Don’t keep saying he didn’t explain England

Too many readers have believed Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms did not really address why England experienced the Industrial Revolution first. Right or wrong, Clark did offer an explanation.

I’ve now read or heard repeatedly that Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms doesn’t bother to explain why the industrial revolution happened in England first, rather than elsewhere in Europe. Just one example, from Tyler Cowen:

Of course the commercial revolution and then the so-called industrial revolution came out of England, not Germany or Italy.  If it could be shown that the English family pattern stood out with regard to the rest of Europe, I would see greater heft in the idea…If family patterns can make the crucial difference, let’s keep as many other factors constant as possible.  Otherwise I’m back to thinking it is institutions (most of all for science) and peer effects, not genetics, at the relevant margin of take-off.  Did commercially active Germans and Italians, during the Renaissance, really fail to propagate their seed?

Clark’s thesis is not that the British became more “genetically capitalist” than other Europeans, but that Europeans (Northwest Europeans ?) in general became so through the “survival of the richest” mechanism that he spent the first half of the book detailing. He chose England as the case study because the data are most complete there. Clark seems to believe the cultural changes he described for England must have also taken place in other parts of Europe, as well.

Clark’s conclusion is basically that England’s rise within the context of Europe was largely a matter of accident. His reasoning, enhanced with my some of own details, is as follows :

(1) “…contrary to appearances, the Industrial Revolution actually stretched back hundreds of years to its origin, and that it was a gradual and evolutionary development that affected other European economies almost as much as England. It was the product of the gradual progress of settled agrarian societies toward a more rational, economically oriented mindset…”

(2) The Industrial Revolution looked sudden and revolutionary because there was also a simultaneous but unrelated explosion in the English population, caused by a still unexplained fall in the age of marriage amongst women, prior to the Demographic Transition of the later 19th century. So the very gradual change in the growth trend of England’s per capita income was “magnified” by the population expansion : popengland There’s no evidence that growth in England’s per capita income was much faster than the Netherlands’ :


growth in per capita income England v Netherlands

(3) The initial phase of the Industrial Revolution in northern England was precipitated by a series of small, simple, even primitive inventions, many of which might have been accomplished centuries earlier, even in Roman times. Indeed, technological innovations had also occurred in France, Germany, the Netherlands, northern Italy and mediaeval England which were arguably more sophisticated than those of Lancashire. For example, this piece of crap roughly doubled the productivity of weaving at English looms in the 1730s :


You can see how it worked in this video. What the “machinist” in the video is doing by himself, had required two people to perform before this piece of crap was “invented”. This rather modest innovation was apparently threatening enough that Luddites burnt the inventor’s house down !

(4) The other innovations in Europe improved the productivity of industries which did not supply mass market consumer goods. Neither the printing press in Germany, nor lumber processing aided by a centrifugal pump in the Netherlands, nor automated silk weaving in France and Italy via the jacquard loom, catered to a mass market. By contrast, as a result of  mechanisation of cotton textile production, Lancashire mills were able to supply cheap goods desired by millions of people.

(5) In addition, the American South became an abundant source of cheap raw cotton.

(6) The industrial revolution spread quickly to continental Europe, suggesting there were few impediments to an industrial revolution, even in France under the Bourbons.

In other words, within the context of Europe, England’s rise was mostly a matter of luck.

k6823Point #5 is kind of ironic. In the brilliant and erudite (but wrong-headed) book The Great Divergence, Kenneth Pomeranz argued that New World resources (as well as the coal deposits of England and the Rhine valley) made it possible for Europe to escape the ecological constraints which he says would have stopped European industrialisation in its tracks. Virgin land in the Americas facilitated the European shift from agriculture to manufacturing by sparing Europeans from having to find more land to grow food and raw materials (like cotton and wool), as well as freeing labour for industry. There was little room for expansion of sugar agriculture in the Mediterranean, but Cuba, Jamaica and Brazil made it possible to get cheaper sugar ; American timber made it possible to slow the deforestation of Europe ; Indian and later American cotton spared Europeans having to grow more wool in the form of sheep (which would have affected food prices since sheep are land-intensive); etc.

But the sudden availability of all that land ripe for intensive exploitation necessarily changed the input mix of the world economy in favour of more land use and more labour use (in terms of slaves), at the expense of capital and technological intensity in production. So if you believe in biased technical change (the idea that innovations occur in order to economise on the use of the most expensive inputs), then it’s possible that the New World delayed European industrialisation and slowed productivity growth because the incentives for a more efficient utilisation of land were reduced. [*]

I believe there are gaps and flaws in this particular part of Clark’s argument, but the point of the blogpost was to clarify his thesis.

[ * Also, Pomeranz’s “ghost acres” don’t really become important until about 1800 for cotton, and until the 1870s, when truly cheap food arrived in Europe from North America and Argentina. ]

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13 Responses to Don’t keep saying he didn’t explain England

  1. Paul says:

    Thanks for clarifying this point.

    “a gradual and evolutionary development that affected other European economies almost as much as England” — well strictly speaking that “almost as much” implies that in England the wealthy had a little bit more reproductive advantage than on the Continent.

    Does Clark defend the idea that in NW Europe the wealthy had more reproductive advantage than in S or E Europe? I think he needs to. In fact I think in terms of econ growth the key contrast is NW Europe vs almost everywhere else.

    In Ch 13 he says the wealthy in Japan and China did not have as much reproductive advantage as in the West.


  2. The evidence Clark presents for Japan and China is limited to aristocratic families and therefore less bountiful and complex than what he presents for England. Both China and Japan had large mercantile classes about whose fertility very little is known. For England Clark showed that the aristocratic rich did not manage to reproduce themselves over time and it was the non-aristocratic rich who were the Darwinian winners. Clark does not present it, but there is some “survival of the richest” data from Sweden and Bavaria/Austria, again not as complex as Clark’s English evidence. The only data I know of from southern Europe is a study of the fertility rates of different grades of nobility in Portugal in the late Middle Ages.


  3. Constant frontier expansion is probably key for China. On a world-wide basis frontier openings always appear to raise fertility rates up to the “carrying capacity” limit. Even Western Europeans who limited fertility with a relatively late age of marriage, would start pumping out children at younger ages once they moved to the New World. Of course in the preindustrial era the “carrying capacity” limit is set by ecology but can be enhanced by technology. Which is why under Malthusian conditions high population density is considered an indicator of technological sophistication. But frontiers, fertility & technology is a topic I have in mind for another day…


  4. Paul says:

    So is it fair to sum up by saying that (a) in England there is solid evidence the non-aristocratic rich had reproductive success but (b) elsewhere in Europe and Asia it could be the case but we just don’t really know (c) we can be pretty sure the Ashkenazim had a long history of survival of the non-aristocratic richest too.


  5. yes on (a) and (b). Re [c] I assume that’s true because I find Cochran-Harpending is compelling (though I think Eckstein-Botticini, if recast as a genetic theory, is also compelling for pre-mediaeval Jewry.) But I’m sure Ashkenazi history contains many more twists & turns.


  6. dearieme says:

    I wonder where these non-aristocratic rich lived. London lawyers and merchants, plus the merchant class in, say, Norwich, Bristol and York? The gentry in the countryside? Who were they, these people? If the gentry, whydid they happen to outbreed the nobility?


  7. Because there was a high mortality rate for nobility, and their life expectancy at birth and at 20 was fairly low. Clark argues (based on Razi) that “Medieval manorial tenants, for example, had a life expectancy at age 20 of about 30, compared to about 22 for the aristocracy.11 These excess deaths at relatively young ages contributed to the low net fertility of aristocrats.”


  8. dearieme says:

    I’ve thanked you on the West Hunter blog. And pursued the point.


  9. The Industrial Revolution looked sudden and revolutionary because there was also a simultaneous but unrelated explosion in the English population, caused by a still unexplained fall in the age of marriage amongst women, prior to the Demographic Transition of the later 19th century.

    Why “unrelated”? It certainly isn’t mysterious. Age of marriage for women was tightly constrained by the need to provide a dowry, which in the general case they had to accumulate themselves (just as it was constrained for men by the availability of a stable position, e.g. a smallholding). The availability of paid non-agricultural work was, for the overwhelming bulk of the English population, an opportunity to release the pent-up demand for earlier marriage. Probably also the need to relocate to take up industrial work opportunities made for much looser social control of pre-marital funny business, leading to a higher rate of post-conception marriages.
    In the same late 18th century period in France, the average age of marriage for women increased, because the profitability of agriculture was declining and there was no alternative work.


  10. The drop in the age of first marriage in England started early in the 18th century and earlier than industrialisation. Moreover the drop was nation-wide even though industrialisation was geographically quite concentrated in the north during the 18th century.


  11. Pingback: Economic History Link Dump 15-01-2015 | Pseudoerasmus

  12. Tom Barson says:

    It would seem that urbanization, and not just industrialization, could be a spur to early marriage. England wasn’t the most urbanized area of Europe in 1750, but it was the most rapidly urbanizing, and the population kick was certainly beginning to happen.

    But it is odd interesting that so many critics did not pick up that Clark’s argument was a broadly European one. It would seem that Clark would have to argue that England’s hosting of the first I.R. was accident or luck – genetics couldn’t possibly explain an event that was mimicked so quickly.


  13. Hate to break it to you, but the supposed productivity doubling because of the flying shuttle is a myth. It only reduced the manpower needed for broadcloth, which was only one component of textile production, and even then not by half. See Akos Paulinyi,”John Kay’s Flying Shuttle,” Textile History, 17 (2), 149-66, 1986. One relevant excerpt:

    “A few claims and a very small amount of data regarding the increase in the output of broad cloths as a result of the introduction of the flying shuttle are to be found in the nineteenth century Reports of the Parliamentary Commission on the Textile Industry. Although this problem was only treated as a subsidiary issue, on several occasions in 1802-03 and 1806, the Commissioner asked broad weavers in the West of England and Yorkshire whether a weaver using the flying shuttle could weave as much in the same time as two weavers working on one loom with the hand shuttle. The question was rarely answered in the affirmative and, in the majority of cases, emphatically denied. However, the fact that it was possible to weave more quickly with the flying shuttle (i.e., the technical capacity of the invention) was not called into question either by weavers or entrepreneurs. The most significant factor preventing the technical possibilities of the flying shuttle from being used to the full was given as the frequent interruptions caused by breakages in the weft. This, in turn, was the result of poor yarn quality or, in the case of fine fabrics, the density of the warp. Thus, in the opinion of a weaver from Gloucestershire, a weaver using the flying shuttle could produce nearly as much as two using the hand shuttle, ‘but the advantage is not all to be set down to the account of the spring shuttle but to the spinning by machines’. A weaver from Stroud who had worked with the flying shuttle for some ten years answered the question whether ‘there (is) any saving of men, except that one man can throw the shuttle and the other requires two?’ by replying that there was ‘No saving in the spring shuttle, except that while a man is weaving it saves the other man, but on the other hand there is a loss, and a very material one, for when it is a bad chain one man having to tie on all the ends it takes more time'”

    Having learned to hand weave, I can testify from experience that throwing the shuttle is the easy part.


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