Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
I took a “maritime studies” course in college, and my one major takeaway from it was that the colonial era was best understood in the context of Europe’s rather lackluster medieval period. Not that the popular understanding of the Middle Ages as a backward, ignorant time is exactly correct—progress in most arts and sciences actually continued unabated during the era (medieval architecture, notably, is far more technically advanced than Roman architecture)—but that Europe was a bit of an armpit. It wasn’t a time of ignorance, per se, but it was a time of poverty, on a continental scale.
In short, major trade routes broke down, leaving the Western world with very little access to neat stuff. No spices, no sugar, no coffee, basically nothing that you can’t produce on a cold, godforsaken rock of a continent. (So…lots of cheese and sausage.) That’s not to defend colonialism, but when you spend five hundred years as the world’s armpit, well…you’re going to be looking for a way out. Y’know, even if it involves sacking and pillaging the literal entire world.And if taking diseased things, giving them stupid names, and selling them for absurd prices isn’t what capitalism is all about, I don’t know what is.
Maybe that helps put the insanity of the craze we’re about to talk about in its proper context—Europe, going into the modern era, was just a place that didn’t have a lot of cool, pretty things to get excited about. Lots of sanitation issues and plagues, but not a lot else to look forward to on the weekend. What I’m saying is, it’s not that insane that people in the eighteenth-century Netherlands would consider blowing their entire life savings on a single tulip.
Okay, maybe it is, but you get my point.
The story of the tulip in Europe, like the story of basically everything cool in Europe, is a story of importation. Tulips may be considered a symbol of Holland now, but they’re actually native to the Middle East and weren’t brought to Europe until 1554—though in this case, it was a gift from an Ottoman ambassador, not something taken at bayonet point, so there’s that, I guess. Despite its place of origin, though, it proved surprisingly well-suited to growing in European soil, and soon it was being cultivated in the Netherlands. In 1714, the Netherlands managed to throw off their Spanish rulers and become a Protestant Republic, and without the Catholic Church’s oppressive rule, they no longer had to worry about nonsense like “piety” and “virtue,” and could go ahead and spend all their money on really, really stupid stuff. It was, in many ways, the birth of capitalism as we know it today.
More seriously, the Netherlands were becoming something of a trading hub—and yes, the switch from Catholicism to Protestantism did help here, since Catholicism has, rightly or wrongly, historically been more squeamish about lending and speculative investing—which led to a burgeoning middle class of merchants. And of course, we all know how middle-class people roll: they pretend to be rich. So the market for luxury goods began booming right as tulips were beginning to be cultivated in earnest. Tulips, being both (1) pretty and (2) rare—for the moment at least—fit the bill perfectly. Families began to show off their wealth by planting tulips on their property.
Of course, when demand for a product rises, supply tends to rise to meet that demand. So, as more people bought tulips, more people started growing tulips, which meant that tulips became more common, which somewhat lessened their usefulness as a status symbol. This, in turn, led to an arms race of who could get their hands on the most exotic-looking tulips. The most prized tulips turned out to be the multicolored ones, because each multicolored tulip was rare and unique. Somewhat ironically, the “color-breaking” that was so prized was actually caused by a viral infection, meaning these tulips were probably in pain and most likely would have moaned “Kill me…” to whoever walked by, if tulips were able to talk, but they aren’t, so it was all good. To top things off, they started giving these tulips completely absurd names like “Admiral of Enkhuizen,” “Semper Augustus,” and “General of Generals of Gouda.” And if taking diseased things, giving them stupid names, and selling them for absurd prices isn’t what capitalism is all about, I don’t know what is.
The problem, though, with a tulip is that it can take up to a dozen years for tulips to go from seed to flower, which had the effect of slowing trade down more than people liked. The result was that Dutch traders developed some of the earliest known examples of “futures” contracts, in which people would buy contracts giving them the rights to tulip harvests years in advance of their blooming. If the holder of this contract got bored of sitting around waiting, he could in turn sell it to someone else at a tidy profit. The fact that this could happen over and over while the tulips were still out in the field started to attract…outside attention.
In short, people started to notice a pattern—that every investor was managing to sell tulips and bulbs for more than what he bought them for—and soon people who barely even knew what a “tulip” was were entering the market, looking to make some sweet, sweet florist money. Of course, all of these new investors (and many of the old ones as well) were possessed of what we now call the “greater fool” fallacy—the idea that, no matter how stupidly absurd the amount they paid for a tulip bulb was, there would always be someone willing to pay an even more stupidly absurd price. The problem with this assumption is (or should be) obvious: eventually—despite appearances to the contrary—the universe runs out of morons. By now, a single tulip bulb was selling for more than the average craftsman could expect to earn in twenty years of labor, and…one day, people just woke up and said, “I…don’t think I’ll be able to sell that for more than it would cost to buy it.” Almost overnight, people just stopped showing up to the auctions, and the price of tulips crashed, leaving former millionaires with nothing to show for it but a bunch of stupid flowers. Which, I don’t know, they say a thing of beauty is a joy forever, so maybe they came out ahead here?
That was the long-accepted story of the Dutch tulip bubble, anyway—and this story went basically unchallenged by historians until the 1980s. In the last forty years, however, historians have questioned whether the popular account is entirely accurate, noting that most of it comes from a handful of pamphlets written by people with real axes to grind against Dutch traders. One skeptic, economist Peter Garber, famously called the bubble “no more than a meaningless winter drinking game, played by a plague-ridden population that made use of the vibrant tulip market.” In other words, it was a bunch of people who were likely to die soon in unpleasant ways, looking to just feel something before they kicked off.If you don’t have any sort of hope beyond death, the absurdity of everything tends to hit you hard. And then you end up doing stupid stuff, like betting the family farm on a bunch of tulips.
I’ve actually been thinking about this a bit as I watched the lockdown protestors do their thing lately. I keep asking myself if they can seriously be denying the evidence in front of them of this plague’s danger. If getting a haircut can really be so important to them. And I keep coming up with…no? Probably not? Just like people in the Netherlands probably knew tulips were kinda stupid?
If you look at the polls, there’s actually wide support for the shutdown, even among the usual “don’t tread on me” set. People go out, they scream at police officers who probably don’t deserve it, and then they go home. I’m sure there are people among them who really believe COVID-19 is a liberal hoax or whatever, but I’d guess most of them are just exercising a lot of pent up emotion. Lashing out because they don’t know what to do in the face of the uncertainty. If you don’t have any sort of hope beyond death, the absurdity of everything tends to hit you hard. And then you end up doing stupid stuff, like betting the family farm on a bunch of tulips.