The Uses of ‘More: A History of the World Economy From the Iron Age to the Information Age’

Economic history as a guide to our future economy.

June 23, 2020

More: A History of the World Economy From the Iron Age to the Information Age by Philip Coggan

Published in March 2020

The book that I want someone to write would be an economic history of higher education. If we can understand the long-running economic structures that have driven the growth and development of the postsecondary sector, perhaps we could develop a sharper forecast of academia in the decades to come.

Any author tempted to tackle the economic history of higher education should consider starting that project by first reading More: A History of the World Economy From the Iron Age to the Information Age. The book's author, The Economist columnist Philip Coggan, has managed to tell the entire global economic history story in an accessible and smoothly written single volume.

More starts with the question of how does something as complex as the modern economy work in the absence of central planning, and then seeks to answer that question by starting at the beginning of the story. To explain why a product like toothpaste is cheap, safe and effective requires a long explanation of how capitalism developed.

Five hundred years ago, the average citizen of the world owned little in the way of material possessions. Save for a tiny elite, life before the Industrial Revolution for most of the planet had changed little in material terms for a millennium. Most people made good with a bed of straw, a few pieces of clothing and little else. Childhood mortality was high, life spans were brief and travel was limited to the horse's range and speed. How and why so much changed so quickly in a relatively short period makes up the bulk of More.

Unlike other works of economic history, this is not a book that seeks to make a single overarching argument. Instead, More reads like the sort of book one would expect from a senior writer at The Economist. Throughout the process of learning about world economic history, the reader comes away with the idea that trade is generally good, that the state has an important role to play in the economy and that markets are the most effective mechanism for supplying the most people with the most things.

More is a book of extreme moderation. While the historical evils of unchecked capitalism are duly noted, from slavery to persistent poverty to runaway inequality, these downsides are carefully balanced by an accounting of benefits of markets, trade and free exchange.

What More fails to do is take all the good history that the book synthesizes to make an argument about our economic futures. Perhaps the book was getting too long at almost 500 pages. Still, I would have appreciated an effort to apply the lessons of economic history to forecasting the future of economic life.

Will our grandchildren be wealthier, on average, then us?

Will inequality across nations grow or lessen?

How will China, Japan and Europe manage societies that are aging rapidly?

Will labor force participation rates continue to fall?

Will the trend toward a bifurcation of economic success, with winners and losers but a diminishing middle, accelerate or attenuate?

Will robots take all of our jobs?

More holds few answers to these questions. Instead, the book suggests that policy makers should be wary of unintended consequences and extreme actions. Taxes should be progressive but moderate. Trade should be free. Education should be well funded. Government should invest in research and infrastructure, but only in areas where private investment is lacking.

Those of us who believe that the government is doing far too little (like me), or far too much (like you, perhaps), will likely be dissatisfied with the overarching structure of More. Those of you looking for a balanced, well-researched and broad global economic history -- and are less concerned with using this knowledge to make arguments about significant changes to the political-economic status quo -- may find this book more to your liking.

What big books on global economic history would you recommend?

Has anyone written that economic history of education book that More got me thinking about?

What are you reading?


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