Horwitz reviews The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel, an economic history of the textile industry.

I, Clothing

Steven Horwitz is Economics Editor at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise at Ball State University. Horwitz has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and macroeconomics.

Virginia Postrel’s The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World (NY: Basic Books, 2020) is not a “libertarian book,” but it is a book that libertarians should most definitely read. The former editor of Reason magazine and author of several other excellent books, including the prescient and under‐​appreciated The Future and its Enemies, has constructed a story of human progress as seen through the history of textiles. Textiles have been central to human society for as long as there has been anything resembling society, and the story of how they have been used and of the advancements in their production and distribution track the story of civilization itself. Postrel tells this story with an exceptional combination of detailed knowledge of textile production, the history of fabric, and the economics of the long history of the textile market. It is also beautifully written. The result is a book that provides deep insight into the progress of humanity via one of the most mundane and common elements of our civilization.

In many ways, The Fabric of Civilization can be read as a contribution to the literature on innovation and human progress. It is in the broad tradition of everything from Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource, to Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, to Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues trilogy, to Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (and his more recent How Innovation Works). Unlike those books, which are written at various levels of generality, Postrel is working at the very micro level, both applying and illustrating those ideas by a close‐​up look at one category of human creations. With that more narrow spotlight on textiles, it often reads like an extended, deeper, more scholarly version of Leonard Read’s classic little essay “I, Pencil.”

A brief review cannot capture the detail Postrel brings to her discussion of the history of textiles and dyes, as well as the processes by which they are turned into finished products. Weavers, knitters, and other crafters will better appreciate, and understand more completely, her descriptions of the evolution of early textile technology. But even without knowing all the detail, two things are clear. First, much of the innovation in textiles is illustrative of a point that Adam Smith makes in his discussion of the division of labor in The Wealth of Nations. He points out that when someone has one specific task as part of a larger production process, they have both an in‐​depth knowledge of their work and the incentive to find ways to make it easier. Advances in technology are often the result of “the inventions of such workmen, in order to facilitate and quicken their own particular part of the work.” Postrel offers numerous examples of improvements in machinery or dyeing techniques that arose from the trial and error processes of those who were doing the actual work.

It’s also worth noting that in that same discussion of the division of labor in The Wealth of Nations, one of Smith’s illustrative examples is textiles: “How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woolen manufactures, from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth!”

There is also a broader point illustrated by Postrel’s textile examples. When we think of innovation, we often imagine only the really big inventions or institutions. As it turns out, many of the changes that really improve living standards are an accumulation of important improvements on the margin. Figuring out how to get a dye to withstand repeated washings, for example. Or how to get more and better yarn out of a given amount of cotton. We know of the major advances, but we often overlook the smaller, incremental innovations that add up over time. For example, in her discussion of the evolution of silk production, Postrel (29) notes, “Alone, none of these innovations was momentous, but together they allowed farmers to produce significantly more silk with the same amount of land and labor. That productivity boost enabled them to bear the burden of heavier taxes while still taking advantage of new commercial markets.” Postrel’s book offers numerous powerful illustrations of this important point.

In our own time, the automobile is more or less the same fundamental technology as it was 100 years ago, but advances in materials and technology have made cars more durable, more safe, and more comfortable in ways that have slowly, but very significantly, improved consumer welfare.

For those interested in the role of markets and economic forces in both the history of textiles and the broader story of human progress, The Fabric of Civilization has much to offer. Because of their centrality to so much economic activity for thousands of years, textiles offer numerous examples of both the power of markets and the desire of governments to regulate markets in the name of either raising revenue or protecting politically powerful or useful producers. Or both. Many of the advances in production Postrel documents came as a result of what we today might call “permissionless innovation.” Whether by those doing the work or those investigating the chemistry that was its foundation, the ability to experiment without permission made possible the large scale and incremental advances in textiles.

But new ideas are not sufficient for true progress. We also need a method for sorting out the good ideas from the bad ones. That is the role of the profit and loss test of the marketplace. The new inventions in textile production that reduced costs, raised wages, and expanded markets were the ones that met the wants of consumers and passed the profit and loss test. The ways in which the average global citizen is able to clothe herself with affordable and durable fabrics today is the result of the long process of permissionless innovation and the profit and loss test filtering in what worked and weeding out what didn’t. Postrel’s close examination of textiles beautifully illustrates this process.

One of the recurring themes in the book ties back to the idea of “dynamism” that was so central to Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies. This ongoing process of innovation and change continually produces winners and losers. It is hardly a recent idea that the potential losers might ask government to protect them from new innovations, or that they might try to destroy the machines that they saw as costing them their livelihood. Postrel (66–67) offers a nice story about the Luddites, the hand weavers who destroyed the new looms that they perceived as threats to their jobs. The reason the hand weavers had their moment of glory from which the new looms were seen as a threat was because the machines they worked with were more productive than those that came before them. Their objections to power looms were exactly the same ones that their predecessors raised about their more productive mechanical spinning. In the long run, of course, this dynamic process of innovation makes us all better off, including the short‐​run losers, and one of the hardest challenges for those who understand this point is figuring out how to prevent the political incentives in favor of protectionism from undermining that dynamism.

Following in this same dynamism theme is Postrel’s discussion of the way in which the textile trade was crucial to the evolution of a variety of important economic institutions. Silk was frequently used as a medium of exchange centuries ago, with traders keeping stocks of it on hand for use in transactions with strangers. As Postrel points out, what makes something money is that traders use it as such. Silk also happens to have many of the desirable physical characteristics of a money – it was sufficiently scarce, as well as portable and divisible. As necessary as those are, they are not sufficient. A commodity only works as money if traders value it, and traders valued silk.

The textile trade also created opportunities for financial innovation. Bills of exchange, which were an early form of credit that enabled limited supplies of money to finance more transactions, grew out of the expansion of middlemen in the trading process. Textile manufacturers and traders had to figure out how to solve a number of what economists call “principal‐​agent” problems as trade extended across greater geographical distances and involved increasing numbers of strangers. As Paul Seabright’s terrific book The Company of Strangers argues, many of our economic institutions evolved as way to turn strangers into honorary friends. Postrel’s discussion is a nice application of that point, as she explains how the development of the written alphabet and then letters and contracts were essential to making that sort of geographically distant trade possible. She also shows how much of that extended trading network was geared toward meeting the ever‐​changing demands of consumers.

Beyond all of these economic innovations, textiles played a key role in perhaps the most important economic institution of them all: double‐​entry bookkeeping. It is not mere coincidence that it was the “mercantile cities of early modern Italy” that gave birth to the use of the “nine Hindu digits and Arabic zero” for the purposes of mathematical and then commercial calculation (160). Postrel describes how the Italian merchants brought this innovation with them as they traded throughout the Mediterranean world: “Just as the alphabet once journeyed with Phoenicians carrying Tyrian purple, so calculation traveled with silk and woolen cloth. Once again, the textile trade gave the world new ways to think and communicate”(160).

The commercial application of the new mathematics in double‐​entry bookkeeping enabled the calculation of profit and loss far more accurately than previous methods, and thereby provided “better information on the state of business” and allowed merchants to better manage a variety of enterprises that were often geographically dispersed (161). This ability to use prices and mathematics to engage in monetary calculation is central to the advantages market economies hold over non‐​market alternatives. Monetary calculation is what filters the large number of possible ways of producing goods and services into those that actually create value for consumers and use resources efficiently.

Too often economic progress is discussed in terms of technological advancements. But knowing how to do things in a technological sense is only part of the challenge. The bigger questions are what we should produce and which inputs we should use to produce those things. Those questions can only be answered by the use of monetary calculation, using modern mathematics and tools like double‐​entry bookkeeping. What Postrel shows is that the development of these methods and tools, like several other economic institutions, were intimately bound up with the textile trade. As those methods and tools were refined, they enabled entrepreneurs and merchants of all kinds to make better use of scarce resources and better serve consumers. Today they remain the often‐​invisible wellsprings of human progress.

This is the sense in which Postrel’s title is more than just a nice play on words. Textiles, and their trade, are very much “the fabric of civilization” in the role they played in the development of forms of communication and institutions of exchange that have come to define modern civilization. These institutions also play a key role in “civilizing” us as well. By bringing trade and economic competition to the center of human life, the institutions of the market economy slowly pushed out violence, coercion, and conquest as the primary ways humans interacted. The increasing social cooperation that specialization, trade, and economic calculation have made possible in the last few centuries is unique and precious in human history. We really do live in the best of times, and the human‐​rights and and economic institutions that libertarians celebrate are the primary reason why. Virginia Postrel’s book makes a compelling case that the history of textiles is also the history of the emergence of these institutions and that textiles are therefore central to the story of liberty, human progress, and civilization itself.