The Unintended Consequences of God

In The Chosen Few, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein offer an explanation for how Jews wound up in high-skilled, urban occupations. They argue (p. 95) that between 200 and 650 AD,

world Jewry became a small population of literate individuals (“the chosen few”). The unintended consequences of the religious ruling that required Jewish fathers to invest in their sons’ literacy and education fully displayed themselves

Jews became much more literate than other populations, but at a cost of numbers, as those who could not afford to educate their sons converted to other religions. Over this time period (p. 113)

the general population decreased by about 12 percent, whereas the Jewish population collapsed by roughly two-thirds

In those days, most people were farmers, for whom literacy’s costs generally outweighed its benefits. However, in an urbanized society with skilled occupations, literacy pays off. As urbanization gradually increased in the late Middle Ages, Jews came to fill high-skilled occupations. Botticini and Eckstein argue that literacy, rather than persecution, is what led Jews into these occupations.

Urbanization is a very important process in economic development. Jane Jacobs made that argument convincingly. So has Ed Glaeser. Specialization and trade take place in cities, by necessity and by convenience. Without modern transportation, rural areas are cut off from trade. Even today, city dwellers account for a disproportionate share of wealth.

This year’s Super Bowl commercial featured Paul Harvey speaking on the theme that God created the farmer. The commercial has a lot of overtones along the civilization-barbarism axis. If Harvey is correct, then God’s gift of the bible to the Jews had some unintended consequences. Ultimately, according to Botticini and Eckstein, the first monotheists embarked on a course that ultimately led them away from farms and into the urban world of specialization and trade.

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One Response to The Unintended Consequences of God

  1. Georg Thomas says:

    Only beginning with the Carolingian period do we seem to have a reliably and continuously recorded history of the Jews in Germany. Surprisingly (to me), between the 7th century AD and the end of the 11th century AD, Jews appeared not to have suffered systematic prosecution or ostracism. To the contrary, they seemed to have been accepted, often even rather esteemed members of their communities.

    This changed with the advent of the era of the crusades. Henceforth, vicious discrimination appears to have developed a pretty continuous tradition in Germany. The routine malignancy with which Jews were treated is graphically described in Elon’s account of the life of Moses Mendelsohn, a shocking reminder of the long-standing German tradition to treat Jews virtually as Untermenschen (sub-humans). See Amos Elon’s The Pitty of it All:

    In 1933, the Jewish population of Germany was approximately 505,000 people out of a total population of 67 million, or somewhat less than 0.75 percent; it is hard to fathom just how much brilliance and attainment inhered in such a tiny minority.

    A long tradition of cultivating educational and intellectual achievement would seem to fit as a (rather large) piece in the puzzle of Jewish excellence.

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