William Bernstein’s “A Splendid Exchange”

The title is misleading; there is little splendid in the turmoil described by Bernstein. I gather that only between 1% and 10% of the human effort expended in exchanging goods between countries went toward actually moving them, but instead, in order to obtain a monopoly—trying to prevent others from moving them. Counting the consequent loss of life, ships and goods would lead to an even more dismal number. I don’t know how to quantify this but it was a very high friction activity until recently and it is scarcely frictionless now. It sounds to me like the modern game of Hex models these battles for viable trade routes, much as Go has been seen as a model of military strategy.

The book can be described as a good world history from the vantage point of trade. Wars are mentioned but are not central to the story. No one comes out looking good in the early centuries. The Chinese, while often foolish, were seldom evil.

Trade was with few exceptions restricted to luxury goods at least before the 18th century. Early exceptions were Athens getting food from several hundred miles north, and Spain selling salt to Denmark to preserve their fish. There was a distinct element of conspicuous consumption; Bernstein quotes several contemporary 18th century upper class reporters complaining of goods, such as coffee or tea being so cheap that just about anyone could consume them.

Only in the last chapter does Bernstein gather principled arguments against free trade and they are interesting. Bernstein ultimately argues that such trade is good, and inevitable, but that it may never become free of serious political interference.