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Uneven Centuries: Economic Development of Turkey since 1820

Author(s):Pamuk, Şevket
Reviewer(s):Williamson, Jeffrey G.

Published by EH.Net (April 2019)

Şevket Pamuk, Uneven Centuries: Economic Development of Turkey since 1820. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2018. xiii + 352 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-16637-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jeffrey G. Williamson, Department of Economics, Harvard University.

Uneven Centuries is an extraordinary economic history text, and for many reasons. Its author, Professor Şevket Pamuk of Bogaziçi University in Istanbul, is the country’s greatest living economic historian. That alone would insure a very good book, especially given that the author writes so well. But it also has no competition: there is no other modern economic history of Turkey available in English. It is also innovative in ways that will appeal to students, their teachers, and even to scholars looking to learn more about the evolution of the Turkish economy over the past two centuries. First, it is comparative so that Turkey’s performance can be gauged relative to the rest of the Middle East, to the rest of the Third World, and to the richer leaders in Europe and North America. Second, his narrative is supported by both quantitative and qualitative evidence. Third, each historical epoch analyzed in the book is preceded by a survey of the development literature brought to bear on the author’s assessment of Turkey’s performance, especially in terms of the economic policies implemented in both Turkey and the rest of the world. Fourth, Pamuk defines Turkey’s economic epochs in terms of domestic policy regimes and world economic environments, rather than by wars, revolutions and other dramatic historic events. Finally, the author does not search for Turkey’s sources of growth just by using standard growth and development theory, but rather makes extensive use of the new neo-institutional thinking associated with Douglas North, Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, Dani Rodrik and their followers. One final, final introductory word: This book should be read more widely than just by scholars of the Middle East since Turkey is one of the very few Third World countries that have developed without colonial control.

There are eleven chapters in Uneven Centuries between its Introduction and Conclusion. Chapter 2 (Economic Growth and Human Development since 1820) sets the stage by documenting Turkey’s income and income per capita growth since 1820. But that’s not all. As does the rest of the book, it documents fertility, mortality, schooling, literacy, urbanization and other dimensions of human development. Chapter 3 (Institutions and the Ottoman Past) offers a rich description of complex Ottoman institutions and suggests how they might have influenced the economic performance presented in the previous chapter. I must confess that I found this and Chapter 6 among the most exciting in the book. Chapter 4 (Reforms and Deficits: Response to European Challenges) deals mainly with two issues. The first has been present throughout the two centuries, namely regional conflict with the central government’s power, in this case over the latter’s ability to extract more tax revenues thus to finance a better infrastructure and a stronger military to resist threats from the East (mainly Russia) and the West. The chapter also pays attention to institutional developments whose goal was to secure external capital to finance deficits resulting from the same perceived external threats. Chapter 5 (Opening to Foreign Trade and Investment) discusses Turkey’s response to the Industrial Revolution in western Europe and the evolution of the first big globalization boom. Turkey went open, thus flooding its economy with British manufactures and causing de-industrialization. They made that choice partly to insure Britain’s military support in response to perceived external threats. Chapter 6 (Economic Development and Institutional Change, 1820-1914) picks up where Chapter 3 left off, arguing why and how institutions changed as they did, or did not, and their likely impact on economic performance. Chapter 7 (From Empire to Nation State) covers the negative impact of war and revolution on the Turkish economy during the transition from an elderly empire to a young nation state. This and Chapter 8 (Economic Development and Institutional Change, 1914-1950) are the longest and richest parts of the book, partly because so much changed over those decades, partly because the evidence needed to assess contending views is so much more abundant, and partly because the period has generated such a lively growth and development literature. The last four chapters before the book’s conclusion deal with the modern era (1950-2015) and thus will be more familiar to most readers simply because the experience is more recent. But even here, the comparison with the rest of the Third World offers an impressive contribution. And for the first time in the book, Pamuk devotes much greater attention to who gained from growth, regions in the West vs. regions in the East, cities vs. the countryside, and rich vs. poor within those locations. The reason why Pamuk pays more attention to distribution issues in the second century than in the first are, presumably, two: the data are much better and the policy and world economic changes are so much more dramatic. Chapter 9 (Inward-Oriented Development after World War II) and Chapter 10 (Economic Development and Institutional Change, 1950-1980) assess the ISI policy period implemented everywhere in the Third World, but here the assessment is, once again, explicitly comparative making the sources of Turkish growth experience so much clearer. The same is true of Chapters 11 (Neoliberal Policies and Globalization) and Chapter 12 (Economic Development and Institutional Change, 1980-2015), the more recent period of what has been called hyper-globalization.

As I said at the start, Uneven Centuries is a very good economic history text. But I should stress that it is more than that. Even knowledgeable Turkey scholars will find a ton of research topics laid out for them on these pages.

Jeffrey G. Williamson is Laird Bell Professor of Economics (emeritus) at Harvard University and Honorary Fellow, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin. His most recent books are The Spread of Modern Industry to the Periphery 1870-2007 (Oxford University Press 2017), edited with Kevin H. O’Rourke; Has Latin American Inequality Changed Direction? (Springer, 2017), edited with Luis Bértola; and Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton University Press 2016) with Peter H. Lindert.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII