Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why Did It Take So Long to Have the Industrial Revolution?

Tyler Cowen:

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.

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