Eh.net Book Review: Economic History of Warfare and State Formation

19 09 2017

Published by EH.Net (September 2017)

Jari Eloranta, Eric Golson, Andrei Markevich and Nikolaus Wolf, editors, Economic History of Warfare and State Formation. Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer, 2016. xxii + 283 pp., $129 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-981-10-1064-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Koyama, Department of Economics, George Mason University.
Reviewing an edited volume is always a challenge. The title and blurb of Economic History of Warfare and State Formation suggests a comprehensive account of the economic history of war and states in the tradition of Otto Heinz or Charles Tilly. This volume does not provide this. Rather it is a selection of essays written in honor of the work of Mark Harrison, the distinguished economic historian of the Soviet Union.

The essays included in this volume are all by leading scholars in economic history. It opens with a highly stimulating piece by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson on “Paths to Inclusive Political Institutions.” This chapter focuses on the need for state development to be balanced by the rise of a strong civil society if a society is to follow the path towards inclusive political institutions pioneered by classical Athens and early modern England. This piece is ambitious and always interesting, even when one disagrees with it. It goes beyond the arguments they have developed in previous work such as Why Nations Fail (2012) and offers a novel way to think about the formation of liberal states.

The second essay in the volume, “States and Development: Early Modern India, China, and the Great Divergence” by Bishnupriya Gupta, Debin Ma, and Tirthankar Roy, also tackles an important subject matter. It attempts to integrate the perspectives scholars have gained from focusing on the concept of state capacity into the Great Divergence Debate. This is an important and unstudied topic. And the chapter makes the important point that state capacity was undeveloped in both China and India on the eve of the Great Divergence. But at less than sixteen pages, this essay is far too short and concise to do justice to the topic or to fully engage in the relevant literatures or fully assess the historical evidence.

The second part of the volume contains three papers on the Russia (one of which also considers Finland). This is fitting for a tribute to Harrison who has worked extensively on the Soviet Union, but it represents a narrowing of focus compared to the papers contained in Part 1 and these essays are more likely to appeal to specialists in the field rather than to the general reader. That said, the data contained in both the chapters by Steven Nafziger and Andrei Markevich are fascinating and will no doubt feature in subsequent published articles.

Part three focuses on the economics of warfare. Harrison’s essay is a fantastic deconstruction of many widely retold myths about World War 1. In his revisionist reading: the war was the result of rational calculation due to the “rational pessimism” of particularly Austrian, German, and Russian policymakers; the Allies had an overwhelming economic superiority and attrition was a rational strategy for them to pursue; the blockade of Germany was less decisive than is usually supposed; the harshness of Versailles and consequences of hyperinflation oversold and German democracy was on course for consolidation in the 1920s before the Great Depression hit.

The remaining essays tackle a common theme. Drawing on their previous research, Stephen Broadberry and Peter Howlett summarize the lessons from British mobilization in World War II. Price Fishback and Taylor Jaworski study how American involvement in that war affected the spatial distribution of economic activity. They show that war spending had a persistent impact on population movements as people relocated to countries where war spending was higher. Jonas Scherner and Jochen Streb reassess the widely held view that there was a German armament miracle in 1942 when Albert Speer became armaments minster. Eric Golson introduces a simple framework to understand the incentives facing neutral countries in World War II.

I enjoyed and learned from many of the pieces in this volume. But I also suffered the disutility associated with false advertising. The blurb presents Economic History of Warfare and State Formation as a comprehensive handbook on state formation for both academics and lay readers. It is not this. And I found it bizarre that nowhere is the book advertised as what is it which is: a Festschrift volume.

Once this is recognized then it is understandable that the book suffers from many of the inevitable issues that bedevil all such Festschrifts. Some of these come with the territory and cannot be avoided. Here, however, I felt that some of the disunity could have been easily remedied by including proper introductory and concluding chapters. There is a short preface, but a volume like this requires a strong introduction that knits together the themes of the separate essays. Since many of the different papers do not engage or speak to one another, in the absence of a proper introduction or conclusion, one questions the value of having them published in a single volume rather than as separate articles or working papers. This shouldn’t be read as a criticism of the scholarship of the authors of this volume, but it is a criticism of edited volumes produced by commercial publishers.

In sum, Economic History of Warfare and State Formation contains some fascinating essays and scholarship. As a volume, however, it is less than the sum of its often very stimulating parts.
Among Mark Koyama’s recent papers are “Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China” (with Melanie Meng Xue) and “Negative Shocks and Mass Persecutions: Evidence from the Black Death” (with Remi Jebwab and Noel D. Johnson).

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