Bryan Caplan  

Gonick the Great - and How He Could Have Been Greater

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Larry Gonick has finally completed his magisterial five-volume cartoon history of the universe.  It all started with The Cartoon History of the Universe 1 (1990), followed by The Cartoon History of the Universe 2 (1994), and The Cartoon History of the Universe III (2002).  The titles of the last two volumes are different, but it's a continuous narrative.  The fourth volume, The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1 (2006) picks up where the third volume left off, and the last volume, The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 2 (2009) takes us all the way through the Iraq War.  Hard as it is to believe, you can get all five books for under $100.  This series is a steal.

Gonick's masterpiece has many virtues: It's full of facts and wisdom, horror and humor.  It treats the Great Butchers and Useless Idiots of history with the respect they deserve.  It's multi-cultural in the good sense: He impartially covers a wide variety of human cultures, and spares no sacred cows.  He's a master of the Entertaining Aside, as well as what Tullock calls the "open secrets" of history. 

Gonick's one-two punch of pictures and words isn't just a gimmick; it makes it much easier to remember the facts of history.  If we really wanted kids (or adults!) to learn history, we'd throw away our textbooks, and teach Gonick.  Everyone from kindergarteners to Ph.D.s can enjoy his cartoon histories - they're The Simpsons of history.  Seriously - I read these books to my sons when they were in kindergarten, and they couldn't get enough.

Still, the series could have been better, especially the last volume.  Gonick barely mentions the three amazing and almost unprecedented facts of the last two centuries: The doubling of life expectancy, the six-fold increase in population, and (by conservative estimates) the TEN-fold increase in per-capita income.  Sure, he talks a little about industrialization, new technology, and cheaper stuff.  But he doesn't notice that a billion human beings now live better than the emperors of Rome. 

None of this is a political point - Brad DeLong will tell you the same thing.  But I confess that I'm also unhappy with Gonick's leftist economics.  He makes snide references to free trade, without even considering that free trade might really be an important reason for rapid progress.  And he writes about 19th-century socialists' critique of industrialization as if they had a point.  They didn't.  The socialists were lashing out at the greatest thing that ever happened to mankind - and when they seized power, they proved to be the kind of bloodthirsty tyrants Gonick exposed in his earlier volumes. 

The source of his blind spot, perhaps, is his historian's sense that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."  Gonick's so used to conquerors' phony rationalizations that he assumes that free-market policies are just the latest window dressing for plunder.   If he took some time to appreciate the modern world, to admit that it is a miracle that defies the whole prior history of humanity, he might have wondered whether its underlying economic philosophy could be the real deal.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
woupiestek writes:

What is this free market? The government is involved in ridding the markets of monopolies and cartels, making them more 'free'. So is government intervention part of the free market? What part of government intervention is, and what part is not, and why?

How do you know the free market is good? There has always been government intervention, supposedly opposing the free market. Has the free market ever had the chance to prove itself, then?

With an invisible hand to guide business decisions, the free market sounds like some sort of supernatural power to me. Is there any proof it exists, or must we just have faith?

greenish writes:

There is no invisible hand. That was Adam Smith's point: that certain behaviors (e.g. butchers selling you meat though they have no personal interest in your well-being) that occur in free markets appear to be guided to the untutored, though they are not.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"What is this free market? The government is involved in ridding the markets of monopolies and cartels, making them more 'free'. So is government intervention part of the free market? What part of government intervention is, and what part is not, and why?"

The free market is the set of exchanges that take place voluntarily (in other words, without coercion). More often then not, the government creates monopolies and cartels (rather than gets rid of them) and some of the "monopolies" that it breaks up are actually a boon to consumers (Standard Oil would be an example).

"How do you know the free market is good? There has always been government intervention, supposedly opposing the free market. Has the free market ever had the chance to prove itself, then?"

We don't "know" it is good. From what we know, the more free an economy is the better the long term results (wealth, life expectancy, etc...) and we assume that the pattern will continue as more freedom is achieved.

"With an invisible hand to guide business decisions, the free market sounds like some sort of supernatural power to me. Is there any proof it exists, or must we just have faith?"

The invisible hand is a metaphor for positive externalities that can be expected by allowing people to freely cooperate together (while having secure property rights). All it means is that under certain conditions you trying to improve your own life, you will improve the life of another (for instance, the baby sitter improves her life by trading her services for money and the person who buys her services improves their life by giving up a little money for payment). There is no supernatural power, merely people responding to incentives within a free market (or as Smith would say “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty").

Kurbla writes:
    Bryan writes

    : ... they didn't. The socialists were lashing out at the greatest thing that ever happened to mankind - and when they seized power, they proved to be the kind of bloodthirsty tyrants Gonick exposed in his earlier volumes.

Why do you believe that they were socialists? Because they said so? For example, Stalin said he is socialist and you believe that? His word is good enough for you? You do not require actual collective ownership?

Do you believe that Pol Pot of Democratic Kampuchea was democrat as well?

Kurbla writes:

Bryan writes:


    He makes snide references to free trade, without even considering that free trade might really be an important reason for rapid progress. And he writes about 19th-century socialists' critique of industrialization as if they had a point. They didn't. "

Some important socialists certainly understood that free market is the reason for fast progress:

    Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended ... The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization or rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground -- what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor? (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)
Blackadder writes:

Why do you believe that they were socialists? Because they said so? For example, Stalin said he is socialist and you believe that? His word is good enough for you?

I think Stalin went a little beyond just talk.

Lee writes:

Just this week I bought my first serious-subject comic books, and I'm really enjoying them.

The first was Logicomix: And Epic Search for Truth, a historical graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and other logicians in his era. I picked it up because Herbert Gintis gave it a rave Amazon review.

Also, R. Crumb's illustrated Genesis is very good. Robert Alter gave it pretty high marks in his review in the New Republic (he also provided much of the translation used), while also voicing some concerns about the problems inherent in illustration, such as the way it elides ambiguities in the text on account of its necessary specificity: god had a beard, eg.

I've just order the first book of History of the Universe. Thanks.

John Thacker writes:
The government is involved in ridding the markets of monopolies and cartels, making them more 'free'.

For most of its history, and continuing today, the government creates more monopolies and cartels than it gets rid of. Dislike the ratings agencies, and think that they and their cartel contributed to the recent problem? Realize that their privileged status as the Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations is written into law.

Neil D writes:

"Gonick's so used to conquerors' phony rationalizations that he assumes that free-market policies are just the latest window dressing for plunder."

Yes, this time it's different.

David J. Balan writes:

This probably goes without saying, but it's perfectly possible to believe Bryan's basic point (modern economic growth has led us to have it better than anyone ever had it before, and that markets and trade had a great deal to do with that) without at the same time agreeing that no opponent of capitalism ever had a point. Lots of places in the world enjoy the full fruits of modern economic growth (and don't kill anyone or ship them off to gulags) and yet have some significant socialistic elements.

Tom Grey writes:

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Fenn writes:

actually, you can get them all for about 75 bucks, at least I did this afternoon.

Thanks for the recommendation. Building a library for my 2 month old. You piqued my interest a few months back mentioning these. Checked it out at a book store back then, but this reminder got me to pull the trigger.

lukas writes:

Depressingly often, free market rhetoric and half-baked "free market" policies are just the latest window dressing for plunder. One does not have to be a socialist to see that.

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