Cross-cultural trade in world history

Many years ago, while trying to find suitable mid-winter presents for my family and friends, I came upon this book; purchased it and gave it to my mother (whose first degree was in history); and stole it off her once she had had the chance to read it. Something probably over a decade later (in 2006/April) I finally got round to reading it, so that I could return it to her before her 70th birthday. (This prompted me to buy another copy, so that I could lend it to a friend I thought would find it interesting and pass it round.)

CUP - first published 1984.
Library of Congress Cataloging in publication data:
Curtin, Philip D.
Cross-cultural trade in world history.
(Studies in comparative world history)
Bibliography: p.
Includes index.
1. Commerce - History. 2. World history.
I. Title. II. Series
HF352.C87 1984 382'.09 83-23202
ISBN 0 521 26319 0 hard covers
ISBN 0 521 26931 8 paperback

The most interesting book I can remember reading. I would commend this book to anyone persuaded of the virtues of Free Trade—which should include all anarchists, libertarians and such folks as term themselves capitalist without being so besotted with vested interests as to consent to the state depriving the general population of freedom so as to assure the economic advantage of those who possess so much thereof as to pose a clear and present threat to the liberty of their fellow-citizens. Not that the book's looking at it like that.

Cutrin considers the long-term story of what he terms trade diasporas: sub-cultures which have engaged in (generally long-distance) trade by the strategy of combining local residents in chosen places along the trade route with cultural peers who move among those places carrying goods for trade. Such sub-cultures have existed throughout recorded history: we have all heard of the Jews, most famous for their part in the early banking culture of Europe but also a crucial trade diaspora ever since Roman times; but there have been ample others, on every continent and in every epoch of human history.

Banking dates back to the Mesopotamian city of Ashur about four millennia ago. The Armenians – whose home-land was never their own to rule – were one of the most successful trading nations of history – despite never having a state power to back them up – doing better than the Dutch and British during their respective eras of naval supremacy until the collapse of the land-route for the silk trade – in the middle of the eighteenth century, when Britain's naval supremacy made the sea route reliable enough to realize its natural economic advantages. Even after that transition, Armenian traders prospered by making the most of the Free Trade domain which had destroyed the original back-bone of their success.

Curtin also describes – deliberately in less detail than the overtly cross-cultural trade which he takes as his subject – what he terms relay trade. This could cross cultural barriers by diffusion – since a chain of trades may pass from hand to hand, without any transit considering itself a cultural boundary, and yet take goods from one group to another who would consider the former culturally alien.

The tragedy of the commons

Curtin also, in discussing the European-driven fur-trade of Siberia and North America, addresses what he describes as the fisheries model, which I have seen elsewhere described as the tragedy of the commons. When a resource is open to all to use, there is a risk that it shall be over-used. If enough have access to it that it may be over-used, then each of its potential users is in a position of gaining maximum (short-term) advantage by using it as heavily as possible – so that it is necessarily used as heavily as possible by each, ensuring that it shall be over-used. Thus (to take the classic example) a common grazing land, available to many, shall be over-grazed because none has anything to gain by restraint: if one abstains from grazing there, the future loss (the grazing land becoming exhausted) is no less sure, so none has any motive to so abstain. Likewise, in the absence of (hard to implement) international quota systems, fishing on the North Atlantic has naturally tended to over-fishing, because restraint by any given trawler merely leaves more for its competitors to seize. It does not matter how clearly those of us who understand the dynamics of such a system can prove that over-use of such a resource may lead to long term reduction in the value available, collectively, to its exploiters: in the short term, it is in the interests of each to exploit it as much as possible, since doing anything less merely leaves the surplus for their competitors to exploit. As (IIRC) Keynes remarked, in the long term, we are all dead; while I can't agree that this is a sound basis for policy, it has an unavoidable strategic influence on competition.

In such a case, a monopoly is one solution: while the Russian Tzar could, he arranged for the trade in Siberian and Alaskan furs to be a state monopoly. This made it possible for the state's agents to pursue the rational policy of under-supplying the demand, not (only) so as to drive up the price – what's now known as supply-side economics – but also (at least so some degree) because their supplies would become more expensive (i.e. hunting would become harder) if they supplied more furs (i.e. killed more animals) than the existing ecosystem could replace. Another solution, the moratorium, is in practice a specialised monopoly: in a monopoly, the state stipulates that no-one but the monopolist may engage in a given trade; in a moratorium, one may substitute any organisation unwilling to engage in that trade as the monopolist. A system of quotas is a hybrid model, essentially formalising a cartel in one guise or another.

In the case of the English common grazing lands – in connection with which this conundrum was (to my limited knowledge) first articulated (by Adam Smith, I suppose) – one might have hoped to resolve the issue by restricting the common grazing right to flocks and herds owned by the owners of certain well-defined properties in the vicinity: and, perhaps, this might have sufficed (were it not for vested interests) to have resolved most of the issues in contention where it arose. The most obvious objection would be that drovers – those who drove cattle to the meat markets of the major cities – needed places for the beasts in their care to graze. The cities needed these beasts brought to them well-fed and well-exercised; and rural communities needed to be able to send their cattle to the city markets sure of adequate pasturage (on the commons) along the way. This issue, in turn, might have been addressed by having each body of common land assigned (in similar manner to the way some markets were run) a local official who would collect some reasonable grazing fees from transient grazers; that official must also be responsible for ensuring the locals do not over-stretch their lawful quotas, and for sharing the transients' grazing fees fairly with the native holders of grazing rights (likely favouring those who under-use their rights and allowing others to graze beyond their rights on terms kindred to those exercised by transients). One might object that such an official introduces scope for partiality, bribery and other vices; one might endeavour to remedy those vices in various ways; but my limited knowledge of the relevant history suggests that the land-owners – who, alone, were represented in the legislature – had a vested interest in using the problem as an opportunity to pass laws which caused common land to be converted into private property; which is, in fact, what happened. This lead to what is known as The Enclosures, by which parliamentary fiat (infamously) converted public property into private property; and (to take but one example of its effects) most of the rural Scots were expelled from Scotland.

Written by Eddy.