Review: “Balance” missing from analysis of decline

July 12, 2013

By Martin Hutchinson

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Some books cannot be judged by their titles. “Balance – The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America” is one. Glenn Hubbard, former Council of Economic Advisers chairman and adviser to Mitt Romney, and Tim Kane of the Hudson Institute think-tank are anything but balanced in their effort to draw lessons for the United States from the fate of past great powers.

The first two-thirds of the book is dedicated to historical narratives of six great powers, focusing on their economic organizations. There are also discussions of the European Union and California, which are fair but seem out of place. The basic conclusion is unsurprising, coming from contemporary historians with a centre-right bias: the rise to power relies on high quality institutions, and sometimes on technological superiority.

The analyses of ancient Rome, Spain, the Ottomans and postwar Japan are mostly convincing. However the sections on China and Britain don’t ring true.

The book places the apogee of China’s great-power status in the few decades between 1405 and 1433, when Admiral Zheng He undertook his gigantic voyages around Asia and East Africa. But China was already overpopulated and the country’s wealth was declining. Zheng He’s voyages were extraordinary, but led to no colonies or trade ties. China’s regional authority and national wealth were much more impressive in the Song period, 300 years before Zheng He. However, Song China was pacifist and inward-looking – not the sort of greatness which appeals to Hubbard and Kane.

The claim that the seeds of British decline were sown in the 1770s, when it failed to give parliamentary representation to the American colonies, is also doubtful. A transatlantic parliament would probably not have worked long-term – a less ambitious parliamentary union with Ireland in 1801 was unsuccessful. Other dates for decay are more likely: perhaps 1846, when the endorsement of unilateral free trade allowed both agriculture and industries to be picked off by foreign protectionists. The authors are too much in favor of free trade themselves to consider that possibility.

In the last third of the book, Hubbard and Kane turn to today’s United States. Their reading of history is quite partial. For example, ancient Rome is blamed for fiscal overspending and deteriorating governance, and the obvious parallels are drawn. However, it is easy to imagine observers with different policy proclivities looking at other parts of the story.

A monetarist might consider Rome’s debasement of the currency, an opponent of immigration would cite the opening of the empire to barbarian hordes, and an environmentalist might bring up lead poisoning. There’s something for everyone in a complicated story like the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

The authors also make much of increased political polarization, always a complaint of establishment moderates, but fail to find examples where polarization caused previous great powers to collapse.

Finally, the authors’ attempts to avoid declinism and come to an optimistic conclusion would be more convincing if, as well as the flaws in the U.S. position, the authors examined the weaknesses of its competitors. Ancient Rome wasn’t perfect, but it was 300 years before the even more flawed barbarians caused its collapse.

There is much to enjoy in the well-written “Balance,” but it is mostly in the narrative, not the policy prescriptions. Those can be found elsewhere, without the historical baggage.

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