Archives For 5-Minute University

Sometimes the ways that societies arrange themselves look strange from the outside, or from the future, but yield great results in their time.

The pre-modern British aristocracy is a great case in point. They threw lavish parties for one another at expensive “county seats” dotted around the county. They died in duels, inherited titles and didn’t train their offspring in any useful skills. Yet this arrangement gave the world Rule, Britannia for almost 300 years.

The Institutional Revolution, by UCLA historian Doug Allen, describes how this set of norms and institutions worked. Along the way, Allen creates the memorable term “hostage capital,” which describes how the aristocrats were “all in” on their lifestyle: If they were cut off by the court, they would have little or nothing to survive on. No assets, no reputation, no useful skills. Everything depended on succeeding with their responsibilities.

In this 5minU (Five Minute University), I share what I learned from his book, particularly how it relates to creating trust at a distance. For example, how could Queen Elizabeth be pretty damned sure that Sir Francis Drake was acting in the Crown’s best interests and not his own, while he was on the other side of the globe?

Here’s the book, in context, in my Brain.

Btw, if we all created 5minUs, our reading lists would all get shorter — and we’d get to know one another better. Please publish yours and tag them #5minU.

How we used to live together

Jerry —  August 8, 2013 — 5 Comments

We are modern. We see the world through modern eyes, in a modern context. It’s very hard to unlearn that perspective, or even to understand what it means.

From the modernist point of view, a lot of behaviors and institutions from times gone by make no sense at all. If you want to be entertained learning why the strange customs of the British pre-modern aristocracy were actually well suited to their times and contributed directly to a couple hundred years of Rule Britannia, read The Institutional Revolution: Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World, by Doug Allen.

That would be entertaining, but not as useful as a reading of The Great Transformation, written by Karl Polanyi in 1944. In the video below, I distill what I got from the book. I’ll offer some comments after it.

The three ways we stayed alive before: householding, reciprocity and redistribution. The three fictitious commodities brought by the industrial revolution: land, labor and money. Poverty, new in 1650; unemployment, new in 1750. The mind boggles.

I’m going to keep creating 5minUs of books that have influenced me, and I encourage you to, as well. Together we might be able to read our way through huge stacks of important works. Contradictions and debate welcome. That’s the point, too.