Luck and The Spoils of War

by Roger Alford

There is an interesting paradox in Mead’s book between luck and the spoils of war. On the one hand, Mead spends much of the book suggesting that the English were just plain lucky. “By luck or … the providence of God, England was in the right place with the right mix of social and economic conditions at the right time.” (p. 176). England had the Goldilocks touch. Within Europe, England was in the Goldilocks spot of real estate: close enough to benefit fully from Europe’s acceleration, but out of the way to avoid repeated invasion and ruin. England had a Goldilocks reformation, not so hot to result in ruinous civil wars (like Germany) and not so cold that one Christian denomination could establish a secure position and drive out all rivals (like much of southern Europe). It also had a Goldilocks state, neither too soft like early modern Germany, where the Holy Roman Empire had dissolved into hundreds of tiny local jurisdictions incapable of acting on a wide scale, nor too hard, as in Spain and France, where increasingly powerful kings and rigid bureaucracies crushed local authority and private initiative. (pp. 178-183).

On the other hand, much of his historical analysis would suggest that England was able to secure its favored position as a result of the spoils of war. “During all these many wars, while the continental powers wore one another out with titanic ruinously expensive struggles on land, the Anglo-Saxons occupied themselves with the crown jewels of their power strategies: they entrenched themselves more deeply than ever in the global system by stealing the colonies of their warring rivals. The British forced France out of India and North America using this technique; they used it to take the Cape Colony from the Dutch…. Sometimes the lands the British grabbed belonged to their enemies; sometimes, whoops, they belonged to their allies, but over time the British systematically dismantled rival colonial empires.” (pp. 111-12).

I would be quite curious about how Mead reconciles these two versions of the story. After all, five hundred years ago it was far from expected that the center of gravity in world power would shift dramatically toward England. (p. 173). But when Mead gets to the question of exactly why Anglo-Saxons became king of the hill, he falls back on benign notions of luck and culturally affinity and fails to return to his earlier assessment of England’s cunning history.

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