THE ORIGINS OF BUSINESS, MONEY, AND MARKETS by Keith Roberts

THE ORIGINS OF BUSINESS, MONEY, AND MARKETS

KIRKUS REVIEW

In this comprehensive survey of historical scholarship, a business executive explores the ancient roots of business and finds lessons for public policy today.

A Harvard-trained history major and lawyer, Roberts has worked as a litigator and mediator, as well as general counsel or chief executive for varied business ventures. This ambitious debut establishes his bona fides as a first-rate historian. In 270 pages of granular but surprisingly brisk narrative sprinkled with maps and tables, he distills 5,000 years of history into a coherent story of business as a distinct profit-seeking activity. (Endnotes fill 50 pages; his bibliography adds 20 more.) From Fertile Crescent agricultural surpluses that supported cities, Roberts traces the evolution of governance that gave rise to wealth, trade, occupations, currencies and markets. Throughout, he conveys complicated material concisely, displays a nimble command of vocabulary and uses interesting stories to make points. There are a few shortcomings. Roberts’ presentation is sometimes too fluid—like going for drinks with a professor whose banter dips in and out of historical periods without realizing his pupil cannot keep up. The text also contains unnecessary repetition. In one case, he deploys two identically footnoted, virtually word-for-word sentences in the span of three pages. The focus is entirely on Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and European antiquity—the antecedents of Western-style business, which he accepts as universal today. Given the rise of China’s command economy and popularity of Sun Tzu’s writings in business circles, the scope of Roberts’ text seems narrow. Otherwise, the author does a stellar job of identifying modern business origins while rendering a multifaceted refresher course in ancient civilizations. Further, he delivers excellent commentary on what history should teach us, warning that businesses often pursue short-term profits even against their own long-term interests; “The interests of business are so different from those of any legitimate sovereign that it governs very badly indeed. That is why catastrophic results followed when business exerted political power for the first and only time in ancient history,” he writes about the late Roman Republic.

A badly needed tonic for free-market zealotry and a major accomplishment in the field of business history.

 

Pub Date: June 5th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0231153263
Page count: 357pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:




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