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A Splendid exchange

By William Bernstein
Published by Atlantic Books
Website: www.atlantic-books.co.uk
2008, 467pp, ISBN 978 1 84354 668 9(Hb), £22

International trade has delivered strange, exotic and luxurious goods to all corners of the globe. It has founded cities, built nations, established cultures and toppled empires. It has spread seeds, breeds and, of course, disease. For Bernstein, the history of man is practically synonymous with the history of trade, such that it is impossible to unscramble the two. "Try to imagine," he writes, "Italian cuisine without the tomato, the highlands of Darjeeling without tea plants, an American table without wheat bread or beef, a café anywhere in the world beyond coffee's birthplace in Yemen."

Bernstein, clearly, is passionate about international trade. He is keen to contrast the simple beginnings of lowly merchants bearing a small selection of goods with the slick, globe-spanning phenomenon that it has become. He writes, "that the efficient intercontinental transport of even bulk goods today seems so unremarkable is in itself remarkable." Furthermore, he traces the supposedly "contemporary" era of globalisation back to its logical origins, as "the current form of an evolutionary process that has been going on for the past 5,000 years."

For Bernstein, studying the development of international trade helps throw new light on the modern age. He documents the daring trips of Old and New World merchants across land and sea, and the many afflictions of rudimentary travel - raids, insalubrious living and the prospect of painful, lonely death. From the quantum leap brought about by the domestication of the camel, to the spread of the bubonic plague by stowaway rodents on galleons in the Mediterranean; the advent of slavery; the spice routes; the Trade Winds; the Silk Road - they're all here.

But, as difficult as it is to uncouple human history from the history of trade, it is equally challenging to disentangle the observer from the observed. For example, it may seem fairly innocuous to quote an 18th century philosopher, who describes humankind as having "an intrinsic propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another." But these are the words of Adam Smith, author of the now highly-politicised The Wealth of Nations. Smith founded classical economics, the school-of-thought that champions the virtues of unfettered international trade, in an oft-cited tome that has become the unblinking ideological beacon of the centre-right.

So here's the rub: by quoting Smith, is Bernstein giving a passing, fraternal nod to the free-marketeers? And what, if any, subtext is contained in the politically-loaded word splendid in the title of this book? Is the book nothing more than a neo-liberal Trojan Horse? And to what extent does all of this compromise impartial historical analysis?

Well, surely a little bit. Many would disagree strongly with Bernstein's implied suggestion that by impeding free trade mankind is somehow denied its rightful destiny. Bernstein will also be criticised for the scant attention he pays to the many losers in international trade, and it is a great shame he should risk devaluing his own work by turning an enjoyable account of human behaviour into a thinly-veiled call for more laissez-faire.

To some extent Bernstein anticipates these charges, conceding early on that free trade can "simultaneously improve the overall welfare of mankind and increase socially corrosive disparities of wealth". But this sort of shrewd manoeuvring leaves the ordinary reader wondering where to point the spinning moral compass and the critic is left wholly unplacated. The author does dedicate the closing chapter to the titanic debate over free trade and protectionism - but his conclusions fall a long way short of convincing.

For the casual reader, however, this might all be superfluous. What is certain is that Bernstein has crafted a lively and entertaining history of international trade based on the kind of painstaking research that is indubitably the product of a long-running labour of love. This hefty, yet well-written volume will please the curious, the many exponents of free trade and anyone whose ideological radar fails to register Bernstein's own latent dogma.

Date published: November 2008

 

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