The Debt We Owe to Trade


A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, William J. Bernstein, Atlantic Monthly Press, 494 pages, $30

It was the year 1600 and coffee had become wildly popular all over Europe, just as it had been popular all over the Muslim world since its discovery 900 years earlier. The sitting pope was Clement VIII. His advisers urged him to do something to stop the coffee mania then spreading across Christendom. He tasted the coffee, reflected on its properties, and then, to the astonishment of his advisors, blessed it as a Christian beverage.

Long live the pope!

Matters weren’t so simple in the Protestant world. The beverage was still a raging controversy in parts of Germany in the 18th century, as J. S. Bach’s hilarious "Coffee Cantata" demonstrates.

The story, which is apparently true from all the checking I’ve done, appears on page 247 of a marvelous book that covers not only the expansion of the coffee trade but all trade of all goods and services from the stone age to the present day, and does so in a marvelously intriguing way. The book is A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, by William J. Bernstein. The book is long — 494 pages — but engaging on every page.

After finishing the book, I found myself thinking about its contents constantly. Its subject is so ubiquitous that it is hardly ever closely analyzed. The time period stretches from age to age; the geography covers the planet; and the items covered include spices, coffee, silk, pigs and pork, precious metals, oil, and, really, just about everything else. Bernstein demonstrates thousands of times that the world as we know it would be unrecognizable without trade, and shows that trade has shaped who we are in ways that none of us fully recognizes. The historical detail is amazing. The writing is scholarly but clear and fascinating on every page.

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Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of

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