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Why Did Europe Conquer the World?


  • Philip T. Hoffman

    (California Institute of Technology)


Between 1492 and 1914, Europeans conquered 84 percent of the globe. But why did Europe rise to the top, when for centuries the Chinese, Japanese, Ottomans, and South Asians were far more advanced? Why didn’t these powers establish global dominance? In Why Did Europe Conquer the World?, distinguished economic historian Philip Hoffman demonstrates that conventional explanations—such as geography, epidemic disease, and the Industrial Revolution—fail to provide answers. Arguing instead for the pivotal role of economic and political history, Hoffman shows that if variables had been at all different, Europe would not have achieved critical military innovations, and another power could have become master of the world. In vivid detail, Hoffman sheds light on the two millennia of economic, political, and historical changes that set European states on a distinctive path of development and military rivalry. Compared to their counterparts in China, Japan, South Asia, and the Middle East, European leaders—whether chiefs, lords, kings, emperors, or prime ministers—had radically different incentives, which drove them to make war. These incentives, which Hoffman explores using an economic model of political costs and financial resources, resulted in astonishingly rapid growth in Europe’s military sector from the Middle Ages on, and produced an insurmountable lead in gunpowder technology. The consequences determined which states established colonial empires or ran the slave trade, and even which economies were the first to industrialize. Debunking traditional arguments, Why Did Europe Conquer the World? reveals the startling reasons behind Europe’s historic global supremacy.

Suggested Citation

  • Philip T. Hoffman, 2015. "Why Did Europe Conquer the World?," Economics Books, Princeton University Press, edition 1, number 10452.
  • Handle: RePEc:pup:pbooks:10452

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    Blog mentions

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    Cited by:

    1. Johan Schot & Laur Kanger, 2016. "Deep Transitions: Emergence, Acceleration, Stabilization and Directionality," SPRU Working Paper Series 2016-15, SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School.
    2. Broadberry, Stephen & Wallis, John, 2017. "Growing, Shrinking and Long Run Economic Performance: Historical Perspectives on Economic Development," CAGE Online Working Paper Series 323, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).
    3. Bo, Shiyu & Deng, Liuchun & Sun, Yufeng & Wang, Boqun, 2021. "Intergovernmental communication under decentralization," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 184(C), pages 606-652.
    4. Johnson, Noel D. & Koyama, Mark, 2017. "States and economic growth: Capacity and constraints," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 64(C), pages 1-20.
    5. Igor Fedyukin, 2016. ""Westernizations” from Peter I to Meiji: War, Political Competition, and Reform," HSE Working papers WP BRP 122/HUM/2016, National Research University Higher School of Economics.
    6. Ma, Debin & Rubin, Jared, 2019. "The Paradox of Power: Principal-agent problems and administrative capacity in Imperial China (and other absolutist regimes)," Journal of Comparative Economics, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 277-294.
    7. Jared Rubin & Debin Ma, 2017. "The Paradox of Power: Understanding Fiscal Capacity in Imperial China and Absolutist Regimes," Working Papers 17-02, Chapman University, Economic Science Institute.
    8. Shuo, Chen & Ma, Debin, 2020. "States and Wars: China’s Long March towards Unity and its Consequences, 221 BC – 1911 AD," CAGE Online Working Paper Series 505, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).
    9. Barry Eichengreen, 2020. "From Commodity to Fiat and Now to Crypto: What Does History Tell Us?," World Scientific Book Chapters, in: Bernard Yeung (ed.), DIGITAL CURRENCY ECONOMICS AND POLICY, chapter 3, pages 29-68, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd..
    10. Iyigun, Murat & Rubin, Jared & Seror, Avner, 2021. "A theory of cultural revivals," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 135(C).
    11. Dziubinski, M. & Goyal, S. & Minarsch, D. E. N., 2017. "The Strategy of Conquest," Cambridge Working Papers in Economics 1704, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge.
    12. Fernández-Villaverde, Jesús & Koyama, Mark & Lin, Youhong & Sng, Tuan-Hwee, 2020. "The Fractured-Land Hypothesis," CEPR Discussion Papers 15209, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    13. Bekkers, Eddy & Francois, Joseph & Rojas-Romagosa, Hugo, 2019. "Trade Wars: Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition," Papers 1234, World Trade Institute.
    14. Iyigun, Murat & Rubin, Jared & Seror, Avner, 2018. "A Theory of Conservative Revivals," IZA Discussion Papers 11954, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    15. Thilo R. Huning & Fabian Wahl, 2016. "You Reap What You Know: Observability of Soil Quality, and Political Fragmentation," Working Papers 0101, European Historical Economics Society (EHES).
    16. Koyama, Mark & Moriguchi, Chiaki & Sng, Tuan-Hwee, 2018. "Geopolitics and Asia’s little divergence: State building in China and Japan after 1850," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 155(C), pages 178-204.
    17. Geloso, Vincent J. & Salter, Alexander W., 2020. "State capacity and economic development: Causal mechanism or correlative filter?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 170(C), pages 372-385.
    18. Jeffry Frieden & Arthur Silve, 2021. "The political reception of innovations," Cahiers de recherche 2105, Centre de recherche sur les risques, les enjeux économiques, et les politiques publiques.
    19. Dincecco, Mark & Fenske, James & Menon, Anil, 2020. "The Columbian Exchange and conflict in Asia," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 1319, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
    20. Belmonte, Alessandro & Di Lillo, Armando, 2018. "From Italianization to Germanization : Division of Labor, Economic Rents, and Anti-German Attitudes in South Tyrol," CAGE Online Working Paper Series 379, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).
    21. Philip T. Hoffman, 2020. "The Great Divergence: Why Britain Industrialised First," Australian Economic History Review, Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand, vol. 60(2), pages 126-147, July.
    22. Eduardo Alberto Crespo & Tiago Nasser Appel, 2020. "How competition drove social complexity: the role of war in the emergence of States, both ancient and modern," Brazilian Journal of Political Economy, Brazilian Journal of Political Economy (Brazil), vol. 40(4), October-D.
    23. Dincecco, Mark & Wang, Yuhua, 2018. "Internal Conflict, Elite Action, and State Failure: Evidence from China, 1000-1911," MPRA Paper 87777, University Library of Munich, Germany.


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