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?
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.