Book review: A Splendid Exchange, by William J Berstein
A SPLENDID EXCHANGE William J Berstein Atlantic Books, £22
IN 2006 the world's countries exported $11.8 trillion in goods and services, far more than the gross domestic product of any single country except the United States, which itself exported over $1 trillion worth.
The world is knit together as never before with a cat's cradle of trade. But while global trade has been much in the news lately, it has an extremely long history. As William J Bernstein makes clear in his entertaining and greatly enlightening book A Splendid Exchange, it has been a major force in driving the whole history of humankind.
Adam Smith explained in The Wealth Of Nations that humans are endowed with "a propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another". Equally important, skills and talents are not evenly distributed across the human landscape, nor are the world's resources equally distributed across the natural one.
The history of global trade is so long and so vast that Bernstein could have easily produced a toe-breaker of a book. Happily he has not. By treating many aspects thematically rather than strictly chronologically, he shows in fewer than 400 pages how people and nations have faced the same problems over and over and often solved them the same way.
The poor soil and scant rain of ancient Greece, for instance, meant the terrain's ability to grow grain was limited, but grapevines and olive trees grew in abundance. To export its wine and olive oil, Athens developed a pottery industry to supply the jars in which those products were transported. As Greek trade, and colonies, flourished across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, naval power was needed to suppress piracy. To control choke points like the Dardanelles and Bosporus, which led to the rich grain lands of what is now Ukraine, the Athenian empire developed.
This succession of trade, colonies, naval power and empire repeated itself with the Venetians and Genoese, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Only now, instead of slaves and spices flowing through them, it is oil.
Bernstein is a fine writer and knows how to tell a great story well. And he has many in this book.
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