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Institutional Change and American Economic Growth

Author(s):Davis, Lance E.
North, Douglass C.
Reviewer(s):Morris, Cynthia Taft

Lance E. Davis and Douglass C. North (with the assistance of Calla Smorodin), Institutional Change and American Economic Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971. viii + 282 pp.

Review Essay by Cynthia Taft Morris, Department of Economics, Smith College and American University.

Davis and North Launch Neoclassical Institutional Theory

This book is an early major step in the evolution of the thinking of Douglass North and his collaborators on the “new” neoclassical theory of institutional change — the institutional arm of the new economic history that began to flourish in the 1960s. Among the many notable later steps are The Rise of the Western World (1973) with Robert Paul Thomas and “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice” with Barry Weingast (1989) — which ranks third in citations among articles ever published in the Journal of Economic History.

Lance Davis and Douglass North develop a theory of institutional change so familiar that it is easy to forget the theory was ever “new.” They lay out a model where the core logic of institutional change is neoclassical cost-benefit analysis and the motivating drive for institutional change is profit maximization. The goal of the authors’ “intellectual journey through American economic history [is] . . . to provide a description of the processes that have produced the present structure of economic institutions. That description, in turn, is the basis for a first (and very primitive) attempt at the formulation of a specified, relevant, and logical theory of the birth, growth, mutation, and, perhaps, death of these institutions. The book is a study of the sources of institutional change in American history. It is concerned with the relationship between economic organization and economic growth” (p. 4).

Chapter 1 presents the concepts and definitions (institutional and economic environments, institutional arrangement, institutional instruments, and institutional innovation). An institutional arrangement will be innovated if the expected net gains exceed the expected costs. Arrangements range from purely voluntary to totally government controlled and operated and seek to realize economies of scale, lowered transactions costs, internalization of external economies, reduction of risk, or redistribution of income (pp. 10-11).

Chapter 2 analyses the government’s role in redistribution. The authors’ purpose is to include the role of government in their theory of institutional change in spite of the unsatisfactory state of political theory. To exclude it would likely “yield a model of institutional change no more useful in the growth context than are the present models with their ceteris paribus assumptions about institutions” (pp.37-38). In their analysis, governments with effective coercive power will be the preferred vehicle for institutional innovations where governments are well developed but markets are not, where external benefits are large but property rights are dispersed, where benefits are substantial but indivisible, and where benefits are not increased and the goal is redistribution. The costs of using government to appropriate others’ wealth and income depends on the numbers and heterogeneity of the persons organized, the feasibility of excluding outsiders from benefiting, the complexity of political coalitions, the rules of the political game, and the character of electoral suffrage.

Chapter 3 specifies the dynamics of the model in the context of American history. The authors seek to predict both the institutional “level” of change and the time lag from first perception of profit opportunity to institutional innovation: New institutional arrangements will be innovated where profit or income opportunities appear that require institutional changes or where cost reductions can be achieved with new business forms or political moves redistributing income. Among many influences changing the benefits and costs of institutional innovations are changes in market size, technical change, changes in income expectations, organizational changes in closely related activities, cost reductions associated with government-financed information or reductions in risk, and political changes altering voting or property rights. All these except political changes have parallels in neoclassical theories of technical change. However, “to do no more than assert a relationship between income changes and arrangemental innovation is hardly a significant step; . . . it is our intention to offer a theory that helps predict (or explain) the emergence of these new or mutated arrangements. In particular, the theory predicts the level (individual, voluntary cooperative, or governmental) of the new institutional arrangement and the length of time that passes between the recognition of the potential profit and the emergence of the new arrangement” (p. 39).

The core of chapter 3 divides the causes of varying lags between the perception of an innovation and its successful emergence into four steps: perception and organization, invention, menu selection, and start-up time. (i) The time lag between perceived profit and the organization of a “primary action group” depends on how much profits there are and their certainty. (ii) Where no suitable options are immediately available, time is required for invention. (iii) Where options are available, time is required to search out and select the most profitable ones. (iv) The start-up time for the innovation will vary with the “level” of institutional change, that is, according to whether it is an individual arrangement (shortest lag), a voluntary cooperative one (a longer lag because of more complex arrangements), or a governmental innovation (a still longer lag because political organization is required).

The final chapter of Part I on the theory deals with the exogenous institutional environment, and thus the initial conditions in Davis and North’s model of institutional change. Chapter 4 sketches substantial historical changes in the institutional environment: the rules governing the extent and weighting of voting rights, the legal basis for private property, and “the expectational weights that the community chooses to apply to the future costs and revenues of particular arrangemental innovations — weights that are the product of experience triggered by events exogenous to the model” (p.65). Important sources of change in these three aspects of economic life are (i) the Constitution and its interpretation by the courts, (ii) the common law, and (iii) “the external changes in the political and economic life of the nation that affect the people’s attitudes toward government” (p. 65). A lively sketch of dramatic historical changes and fluctuations over 175 years in each of these categories follows.

Part II consists of six historical chapters in which Davis and North apply their model of institutional change to American economic history by telling vivid stories of changes in land policies, financial institutions, transportation, market structure in manufacturing, the organization of the service industry, and labor market changes affecting unions and education. These stories illustrate well the explanatory potential of their model by describing the history of business and labor responses to changing profit and income opportunities through the adoption of new institutions or adaptations of old ones. No attempt is made here to evaluate these stories since this reviewer has no specialized expertise in American economic history. Of necessity given space constraints, they are selective and reflect the specialties of the authors, as they themselves carefully state in the introduction to the book.

The great strength of the neoclassical theory of institutional change is that it yields an insightful and plausible “explanation” of a wide range of institutional changes over time in individual market economies where the private profit motive is strong and neoclassical-type market supply responses are already widespread. An enormous volume of literature has developed in response to the work of Douglass North and his colleagues. North himself has been an outstanding leader in the expansion of the scope of applications of neoclassical institutional theory.

The limitations of the theory are most evident in the study of cross-country differences in institutional responses to the challenges of opportunities for profit and higher incomes. The new economic theory of institutional change is a variant of historical challenge and response theories, all of which suffer from a similar problem. To quote Nathan Rosenberg’s discussion of David Landes’s Unbound Prometheus (1969), “the industrial world is full of ‘challenges’ and always has been. Why do some challenges in some places at certain times generate successful responses and at other times do not?” (1971, p. 498). Telling historical stories consistent ex post with theories of institutional change does not address the questions raised by many historical instances when profitable opportunities for institutional change did not bring forth historical responses that helped accelerate economic growth. Constrained by its focus on market opportunities and responses, the neoclassical institutional theory poorly accommodates institutional changes driven by nationalist, religious, or imperialist motives so intense as to sacrifice economic gain. Also, the theory accommodates poorly historical country-specific institutional developments that are the outcome of chance and strong path dependency such as are evident in historical patterns of private land acquisitions or foreign domination in some developing countries.

The limitations to the excellent work of North and his collaborators are noted here as a warning that no one theory handles well the diversity of comparative historical experience. Casual empiricism is the usual practice in delimiting the countries and periods to which each theory applies. Because of this, the entire literature on institutional change is particularly weak on the diverse consequences of similar economic, demographic, and technological changes in different institutional settings. We all need to delimit more effectively the domains to which familiar models apply (Morris and Adelman, 1988, p. 32).


David S. Landes. 1969. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cynthia Taft Morris and Irma Adelman. 1988. Comparative Patterns of Economic Development, 1850-1914. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Douglass C. North and Robert Paul Thomas. 1973. The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Douglass C. North and Barry Weingast. 1989. “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England,” Journal of Economic History, 49 (December): 803-832.

Nathan Rosenberg. 1971. “Review of the Unbound Prometheus,” Journal of Economic History, 31 (June): 497-500.

Cynthia Taft Morris is distinguished economist in residence, American University and Charles N. Clark Emeritus Professor of Economics, Smith College. She is past president of the Economic History Association.


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative