Everything you ever wanted to know about the Industrial Revolution in 15 pages

The Industrial Revolution is the key break in world history, the event that defines our lives. No episode is more important. Yet the timing, location, and cause of the Industrial Revolution are unsolved puzzles. Explaining the Industrial Revolution is the ultimate, elusive prize in economic history. It is a prize that has inspired generations of scholars to lifetimes of, so far, fruitless pursuit.

That is Greg Clark beginning his review of Joel Mokyr’s new book, on how Enlightenment ideas, rather than incentives or demographics, made Britain the first to industrialize.

Greg is not persuaded. His piece is a crisp review and critique of the full Industrial Revolution debate, worth reading for that reason alone.

One thing I am surprised not to hear in the “Why Britain and not China or France?” discussions: maybe it’s all in the error term.

A difference of 50 or 100 or even 200 years is not a great span of time in human technological development. Maybe those first steps happened in Britain first by chance, and inevitably gathered steam (pun intended). If a tree had fallen on the inventor of the steam engine, maybe China would have been the first to industrialize.

I have a feeling the historian’s response would be: but there were several inventors of the steam engine in Britain, implying there was a systemic change larger than one person or event. And China did invent many of these technologies, but for this and that reason they never took off. Fair enough. I would like to see it argued, and ask whether we should think their “test” is high-powered (i.e. compelling in a statistical sense). I suspect there is still much room for chance. But I almost never hear that point made.

One exception is the new Acemoglu and Robinson book, who talk about chance quite candidly. I am still reading and enjoying, and will find time to write about the book on that elusive day when field projects and fundraising do not consume my life. In the meantime, here is a provocative review from Clive Crook.

5 thoughts on “Everything you ever wanted to know about the Industrial Revolution in 15 pages

  1. Isn’t it inherently difficult for a social scientist–in the business of systematizing human behavior–to acknowledge a significant role for chance, which entails an inescapable epistemic limit?

  2. I was extremely disappointed in their latest blog post entitled “Law and Force Cannot Change a Man’s Heart” of April 5th. They make the extremely reductionist argument that the Civil RIghts Acts of 1957 and 1964 combined to make the U.S. South more inclusive and hence has led to the South becoming a “whole lot richer.” I know they have read Gavin Wright’s work and yet they choose to ignore that the majority of the heavy lifting came from the New Deal economic program and the transformation in the economy from World War II.

    The South really hasn’t been in a virtuous circle since the 1960s. Southern political economy has traditionally taken advantage of American federalism to promote its low wages and right to work status in the aftermath of a Taft Hartley. The South still has an extremely rigid and unequal class system, and the prototype of Southern business is the labor exploitation of Sam Walton combined with the race baiting politics of Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater.

  3. My theory is:

    1) It had to happen somewhere. Northern Europe was one of the somewheres that it was possible.

    2) Once it happened somewhere, that place would leap to such immediate dominance that it would retard it happening independently elsewhere.

    So the mystery is best answered by unasking the question.

  4. “I know they have read Gavin Wright’s work and yet they choose to ignore that the majority of the heavy lifting came from the New Deal economic program and the transformation in the economy from World War II.”

    Sure, but that reinforces the idea that it’s Northern imposition of their values that helps the South remain less poor, not refutes it. That is, even if they have the details wrong, the details they omit support the basic thesis.