Daniel W. Drezner

The top ten books to read about international economic history

The top ten books to read about international economic history

Back in the spring, I hinted that I would be willing to produce a top ten list of must-read books on the international political economy/global political economy (IPE or GPE for those in  the know), provided there was sufficient demand. 

Judging by the e-mail response, the demand is robust and quite persistent.  So I've decided... to postpone that list for another month or two.

Because you're not ready yet. 

Back in the spring, I hinted that I would be willing to produce a top ten list of must-read books on the international political economy/global political economy (IPE or GPE for those in  the know), provided there was sufficient demand. 

Judging by the e-mail response, the demand is robust and quite persistent.  So I’ve decided… to postpone that list for another month or two.

Because you’re not ready yet. 

Let’s face it, if you have read this far in the post, it means you’re either: 

  • A curious professor ready to minimize this page if anyone walks in;
  • A grad student seeking the keys to success in the profession;
  • An intense undergraduate student who really wants to study IPE. 

This is great.  The thing is, most graduate programs in political economy don’t give you that much historical background before throwing the cutting-edge theory and methodology at you.  This year I was lunching with some Ph.D. students at one of the top IPE schools in the country, and the students (and some of the professors) made it pretty clear that they didn’t know all that much about the topic beyond the tricks of the trade – formal modeling, econometric techniques, etc. 

If you’re expecting me to go off on a rant here about the uselessness of these tools, well, you’re going to be sadly disappointed.  There are some pretty good reasons to learn these techniques – among other things, they’ll help you to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to what blogs, pundits and public intellectuals are saying about the global economy. 

That said, the opportunity cost can be significant – a failure to learn anything about global economic history beyond the stylized facts contained in the most-cited articles.  This would be a weird collection of scattered knowledge, ranging from the 1860 Cobden-Chevalier Treaty to the 1934 Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act to the birth of the Washington Consensus

Soooo….. before you are ready to ready the ten books in IPE that you have to read, you should first read these ten books on global economic history.  I’m leaving a lot out here (North and Thomas’ The Rise of the Western World; Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation; anything and everything by William McNeill, Joel Mokyr, David Landes, Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Joseph Needham; some things by Niall Ferguson, etc.).  That’s partly because I’ve slanted this list towards more recent scholarship, and partly because while these books are excellent economic histories, they don’t focus as much on the international dimension. 

[There are some other newly-released books, such as Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance or Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market, that might very well belong on this list.  I’m still in the middle of reading them, however, so the jury is still out.]

Once you imbibe the (sometimes contradictory) information contained in these books, you can look at what the stylized facts contained in IPE books with a much more astringent perspective.  It’s not a coincidence that the foundational IPE texts are by the twentieth century’s greatest economic historians – Eli Heckscher, Albert Hirschman, Charles Kindleberger, and Jacob Viner.  Trust me – you will feel much the wiser for it. 

The following would be my preferred order of how to read them, but it’s hardly the only way to do it: 

1.  Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms:  A Brief Economic History of the World (2007). I’ve already tagged this book as an interesting read.  If nothing else, the first chapter of this book – "The Sixteen-Page Economic History of the World"  – actually matches the audacity of the title.  As I said, I don’t completely buy Clark’s explanation of Malthus + genetics = Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.  His attempt to explain away the irrelevance of institutions doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  Still, I will say I better appreciated the heyday of mercantilism after reading Clark. 

2.  Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich (1986).  Perfect when paired with Clark, because Rosenberg and Birdzell present the classical argument for why Western Europe was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. 

3.  Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997).  The third leg in the triad of "why did Europe dominate the globe?" explanations.  If Clark focuses on genetics/culture, and Rosenberg and Birdzell focus on institutions, Diamond proffers a geographical determinism.  Simply put, he thinks the temperate climate of Eurasia was bound to produce the most sophisticated societies with the most advanced animals, germs, and technologies.  Diamond’s argument complements rather substitutes for the institutions and culture arguments.  If nothing else, it is impossible to read this book and ever buy the ending to War of the Worlds.

4.  John Nye, War, Wine and Taxes (2007).  David Ricardo’s classic example of comparative advantage was English wool for Portuguese wine.  Nye explodes the "natural" aspect of this trade, demonstrating how high tariffs against French wine proved a boon to both the Portuguese and English beer distillers.  Nye stretches his argument too far at times, but the interrelationship between war, protectionism, and statebuilding is pretty damn fascinating. 

5.  Douglas Irwin, Against the Tide:  An Intellectual History of Free Trade (1996).  Irwin’s book is more a history of economic thought than economic history, but nevertheless tells a remarkable story:  how did the idea of free trade knock off mercantilism, protectionism, strategic trade theory, and other doctrines?  

6.  Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, Globalization and History (1999).  A lucid, detailed and fascinating study of how the nineteenth century of globalization went down.  When anyone argues that the current (fast fading?) era of globalization is historically unique, take the hardcover version of this book and whack them on the head with it.  Special bonus book:  people who liked this should go on to read Power and Plenty by Kevin O’Rourke and Ron Findlay). 

7.  Jeffry Frieden, Global Capitalism:  Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (2006).  This book is to the twentieth centiury as Williamson and O’Rourke’s book is to the nineteenth – except it’s written for a wider audience, so it’s a more accessible read.  Accessible doesn’t mean simple, however – this book is chock full of interesting arguments, cases, and counterarguments.  

8.  Barry Eichengreen, Globalizing Capital:  A History of the International Monetary System, second edition (2008).  A more narrow work than Frieden’s, Eichengreen’s book is the starting point for understanding the classical gold standard, the Bretton Woods regime, and whatever the hell system we have now the Bretton Woods II regime. 

9.  Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights (1997).  Yergin and Stanislaw tell a cheerleader’s tale of how the Washington Consensus displaced the old quasi-Keynesian, quasi-socialist economic order that had its apogee and downfall in the 1970s.  What’s particularly interesting is their argument that what mattered was the content and spread of the ideas themselves, and not some coercive power, that led to the re-embrace of markets.  

10. Paul Blustein, The Chastening (2001).  Blustein, a reporter for the Washington Post, tells the you-are-there version of the Asian financial crisis and the reaction from the U.S. Treasury Department.  If you want to know why Pacific Rim economies started hoarding foreign exchange reserves beginning in 1999, read this book. 

OK, readers, which books would you recommend? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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