William J. Bernstein

A Splendid Exchange

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A Splendid Exchange Summary

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A Splendid Exchange is a history book by William J. Bernstein published in 2008. The work traces the origins and history of trade from the earliest examples to the modern day, demonstrating how the practice and growth of world trade shaped cultures and changed the course of history.

Bernstein opens his work with a story about an event that took place some time in 3,000 B.C. in Sumer. A tribe of nomadic herders, suffering due to disease or some other disaster that left them hungry and desperate, attacked a tribe of farmers in order to steal their grain and livestock. The farmers were armed with maces, stones attached to wooden handles, which were devastating weapons against human opponents. However, the farmers discovered that the herders were wearing copper helmets that drastically reduced the effectiveness of the maces, and the farmers lost the battle badly.

This sparked something of an arms race, as both sides began improving their weaponry and armor in response to the other. In fact, despite the vast distances and logistical problems, Bernstein demonstrates that trade flourished in this area at the time—and was, in fact, much older even than that. The earliest proof of trade goes back nine thousand years more, with evidence that obsidian, a type of hard black stone, was traded widely. Although its purpose is unknown, obsidian from Mesopotamia has been found more than two thousand miles away in Greek caves.

Bernstein goes on to show that trade in the ancient world was actually extremely widespread and conducted at huge volumes, noting that a ship wrecked in the Bronze Age was carrying a huge cargo of copper, tin, and ivory. Bernstein traces the discovery of Roman coins to show how far and wide Roman trade reached thousands of years ago, moving a huge variety of goods around the empire. And the Silk Road was one of the busiest overland trade routes in all history.

Bernstein discusses how trade shapes the world. When Western civilization declined and in places collapsed, Arab traders rushed in to fill the void. While few Roman coins dated later than the second century A.D. are found in far-away places, as the Islamic religion rose and spread across the ancient world, those societies took up the slack, resulting in myriad cultural influences that persist today. When the West began to revive, places like Venice became competitive, building vast empires not with armies and territory but with ships and economic muscle.

Bernstein then underscores how trade drove the age of exploration, more or less forming what we think of as the modern world. Explorers came to the Americas, for example, seeking to cut the length of the trip required to trade in spices and other goods from India, or to acquire rare dyes—the color purple was so in-demand that Bernstein argues it inspired much of the push toward the Americas.

Bernstein then discusses the sometimes unobvious butterfly effect of trade. He notes that ancient Greece had very little land suitable for farming grain, but easily grew excellent olive trees and grape vines. But to trade its wine and oil for grain and other things, it needed to transport them, which in turn inspired the pottery industry. And the need to protect the ships transporting the jars of wine and oil gave rise to the Athenian empire and the legendary Greek military, which in turn facilitated the spread of Greek culture.

Another way trade affected history was unintentional; the growth of global trade was certainly what allowed the Black Plague to spread into Europe in the Middle Ages, killing perhaps as much as 20 percent of the population and altering the course of events for centuries.

Bernstein studies some of the technologies that have changed trade and thus the world. While advances in transportation are of course important to the development of trade, navies formed partly as a way to transport goods, and modern inventions such as the railroad and the steamship made it possible to trade goods from all over the world at any time, which is why we can now have many vegetables and fruits out of season.

But Bernstein argues that the single most important development in modern-era trade was refrigeration, which allowed perishable goods to be preserved without spoilage. As shipping became easier and thus cheaper, and as goods became more durable, prices dropped, and even ordinary people could suddenly afford goods that had once been far too expensive or difficult to acquire. This in turn has produced the modern consumer culture, symbolized by the well-stocked supermarket.

Bernstein concludes A Splendid Exchange with a look at the modern state of trade. He notes that theories of free, unrestricted trade have not necessarily been totally positive as once imagined, and have in fact resulted in some damage to the countries that most passionately adhere to the concept, such as the United States.