers everywhere.

What topic would I have wanted Glenn Reynolds to mull over in his book?

I guess my choice would be "scalability." The Professor has some very useful sections on personal safety and encouraging community preparedness for natural or man-made disaster. This seems eminently practical, and part-and-parcel of the pioneer (or at least rural) spirit of America which is still quite alive. Most Americans are still only a generation or three off the farm.

My question would be "If the Goliaths are unable to provide national security, is it permissible or likely that the Army of Davids will start to generate their own foreign policy and weaponry ... distinct from the State?" Does the Anglosphere get to practice Fourth Generation Warfare back?

It seems to me that having half a million troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan with a full understanding of how to build IEDs offers both comfort (a newly invigorated set of police, firemen, EMTs, and HAZMAT teams), and a worry (scary new domestic criminals, and a large pool of motivated folks who know how to Fedex anthrax to Riyadh). How long before "people take the law into their own hands" ... before they realize that their freedoms come not from their laws but from the values that sustain their laws? How long before the Anglosphere Army of Davids actually mobilizes for war?

With Hezbollah highjacking Lebanese sovereignty for its own purposes, a porous border to the north and south of the US, and Jacques Chirac talking of Africans flooding the world across the Straits of Gibraltar, I've been thinking a lot more about frontiers and borders. Especially those that exhibit massive differentials in standard of living, while having minimal impediments to travel or insurgent warfare. My earlier post on a new book on the Fall of Roman Empire spent a few paragraphs discussing other books that summarize the new trends in prosperity, productivity, democratization, and criminal enterprise. It seems to me that the encouraging trends of "horizontal knowledge" reflected in the Army of Davids effect is most tricky when it is working across national borders and massive economic differentials. Whether its sex tourists in Cuba or malignant Muslim teenagers in the Toronto and Atlanta, the challenge is to control the movement of money, ideas, and people in a way that makes things better rather than worse. Whether the Ottoman and European empires can continue their slow-motion decay without triggering massive expulsions and exterminations of ethnic and religious groups is an open question. In Africa, the answer is already "no." Whether Asia, or even South America, can establish effective and peaceful national sovereignty across entire regions is not yet known. Current events are not encouraging.

One could hypothesize that a newly enhanced Army of Davids in the Anglosphere now has a real-time capacity to evaluate Goliaths, even governmental Goliaths, and aggressively provide an environment that balances freedom and safety to their local satisfaction, rather than that of the Goliaths. The militarization of police forces recently noted by the Instapundit himself seems like a sobering sign that ordinary citizens are more and more willing to see monopoly of very deadly force devolve to their local communities.

Again, then, how soon before the Army of Davids actually goes to war?

Table of Contents

Introduction - Do It Yourself [ix]
1. The Change [1]
2. Small Is the New Big [11]
3. The Comfy Chair Revolution [29]
4. Making Beautiful Music, Together [47]
5. A Pack Not a Herd [65]
6. From Media to We-dia [89]
Interlude -- Good Blogging [115]
7. Horizontal Knowledge [121]
8. How the Game is Played [139]
9. Empowering the Really Little Guys [153]
10. Live Long -- and Prosper [175]
11. Space: It's Not Just for Governments Anymore [195]
12. The Approaching Singularity [237]
Conclusion -- The Future [255]

Posted by jmccormick at 06:37 PM | Comments (2)

July 20, 2006

Realism from the Anglosphere

Matters Anglospheric often involve the discussion of what I rather blithely refer to as "toys". They are, of course, the toys of peace, so amusingly described by Saki in his eponymous short story. My colleague on the EUReferendum blog is an expert on the subject. A recent piece of his bears reading and discussing. Alas, the conclusion he comes to is that Britain is once again dropping out of the sensible Anglospheric decisions.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at 09:33 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 15, 2006

Heather -- The Fall of the Roman Empire

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

Heather, Peter, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, Macmillan, 2005, 572pp.

Earlier this year, I spent some time reading about global economic patterns. William Lewis's book "The Power of Productivity: Wealth, Poverty, and the Threat to Global Stability" [reviewed here] was a great comparative introduction to the internal dynamics of national economies. Among nations over 10 million, the US has a per capita income (at purchase price parity) roughly 20% more than the next in line (Canada) and roughly 25% above the rest of the G7. Its "differential" with most of the other nations of the world is literally insurmountable. This economic gap is driven by long-standing economic dynamism (and therefore productivity) which is widely "diversified" across industrial sectors. And the "osmotic" pressure of immigration drawn by both that prosperity and individual freedom is relentless.

Amy Chua's book "World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability" [reviewed here] presents her argument that much of the world's economic activity is controlled by "market-dominant minorities" (MDMs) and as democratic values take hold, there is often a conflict with the power of those minorities in dangerous ways. More dramatically, she proposes that the US is effectively now a global "market-dominant minority" which controls global values and activities in ways that are often not in the best interest of many entrenched or traditional power bases in the industrial and non-industrialized world.

Even more recently, I had a chance to read Moises Naim's "Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are
Hijacking the Global Economy," [reviewed here] which looks at illegal traffic in humans, drugs, guns, information, and cash from a neutral or economic perspective. His investigations suggest that illicit trade is growing much, much quicker than legitimate trade thanks to reduced costs of communication and transportation. And law enforcement is falling behind, when it is even cognisant enough to spot the new forms of illicit trade.

Taken as a set, these three books suggest sobering times ahead. The patterns they describe are deeply engrained in our modern world and guide world events as the tides would a boat. We can also add to this list Tom Barnett's book "The Pentagon's New Map" which charts the flow of people, money, ideas, equipment, and violence in different directions to form a geopolitical pattern with contrasting Gap and Functioning Core. Barnett recommends particular institutional solutions to "shrink the Gap."

Current events in Israel/Lebanon, and the recent debates over immigration in the US, have reawakened an interest I had several years ago in Roman frontier studies ... an interest which led to intensive visits to the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls in England and Scotland, respectively. In the course of doing a little research on the German-Roman frontier (sussing out yet another guided tour for 2007) I came on a citation for a new book on the fall of the Roman Empire.

Since my knowledge of the "Fall" was sketchy and dated at best, I was long overdue for a refresh ... and it turns out that this "New History" of the fall of the Roman Empire is very much worth the effort.

Heather, unlike authors like Gibbon (1737-1794) and those of antiquity, has a great advantage. The archaeological research and textual analysis of the late Roman period, since World War II, has been substantial. As a result, this book offers both a summary of what is now known of the culture and economies of the period, and a recollection and judgement of the different theories of causality for the events of 350-475 CE.

For our own time, when America has been compared with great enthusiasm to a faltering Roman giant, it's even more appropriate to examine the last great collapse of "civilization" in the Western world. Putting civilization in quotation marks is necessary because many of the achievements of the Roman world were accomplished in a social and economic system that we would find extremely oppressive. Heather makes the case that the Roman imperial system was effectively a one-party state that was run for the benefit of land-owning families. In turn, those land-owning families formed a literate and educated nucleus that reaped the benefits, and paid the penalties, for the successes and failures of the Empire. As for the vast number of agricultural workers (slave and free), and the hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers in the Roman legions and frontier auxiliaries, their concerns and needs were rather incidental to the Roman system.

Setting aside then anachronistic attitudes (judging the Romans by our standards and sensibilities), what can we glean from history and archaeology to explain the collapse of central imperial power in Italy toward the end of the fifth century CE?

After a very useful summary of cultural features of the Romans and barbarians, Heather makes a convincing case that the size of the Roman empire was largely driven by practical limitations in its first few centuries, rather than by external forces. The "limes" or frontier through Germania, long thought to have been constrained by military adversaries, now seems more a reflection of where the agriculturally valuable land, and/or agriculturalists, were located. The northern boundaries of the empire in England and Scotland were similarly drawn by the growing seasons for grain crops. The frontier generally followed the Rhine south and then the Danube east to the Black Sea. Most of modern Turkey and south and east as far as the Tigris/Euphrates fell under Roman control, as did Egypt from the imperial period onward. To the south, the North African provinces bounded the desert, and to the west, all was Ocean. For several hundred years, during the early imperial period, these boundaries were relatively stable.

The staggering dimensions of the Roman Empire placed tremendous burdens on administrators trying to monitor provincial affairs. Eventually these limitations on direct rule led to a number of administrative changes and the appointment of Western and Eastern Emperors, often with junior Caesars who commanded the armies in the field. These centrally administered empires drew taxes from the provinces, supported tens of thousands of troops (i.e., provided imperial security), and took a modest slice of the income for imperial indulgence. Apart from a subsidized grain fleet and transportation system for the imperial cities, the economic development of the empire was not directly administered and there was no attempt to rationalize or optimize economic activity in the empire. Local elites were left to fund the construction of public buildings, hire Latin tutors for their sons, run the law courts and town councils ... and cut their own deals with local military commanders.

Northern England and Scotland were to become the default punching bags for a succession of ambitious (but not too ambitious) emperors in need of military victory, from the time of Claudius (43 CE) onward. Some of their battle camps stretch as far as 57 degrees North latitude. But the only serious, existential, competitors of the early Imperial period were the Parthians, who handed the Romans a series of military disasters in Mesopotamia but lacked the strength to leverage their victories into a permanent Mediterranean foothold. Thus the Med, and to a lesser extent, the Black Sea were to remain Roman highways.

The Roman imperial system (kludgy imperial transitions and difficult communications notwithstanding) was in generally good shape during the first, second, and part of the third centuries CE. The first indication of trouble was the emergence in Iran of the Sassanian Persian empire (226-651). The Sassanids were sufficiently powerful and internally cohesive to push back Roman legions from the Euphrates and from much of Armenia and southeast Turkey. Much as modern readers tend to think of the "Huns" as the nemesis of the Roman Empire, for the entire period under discussion it was the Persians who held the attention and concern of Rome and Constantinople. Indeed, 20-25% of the military might of the Roman Army was addressing the Persian threat from the late third century onward ... and upwards of 40% of the troops under the Eastern Emperors.

It took the Roman Empire about 50 years to cope with the Sassanid threat, and it did so by stripping the provincial towns of their regional taxation income. The resulting expansion of military forces in the Levant was eventually successful in stabilizing the frontiers with the Persians but the reduction of disposable income in the provinces led to two trends which were to have ominous impact. Firstly, the incentive for local worthies to spend their time and money in the development of local infrastructure disappeared. Public buildings from the late third century onward tended to be much more modest and funded from central budgets. Secondly, the landowning provincial literati now shifted their attention to where the money was ... away from provincial and local politics to the imperial bureaucracies. And thus it was that the bureaucracies of the time expanded dramatically and became an established, dignified career trajectory for the literate and wealthy. At the same time, the legionary troop strength of Britain and the Rhine was reduced in order to bulk up the forces further East. Control over Ireland (only toyed with in the first century) and over Scotland, in particular, were set aside forever.

It was to be events far to the east on the Russian steppes which set in motion the difficulties of the Roman Empire in the late fourth and fifth centuries. The role of nomadic warriors on the history of both East and West is fascinating. For China, that history extends back to the Hsiung-Nu (200 BCE) and continued forward to the Mongol and Manchu domination of imperial government. An excellent book on the subject is The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 by Thomas J. Barfield. In the West, it was the appearance of the Huns in the fourth century AD in the area northeast of the Black Sea that was to indirectly trigger mass migrations from Eastern Europe and then south of the Danube and west of the Rhine by the Goths, Vandals and assorted other tribal groups.

In the period between the initial Roman invasions of Gaul (early Imperial period at the beginning of the Current Era) and the mid-fourth century, the Romans had pursued frontier policies of control rather than domination. For them, there was little of concrete value across the frontier.Trade across the frontier (in wood, food, and amber) with barbarians was steady, as was minor raiding from the other direction. Once a generation or so, Roman legions would move into Germania, and destroy, kill or capture whatever and whoever they could lay their hands on. Lesson delivered, they'd retreat back to their river-side garrisons and undertake a more regular policy of bribery (focused on chiefs) and political divide-and-conquer to minimize the military threat for another twenty years or so.

The archaeological evidence across several centuries paints a fascinating political story. In the early years, the tribal groupings facing the Romans appeared to be small in size, and their grave assemblages show very limited amounts of class distinction. But after generations of raiding and Roman bribery, the German graves begin to show dramatic differences between the Haves and the Have-Nots, especially in terms of portable wealth. Gold and precious objects appear in growing quantities, as do the durable material goods such pottery that indicate that the Germans were starting develop larger political groupings and more hierarchical social structures.

By the mid-fourth century, it was these larger groupings of Germanic and Gothic tribes that began to assert their rights ... often by moving closer to Roman borders to extort the tribes who had access (licit or not) to Roman largesse.

Into this mix came the Huns, with horse-borne nomadic ways and armed with a recurved assymetric composite bow with extraordinary range and power. Much as the English longbows decimated French knights and foot soldiers a millenium later, the Hunnish bow was to be a devastating stand-off weapon which shattered military cohesion and triggered mass routs (traditionally when the greatest casualties are inflicted). Hunnish military success was unrelenting.

By the fourth quarter of the fourth century, the pressure of the Huns on the eastern flanks of Europe had become unbearable and the first major tribal groupings appeared en masse (men, women, and children) on the Danubian border of the Roman Empire, requesting asylum. The Romans understandably prevaricated. And over the course of the next few years the Greuthungi and Tervingi simply stopping taking "No" for an answer. They swept south of the Danube, stripping the countryside of food and wealth and disrupting communities that had operated for centuries under Roman administration. In 378 CE, the Goths met, defeated, and killed a Roman emperor at Hadrianople and were able to sweep further into the western Balkans in what was effectively a search for wealth and sustenance (anywhere but where the Huns were).

Constantinople itself suffered an earthquake during the time of the Gothic invasions and it was only through the superhuman efforts of the inhabitants that the walls were repaired in time to halt the invaders. The Goths were not expert in assaults of fortified areas at this time, let alone one as massive as Constantinople. Nonetheless, the close call was sufficiently dire to trigger the Eastern Emperor's direction to ring the city with a system of triple walls which ultimately kept the city safe from landborne assault for a further thousand years -- breached in the end only by the giant seige cannon of the Ottomans.

The Gothic invasions of 377-382 CE were eventually resolved by the Eastern Empire when the invading tribes were settled in the Balkans on generous terms. The Goths had no logistics for creating an empire of their own but they did disrupt the provincial communities and economies of the entire region east of the Adriatic and south of the Danube. Those areas would never again support the stable large farming properties which were a necessary complement to the rural villas so beloved by the Roman elites.

From this point on, in Roman imperial history, the tale is one of constant new problems along the Rhine/Danube border. In some cases, Roman armies prevailed. In others, they met catastrophe and the invading groups (which now included the Huns themselves) penetrated past the river frontiers and disrupted economic and social life in the frontier provinces. Three centuries of natural selection had taught the barbarians that their only hope for success against the Romans was consolidating their forces and striking across a narrow front.

Ironically, this new era in frontier warfare included many side deals where Huns and Goths and smaller groups switched sides and became allies with the Romans. Roman gold and Roman land was occasionally bartered for transitory benefit. Nonetheless, the trend through the early fifth century was pressure ... pressure of the Huns on the Gothic groups, pressure of the Huns and Goths on the Roman frontiers, and cash-strapped Roman imperial forces unable to place sufficient forces "everywhere at once." The margins of the empire were stripped of their professional forces (especially the regional legionary armies) in order to focus on the riverine borders of Europe.

It was to be the events of 405/6 CE that were to spell the ultimate doom of the western Roman Empire. Goths, Vandals, and Suevi, joined by Franks in the north, made a concerted dash across the Austrian passes and further north across the upper Rhine frontier. While the southern invaders were ultimately halted and decimated, the invaders of Gaul were successful and entered an amazing period of mobile predation that was to carry them through modern France, Spain, and across North Africa as far east as modern Libya.

Now the central problem of the imperial system became clear. It was dependent on tax revenues from stable, peaceful provinces for the ongoing support of legions and frontier troops from the Euphrates to the North Sea. As the marginal provinces of Britain, Gaul, and the Balkans suffered incursions, their ability to contribute funds to the overall defense were diminished or simply disappeared. There was no magic economic process that the Roman Empire could invoke to increase revenues and manpower ... agriculture of the time was what it was. The loss of agricultural land meant loss of tax revenue. The loss of tax revenue meant more limited capacity to field armies and bribe antagonists.

By 409 CE, the northern invaders had pillaged across Gaul and made their way south of the Pyrenees. Now they began disrupting food supplies for the central empire as well as tax revenues. Hispania had been a Roman province for centuries and had been pacified to the point where only a few legions were necessary for its maintenance. A second wave of Gothic invaders struck south from the Danube and one of their number, Alaric, successfully led a sack of Rome in 410. The sack was more desultory than anything else ... the Goths were looking for land, and for participation in the Roman system. They were running out of places to go as various branches of the Huns pressed west from the Hungarian Plains.

A period of turmoil ensued where a variety of Roman strong men did their best to leverage Roman manpower, wealth, and barbarian allies to deal with first one, then another group. Goths, Vandals, Suevi were set upon each other throughout Gaul and Spain. A Visigoth alliance with the Romans destroyed the Alans and Siling Vandals in Spain. Unfortunately, Roman imperial politics meant that every transition between Roman emperors (East and West) was met with an extended period of bloodletting and confusion. And the various eunuchs, wives, and military commanders of the imperial household seemed to make sure that some plot was afoot at all times. As a result, imperial decision-making was often halted or delayed at moments when various barbarian groups were at their most vulnerable. It was never possible to conclusively remove the barbarians from Gaul, and Spain and as a result the lost foodstuffs and tax revenues continued to deplete the strength of the central government. Meanwhile, the local Roman elites in the provinces, dependent on their land ownership for social status, took the opportunity to switch allegiance to barbarian chieftains ... allowed to keep a portion of their original holdings in return for their expertise in administration and taxation. Thus the natural allies of the central imperial governments began to hedge their bets, turning toward whoever could provide enough security to sustain agricultural productivity.

Finally, at the close of the first quarter of the fifth century, a remaining party of Vandals and Alans undertook what was ultimately the most momentous event in the collapse of the western empire ... the invasion and capture of the North African provinces. Migrating across the Straits of Gibraltar, they took a year to work their way east to the Roman provinces of Mauretania and Numidia -- close by the heartland of the old Carthiginian empire which the Romans had spent several centuries turning into a huge, relatively isolated bread basket for the city of Rome and its troops around the Mediterranean. In the year 430, the Vandals eliminated the local Roman adminstration of Mauretania and Numidia, and effectively set up shop next door to the ports and key food source for vast areas of the Roman empire.

Meanwhile, further north, the news just kept getting worse and worse. Deal-making by the central authorities with major barbarian groups scattered across Gaul, Spain, and the Danubian basins reduced conflict but did nothing to regain the fiscal and military strength of the empire. By 439, the Vandals moved into Proconsularis and captured the critical sea port of Carthage. The imperial bread basket was now controlled by barbarians. And in the following year, the piece de resistance, Attila became the supreme leader of the Huns.

Earlier authors made much of Attila and the role of the Huns in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Heather prefers to tell the story with a bit more nuance. He gives Attila his due as an exceptional leader of a group of nomadic peoples consolidated far more grandly than any time in their history. With a full suite of allies and subject tribes, Attila was to alternately woo and strike the eastern and western Empires in a series of attacks. Most critically, in 441/2, just as the Romans assembled a combined fleet and army to recapture Carthage from the Vandals, Attila chose the moment to strike into the Balkans. The dilemma for the Romans was excruciating. They needed to re-establish the central food source for the western empire (much as Egypt and Asia Minor continued to supply the eastern empire) but they could not ignore an existential threat to the core provinces of the eastern empire. Attila continued to threaten for a decade, culminating in two huge invasions of Gaul (451) and Italy (452) which were only repelled by the combined forces of Goths and Romans, and by the effects of disease on nomadic warriors who had none of the logistical train of Roman armies. The farther the Huns travelled, the more tenuous their military strength.

In 453, the Romans had a bit of good luck when Attila died in bed of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage. The subsequent unravelling of the Hunnic empire highlighted the unusual and temporary capacity of the Huns to form an "empire" of sorts but it did little to resolve the Roman predicament with many hungry barbarians looking for their next looting opportunity. As the various small tribal entities split off from the control of Attila's sons (usually with maximum violence) they turned to the perennial challenge of finding land and resources for their followers. The eastern and western empires faced constant challenges to their borders, though by this time the western empire had shrunk to the Italian peninsula and a rump of southeastern France.

In 461, the two empires made a final effort to evict the Vandals from North Africa. The failure of that expedition left both fiscally and militarily weaker. The West fatally so. The subsequent decade saw Italy subject to additional incursions by different Gothic groups and a wider acknowledgement that Roman military power and financial strength now flowed almost exclusively from Constantinople. In 476, Romulus Augustulus, the final western emperor was deposed, and the military strong man of the time sent the imperial crown and garments east to Constantinople, indicating that there was no longer any need for them in the west.

Needless to say, my summary skips a few items in a 572 page book, and no doubt mangles a good many more. But the story is an important one, fascinating in its complexity and its implications for the foundations of the modern world, and for the armchair historians keen to seek pattern and causality in the ebb and flow of historical events.

Heather offers a newly refreshed summary of the events, balancing the cultural relativism and cynicism of post-WW2 historians with the practical insights of industrious archaeologists. Romans come off a lot less decadent and inept than Edward Gibbon would have them. Christianity gets less of a "ding."

The great benefit of this book, to my mind, is that it is geared to the educated but non-academic reader, and it appears to cover most of the basic facts and puzzles of the time period. The arguments are outlined, and the author maintains his own point of view without trampling those of others. The entire sweep of the century between the first Goths crossing the Danube (376) and the final imperial reign in the western empire is laid out methodically and readers can reach their own conclusions if they wish.

Where did bad luck or Roman political stagnation or barbarian political evolution play a role? What circumstances distinguished the western empire from the eastern? And how did the lack of military and demographic advantage work against the Romans in tackling first the Persians, then the Goths, and finally the Huns? The book gives readers all the information they need to ponder these questions for themselves.

For myself, the clincher seemed to be the repeated failures (through circumstance) of the western empire to recapture its North African provinces. Without a peaceful, protected source of foodstuffs and tax revenues, the professional armies of Rome could not be maintained on the frontiers, generation after generation. Imagine for a moment the impact on the US if the food and energy resources of the Gulf Coast and Great Plains were to fall under foreign rule.

It should be remembered, of course, that the eastern Roman or Byzantine empire was to continue successfully for another few centuries, until it too lost its "bread baskets" to Islamic invaders. And in a much reduced form, it continued to exist until Constantinople finally fell in the 15th century ... a thousand years after the last western Roman emperor fell.

The pattern of cross-frontier influence that gradually stimulated the political evolution and predatory habits of the Germanic tribes (over the course of several centuries) seems all too familiar to us in a world that had seen globalization of cell phones and AK-47s in the last fifty years. It is easier to loot and destroy than build, and the Romans ultimately could not protect what they had spent centuries developing. Persians, Goths, and Huns became a relentless and effective external pressure ... and for the West, the incursions into Gaul, Spain, and especially North Africa, removed the economic resources needed for military strength.

This book is a pleasure to read if the subject interests you. Its size is right on the edge of manageability but it offers a thorough treatment of the topic that's well worth the time. The Fall of the Roman Empire offers some cautionary lessons for our own time but those lessons must await a future post when I've had time to digest my expedition into late Roman history.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Part One
Pax Romana
1. Romans 3
2. Barbarians 46
3. The Limits of Empire 100

Part Two
4. War on the Danube 145
5. The City of God 191
6. Out of Africa 251
7. Attila the Hun 300

Part Three
Fall of Empires
8. The Fall of the Hunnic Empire 351
9. End of Empire 385
10. The Fall of Rome 431

Posted by jmccormick at 11:25 AM | Comments (14)

July 11, 2006

India Under Attack

Lexington Green over at Chicago Boyz has some worthwhile comments about the barbaric attack suffered by India today. As Lex notes, India is a country that has much in common wth us, and whose interests converge with ours more and more every day. We should be much closer partners than politics and history have left us to date; under attack by a common enemy, we should move resolutely to conclude a firm alliance.

Meanwhile, Arthur's Seat pays back the solidarity of an American blogger after the 7/7 attacks on London by extending the same solidarity to India. That's how it should be. RTWT.

Posted by James C. Bennett at 05:05 PM | Comments (18)

July 10, 2006

Regional Identity in Electoral Politics

We have made much on this blog of the writing of David Hackett Fischer, especially his masterpiece Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. One of the key lessons of Fischer's book is the remarkable persistence of regional cultural differences in Britain, and in the areas of the USA settled from different parts of Britain, and the cultural and political repercussions of these regional variations.

Michael Barone, in his political analysis, always gives weight to these factors. He has recently been covering the Mexican elections, from Mexico. In this post he concludes:

The regional differences in Mexico are persistent and at least as distinctive as in the United States, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Brazil. … These differences were not reflected in election outcomes when the process was controlled by PRI and results were well nigh unanimous, from 1929 to 1988. Now we're seeing them in the results of 2000 and 2006. We norteamericanos tend to think that all Mexicans are pretty much the same, that they all eat Tex-Mex food, and that they all have the left-leaning politics. Well, they aren't, they don't, and they don't.

Apparently, political freedom has allowed these regional variations in Mexico a voice they previously were denied.

Germany and France also could be included in Barone's list, as could Canada. (For Italy see this book.)

India, the world's largest democracy, would be, and probably has been, a prime subject for this type of analysis. I would like to know a lot more about India and Indian politics. There is a lot of material out there and I do not know what is and is not reliable. If anyone can recommend good books on the subject, I'd like to hear about it. I would love to see a volume like Barone's Our Country, which is my favorite book on American politics, for India, going election by election since independence.

And I know virtually nothing about Brazil, but I would like to. So, ditto for books about Brazilian politics, especially regional politics in Brazil.

On a related point, the Coming Anarchy blog has been talking about the extreme version of this: Regional devolution (e.g. Scotland, Northern Italy, Catalonia, Wallonia) or even independence (Montenegro). See e.g. this. Keeping a bunch of disparate regions all in one big national unit -- which has certain advantages -- takes some work. If, as in Europe, security functions are drifting away from the nation-state level to the Union level, then it becomes "safe" for regions to insist on some degree of autonomy.

(Barone also cites to the book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler, which I also recently read. Ostler discusses the degree to which the indigenous languages of Central and South America survived the centuries of Spanish rule. I hope to have more on Ostler's book at some point, but for now I will merely say that it is a unique vantage point from which to look at world history, and that it is very good and worth reading.)

(Cross-posted on ChicagoBoyz.)

Posted by Lexington Green at 08:03 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

July 09, 2006


In my continuing effort to understand American society (an effort that smarter people than I are also engaged in, as witness Jim Bennett's post yesterday), recently I've read the following books:

All three are highly recommended, especially The Culture Code -- it's only 200 pages long but packed with insights into not only American culture but also France, Germany, England, and Japan.

As Lipset points out, America is different from the other advanced industrial nations in that socialism never happened here. The early American labor movements fought for worker rights and power, but were suspicious of government (the AFL was syndicalist, the IWW anarcho-syndicalist). The New Deal led to greater unionization and an acceptance of government power (especially among the CIO), but efforts to create a viable socialist or labor party floundered (unlike even our parents in England or our cousins in Canada and Australia), in part because America's two-party system works to co-opt third-party efforts. Unionization levels in America have almost always been lower than in the other industrial nations, and since the 1950s have slowly returned to pre-Depression levels (even here, unionization is by far the highest among old-line industries and government). American workers tend to think of themselves as "middle class" and don't have the kind of class consciousness that provides fertile ground for socialism. America has never had the kind of aristocratic Tory paternalism (opposed by working-class laborism) that England, Canada, and Australia have had -- we threw out the Tories in 1776 (Canada took them in) and have been essentially a Whig nation ever since. American conservatives are not Tories and are not to be confused with conservatives (Tories) in other parts of the Anglosphere; similarly, American liberals are not socialistic and are not to be confused with laborites in other parts of the Anglosphere. Instead, both liberals and conservatives are mostly Whig in America -- after all, Democrats are the party of Jefferson and Republicans are the party of Lincoln (or at least they claim to be -- we know that the Democrats tend toward the laborite end of the Whig spectrum through their patronizing the unions and that Republicans tend toward the Tory end of the Whig spectrum through their patronizing the modern-day aristocracy of big business).

Just as all inviduals are unique, so are all nations. America is not special in being unique, but in being an outlier in terms of so many statistics and values. Other countries have a high radius of trust (England, Germany, Japan), but few other countries couple that high radius of trust with high openness. Other countries are open to new people and ideas (especially immigrant cultures such as Australia, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina), but few other countries couple openness with a high radius of trust. The same goes for productivity, religiosity, entrepreneuralism, optimism, and the like.

If I were to summarize my reading so far, I would say that America is full of optimistic, work-focuused, religious, sectarian, freedom-loving, patriotic, rebellious, energetic, ever-moving, adaptable, pragmatic, can-do, individualistic, youth-obsessed, generous, philanthropic, hopeful, innovative, entrepreneurial dreamers. Naturally, not every American is optimistic or work-focused or religious or whatever, but those are the general tendencies of American culture.

These differences are, as Lipset points out, something of a double-edged sword. Americans live in material abundance but also experience more poverty and crime. Their rights are respected but they are more litigious. They get things done but they don't enjoy the more sophisticated pleasures of life. They are educated for specific professions but they are anti-intellectual. And so on.

Realizing that America is different does not imply claiming that it is better. As an American, I tend to like American optimism, opportunity, individualism, freedom, and all the rest. I even tend to think that the world would be a better place if more nations were more like America, but I have no interest in forcing American values on other nations since it is (and always has been and, I hope, always will be) easy for people who find those values attractive to emigrate to America and pursue their dreams here.

American historian Richard Hofstadter is said to have observed that "it has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one." That feels right to me. The word "Americanism" sums up the many traits and values of Americans (as far as I know there is no comparable "ism" derived from the name of any other nation), and Americans are always fighting over what is American and what is un-American (it's that sectarianism again). We don't care what the global villagers (China, Japan, Russia, etc.) think, what our grandparents (Europe) think, what our parents (England) think, what our cousins (Canada, Australia) think, or even what our fellow Americans think (if I don't like your approach, I'll start my own sect or company or whatever). We're a noisy, rebellious, adolescent bunch -- and we like it just fine that way. We don't always succeed, do the right thing, or live up to our ideals. But woe to anyone who bets on American failure, decline, or decay, because we seem to learn from our mistakes better than people in history.

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at 06:40 PM | Comments (3)

July 08, 2006

How America is Different -- and Alike

Mitch Townsend asks a very worthwhile question in a blog post over at Chicago Boyz: "where (does) the US differ(s) from the rest of the Anglosphere"?

There are at least three layers of answer to that question, from an Anglospherist point of view.

The most basic one is the matter of the accident of composition of the USA. Before Independence, the English-speaking world was in the historically rare state of being synonymous with a single state system: what we now term the "British Empire". At the beginning of the Revolution, Congress hoped, and actively worked toward, uniting all of British North America and the West Indies in the newly independent confederation. It went so far as to dispatch Benedict Arnold at the head of an army to liberate (using the term advisedly) Canada from Crown rule. Had these efforts succeeded, "the USA" would stretch from Barbados to Baffin Island. Closer to home, much of western and southern Nova Scotia had been colonized from New England, and many of those colonists had been sympathetic to the Revolution, but the proximity of the British base at Halifax, combined with their isolation from the main centers of the Revolution, meant that people culturally identical to "American" New Englanders became "un-American" Canadians for no other reason than the fortunes of war. Similarly, the white inhabitants of Barbados (from whence South Carolina had been colonized) were hardly distinguishable from the white inhabitants of Charleston, but again circumstance and fortunes of war kept them from becoming Americans.

Once these boundaries had been established, and the composition of the USA further determined by the voluntary and not-so-voluntary departure of substantial numbers of Loyalists, black and white, to Canada and the West Indies, another effect began to emerge that can be observed in any area with reasonably representative government. Take any broad and internally diverse cultural-linguistic area, and divide it into two or more state regimes. Prior to this division, the different cultural streams in the different regions will strike a balance of interests and attitudes. Alter the proportions of those regional streams, even if all the ingredients are the same, and the political outcome will be different.

One of the important facts about post-World War Two West Germany was that it was substantially more Catholic than Germany as a whole. Thus the Catholic Christian Democrat tradition and ideology was able to serve as a dominant political philosophy for the new republic, under the leadership of Christian Democrats like Conrad Audenauer, who would have not so easy a time in a united Germany.

In Anglosphere terms, the same effect meant that the quite similar political temperaments of New England and anglophone Canada had substantially different impacts on their respective nations: the New Englanders have always been one part of a mix that also included Southern lowlanders, Scots-Irish, and midland Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers, while the anglo-Canadians have always needed to seek compromise with Quebecois.

From this start, we then add two and a quarter centuries of different state actions, and the different shared experiences of American and Canadians, respectively. (Or the quite different experiences of the various regional cultures in the British Isles and of their descendants in other parts of the Anglosphere.) These add up over time.

Finally, there is the matter of binding narrative. As I discussed earlier, one thing that differentiates the Anglosphere from the rest of the West is the fact that we have formed a series of what I call "Lockean bargains". These are explicit, negotiated unions and confederations that link together the various "Burkean communities" -- the small nations, states, provinces, and counties with strong local, natural, and historical ties and affinities -- into large state-nations. The United Kingdom was the first of such Lockean bargains; the USA was the second such. (Canada and Australia were the next successful ones.) As shared history accumulates, these state-nations take on genuine loyalties and narratives of their own.

It is often said that the Uited States is a unique "nation of ideas". That is not quite true. It is a state-nation bound together first by a set of explicit bargains, and subsequently by shared history that creates a narrative. Our narrative has become the concept that we are a nation of ideas, and that those ideas are the ones expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia are also Lockean bargains formed by explicit and sometimes quite mercenary bargains. Scotland united with England in no small part to bail themselves out from the Darien fiasco that had stripped the nation of its liquid capital. For all the heroism of Valley Forge and Bunker Hill, the USA would not had cohered had the North and South, big states and small states, not come to a deal about Western land titles, state war debts, and the location of the federal capital.

Canada may have been bound by Imperial loyalty and their inbred cultural differences from the USA, but the British Columbians had been very explicit -- build us a railroad or we hoist the Stars and Stripes. Australians were uncertain right up to the end as to whether "Australia" included Western Australia and New Zealand -- (yes, and no, as it turned out) and the Australian constitution still has the rather unusual feature of permitting New Zealand to join at any time at its own pleasure, with no further action from Australia needed.

Underneath the "ethnographic dazzle" of the quite different surface appearances -- the Gothic monarchical pagentry of the British state (much of it invented in the past hundred years), versus the Classical Roman allusions and Masonic pagentry of the American republic -- the actual structures of the Lockean bargains that formed the UK and the USA (and Canada and Australia later) have much in common. But to finally answer Mitch's original question, what the USA did was to take the patterns and toolkit the British used to create their society, and to simplify, universalize, and generalize it until it became a versatile template that could quickly convert expanses of raw land into new, functioning self-governing communities without a thousand years of cultural evolution, and a concept of citizenship that could take European peasant communities who had been dumbly following orders for a thousand years, and turn them within a generation into citizens, jurors, legislators, militiamen and volunteers, vestrymen and congregation-members, entrepreneurs, and self-actualized persons -- the whole Anglosphere toolkit -- all in a deliberate manner that the British never thought they would need, but now might do well to look at.

Americans have in many ways been congratulating themselves for the wrong things. The truths of the Declaration were hardly novel or shocking to the Englishmen who read them; rather, they saw them as a Whig five-finger exercise that had been boilerplate since 1688. What was shocking was that the Americans were throwing their own ideals back in their face.

Nor were representative, constitutional government and limitations on state power a novelty to the British; these were considered the very essence of the British constitution. What was shocking was the way the Americans divorced these concepts from the British understanding that they were specific liberties granted to the British alone through usage and tradition, but rather something that belonged to all men as a matter of natural law, and that could be effectively claimed.

The British Union in its narrative (as opposed to its realpolitik considerations) justified itself by a set of claims that were essentially looking backwards -- dynastic arguments stemming from the Stuart claim to the thrones of both kingdoms, and the ancient claims asserted by Edward I, looking back to the independent British empire established at the end of the Roman Empire, and beyond that to Celtic myth. Such claims could not be used again by any other people. The American Union could not and would not use such justification. It therefore constructed a forward-looking and universalist narrative, one that has been part and parcel of the American national story every since.

That is the real essence of American exceptionalism. Our uniqueness lies not in a denial of our political and cultural continuity with the rest of the Anglosphere, but rather with the way we took the British (and particularly English) experience, and turned it into a univesalized template.

And of course it's a social construct. As if there's anything wrong with that.

Posted by James C. Bennett at 11:58 PM | Comments (13)

Walter Bagehot on (1) Fanaticism, (2) The Wisdom of Crowds

Why, oh why, did it take me so long to finally get to Walter Bagehot’s book The English Constitution? As of the halfway mark, every single page is good. The man is the very soul of common sense and cool, mature realism.

At one point he is discussing the fact that the English monarch retains, in theory, the capacity to order parliament dissolved. But, Bagehot notes, such a dire threat is never used any longer. Nor, he goes on, should any monarch ever believe that any idea of his is so important or valuable that he would even want to make, let alone, exercise such a threat:

To wish to be a despot, "to hunger after tyranny," as the Greek phrase had it, marks in our day an uncultivated mind. A person who so wishes cannot have weighed what Butler calls the "doubtfulness things are involved in". To be sure you are right to impose your will, or to wish to impose it, with violence upon others; to see your own ideas vividly and fixedly, and to be tormented till you can apply them in life and practice, not to like to hear the opinions of others, to be unable to sit down and weigh the truth they have, are but crude states of intellect in our present civilisation. We know, at least, that facts are many; that progress is complicated; that burning ideas (such as young men have) are mostly false and always incomplete. The notion of a far-seeing and despotic statesman, who can lay down plans for ages yet unborn, is a fancy generated by the pride of the human intellect to which facts give no support.

I will say in bristling partisan spirit that such “uncultivated minds” are growing rankly and thickly on the ground in the Left blogosphere nowadays. But in fairness I must with alacrity add, with some regret, that such uncivil over-assuredness also, from time to time, occurs even amongst those of us on the side of the angels, here in the conservative/libertarian provinces of the great kingdom of Blogistan.

Perhaps a more profound insight is this:

The House of Commons is a scene of life if ever there was a scene of life. Every member in. the throng, every atom in the medley, has his own. objects (good or bad), his own purposes (great or petty); his own notions, such as they are, of what is; his own notions, such as they are, of what ought to be. There is a motley confluence of vigorous elements, but the result is one and good. There is a “feeling the House,” a “sense” of the House, and no one who knows any thing of it can despise it. A very shrewd man of the world went so far as to say that “the House of Commons has more sense than any one in it.”

Our learned colleague James McCormick has suggested that harnessing the "wisdom of crowds" has been the Anglosphere's "secret weapon". Bagehot's description of the strength of the House of Commons is certainly consistent with that insight. (I do not have and have not read the Surowiecki book, and the index is not online at Amazon. Does anyone know if he cites this passage from Bagehot?)

Cross-posted on ChicagoBoyz.

Posted by Lexington Green at 09:31 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

July 06, 2006

Jacob & Stewart -- Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service ...

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

Jacob, Margaret C. and Larry Stewart, Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687-1851, Harvard University Press, 2004. 201pp.

This book is a small gem. Well-written, modest in size, and tightly focused for the general reader, it describes the deep ties between Anglosphere civic culture and the development of modern science and industry. I stumbled on the title, as occasionally happens, when browsing through the bibliographies of other books, looking for interesting titles.

Professor Larry Stewart (Univ. Saskatchewan) wrote a book in 1992 called "The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750". Regretably, even a second-hand copy is well nigh impossible to nab. Professor Margaret C. Jacob (UCLA) wrote "Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West" in 1997. Both books were referenced in Joel Mokyr's Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (reviewed recently here) because they discussed the way that public interest in scientific concepts was influential in the initial development of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.

And it is that public angle that intrigued me and suggested a good Anglosphere fit. As an alternative to hunting down those older books, I decided to buy a more recent book co-authored by Jacob and Stewart, and get a sense of the authors' arguments. If "Practical Matter" is any gauge, these authors deserve addition to a "watch list." This little book has a premise that is both fascinating yet powerfully straightforward.

What was the impact of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica on the course of European social and economic history, from its publication in the late 1600s until the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London?

Published in 1687, and known ever since simply as the Principia, Newton's masterwork was immediately recognized as extraordinary, covering subjects as diverse as astronomy, the tides, hydrodynamics and hydrostatics, and using Euclidean geometry as the underpinning for a new theory of local and celestial motion ... of universal gravitation ... of "action at a distance." At a stroke, Newton had literally linked heaven and earth. Few could follow his argument in detail but the scope and potential impact of his themes were clear to all.

The most brilliant scholars of the day struggled just to cope with the mathematics used, an early variant of what would become calculus. The book set Newton in opposition to the prevailing theories of motion and causation of the time (those of Aristotle and Descartes), and it stirred up interest in the practical implications of Newton's ideas amongst theologians, scholars, and English men of commerce -- simultaneously. The Principia inadvertently reified Sir Francis Bacon's vision of science (promulgated 75 years earlier) and set the Anglosphere and Continental worlds on profoundly different but ultimately complementary roads to scientific and technological achievement. Whether it's a mechanical rover toodling around the surface of Mars, or the granting procedures of the US National Science Foundation, Isaac Newton's book, published 320 years ago, provided the seeds of development.

Jacob and Stewart have selected the Great London Exhibition of 1851 as a convenient coda for their book, and for summing up 150 years of Newtonian change. The Exhibition was a mammoth display of technological prowess, meant to illustrate the superiority of British enterprise with 100,000 exhibits drawn from across the industrialized world, documented and vetted carefully in an official catalog by Fellows of the Royal Society. The exhibits formed a vivid demonstration of how ordinary citizens from across the industrial world had become active participants in natural philosophy -- science and technology, how the "wisdom of crowds" was turned in strong support of technological change, and how one relatively small nation moved itself from waterwheels to steam locomotives in a century and a half. The world was never quite the same after the publication of the Principia. Without any conscious intent by its eccentric author, the book released forces of history, culture, economics, and technology to work in entirely new ways.

By focusing on the relatively tight historical thread of the reception and use of the Principia, the authors of "Practical Matter" manage a narrower set of historical actors, countries, and social influences, and can carry the general reader's concentration and interest as they criss-cross generations of dramatic social, economic, and technical change.

Competing Theories

First off, let's consider the physics (or as it was then known "natural philosophy") that guided Newton's era. Newton was born just as Galileo died (1642). As Isaac grew up, two major theories of causation or motion were prevalent. The first was promulgated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (carefully sanitized by Western Church tradition in the 1200s). Aristotle felt that the motion of objects was a reflection of their inherent qualities. In other words, a stone fell to earth because of its property or quality of heaviness, while a feather floated to earth because of the different qualities which it possessed. Aristotle's views seem self-evident and were successfully used as an explanatory model of motion until the 17th century when the French mathematician Descartes proposed a different model of motion, which we might call (over-simplifying) the "billiard ball" model. Objects move or cease to move because they impact each other in time and space. Objects move through a fine ether or flux and their motion can be influenced by that substrate.

Aristotelian theory was the default explanatory tool of the Church scholastics for many decades. Descartes' ideas were supported much more narrowly by elite scholars and some religious orders (such as the Jesuits). At the time of the English Civil War, there was marked concern that Descartes theory was "materialistic," offering no role for God, and therefore dangerously likely to lead one to atheism of one sort or another.

Newton's insights were drawn, as best we can determine, from his long and careful consideration of celestial motion, including the elliptical orbit of comets. From a geometric perspective, it appeared that the relationship and relative motion of objects was consistent from the celestial down to the local scale. Objects behaved as though some force of mutual attraction was acting upon them. The outcome of that attraction could be described mathematically, geometrically, through calculation of curves. No fine liquid, or constraining substrate, was needed. The movement of bodies through space, through the air, in trajectory, were related to the relative influence of such bodies on each other. No inherent property was involved (except that of matter itself). No direct "ping-pong ball" interaction of objects was needed to create and sustain motion.

Newton, it has been claimed, was the last of the Alchemists ... deeply knowledgeable about arcane matters both theological and alchemical. He was entirely comfortable with a role for the Deity in creating the relationship between matter, and since his measurements and calculations, and that of other scholars, best fit a "immaterialist" view, he simply presented his evidence without elaborate explanation of the "why" of how things moved. Newton knew he had a problem, however. His main opponent in describing motion was the long dead Descartes. How does one compete with another theory that has the real advantage of appearing more practical to the ordinary eye because of its material focus?

Newton's response was to be profoundly influential. "I feign no hypotheses," he said, " because hypotheses have no place in experimental philosophy. ...In this philosophy, particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena and afterward rendered general by induction ... And to use it is enough that gravity does really exist and act according to the laws which we have explained." For English readers, these words were a direct echo of the inductive method recommended 70 years earlier by Sir Francis Bacon. Like all "scientists," then and later, Newton's claims of inductive and deductive reasoning were honored more in the breach than in the observance but Newton's rhetorical quandry was to have major implications.

In later decades, as Continental scholars were to confirm with increasing rapidity that Newton's laws of motion were both accurate and useful, a rush took place to identify why it was that an Englishman should have been so successful. As these scholars cast back and forth across the works of English natural philosophy before Newton, they identified men like Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and John Locke as the most influential of the time. More than anyone else, however, it was in the works of Sir Francis Bacon they found a particular "method" of experimental discovery, matched with an emphasis on the utility of knowledge, the collection of all relevant data (without constraining hypothesis), and above all, the role of the State in encouraging discovery of value to all citizens. When Newton claimed Bacon as authority, Bacon became the blueprint that the Continent would adopt to create more Newtons.

As John Henry outlines with great elegance in his little book "Knowledge is Power: How Magic,the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science," Bacon was convinced that observation, experiment, and data collection, were key elements of dependable discovery. It was to be the Continentals however, not the English, who took Bacon as their guiding light in the creation of national scientific academies, technical institutes, and a system of professorial stipends and grants. Today, in the EU and across the industrialized world, we can see a Baconian model of scientific discovery in full flower. Only in the Anglosphere, however, do we still see higher educational institutions with substantial independence from central authority.

At the time of the Principia's publication however, Newton had no grand visions of scientific achievement. He merely used Bacon as a foil for explaining the motion of objects, with little to say about the whys (let alone the "whos") of celestial motion. In addition, Newton drew on Bacon's views on experiment, quite likely reflecting their shared interest in alchemy (which had a strong experimental component). It should also be remembered that Newton was a private heretic (Arianism) and was very careful to live his life quietly in the shifting sands of post-Restoration Protestant England without arousing suspicion. Bacon, by the late 17th century, was the politically safe touchstone that any natural philosopher could cite as acceptable authority and claim as intellectual mentor. Bacon's convenient utility to Newton was one of those twists of history that shaped our world.

First Responses

Though Newton's friends and antagonists at the Royal Society were immediately taken by the grand scope of his book, it fell to an Anglican cleric, Samuel Clarke, to make the first philosophical defense of the Principia. Clarke was one of Newton's few friends and made the theological case for the Newtonian model based on its role for a Deity. By 1704, Clarke's lectures had been assembled into a book and ironically it was Newtonians in the Church of England that brought Newton's science into service against atheism, and sheltered it from an official disapproval. Wider enthusiasm from the English philosophical elite was based partly, and not surprisingly, on chauvinism. The Principia was an English work by an English savant, and therefore inherently better ... an attitude widely noted, and thoroughly discounted, by earlier and contemporaneous Continental visitors!

And over on the Continent, scholars were necessarily more hesitant in their enthusiasm though no less interested in evaluating the book. Mathematicians such as the German Leibniz, who had independently invented calculus, were concerned that the underlying principles of Newton's ideas (space as a vacuum rather than an ether), were deeply mistaken. In any area of Europe where the Inquisition still held sway, however, there was no public discussion of either Descartes or Newton. Aristotle was still the foundation. Reception and inspection of the Principia could be mapped politically and culturally across Europe ... with implications for economies and polities that carry through to the 20th century.

Science Goes Public

Ironically, it was the Continent that was to become fascinated with Newton's most elaborate theoretical premises, and with proving their utility for calculating celestial mechanics. France was to be the nation that took the Newtonian (and therefore English) challenge most seriously and its elite, before the French Revolution, were involved in refining, testing, and proving many elements of the Newtonian worldview at a "macroscopic" level -- planetary and celestial.

In London of the time, howver, a new generation of lecturers and demonstrators were just beginning to make money giving pubic lectures in mathematics and chemistry. When the principles of motion in Newton's book were translated into practical demonstrations of wedges, levers, and pulleys, an new era of theoretical mechanics and "public science" began. There was a demand in merchant and marine circles for philosophers who could sort through the chaff of good technical ideas and identify those that were feasible. Thus it was that the Royal Society lost its monopoly over the practice and demonstration of natural philosophy. The Royal Exchange now also became a source of funding and intelligence in the selection and promotion of new ideas. Experiments and demonstrations were no longer the exclusive realm of the select members of the Royal Society. Anyone of modest means could follow the arguments, debates and experiments of the nation's discoveries, blow by blow, in the magazines, coffee houses, and lecture rooms of the day.

The huge prestige of Newton's work cast a further golden glow over any derivative, whether mathematical, technological, or methodological. Referring back again to Sir Francis Bacon, it became respectable for natural philosophers to become consultants to those with engineering or technological quandries. The idea that technology should be practical and valuable to everyone was born in this era. It was therefore in mechanics (what was possible, probable, or impossible) that the English were to make Newton's vision come alive, not only for the elite of the Royal Society but for a broader society that was fascinating by machines, and by public experiments with prisms, optics, vacuum chambers, and the wonderfully exciting electricity.

It should be noted, for the sake of context, that the first Newcomen steam engines were put in place to drain water from mines roughly by 1715. The timing couldn't have been better for the acceptance of Newton's ideas. All of a sudden, across the English landscape, new devices appeared, needing maintenance, explication, and optimization. Because Newton spent his later years up until his death in 1727 primarily as a government employee, he was alive to witness the spreading success of his ideas but took virtually no part in their popular (or "vulgar") explanation. It was left to an intermediate group of scholars (some with Royal Society status, others with far more hardscrabble origins) to expand the Newtonian principles into as many practical and money-making realms as possible. The Huguenot refugee Jean Desaguliers was to become powerfully influential in this regard as he translated Newton's works into French (and then created a role for himself as popularizer of, and ambassador for, Newtonian mechanical principles in industry). Think of him as the bilingual Steven Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins of his time. Lecturing outside of London, he was to spread Newton's influence to a new, increasingly ambitious segment of British society.

Radical, But Not Too Radical

As the 18th century proceeded, the initial protection afforded Newtonianism by Anglican clerics and English nobility became unnecessary. The burgeoning literacy of the era in Great Britian meant that a wider audience was learning about both Newton and the methods of experiment and industry. Magazines, textbooks, dictionaries, and now encyclopedias, appeared summarizing what was known, what might be speculated, and the specific language that individuals needed to participate in discovering new information. The era of global exploration which began in the 16th and 17th centuries now took hold with a vengeance and British interests overseas drove a new openness and interest in the "different" and what might be of practical use. Trade, settlement, and investment opportunities abroad fitted nicely with the trade, industrial, and investement opportunities at home. Everywhere was change. But some rigourous way to judge things was needed. New centres of both industry and scholarship developed. Edinburgh became a centre for the mathematical investigation of Newtonian principles. And the harnessing of mechanical power for the manufacture of cloth (cotton/linen) created new sources of expertise and wealth in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow. These industrial centres lead Europe in their innovations, yet maintained an isolation from the seats of political power in London. Scotland's great intellectual contributions to the modern world came to full flower at this period.

Expertise, competition, and relative wealth were to generate a dynamic civic culture among the lower middle class that was less seen in the port cities of London and Liverpool, though by no means absent. A new era of religious free-thinking appeared with newly confident spokesmen quite willing to think much farther outside the box than the governmental authorities would allow. America became the refuge of many of the more radical. Though absolutism ended in 1688 in England, Parliament and the levers of national power were by no means democratized. Dissenting citizens were restricted in their access to political and educational institutions. They set about making their own.

As engineers and merchants struggled to keep up with the mechanical discoveries of the era, Newtonianism needed a new narrative "home" to avoid suppression. The evolution of Freemasonry and its imagery and associations (citing God and ancient wisdom as the source of knowledge) were one way (among many) to reassure authorities that the rapid changes underway were simply a reinvigoration of the "good old days." The increasing familiarity with the architectural efforts of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans now cast the industrial arts as simply an extrapolation from ancient times. British military engineers, for example, excavated Roman roads in Britain to learn how to make their own more durable. The rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666 had offered new possibilities for classical proportion in construction. It's also worth briefly noting that this Masonic intellectual sleight-of-hand, accommodating materialism and religiosity, was to make its way very rapidly back to America via the first "Scientific American" -- Benjamin Franklin. The American Philosphical Society (in Philadelphia) was to become the "poste restante" for scientific enquiries regarding the New World, and occasionally an underground railway for Newtonians whose religious beliefs were a bit too outrageous. The Great Seal of the United States remains as small relict of a time when the mechanic and artisan sought legitimacy and political safety in the Masonic creed as technological change gathered force in the English-speaking world. The mathematical rigour and Masonic focus on practicality would have appealed to both Sir Isaac and Lord Verulam (Francis Bacon) but the "riffraff" involved, we can assume, wouldn't have.

Meanwhile ...

As one reads of the exciting developments of 18th century Great Britain, and the growing technological response and participation of Continental countries, it's easy to forget the political and military events of the era. The English in the 18th century were struggling with the new balance of power between Parliament and government, with the turmoil and uncertainty of Queen Anne's death, with economic oscillation and bubbles, with colonial resentment, an American Revolution, and ultimately a French Revolution and the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte. Political change was constant. Military success, especially for the Royal Navy, was by no means assured. And yet simultaneously, Great Britain was a society struggling to adapt to the shift from cottage industry to urban industrial manufacturing set loose by the tools and theoretical guidelines laid out by Sir Isaac Newton.

The recurring theme in "Practical Matter" is that Newton's principles of motion (and methods of discovery) were so fundamental that a constant kaleidoscope of special interests were called into play in support of, or in temporary antagonism to, the changes which technology wrought. Allies became enemies. Enemies became inadvertent allies. The ignored and peripheral and accidental became influential. In contrast to continental Europe, it's worth remembering that by the mid 19th century, Great Britain had the most dynamic domestic economy (greater annual turnover of capital per capita) of any European nation. The social cost of such economic hurry however was substantial. A great deal of effort was made, largely unsuccessful, in applying the new discoveries of the 18th century to solving medical problems -- lung problems and infectious disease were particularly rampant in the century.

Geography and Destiny

As Manchester, Leeds, Birminghan and Glasgow developed into great centres of manufacturing and engineering excellence, it became clear to Continental authorities that they were falling behind. The absolutist monarchies of the 18th century slowly gave way to absolutist states. And in the areas of mining technology and military science, where Britain's developments could be most quickly adapted, European state sponsorship of academies and institutes began. While regional centres of industrial development appeared on the Continent (often fueled with equipment and thousands of artisans imported from England), control over the financing and development of these centres was always under central control. The Continent never saw an equivalent of the industrial gentry of the English Midlands, left to fend for themselves by central government, snubbed by genteel society, and ultimately to have such dramatic effects on industrial might.

The new industrialists of France, the Lowlands, and Germany, were the carefully nurtured and sponsored result of new educational systems and capital deployment. In many cases, however, decades of educational errors were made in deciding how young technologists should be trained, and why. The tendency to let curricula drift into stagnation had to be overcome, time and again. Mathematics education in Britain was seen as superior at the turn of the 19th century, and mathematics had become the gateway to practical mechanics. An ambitious literate artisan could self-educate with books of the time, much as James Watt had done in the 18th century.

It wasn't until the mid 19th century that French and German education was on par with the less formalized educational system of the British. And from then on, the elite ecoles and institutes of the Continent were able to leverage the theoretical grounding of their students into substantial industrial advantage. In Germany especially, breakthroughs in chemistry were to place it in the lead of industrial discovery during the second half of the 19th century. The tide had turned and now the British were to become concerned about their educational system and its ability to generate the right workforce for industrial discovery. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, British dominance was unquestionable but new challengers from America and Europe were already in sight and gaining rapidly.

Great Britain's decentralized educational system and dissenting literate middle class had fueled an amazing burst of technological development for 150 years. Other countries were to step forward, with systems of industrial development harkening back to Sir Francis Bacon's late Elizabethan bureaucratic dreams.

The Book

"Practical Matter" should most of all be seen as an excellent window into the social underpinnings of technological change in Great Britain, from Newton's time to Victorian. It's a quick and interesting read, and if you have any interest in the science, or technology, or industry, or society of the time, the book will offer a great introduction to personalities and events which you'll want to investigate further.

Standing by itself, it's a testament to how profoundly Isaac Newton influenced the 18th and 19th century, and how fortuitous it was that he was an Englishman, surrounded by new generations of literate, ambitious, Englishmen from humble origins.

Table of Contents

Introduction [1]
The Newtonian Revolution [9]
The Western Paradigm Decisively Shifts [26]
Popular Audiences and Public Experiments [61]
Practicality and the Radicalism of Experiment [93]
Putting Science to Work: European Strategies [119]
Epilogue [155]

Posted by jmccormick at 12:02 PM | Comments (6)

July 05, 2006

Amazing Coincidence

So, as soon as it's clear that conservative candidate Calderón has been elected president in Mexico, (despite AMLO's Sore Loserman act) Bush hints that enforcement-first immigration legislation might be OK with him after all. Rather supports the theory that he had been hard-lining the amnesty position primarily in response to the State Department's Mexico experts.

By the way, during the 2000 Florida hoohaw, we heard a lot about how the Electoral College system was so inferior to direct election. But direct election of their president doesn't seem to be helping Mexico right now.

Posted by James C. Bennett at 02:15 PM | Comments (10)

July 04, 2006

Happy Birthday, America -- and Canada

Of course today is the birthday of the United States of America. However, it is effectively Canada's birthday as well. Had the US not become independent, what is today Canada would have most likely remained a not particularly differentiated part of a British North America, and what became one of Canada's founding populations -- the emigre American Loyalists -- would have remained residents of whatever of the thirteen colonies they had originally inhabited.

How the world would have truned out had the Revolution never happened, or never succeeded, is one of the perrenials of alternate-history speculation. It is all too long ago -- you can come up with scenarios that make it a better world, or a worse, and we will never know which it would have been.

So, I guess we'll just have to have a barbecue and enjoy it.

God bless America, God bless Canada, and Forward the Anglosphere!

Posted by James C. Bennett at 04:32 PM | Comments (4)