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:
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 : There’s no evidence that growth in England’s per capita income was much faster than the 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.
Point #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. ]