Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My review of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britian

To appear soon in History: Review of New Books.


Floud, Roderick, Jane Humphries, and Paul Johnson. The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Volume 1: 1700-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

This work is an excellent survey of the important region and period of economic history that was Britain’s industrial revolution. It consists of fifteen essays by a variety of top scholars, each taking up a different aspect of the overall subject: nutrition, international trade, technology, ideology, agriculture, transportation, regional variations, occupations, labor markets, finance, social mobility, and political economy. With such a wealth of information on hand, a short review can only sample a few of the abundant offerings in the volume.

For instance, Leigh Shaw-Taylor and E. A. Wrigley offer a convincing demonstration that “the British industrial revolution did not conform to [Simon] Kuznets’ model” (p. 54). They argue that in Britain, and even earlier in Holland, the structural changes in employment that Kuznets viewed as the trigger for “modern economic growth” occurred well before the Industrial Revolution. Their use of archival data, particularly baptismal records, to revise the earlier accepted view is commendable.

In a fascinating chapter on “Nutrition and Health,” David Meredith and Deborah Oxley use new studies in “energy cost accounting, anthropometrics, regional dietaries and health” (p. 119) to reach broader conclusions about the economic changes taking place between 1700 and 1870. For instance, they argue that “one-tenth of the English population in 1800 was slowly starving to death” (p. 120). The reason was largely the “padlock was placed on nature's larder” by various acts eliminating traditional income supplements such as gleaning, collecting firewood, hunting, fishing, and grazing animals on common land. The result was that the health of the urban population of England was significantly worse than that of rural Ireland and Scotland.

Joel Mokyr contributes an essay on how the idea of “progress” and the fact of material progress entered into a feedback loop during, but also before, our period. The idea that humans might make continued material progress was a necessary condition for people to keep seeking material improvements. And the achievement of those improvements strengthened the idea of progress. Mokyr stresses the fact that this process started well before 1750: “the industrial… followed a period of slow progress, and represents an acceleration rather than a discreet leap from no growth to modern growth” (p. 270).

Anne L. Murphy examines the financial developments in Britain during the period. She notes that various writers have held the state-dominated financial markets that existed for much of the time responsible for holding back GDP growth, as government borrowing crowded out private borrowing. But Murphy asserts that several other writers have disputed these findings, and then, seemingly without further justification, takes their side, concludes that “state domination of the investment market conferred many benefits on the developing economy” (p. 342).

Julian Hoppit contributes a very interesting chapter on “Political power and British economic life.” He argues that the view of this period as characterized by a transition from “mercantilism” to “laissez-faire” is simplistic, since there was never any doctrine of mercantilism, and no laissez-faire regime ever existed. The “Glorious Revolution” did not create more secure property rights, as North and Weingast contended, but in fact put them more up for grabs, to be re-assigned to whomever could best exploit them. The real key to the economic success of Britain in this period was “the vitality and pluralities of Britain’s practical political economies” (p. 366) during the period under examination.

In the final essay in the book, Roger E. Backhouse and Keith Tribe reflect upon the development of the discipline of political economy during the period in question. They note the two-way causation at operation in this area: economic development influenced the ideas of political economists, while those ideas impacted economic developments, perhaps most notably in the repeal of the British Corn Laws. They contend that for the most part, the work of the British political economists was idiosyncratic, focused on special conditions in the Britain of their time, and that it “paradoxically” survived only in the work of Karl Marx, “as a supposed alternative to the new economics… which had in fact already superseded it” (p. 491).

This otherwise excellent volume is marred by some sloppy editing and reasoning in places. For instance, in the first chapter, Brian A'Hearn writes, "On the other, Voth (2001) has argued for an increase in annual hours of work per employed person. It must then be growth in labor productivity… that explains GDP per capita growth” (p. 5). The missing word “hand” is a little troubling, but the logic is even more so: having just given an alternate explanation for GDP growth in the period under examination, how can A'Hearn then immediately state that it “must” be due to something else, without bothering to refute Voth's claim? And Hoppit’s chapter is also plagued by basic writing errors that ought to have been caught: e.g., too often, a sentence fails to achieve even simple number agreement between the subject and predicate.

But these few lacunae are only minor flaws in an important contribution to our understanding of the economic history of this period. This is a volume that should be sought out by anyone who is a serious student of its subject matter.

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