Saturday, March 20, 2010

Timing of the Industrial Revolution

Tyler Cowen recently did a request for requests. I asked him this:
Why did it take so long for humans to have the Industrial Revolution?
He was gracious enough to give a thorough answer:
That's a reader request from the especially loyal Harrison Brookie. First, you might wish to go back and read the MR reviews and debates of Greg Clark's Farewell to Alms,

More generally, extended periods of economic growth require that technologies of defense outweigh technologies of predation. They may also require that the successful defender, at the same time, has good enough technology to predate someone else and accumulate a sizable surplus. Parts of Europe took a good deal from the New World and this may have mattered a good deal.

Building a strong enough state to protect markets from other states is very hard to do; at the same time the built state has to avoid crushing those markets itself. That's a very delicate balance. China had wonderful technology for its time and was the richest part of the world for centuries but never succeeded in this endeavor, not for long at least.

England was fortunate to be an island. Starting in the early seventeenth century, England had many decades of ongoing, steady growth. Later, coal and the steam engine kicked in at just the right time. English political institutions were "good enough" as well and steadily improving, for the most part.

Christianity was important for transmitting an ideology of individual rights and natural law. As McCloskey and Mokyr stress, the Industrial Revolution was in part about ideas.

There are numerous other factors, but putting those ones together -- and no others -- already makes an Industrial Revolution very difficult to achieve. It did happen, it probably would have happened somewhere, sooner or later, but its occurrence was by no means easy to achieve. The Greeks had steam engines, proto-computers, and brilliant philosophers and writers, but still they did not come close to a breakthrough.

One question is how long the Roman Empire would have had to last to generate an Industrial Revolution and don't mention the Eastern Empire smartypants.

If you are asking why the Industrial Revolution did not occur in the Mesozoic age, or other earlier times, genetic factors play a role as well.
I tell my high school students that the Industrial Revolution is second only to learning to farm when thinking about human history. If that's true, then this answer is important. If I'm understanding Tyler correctly, it took humans a while to figure out how to make a government strong enough to defend property rights (especially from the outside), but weak enough to allow the market to work. I also agree that religion, perhaps in the form of the Protestant Reformation was an important step in understanding human liberty. That also helps explain why England as an island was more likely to begin this revolution.

Other interesting suggestions from the comments of Tyler's post are the importance of the printing press in saving and spreading ideas and how cheap manual labor in the form of slavery may have delayed it (I don't buy the second one).

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