A Theory of the History of Everything
May 14, 2008, 03:36 AM
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I'm a fan of ultra-ambitious History of Everything books that try to explain the whole world in terms of the author's pet ideas, such as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Michael H. Hart's Understanding Human History, and Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms.

So, I was surprised to stumble upon one such book that I'd never heard of: Raymond D. Crotty's When Histories Collide: The Development and Impact of Individualistic Capitalism. The lesson appears to be: don't die before your book tour. Crotty died in 1994 with the manuscript unfinished, and it took his son until 2001 to get it published. It was barely reviewed anywhere and doesn't appear to have been released in the U.S.

Still, the fragments that are available through Google Books are thought provoking, to say the least. Crotty presents in the early chapters what could be called a lactose tolerance theory of why capitalism arose in Europe.

Is he correct? Beats me, but from what little I've seen of the book, it stands comparison to Jared Diamond's huge bestseller.

Crotty was an Irish farmer in the 1940s and 1950s, who then became an economist. He's best known in the Republic of Ireland for having filed a landmark lawsuit as a private citizen protesting the Irish legislature's assumption that it could vote to join and further give up sovereignty to the EU without referendums. The Irish supreme court agreed with Crotty's case, and ordered that referendums be held on EU treaties.

As a historical theorist, Crotty resembles Victor Davis Hanson, whose experience as a warm-weather farmer in California gave him important insights into the development of warfare among Ancient Greek farmer-soldiers. Crotty's similar troubles making a living as a cool weather farmer in Europe gave him insight into the development of Northwestern Europe's unique historical accomplishments. After all, most people down through history have been farmers, but not many recent books have been written by farmers.

As an economist, Crotty's experience as a farmer made him a fan of Henry George, the late 19th century American economist whom contemporary economists seem to assume has been decisively refuted, but nobody can ever remember just how George was debunked. Crotty tried to bring capital intensive farming to rural Ireland, but he never seemed to make any more money, despite working twice as hard, as his neighbors, who just let some cows graze on the fields while they saved their money to buy more land. To "encourage agriculture," the Irish government taxed everything except land. So, as Henry George would have pointed out, it didn't pay to invest in your land. It just paid to buy more of it. And, as real estate salesmen point out, they ain't making anymore land, so aligning all the incentives to encourage buying land didn't create more of it, it just meant the Irish economy stagnated decade after decade