Published by EH.NET (June 2009)

Dennis M.P. McCarthy, International Economic Integration in Historical Perspective. New York: Routledge, 2006. xii + 254 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-77027-9.

Review for EH.NET by John R. Hanson II, Department of Economics, Texas A&M University.

This is a vague title because there are many historical perspectives one could take on globalization today. The proliferation in recent times of econometric work based on the principle of the economic integration of world commodity markets in the past is one such. This is a leading approach today, as a perusal of recent issues of the leading economic history journals indicates. Another approach, allied to the first, is statistically descriptive. What actually were the magnitudes of international flows of capital, goods, and labor in the past? This is also a common approach today, although less so than the other. Both are in the tradition of what used to be called the New Economic History.

The volume under review, however, is pure Old Economic History. It is largely non-statistical, non-theoretical and proffers conclusions based on the expertise of the author gleaned from qualitative sources. Though empirically based, it does not truck with modern studies, especially not the abundance of econometric ones published by Jeffrey Williamson and his associates in obvious outlets. It has, on the contrary, the air of wisdom gained from a lifetime of study of certain historical events and episodes in international economic integration. The question is whether such a treatment of various unconnected topics falling under the general rubric of international integration adds much to our understanding of today or of the past. Another question is whether this work belongs to the ?lessons from history? genre of historical writing or the ?historical roots of the present world? genre. The author seems to want membership in both. Either way, I learned something, but not much which sheds light on the present, either as guide to policy or roots of the current situation.

After an introduction which tries to define or give coherence to the body of the work, the author presents a series of chapters about internationalization in the past. These include chapters on colonial empires, merchant associations, religious empires, criminal empires, free trade areas, customs unions, and common markets, all in 194 pages of text. Obviously the discussions of each are cursory, but on those subjects with which I am familiar I found the author?s discussion and opinions well-grounded and to the point. So as an informative introduction for undergraduates to some interesting and sometimes neglected international history I was not disappointed. But what does it all mean?

For example, the author portrays most of this as the back story to the modern world, which is generally true. Modern globalization does not arise from a vacuum. The institutions described represent or are implied to represent the connection-building which let modern globalization flourish. Leaving aside the glaring omission of multinational enterprise, which the author apologizes for, it is not made clear what precisely the contribution of any of these things was to the present. Criminal empires? What does modern globalization have to do with the Mafia? What we get is a discussion of how the Mafia operates, period. There is no discussion of it as a model for the international drug trade, which is only briefly referenced, or anything else. This lack of close linkage of historical topics to present conditions is disguised by the author?s frequent use of the word ?panorama? to describe what I would call his arbitrary (but not uninteresting) collection of episodes about international economic contact in the past.

As for lessons learned from study of these episodes, there is little of interest. The summary at the end continues the effort begun in the introduction to unify the disparate topics, but it can hardly be considered a guide to modern policy. Again, the ?lessons learned? seem unique to the event which produced the ?lessons.? The author needs to show in more detail what the moral of his tales is ? the takeaway (as my students like to say). My takeaway is the impression of a failed effort to bring modern pertinence to some very interesting historical material.

John R. Hanson II is Professor of Economics at Texas A&M University and Stipendiary Fellow of the Glasscock Center for the Humanities at Texas A&M. Among his publications are “Proxies in the New Political Economy: Caveat Emptor” Economic Inquiry, October, 2003. He is at work on denominational issues in the colonial American money supply.