Was the Industrial Revolution an accident of history?

My comments last week yielded suggestions. One reader pointed to this David Landes article on the room for accident in economic history.

My weekend perusal of the towering-and-ever-growing “to read” pile of books on my desk yielded two books on why the industrial revolution could have and nearly did happen in China: Ken Pomeranz’s Great Divergence and Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules–for Now.

The first chapters of each are very good so far, though I am not sure if I buy the ideas yet. The Morris book is easily one of the most enjoyable economic history reads I have seen in some time, perhaps (apologies in advance, econ history friends) because he is a historian rather than an economic historian.

3 thoughts on “Was the Industrial Revolution an accident of history?

  1. For more in the Pomeranz line of arguing, I’d recommend the (slightly more polemic but both easily readable):
    J.M. Blaut – The Colonizer’s Model of the World – http://www.amazon.com/The-Colonizers-Model-World-Geographical/dp/0898623480
    Andre Gunder Frank – ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age – http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520214743

    For a new (2011) South Asian perspective:
    Prasannan Parthasarathi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not – http://www.amazon.com/Why-Europe-Grew-Rich-Asia/dp/0521168244

  2. Pomeranz’s book is a great read. A really good counterargument to the energy-centered approaches of Allen and Wrigley. Though like most others in the field, he seems to raise more questions than he answers. A huge component to his argument- the need for “peripheries” to sustain the metropolises- left me wondering a great deal. For Pomeranz, we really wouldn’t have had an IR without the existence of the New World. His argument that labor and capital were inherently limited substitutes for land seems to me a convincing argument for the effect of the New World after its discovery. But this begs a question about the world before that discovery. If land had inherently higher returns than capital or labor in the Malthusian world, why did we ever see cities? The question is small potatoes, to the whole of KP’s approach, but it’s one that can’t be answered, to my knowledge, by the framework he provides. Thoughts?

    Here is a great map feature for Pomeranz readers:
    http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/chinawh/web/s4/index.html

    I have to say, though, that the most impressive work I have read is Oded Galor’s attempt at the holy grail of economic history- a unified growth theory. Quite similar in approach to Clark’s argument in “A Farewell to Alms”, but with much richer data. Find it here:
    http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Economics/Papers/2004/2004-15_paper.pdf

  3. I just picked up Ian Morris’s book…

    Agreed it’s an enjoyable read so far. However, almost from the get-go he has two major conceptual errors in his thinking (one which he shares with Pomeranz), which arose from the fact he doesn’t understand models. Both Morris and Pomeranz don’t realize that in a Malthusian world, “development” or “technology” can be completely divorced from “living standards”. This leads to an endless number of ignorant comments by both where they confuse the two in a setting where it is just inappropriate. By 1450, Europe had much higher living standards than China and India, much lower population density, and worse technology. Neither author allows that all three could be simultaneously true.

    Morris’s second issue is that he throws out the insights of Crosby/Kamarck/Diamond/Sachs, without taking the good part.

    Pomeranz’s other issue is that he very clearly has a PC ideological axe to grind, responding to the quasi-racist threads running through much of the previous literature. I can believe him that there may not have been a large gap in technology between developed Europe and developed China in 1800 (maybe), but not that there weren’t large gaps in living standards between northwest europe and anywhere in china, or in a huge gap in dynamism.