Book Summary: “Why did Europe Conquer the World?” by Philip Hoffman


Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

Title: Why did Europe Conquer the World?
Author: Philip Hoffman
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Hoffman develops a “Tournament theory” for why Europe was able to develop such powerful militaries that they could conquer much of the world.

My Comments

Hoffman gives further evidence the decentralization of political and economic power with institutions competing against each other leads to innovation, in this case to military innovation.

Important Points from Book

Hoffman argues that the reason that Europe was able to conquer the world because they developed superior military weapons, training and administration. Borrowing from economic theory, he presents a Tournament theory – the sort of competition that, under the right conditions, can drive contestants to exert enormous efforts in the hope of winning a prize. Between the late Middle Ages (1300-1500) and the nineteenth century, Europe witnessed a tournament… The prize for the rules engaged in this grim content was financial gain, territorial expansion, defense of the faith, or glory of victory. To snatch the prize, they raised taxes and lavished resources on armies and navies that used the gunpowder technology and advanced it by learning from the mistakes, especially in the nineteenth century, by doing research… Elsewhere political and military incentives worked against such an outcome.

Tournament model predicts that military technologies will evolve under the following conditions:

  1. Wars are frequent.
  2. Benefits to rulers of winning must be high, and the cost of losing must be low.
  3. Rulers must use modern military technology much more than traditional military technologies. New technologies have much higher chance of improvement via learning by doing than older technologies.
  4. Rulers must face few obstacles to adoption.

Conditions in Western Europe:

  1. European rulers most wanted glory from military struggle and victory. It could only be gained via war. Therefore, they constantly engage in war.
  2. European rulers stood much to gain from military victory (new land, taxation sources and glory), while the consequences were born by the peasantry (taxation, conscription, devastated land), so there was no reason to stop.
  3. The peasantry had little voice in government, so their concerns were ignored.
  4. The military technology used will be determined by the ruler’s opponent. Western Europe was isolated from steppe nomads, so they could focus their resources on new technologies.
  5. Western European societies perfected their military technologies, training and administration via learning by doing (i.e. fighting wars, viewing the results, making changes that they anticipate to work in next round of wars).
  6. The Western European ruler devoted vast majority of their resources to war, because the one that devoted the most resources to their military:
    1. Had the highest chance of victory
    1. Had the most wars, which gave them learning opportunities.
    1. Had the ability to implement lessons learned with change.
  7. Western European nations were close enough to each other for diffusion to occur easily.

Conditions outside Western Europe:

  1. Gunpowder technology was relatively ineffective against the Steppe nomads who threatened China, India, Ottoman Empire and Russia. These societies had to devote a significant amount of their military resources on mounted archers. This gave them fewer resources to devote to new technologies.
  2. China was a hegemonic military so it nor its neighbors had little incentive to invest in military.

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