A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is ambitious book: ranging from prehistory to the current day and tackling diverse economic and policy ideas. The book is better, I found, when discussing the historical impacts and effects of trade. It starts to get a little technically and wonkish for my taste near the end as it delves into questions of contemporary trade policy (though that might be a plus for some). I suppose there isn’t much of a way of deal with the current effects of trade without getting into a discussion of free trade versus protectionism, but I was much more interested in the history: how the trade of the ancient and medieval world impacted the contemporaneous societies and then the modern world. And that is also where I think Bernstein did a better job of telling the story. He used compelling narratives that captured the story of trade in the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds and showed how trade shaped those worlds and the modern world to come.
In the last quarter of the book, he shifts to the question of free trade and the “winners” and “losers” of trade. He ultimately lands on the side of free trade: he acknowledges that some people and groups will be harmed by trade, but overall and in the long run even they are better off with more and freer trade. The issue of trade-offs from trade is important, though I don’t care for the terminology of winners and losers. Like Bernstein, I acknowledge that some might be relatively less well-off because of trade, but I am not sure that qualifies as being a loser because even the data Bernstein uses shows that they are typically still better off absolutely. More rhetorically, talk of winners/losers perpetuates the myth of trade as zero-sum and that does great damage.
Even with these faults, I enjoyed the book and found it relatively readable. For the most part, it eschews technical jargon and so the book rarely drags.
View all my reviews