is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes

Joshua Rosenbloom, University of Kansas

One of the most important implications of modern microeconomic theory is that perfectly competitive markets produce an efficient allocation of resources. Historically, however, most markets have not approached the level of organization of this theoretical ideal. Instead of the costless and instantaneous communication envisioned in theory, market participants must rely on a set of incomplete and often costly channels of communication to learn about conditions of supply and demand; and they may face significant transaction costs to act on the information that they have acquired through these channels.

The economic history of labor market institutions is concerned with identifying the mechanisms that have facilitated the allocation of labor effort in the economy at different times, tracing the historical processes by which they have responded to shifting circumstances, and understanding how these mechanisms affected the allocation of labor as well as the distribution of labor’s products in different epochs.

Labor market institutions include both formal organizations (such as union hiring halls, government labor exchanges, and third party intermediaries such as employment agents), and informal mechanisms of communication such as word-of-mouth about employment opportunities passed between family and friends. The impact of these institutions is broad ranging. It includes the geographic allocation of labor (migration and urbanization), decisions about education and training of workers (investment in human capital), inequality (relative wages), the allocation of time between paid work and other activities such as household production, education, and leisure, and fertility (the allocation of time between production and reproduction).

Because each worker possesses a unique bundle of skills and attributes and each job is different, labor market transactions require the communication of a relatively large amount of information. In other words, the transactions costs involved in the exchange of labor are relatively high. The result is that the barriers separating different labor markets have sometimes been quite high, and these markets are relatively poorly integrated with one another.

The frictions inherent in the labor market mean that even during macroeconomic expansions there may be both a significant number of unemployed workers and a large number of unfilled vacancies. When viewed from some distance and looked at in the long-run, however, what is most striking is how effective labor market institutions have been in adapting to the shifting patterns of supply and demand in the economy. Over the past two centuries American labor markets have accomplished a massive redistribution of labor out of agriculture into manufacturing, and then from manufacturing into services. At the same time they have accomplished a huge geographic reallocation of labor between the United States and other parts of the world as well as within the United States itself, both across states and regions and from rural locations to urban areas.

This essay is organized topically, beginning with a discussion of the evolution of institutions involved in the allocation of labor across space and then taking up the development of institutions that fostered the allocation of labor across industries and sectors. The third section considers issues related to labor market performance.

The Geographic Distribution of Labor

One of the dominant themes of American history is the process of European settlement (and the concomitant displacement of the native population). This movement of population is in essence a labor market phenomenon. From the beginning of European settlement in what became the United States, labor markets were characterized by the scarcity of labor in relation to abundant land and natural resources. Labor scarcity raised labor productivity and enabled ordinary Americans to enjoy a higher standard of living than comparable Europeans. Counterbalancing these inducements to migration, however, were the high costs of travel across the Atlantic and the significant risks posed by settlement in frontier regions. Over time, technological changes lowered the costs of communication and transportation. But exploiting these advantages required the parallel development of new labor market institutions.

Trans-Atlantic Migration in the Colonial Period

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a variety of labor market institutions developed to facilitate the movement of labor in response to the opportunities created by American factor proportions. While some immigrants migrated on their own, the majority of immigrants were either indentured servants or African slaves.

Because of the cost of passage—which exceeded half a year’s income for a typical British immigrant and a full year’s income for a typical German immigrant—only a small portion of European migrants could afford to pay for their passage to the Americas (Grubb 1985a). They did so by signing contracts, or “indentures,” committing themselves to work for a fixed number of years in the future—their labor being their only viable asset—with British merchants, who then sold these contracts to colonists after their ship reached America. Indentured servitude was introduced by the Virginia Company in 1619 and appears to have arisen from a combination of the terms of two other types of labor contract widely used in England at the time: service in husbandry and apprenticeship (Galenson 1981). In other cases, migrants borrowed money for their passage and committed to repay merchants by pledging to sell themselves as servants in America, a practice known as “redemptioner servitude (Grubb 1986). Redemptioners bore increased risk because they could not predict in advance what terms they might be able to negotiate for their labor, but presumably they did so because of other benefits, such as the opportunity to choose their own master, and to select where they would be employed.

Although data on immigration for the colonial period are scattered and incomplete a number of scholars have estimated that between half and three quarters of European immigrants arriving in the colonies came as indentured or redemptioner servants. Using data for the end of the colonial period Grubb (1985b) found that close to three-quarters of English immigrants to Pennsylvania and nearly 60 percent of German immigrants arrived as servants.

A number of scholars have examined the terms of indenture and redemptioner contracts in some detail (see, e.g., Galenson 1981; Grubb 1985a). They find that consistent with the existence of a well-functioning market, the terms of service varied in response to differences in individual productivity, employment conditions, and the balance of supply and demand in different locations.

The other major source of labor for the colonies was the forced migration of African slaves. Slavery had been introduced in the West Indies at an early date, but it was not until the late seventeenth century that significant numbers of slaves began to be imported into the mainland colonies. From 1700 to 1780 the proportion of blacks in the Chesapeake region grew from 13 percent to around 40 percent. In South Carolina and Georgia, the black share of the population climbed from 18 percent to 41 percent in the same period (McCusker and Menard, 1985, p. 222). Galenson (1984) explains the transition from indentured European to enslaved African labor as the result of shifts in supply and demand conditions in England and the trans-Atlantic slave market. Conditions in Europe improved after 1650, reducing the supply of indentured servants, while at the same time increased competition in the slave trade was lowering the price of slaves (Dunn 1984). In some sense the colonies’ early experience with indentured servants paved the way for the transition to slavery. Like slaves, indentured servants were unfree, and ownership of their labor could be freely transferred from one owner to another. Unlike slaves, however, they could look forward to eventually becoming free (Morgan 1971).

Over time a marked regional division in labor market institutions emerged in colonial America. The use of slaves was concentrated in the Chesapeake and Lower South, where the presence of staple export crops (rice, indigo and tobacco) provided economic rewards for expanding the scale of cultivation beyond the size achievable with family labor. European immigrants (primarily indentured servants) tended to concentrate in the Chesapeake and Middle Colonies, where servants could expect to find the greatest opportunities to enter agriculture once they had completed their term of service. While New England was able to support self-sufficient farmers, its climate and soil were not conducive to the expansion of commercial agriculture, with the result that it attracted relatively few slaves, indentured servants, or free immigrants. These patterns are illustrated in Table 1, which summarizes the composition and destinations of English emigrants in the years 1773 to 1776.

Table 1

English Emigration to the American Colonies, by Destination and Type, 1773-76

Total Emigration
Destination Number Percentage Percent listed as servants
New England 54 1.20 1.85
Middle Colonies 1,162 25.78 61.27
New York 303 6.72 11.55
Pennsylvania 859 19.06 78.81
Chesapeake 2,984 66.21 96.28
Maryland 2,217 49.19 98.33
Virginia 767 17.02 90.35
Lower South 307 6.81 19.54
Carolinas 106 2.35 23.58
Georgia 196 4.35 17.86
Florida 5 0.11 0.00
Total 4,507 80.90

Source: Grubb (1985b, p. 334).

International Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

American independence marks a turning point in the development of labor market institutions. In 1808 Congress prohibited the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, the use of indentured servitude to finance the migration of European immigrants fell into disuse. As a result, most subsequent migration was at least nominally free migration.

The high cost of migration and the economic uncertainties of the new nation help to explain the relatively low level of immigration in the early years of the nineteenth century. But as the costs of transportation fell, the volume of immigration rose dramatically over the course of the century. Transportation costs were of course only one of the obstacles to international population movements. At least as important were problems of communication. Potential migrants might know in a general way that the United States offered greater economic opportunities than were available at home, but acting on this information required the development of labor market institutions that could effectively link job-seekers with employers.

For the most part, the labor market institutions that emerged in the nineteenth century to direct international migration were “informal” and thus difficult to document. As Rosenbloom (2002, ch. 2) describes, however, word-of-mouth played an important role in labor markets at this time. Many immigrants were following in the footsteps of friends or relatives already in the United States. Often these initial pioneers provided material assistance—helping to purchase ship and train tickets, providing housing—as well as information. The consequences of this so-called “chain migration” are readily reflected in a variety of kinds of evidence. Numerous studies of specific migration streams have documented the role of a small group of initial migrants in facilitating subsequent migration (for example, Barton 1975; Kamphoefner 1987; Gjerde 1985). At a more aggregate level, settlement patterns confirm the tendency of immigrants from different countries to concentrate in different cities (Ward 1971, p. 77; Galloway, Vedder and Shukla 1974).

Informal word-of-mouth communication was an effective labor market institution because it served both employers and job-seekers. For job-seekers the recommendations of friends and relatives were more reliable than those of third parties and often came with additional assistance. For employers the recommendations of current employees served as a kind of screening mechanism, since their employees were unlikely to encourage the immigration of unreliable workers.

While chain migration can explain a quantitatively large part of the redistribution of labor in the nineteenth century it is still necessary to explain how these chains came into existence in the first place. Chain migration always coexisted with another set of more formal labor market institutions that grew up largely to serve employers who could not rely on their existing labor force to recruit new hires (such as railroad construction companies). Labor agents, often themselves immigrants, acted as intermediaries between these employers and job-seekers, providing labor market information and frequently acting as translators for immigrants who could not speak English. Steamship companies operating between Europe and the United States also employed agents to help recruit potential migrants (Rosenbloom 2002, ch. 3).

By the 1840s networks of labor agents along with boarding houses serving immigrants and other similar support networks were well established in New York, Boston, and other major immigrant destinations. The services of these agents were well documented in published guides and most Europeans considering immigration must have known that they could turn to these commercial intermediaries if they lacked friends and family to guide them. After some time working in America these immigrants, if they were successful, would find steadier employment and begin to direct subsequent migration, thus establishing a new link in the stream of chain migration.

The economic impacts of immigration are theoretically ambiguous. Increased labor supply, by itself, would tend to lower wages—benefiting employers and hurting workers. But because immigrants are also consumers, the resulting increase in demand for goods and services will increase the demand for labor, partially offsetting the depressing effect of immigration on wages. As long as the labor to capital ratio rises, however, immigration will necessarily lower wages. But if, as was true in the late nineteenth century, foreign lending follows foreign labor, then there may be no negative impact on wages (Carter and Sutch 1999). Whatever the theoretical considerations, however, immigration became an increasingly controversial political issue during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While employers and some immigrant groups supported continued immigration, there was a growing nativist sentiment among other segments of the population. Anti-immigrant sentiments appear to have arisen out of a mix of perceived economic effects and concern about the implications of the ethnic, religious and cultural differences between immigrants and the native born.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Subsequent legislative efforts to impose further restrictions on immigration passed Congress but foundered on presidential vetoes. The balance of political forces shifted, however, in the wake of World War I. In 1917 a literacy requirement was imposed for the first time, and in 1921 an Emergency Quota Act was passed (Goldin 1994).

With the passage of the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and subsequent legislation culminating in the National Origins Act, the volume of immigration dropped sharply. Since this time international migration into the United States has been controlled to varying degrees by legal restrictions. Variations in the rules have produced variations in the volume of legal immigration. Meanwhile the persistence of large wage gaps between the United States and Mexico and other developing countries has encouraged a substantial volume of illegal immigration. It remains the case, however, that most of this migration—both legal and illegal—continues to be directed by chains of friends and relatives.

Recent trends in outsourcing and off-shoring have begun to create a new channel by which lower-wage workers outside the United States can respond to the country’s high wages without physically relocating. Workers in India, China, and elsewhere possessing technical skills can now provide services such as data entry or technical support by phone and over the internet. While the novelty of this phenomenon has attracted considerable attention, the actual volume of jobs moved off-shore remains limited, and there are important obstacles to overcome before more jobs can be carried out remotely (Edwards 2004).

Internal Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

At the same time that American economic development created international imbalances between labor supply and demand it also created internal disequilibrium. Fertile land and abundant natural resources drew population toward less densely settled regions in the West. Over the course of the century, advances in transportation technologies lowered the cost of shipping goods from interior regions, vastly expanding the area available for settlement. Meanwhile transportation advances and technological innovations encouraged the growth of manufacturing and fueled increased urbanization. The movement of population and economic activity from the Eastern Seaboard into the interior of the continent and from rural to urban areas in response to these incentives is an important element of U.S. economic history in the nineteenth century.

In the pre-Civil War era, the labor market response to frontier expansion differed substantially between North and South, with profound effects on patterns of settlement and regional development. Much of the cost of migration is a result of the need to gather information about opportunities in potential destinations. In the South, plantation owners could spread these costs over a relatively large number of potential migrants—i.e., their slaves. Plantations were also relatively self-sufficient, requiring little urban or commercial infrastructure to make them economically viable. Moreover, the existence of well-established markets for slaves allowed western planters to expand their labor force by purchasing additional labor from eastern plantations.

In the North, on the other hand, migration took place through the relocation of small, family farms. Fixed costs of gathering information and the risks of migration loomed larger in these farmers’ calculations than they did for slaveholders, and they were more dependent on the presence of urban merchants to supply them with inputs and market their products. Consequently the task of mobilizing labor fell to promoters who bought up large tracts of land at low prices and then subdivided them into individual lots. To increase the value of these lands promoters offered loans, actively encourage the development of urban services such as blacksmith shops, grain merchants, wagon builders and general stores, and recruited settlers. With the spread of railroads, railroad construction companies also played a role in encouraging settlement along their routes to speed the development of traffic.

The differences in processes of westward migration in the North and South were reflected in the divergence of rates of urbanization, transportation infrastructure investment, manufacturing employment, and population density, all of which were higher in the North than in the South in 1860 (Wright 1986, pp. 19-29).

The Distribution of Labor among Economic Activities

Over the course of U.S. economic development technological changes and shifting consumption patterns have caused the demand for labor to increase in manufacturing and services and decline in agriculture and other extractive activities. These broad changes are illustrated in Table 2. As technological changes have increased the advantages of specialization and the division of labor, more and more economic activity has moved outside the scope of the household, and the boundaries of the labor market have been enlarged. As a result more and more women have moved into the paid labor force. On the other hand, with the increasing importance of formal education, there has been a decline in the number of children in the labor force (Whaples 2005).

Table 2

Sectoral Distribution of the Labor Force, 1800-1999

Share in
Year Total Labor Force (1000s) Agriculture Total Manufacturing Services
1800 1,658 76.2 23.8
1850 8,199 53.6 46.4
1900 29,031 37.5 59.4 35.8 23.6
1950 57,860 11.9 88.1 41.0 47.1
1999 133,489 2.3 97.7 24.7 73.0

Notes and Sources: 1800 and 1850 from Weiss (1986), pp. 646-49; remaining years from Hughes and Cain (2003), 547-48. For 1900-1999 Forestry and Fishing are included in the Agricultural labor force.

As these changes have taken place they have placed strains on existing labor market institutions and encouraged the development of new mechanisms to facilitate the distribution of labor. Over the course of the last century and a half the tendency has been a movement away from something approximating a “spot” market characterized by short-term employment relationships in which wages are equated to the marginal product of labor, and toward a much more complex and rule-bound set of long-term transactions (Goldin 2000, p. 586) While certain segments of the labor market still involve relatively anonymous and short-lived transactions, workers and employers are much more likely today to enter into long-term employment relationships that are expected to last for many years.

The evolution of labor market institutions in response to these shifting demands has been anything but smooth. During the late nineteenth century the expansion of organized labor was accompanied by often violent labor-management conflict (Friedman 2002). Not until the New Deal did unions gain widespread acceptance and a legal right to bargain. Yet even today, union organizing efforts are often met with considerable hostility.

Conflicts over union organizing efforts inevitably involved state and federal governments because the legal environment directly affected the bargaining power of both sides, and shifting legal opinions and legislative changes played an important part in determining the outcome of these contests. State and federal governments were also drawn into labor markets as various groups sought to limit hours of work, set minimum wages, provide support for disabled workers, and respond to other perceived shortcomings of existing arrangements. It would be wrong, however, to see the growth of government regulation as simply a movement from freer to more regulated markets. The ability to exchange goods and services rests ultimately on the legal system, and to this extent there has never been an entirely unregulated market. In addition, labor market transactions are never as simple as the anonymous exchange of other goods or services. Because the identities of individual buyers and sellers matter and the long-term nature of many employment relationships, adjustments can occur along other margins besides wages, and many of these dimensions involve externalities that affect all workers at a particular establishment, or possibly workers in an entire industry or sector.

Government regulations have responded in many cases to needs voiced by participants on both sides of the labor market for assistance to achieve desired ends. That has not, of course, prevented both workers and employers from seeking to use government to alter the way in which the gains from trade are distributed within the market.

The Agricultural Labor Market

At the beginning of the nineteenth century most labor was employed in agriculture, and, with the exception of large slave plantations, most agricultural labor was performed on small, family-run farms. There were markets for temporary and seasonal agricultural laborers to supplement family labor supply, but in most parts of the country outside the South, families remained the dominant institution directing the allocation of farm labor. Reliable estimates of the number of farm workers are not readily available before 1860, when the federal Census first enumerated “farm laborers.” At this time census enumerators found about 800 thousand such workers, implying an average of less than one-half farm worker per farm. Interpretation of this figure is complicated, however, and it may either overstate the amount of hired help—since farm laborers included unpaid family workers—or understate it—since it excluded those who reported their occupation simply as “laborer” and may have spent some of their time working in agriculture (Wright 1988, p. 193). A possibly more reliable indicator is provided by the percentage of gross value of farm output spent on wage labor. This figure fell from 11.4 percent in 1870 to around 8 percent by 1900, indicating that hired labor was on average becoming even less important (Wright 1988, pp. 194-95).

In the South, after the Civil War, arrangements were more complicated. Former plantation owners continued to own large tracts of land that required labor if they were to be made productive. Meanwhile former slaves needed access to land and capital if they were to support themselves. While some land owners turned to wage labor to work their land, most relied heavily on institutions like sharecropping. On the supply side, croppers viewed this form of employment as a rung on the “agricultural ladder” that would lead eventually to tenancy and possibly ownership. Because climbing the agricultural ladder meant establishing one’s credit-worthiness with local lenders, southern farm laborers tended to sort themselves into two categories: locally established (mostly older, married men) croppers and renters on the one hand, and mobile wage laborers (mostly younger and unmarried) on the other. While the labor market for each of these types of workers appears to have been relatively competitive, the barriers between the two markets remained relatively high (Wright 1987, p. 111).

While the predominant pattern in agriculture then was one of small, family-operated units, there was an important countervailing trend toward specialization that both depended on, and encouraged the emergence of a more specialized market for farm labor. Because specialization in a single crop increased the seasonality of labor demand, farmers could not afford to employ labor year-round, but had to depend on migrant workers. The use of seasonal gangs of migrant wage laborers developed earliest in California in the 1870s and 1880s, where employers relied heavily on Chinese immigrants. Following restrictions on Chinese entry, they were replaced first by Japanese, and later by Mexican workers (Wright 1988, pp. 201-204).

The Emergence of Internal Labor Markets

Outside of agriculture, at the beginning of the nineteenth century most manufacturing took place in small establishments. Hired labor might consist of a small number of apprentices, or, as in the early New England textile mills, a few child laborers hired from nearby farms (Ware 1931). As a result labor market institutions remained small-scale and informal, and institutions for training and skill acquisition remained correspondingly limited. Workers learned on the job as apprentices or helpers; advancement came through establishing themselves as independent producers rather than through internal promotion.

With the growth of manufacturing, and the spread of factory methods of production, especially in the years after the end of the Civil War, an increasing number of people could expect to spend their working-lives as employees. One reflection of this change was the emergence in the 1870s of the problem of unemployment. During the depression of 1873 for the first time cities throughout the country had to contend with large masses of industrial workers thrown out of work and unable to support themselves through, in the language of the time, “no fault of their own” (Keyssar 1986, ch. 2).

The growth of large factories and the creation of new kinds of labor skills specific to a particular employer created returns to sustaining long-term employment relationships. As workers acquired job- and employer-specific skills their productivity increased giving rise to gains that were available only so long as the employment relationship persisted. Employers did little, however, to encourage long-term employment relationships. Instead authority over hiring, promotion and retention was commonly delegated to foremen or inside contractors (Nelson 1975, pp. 34-54). In the latter case, skilled craftsmen operated in effect as their own bosses contracting with the firm to supply components or finished products for an agreed price, and taking responsibility for hiring and managing their own assistants.

These arrangements were well suited to promoting external mobility. Foremen were often drawn from the immigrant community and could easily tap into word-of-mouth channels of recruitment. But these benefits came increasingly into conflict with rising costs of hiring and training workers.

The informality of personnel policies prior to World War I seems likely to have discouraged lasting employment relationships, and it is true that rates of labor turnover at the beginning of the twentieth century were considerably higher than they were to be later (Owen, 2004). Scattered evidence on the duration of employment relationships gathered by various state labor bureaus at the end of the century suggests, however, at least some workers did establish lasting employment relationship (Carter 1988; Carter and Savocca 1990; Jacoby and Sharma 1992; James 1994).

The growing awareness of the costs of labor-turnover and informal, casual labor relations led reformers to advocate the establishment of more centralized and formal processes of hiring, firing and promotion, along with the establishment of internal job-ladders, and deferred payment plans to help bind workers and employers. The implementation of these reforms did not make significant headway, however, until the 1920s (Slichter 1929). Why employers began to establish internal labor markets in the 1920s remains in dispute. While some scholars emphasize pressure from workers (Jacoby 1984; 1985) others have stressed that it was largely a response to the rising costs of labor turnover (Edwards 1979).

The Government and the Labor Market

The growth of large factories contributed to rising labor tensions in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Issues like hours of work, safety, and working conditions all have a significant public goods aspect. While market forces of entry and exit will force employers to adopt policies that are sufficient to attract the marginal worker (the one just indifferent between staying and leaving), less mobile workers may find that their interests are not adequately represented (Freeman and Medoff 1984). One solution is to establish mechanisms for collective bargaining, and the years after the American Civil War were characterized by significant progress in the growth of organized labor (Friedman 2002). Unionization efforts, however, met strong opposition from employers, and suffered from the obstacles created by the American legal system’s bias toward protecting property and the freedom of contract. Under prevailing legal interpretation, strikes were often found by the courts to be conspiracies in restraint of trade with the result that the apparatus of government was often arrayed against labor.

Although efforts to win significant improvements in working conditions were rarely successful, there were still areas where there was room for mutually beneficial change. One such area involved the provision of disability insurance for workers injured on the job. Traditionally, injured workers had turned to the courts to adjudicate liability for industrial accidents. Legal proceedings were costly and their outcome unpredictable. By the early 1910s it became clear to all sides that a system of disability insurance was preferable to reliance on the courts. Resolution of this problem, however, required the intervention of state legislatures to establish mandatory state workers compensation insurance schemes and remove the issue from the courts. Once introduced workers compensation schemes spread quickly: nine states passed legislation in 1911; 13 more had joined the bandwagon by 1913, and by 1920 44 states had such legislation (Fishback 2001).

Along with workers compensation state legislatures in the late nineteenth century also considered legislation restricting hours of work. Prevailing legal interpretations limited the effectiveness of such efforts for adult males. But rules restricting hours for women and children were found to be acceptable. The federal government passed legislation restricting the employment of children under 14 in 1916, but this law was found unconstitutional in 1916 (Goldin 2000, p. 612-13).

The economic crisis of the 1930s triggered a new wave of government interventions in the labor market. During the 1930s the federal government granted unions the right to organize legally, established a system of unemployment, disability and old age insurance, and established minimum wage and overtime pay provisions.

In 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act included provisions legalizing unions’ right to bargain collectively. Although the NIRA was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional, the key labor provisions of the Act were reinstated in the Wagner Act of 1935. While some of the provisions of the Wagner Act were modified in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, its passage marks the beginning of the golden age of organized labor. Union membership jumped very quickly after 1935 from around 12 percent of the non-agricultural labor force to nearly 30 percent, and by the late 1940s had attained a peak of 35 percent, where it stabilized. Since the 1960s, however, union membership has declined steadily, to the point where it is now back at pre-Wagner Act levels.

The Social Security Act of 1935 introduced a federal unemployment insurance scheme that was operated in partnership with state governments and financed through a tax on employers. It also created government old age and disability insurance. In 1938, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act provided for minimum wages and for overtime pay. At first the coverage of these provisions was limited, but it has been steadily increased in subsequent years to cover most industries today.

In the post-war era, the federal government has expanded its role in managing labor markets both directly—through the establishment of occupational safety regulations, and anti-discrimination laws, for example—and indirectly—through its efforts to manage the macroeconomy to insure maximum employment.

A further expansion of federal involvement in labor markets began in 1964 with passage of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination against both minorities and women. In 1967 the Age Discrimination and Employment Act was passed prohibiting discrimination against people aged 40 to 70 in regard to hiring, firing, working conditions and pay. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1994 allows for unpaid leave to care for infants, children and other sick relatives (Goldin 2000, p. 614).

Whether state and federal legislation has significantly affected labor market outcomes remains unclear. Most economists would argue that the majority of labor’s gains in the past century would have occurred even in the absence of government intervention. Rather than shaping market outcomes, many legislative initiatives emerged as a result of underlying changes that were making advances possible. According to Claudia Goldin (2000, p. 553) “government intervention often reinforced existing trends, as in the decline of child labor, the narrowing of the wage structure, and the decrease in hours of work.” In other cases, such as Workers Compensation and pensions, legislation helped to establish the basis for markets.

The Changing Boundaries of the Labor Market

The rise of factories and urban employment had implications that went far beyond the labor market itself. On farms women and children had found ready employment (Craig 1993, ch. 4). But when the male household head worked for wages, employment opportunities for other family members were more limited. Late nineteenth-century convention largely dictated that married women did not work outside the home unless their husband was dead or incapacitated (Goldin 1990, p. 119-20). Children, on the other hand, were often viewed as supplementary earners in blue-collar households at this time.

Since 1900 changes in relative earnings power related to shifts in technology have encouraged women to enter the paid labor market while purchasing more of the goods and services that were previously produced within the home. At the same time, the rising value of formal education has lead to the withdrawal of child labor from the market and increased investment in formal education (Whaples 2005). During the first half of the twentieth century high school education became nearly universal. And since World War II, there has been a rapid increase in the number of college educated workers in the U.S. economy (Goldin 2000, p. 609-12).

Assessing the Efficiency of Labor Market Institutions

The function of labor markets is to match workers and jobs. As this essay has described the mechanisms by which labor markets have accomplished this task have changed considerably as the American economy has developed. A central issue for economic historians is to assess how changing labor market institutions have affected the efficiency of labor markets. This leads to three sets of questions. The first concerns the long-run efficiency of market processes in allocating labor across space and economic activities. The second involves the response of labor markets to short-run macroeconomic fluctuations. The third deals with wage determination and the distribution of income.

Long-Run Efficiency and Wage Gaps

Efforts to evaluate the efficiency of market allocation begin with what is commonly know as the “law of one price,” which states that within an efficient market the wage of similar workers doing similar work under similar circumstances should be equalized. The ideal of complete equalization is, of course, unlikely to be achieved given the high information and transactions costs that characterize labor markets. Thus, conclusions are usually couched in relative terms, comparing the efficiency of one market at one point in time with those of some other markets at other points in time. A further complication in measuring wage equalization is the need to compare homogeneous workers and to control for other differences (such as cost of living and non-pecuniary amenities).

Falling transportation and communications costs have encouraged a trend toward diminishing wage gaps over time, but this trend has not always been consistent over time, nor has it applied to all markets in equal measure. That said, what stands out is in fact the relative strength of forces of market arbitrage that have operated in many contexts to promote wage convergence.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the costs of trans-Atlantic migration were still quite high and international wage gaps large. By the 1840s, however, vast improvements in shipping cut the costs of migration, and gave rise to an era of dramatic international wage equalization (O’Rourke and Williamson 1999, ch. 2; Williamson 1995). Figure 1 shows the movement of real wages relative to the United States in a selection of European countries. After the beginning of mass immigration wage differentials began to fall substantially in one country after another. International wage convergence continued up until the 1880s, when it appears that the accelerating growth of the American economy outstripped European labor supply responses and reversed wage convergence briefly. World War I and subsequent immigration restrictions caused a sharper break, and contributed to widening international wage differences during the middle portion of the twentieth century. From World War II until about 1980, European wage levels once again began to converge toward the U.S., but this convergence reflected largely internally-generated improvements in European living standards rather then labor market pressures.

Figure 1

Relative Real Wages of Selected European Countries, 1830-1980 (US = 100)

Source: Williamson (1995), Tables A2.1-A2.3.

Wage convergence also took place within some parts of the United States during the nineteenth century. Figure 2 traces wages in the North Central and Southern regions of the U.S relative to those in the Northeast across the period from 1820 to the early twentieth century. Within the United States, wages in the North Central region of the country were 30 to 40 percent higher than in the East in the 1820s (Margo 2000a, ch. 5). Thereafter, wage gaps declined substantially, falling to the 10-20 percent range before the Civil War. Despite some temporary divergence during the war, wage gaps had fallen to 5 to 10 percent by the 1880s and 1890s. Much of this decline was made possible by faster and less expensive means of transportation, but it was also dependent on the development of labor market institutions linking the two regions, for while transportation improvements helped to link East and West, there was no corresponding North-South integration. While southern wages hovered near levels in the Northeast prior to the Civil War, they fell substantially below northern levels after the Civil War, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Figure 2

Relative Regional Real Wage Rates in the United States, 1825-1984

(Northeast = 100 in each year)

Notes and sources: Rosenbloom (2002, p. 133); Montgomery (1992). It is not possible to assemble entirely consistent data on regional wage variations over such an extended period. The nature of the wage data, the precise geographic coverage of the data, and the estimates of regional cost-of-living indices are all different. The earliest wage data—Margo (2000); Sundstrom and Rosenbloom (1993) and Coelho and Shepherd (1976) are all based on occupational wage rates from payroll records for specific occupations; Rosenbloom (1996) uses average earnings across all manufacturing workers; while Montgomery (1992) uses individual level wage data drawn from the Current Population Survey, and calculates geographic variations using a regression technique to control for individual differences in human capital and industry of employment. I used the relative real wages that Montgomery (1992) reported for workers in manufacturing, and used an unweighted average of wages across the cities in each region to arrive at relative regional real wages. Interested readers should consult the various underlying sources for further details.

Despite the large North-South wage gap Table 3 shows there was relatively little migration out of the South until large-scale foreign immigration came to an end. Migration from the South during World War I and the 1920s created a basis for future chain migration, but the Great Depression of the 1930s interrupted this process of adjustment. Not until the 1940s did the North-South wage gap begin to decline substantially (Wright 1986, pp. 71-80). By the 1970s the southern wage disadvantage had largely disappeared, and because of the decline fortunes of older manufacturing districts and the rise of Sunbelt cities, wages in the South now exceed those in the Northeast (Coelho and Ghali 1971; Bellante 1979; Sahling and Smith 1983; Montgomery 1992). Despite these shocks, however, the overall variation in wages appears comparable to levels attained by the end of the nineteenth century. Montgomery (1992), for example finds that from 1974 to 1984 the standard deviation of wages across SMSAs was only about 10 percent of the average wage.

Table 3

Net Migration by Region, and Race, 1870-1950

South Northeast North Central West
Period White Black White Black White Black White Black
Number (in 1,000s)
1870-80 91 -68 -374 26 26 42 257 0
1880-90 -271 -88 -240 61 -43 28 554 0
1890-00 -30 -185 101 136 -445 49 374 0
1900-10 -69 -194 -196 109 -1,110 63 1,375 22
1910-20 -663 -555 -74 242 -145 281 880 32
1920-30 -704 -903 -177 435 -464 426 1,345 42
1930-40 -558 -480 55 273 -747 152 1,250 55
1940-50 -866 -1581 -659 599 -1,296 626 2,822 356
Rate (migrants/1,000 Population)
1870-80 11 -14 -33 55 2 124 274 0
1880-90 -26 -15 -18 107 -3 65 325 0
1890-00 -2 -26 6 200 -23 104 141 0
1900-10 -4 -24 -11 137 -48 122 329 542
1910-20 -33 -66 -3 254 -5 421 143 491
1920-30 -30 -103 -7 328 -15 415 160 421
1930-40 -20 -52 2 157 -22 113 116 378
1940-50 -28 -167 -20 259 -35 344 195 964

Note: Net migration is calculated as the difference between the actual increase in population over each decade and the predicted increase based on age and sex specific mortality rates and the demographic structure of the region’s population at the beginning of the decade. If the actual increase exceeds the predicted increase this implies a net migration into the region; if the actual increase is less than predicted this implies net migration out of the region. The states included in the Southern region are Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Source: Eldridge and Thomas (1964, pp. 90, 99).

In addition to geographic wage gaps economists have considered gaps between farm and city, between black and white workers, between men and women, and between different industries. The literature on these topics is quite extensive and this essay can only touch on a few of the more general themes raised here as they relate to U.S. economic history.

Studies of farm-city wage gaps are a variant of the broader literature on geographic wage variation, related to the general movement of labor from farms to urban manufacturing and services. Here comparisons are complicated by the need to adjust for the non-wage perquisites that farm laborers typically received, which could be almost as large as cash wages. The issue of whether such gaps existed in the nineteenth century has important implications for whether the pace of industrialization was impeded by the lack of adequate labor supply responses. By the second half of the nineteenth century at least, it appears that farm-manufacturing wage gaps were small and markets were relatively integrated (Wright 1988, pp. 204-5). Margo (2000, ch. 4) offers evidence of a high degree of equalization within local labor markets between farm and urban wages as early as 1860. Making comparisons within counties and states, he reports that farm wages were within 10 percent of urban wages in eight states. Analyzing data from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, Hatton and Williamson (1991) find that farm and city wages were nearly equal within U.S. regions by the 1890s. It appears, however that during the Great Depression farm wages were much more flexible than urban wages causing a large gap to emerge at this time (Alston and Williamson 1991).

Much attention has been focused on trends in wage gaps by race and sex. The twentieth century has seen a substantial convergence in both of these differentials. Table 4 displays comparisons of earnings of black males relative to white males for full time workers. In 1940, full-time black male workers earned only about 43 percent of what white male full-time workers did. By 1980 the racial pay ratio had risen to nearly 73 percent, but there has been little subsequent progress. Until the mid-1960s these gains can be attributed primarily to migration from the low-wage South to higher paying areas in the North, and to increases in the quantity and quality of black education over time (Margo 1995; Smith and Welch 1990). Since then, however, most gains have been due to shifts in relative pay within regions. Although it is clear that discrimination was a key factor in limiting access to education, the role of discrimination within the labor market in contributing to these differentials has been a more controversial topic (see Wright 1986, pp. 127-34). But the episodic nature of black wage gains, especially after 1964 is compelling evidence that discrimination has played a role historically in earnings differences and that federal anti-discrimination legislation was a crucial factor in reducing its effects (Donohue and Heckman 1991).

Table 4

Black Male Wages as a Percentage of White Male Wages, 1940-2004

Date Black Relative Wage
1940 43.4
1950 55.2
1960 57.5
1970 64.4
1980 72.6
1990 70.0
2004 77.0

Notes and Sources: Data for 1940 through 1980 are based on Census data as reported in Smith and Welch (1989, Table 8). Data for 1990 are from Ehrenberg and Smith (2000, Table 12.4) and refer to earnings of full time, full year workers. Data from 2004 are for median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers derived from data in the Current Population Survey accessed on-line from the Bureau of Labor Statistic on 13 December 2005; URL

Male-Female wage gaps have also narrowed substantially over time. In the 1820s women’s earnings in manufacturing were a little less than 40 percent of those of men, but this ratio rose over time reaching about 55 percent by the 1920s. Across all sectors women’s relative pay rose during the first half of the twentieth century, but gains in female wages stalled during the 1950s and 1960s at the time when female labor force participation began to increase rapidly. Beginning in the late 1970s or early 1980s, relative female pay began to rise again, and today women earn about 80 percent what men do (Goldin 1990, table 3.2; Goldin 2000, pp. 606-8). Part of this remaining difference is explained by differences in the occupational distribution of men and women, with women tending to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. Whether these differences are the result of persistent discrimination or arise because of differences in productivity or a choice by women to trade off greater flexibility in terms of labor market commitment for lower pay remains controversial.

In addition to locational, sectoral, racial and gender wage differentials, economists have also documented and analyzed differences by industry. Krueger and Summers (1987) find that there are pronounced differences in wages by industry within well-specified occupational classes, and that these differentials have remained relatively stable over several decades. One interpretation of this phenomenon is that in industries with substantial market power workers are able to extract some of the monopoly rents as higher pay. An alternative view is that workers are in fact heterogeneous, and differences in wages reflect a process of sorting in which higher paying industries attract more able workers.

The Response to Short-run Macroeconomic Fluctuations

The existence of unemployment is one of the clearest indications of the persistent frictions that characterize labor markets. As described earlier, the concept of unemployment first entered common discussion with the growth of the factory labor force in the 1870s. Unemployment was not a visible social phenomenon in an agricultural economy, although there was undoubtedly a great deal of hidden underemployment.

Although one might have expected that the shift from spot toward more contractual labor markets would have increased rigidities in the employment relationship that would result in higher levels of unemployment there is in fact no evidence of any long-run increase in the level of unemployment.

Contemporaneous measurements of the rate of unemployment only began in 1940. Prior to this date, economic historians have had to estimate unemployment levels from a variety of other sources. Decennial censuses provide benchmark levels, but it is necessary to interpolate between these benchmarks based on other series. Conclusions about long-run changes in unemployment behavior depend to a large extent on the method used to interpolate between benchmark dates. Estimates prepared by Stanley Lebergott (1964) suggest that the average level of unemployment and its volatility have declined between the pre-1930 and post-World War II periods. Christina Romer (1986a, 1986b), however, has argued that there was no decline in volatility. Rather, she argues that the apparent change in behavior is the result of Lebergott’s interpolation procedure.

While the aggregate behavior of unemployment has changed surprisingly little over the past century, the changing nature of employment relationships has been reflected much more clearly in changes in the distribution of the burden of unemployment (Goldin 2000, pp. 591-97). At the beginning of the twentieth century, unemployment was relatively widespread, and largely unrelated to personal characteristics. Thus many employees faced great uncertainty about the permanence of their employment relationship. Today, on the other hand, unemployment is highly concentrated: falling heavily on the least skilled, the youngest, and the non-white segments of the labor force. Thus, the movement away from spot markets has tended to create a two-tier labor market in which some workers are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, while others remain largely insulated from economic shocks.

Wage Determination and Distributional Issues

American economic growth has generated vast increases in the material standard of living. Real gross domestic product per capita, for example, has increased more than twenty-fold since 1820 (Steckel 2002). This growth in total output has in large part been passed on to labor in the form of higher wages. Although labor’s share of national output has fluctuated somewhat, in the long-run it has remained surprisingly stable. According to Abramovitz and David (2000, p. 20), labor received 65 percent of national income in the years 1800-1855. Labor’s share dropped in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, falling to a low of 54 percent of national income between 1890 and 1927, but has since risen, reaching 65 percent again in 1966-1989. Thus, over the long term, labor income has grown at the same rate as total output in the economy.

The distribution of labor’s gains across different groups in the labor force has also varied over time. I have already discussed patterns of wage variation by race and gender, but another important issue revolves around the overall level of inequality of pay, and differences in pay between groups of skilled and unskilled workers. Careful research by Picketty and Saez (2003) using individual income tax returns has documented changes in the overall distribution of income in the United States since 1913. They find that inequality has followed a U-shaped pattern over the course of the twentieth century. Inequality was relatively high at the beginning of the period they consider, fell sharply during World War II, held steady until the early 1970s and then began to increase, reaching levels comparable to those in the early twentieth century by the 1990s.

An important factor in the rising inequality of income since 1970 has been growing dispersion in wage rates. The wage differential between workers in the 90th percentile of the wage distribution and those in the 10th percentile increased by 49 percent between 1969 and 1995 (Plotnick et al 2000, pp. 357-58). These shifts are mirrored in increased premiums earned by college graduates relative to high school graduates. Two primary explanations have been advanced for these trends. First, there is evidence that technological changes—especially those associated with the increased use of information technology—has increased relative demand for more educated workers (Murnane, Willett and Levy (1995). Second, increased global integration has allowed low-wage manufacturing industries overseas to compete more effectively with U.S. manufacturers, thus depressing wages in what have traditionally been high-paying blue collar jobs.

Efforts to expand the scope of analysis over a longer-run encounter problems with more limited data. Based on selected wage ratios of skilled and unskilled workers Willamson and Lindert (1980) have argued that there was an increase in wage inequality over the course of the nineteenth century. But other scholars have argued that the wage series that Williamson and Lindert used are unreliable (Margo 2000b, pp. 224-28).


The history of labor market institutions in the United States illustrates the point that real world economies are substantially more complex than the simplest textbook models. Instead of a disinterested and omniscient auctioneer, the process of matching buyers and sellers takes place through the actions of self-interested market participants. The resulting labor market institutions do not respond immediately and precisely to shifting patterns of incentives. Rather they are subject to historical forces of increasing-returns and lock-in that cause them to change gradually and along path-dependent trajectories.

For all of these departures from the theoretically ideal market, however, the history of labor markets in the United States can also be seen as a confirmation of the remarkable power of market processes of allocation. From the beginning of European settlement in mainland North America, labor markets have done a remarkable job of responding to shifting patterns of demand and supply. Not only have they accomplished the massive geographic shifts associated with the settlement of the United States, but they have also dealt with huge structural changes induced by the sustained pace of technological change.


Abramovitz, Moses and Paul A. David. “American Macroeconomic Growth in the Era of Knowledge-Based Progress: The Long-Run Perspective.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume 3: The Twentieth Century, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert Gallman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Alston, Lee J. and Jeffery G. Williamson. “The Earnings Gap between Agricultural and Manufacturing Laborers, 1925-1941. Journal of Economic History 51, no. 1 (1991): 83-99.

Barton, Josef J. Peasants and Strangers: Italians, Rumanians, and Slovaks in an American City, 1890-1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Bellante, Don. “The North-South Differential and the Migration of Heterogeneous Labor.” American Economic Review 69, no. 1 (1979): 166-75.

Carter, Susan B. “The Changing Importance of Lifetime Jobs in the U.S. Economy, 1892-1978.” Industrial Relations 27 (1988): 287-300.

Carter, Susan B. and Elizabeth Savoca. “Labor Mobility and Lengthy Jobs in Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 1 (1990): 1-16.

Carter, Susan B. and Richard Sutch. “Historical Perspectives on the Economic Consequences of Immigration into the United States.” In The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience, edited by Charles Hirschman, Philip Kasinitz and Josh DeWind. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.

Coelho, Philip R.P. and Moheb A. Ghali. “The End of the North-South Wage Differential.” American Economic Review 61, no. 5 (1971): 932-37.

Coelho, Philip R.P. and James F. Shepherd. “Regional Differences in Real Wages: The United States in 1851-1880.” Explorations in Economic History 13 (1976): 203-30.

Craig, Lee A. To Sow One Acre More: Childbearing and Farm Productivity in the Antebellum North. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Donahue, John H. III and James J. Heckman. “Continuous versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks.” Journal of Economic Literature 29, no. 4 (1991): 1603-43.

Dunn, Richard S. “Servants and Slaves: The Recruitment and Employment of Labor.” In Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era, edited by Jack P. Greene and J.R. Pole. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Edwards, B. “A World of Work: A Survey of Outsourcing.” Economist 13 November 2004.

Edwards, Richard. Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

Ehrenberg, Ronald G. and Robert S. Smith. Modern Labor Economics: Theory and Public Policy, seventh edition. Reading, MA; Addison-Wesley, 2000.

Eldridge, Hope T. and Dorothy Swaine Thomas. Population Redistribution and Economic Growth, United States 1870-1950, vol. 3: Demographic Analyses and Interrelations. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1964.

Fishback, Price V. “Workers’ Compensation.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 15, 2001. URL

Freeman, Richard and James Medoff. What Do Unions Do? New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Friedman, Gerald (2002). “Labor Unions in the United States.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. May 8, 2002. URL

Galenson, David W. White Servitude in Colonial America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Galenson, David W. “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis.” Journal of Economic History 44, no. 1 (1984): 1-26.

Galloway, Lowell E., Richard K. Vedder and Vishwa Shukla. “The Distribution of the Immigrant Population in the United States: An Econometric Analysis.” Explorations in Economic History 11 (1974): 213-26.

Gjerde, John. From Peasants to Farmers: Migration from Balestrand, Norway to the Upper Middle West. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Goldin, Claudia. “The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921.” In The Regulated Economy: A Historical Approach to Political Economy, edited by Claudia Goldin and Gary Libecap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Goldin, Claudia. “Labor Markets in the Twentieth Century.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume 3: The Twentieth Century, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert Gallman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Grubb, Farley. “The Market for Indentured Immigrants: Evidence on the Efficiency of Forward Labor Contracting in Philadelphia, 1745-1773.” Journal of Economic History 45, no. 4 (1985a): 855-68.

Grubb, Farley. “The Incidence of Servitude in Trans-Atlantic Migration, 1771-1804.” Explorations in Economic History 22 (1985b): 316-39.

Grubb, Farley. “Redemptioner Immigration to Pennsylvania: Evidence on Contract Choice and Profitability.” Journal of Economic History 46, no. 2 (1986): 407-18.

Hatton, Timothy J. and Jeffrey G. Williamson (1991). “Integrated and Segmented Labor Markets: Thinking in Two Sectors.” Journal of Economic History 51, no. 2 (1991): 413-25.

Hughes, Jonathan and Louis Cain. American Economic History, sixth edition. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2003.

Jacoby, Sanford M. “The Development of Internal Labor markets in American Manufacturing Firms.” In Internal Labor Markets, edited by Paul Osterman, 23-69. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984

Jacoby, Sanford M. Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions, and the Transformation of Work in American Industry, 1900-1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Jacoby, Sanford M. and Sunil Sharma. “Employment Duration and Industrial Labor Mobility in the United States, 1880-1980.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 1 (1992): 161-79.

James, John A. “Job Tenure in the Gilded Age.” In Labour Market Evolution: The Economic History of Market Integration, Wage Flexibility, and the Employment Relation, edited by George Grantham and Mary MacKinnon. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Kamphoefner, Walter D. The Westfalians: From Germany to Missouri. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Keyssar, Alexander. Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Krueger, Alan B. and Lawrence H. Summers. “Reflections on the Inter-Industry Wage Structure.” In Unemployment and the Structure of Labor Markets, edited by Kevin Lang and Jonathan Leonard, 17-47. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Lebergott, Stanley. Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Margo, Robert. “Explaining Black-White Wage Convergence, 1940-1950: The Role of the Great Compression.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 48 (1995): 470-81.

Margo, Robert. Wages and Labor Markets in the United States, 1820-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000a.

Margo, Robert. “The Labor Force in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume 2: The Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 207-44. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000b.

McCusker, John J. and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America: 1607-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Montgomery, Edward. “Evidence on Metropolitan Wage Differences across Industries and over Time.” Journal of Urban Economics 31 (1992): 69-83.

Morgan, Edmund S. “The Labor Problem at Jamestown, 1607-18.” American Historical Review 76 (1971): 595-611.

Murnane, Richard J., John B. Willett and Frank Levy. “The Growing Importance of Cognitive Skills in Wage Determination.” Review of Economics and Statistics 77 (1995): 251-66

Nelson, Daniel. Managers and Workers: Origins of the New Factory System in the United States, 1880-1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.

O’Rourke, Kevin H. and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Owen, Laura. “History of Labor Turnover in the U.S.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. April 30, 2004. URL

Piketty, Thomas and Emmanuel Saez. “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (2003): 1-39.

Plotnick, Robert D. et al. “The Twentieth-Century Record of Inequality and Poverty in the United States” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume 3: The Twentieth Century, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert Gallman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Romer, Christina. “New Estimates of Prewar Gross National Product and Unemployment.” Journal of Economic History 46, no. 2 (1986a): 341-52.

Romer, Christina. “Spurious Volatility in Historical Unemployment Data.” Journal of Political Economy 94 (1986b): 1-37.

Rosenbloom, Joshua L. “Was There a National Labor Market at the End of the Nineteenth Century? New Evidence on Earnings in Manufacturing.” Journal of Economic History 56, no. 3 (1996): 626-56.

Rosenbloom, Joshua L. Looking for Work, Searching for Workers: American Labor Markets during Industrialization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Slichter, Sumner H. “The Current Labor Policies of American Industries.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 43 (1929): 393-435.

Sahling, Leonard G. and Sharon P. Smith. “Regional Wage Differentials: Has the South Risen Again?” Review of Economics and Statistics 65 (1983): 131-35.

Smith, James P. and Finis R. Welch. “Black Economic Progress after Myrdal.” Journal of Economic Literature 27 (1989): 519-64.

Steckel, Richard. “A History of the Standard of Living in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. July 22, 2002. URL

Sundstrom, William A. and Joshua L. Rosenbloom. “Occupational Differences in the Dispersion of Wages and Working Hours: Labor Market Integration in the United States, 1890-1903.” Explorations in Economic History 30 (1993): 379-408.

Ward, David. Cities and Immigrants: A Geography of Change in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Ware, Caroline F. The Early New England Cotton Manufacture: A Study in Industrial Beginnings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Weiss, Thomas. “Revised Estimates of the United States Workforce, 1800-1860.” In Long Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 641-78. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986.

Whaples, Robert. “Child Labor in the United States.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October 8, 2005. URL

Williamson, Jeffrey G. “The Evolution of Global Labor Markets since 1830: Background Evidence and Hypotheses.” Explorations in Economic History 32 (1995): 141-96.

Williamson, Jeffrey G. and Peter H. Lindert. American Inequality: A Macroeconomic History. New York: Academic Press, 1980.

Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Wright, Gavin. “Postbellum Southern Labor Markets.” In Quantity and Quiddity: Essays in U.S. Economic History, edited by Peter Kilby. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Wright, Gavin. “American Agriculture and the Labor Market: What Happened to Proletarianization?” Agricultural History 62 (1988): 182-209.

Citation: Rosenbloom, Joshua. “The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

The Economic History of Korea

The Economic History of Korea

Myung Soo Cha, Yeungnam University

Three Periods

Two regime shifts divide the economic history of Korea during the past six centuries into three distinct periods: 1) the period of Malthusian stagnation up to 1910, when Japan annexed Korea; 2) the colonial period from 1910-45, when the country embarked upon modern economic growth; and 3) the post colonial decades, when living standards improved rapidly in South Korea, while North Korea returned to the world of disease and starvation. The dramatic history of living standards in Korea presents one of the most convincing pieces of evidence to show that institutions — particularly the government — matter for economic growth.

Dynastic Degeneration

The founders of the Chosôn dynasty (1392-1910) imposed a tribute system on a little-commercialized peasant economy, collecting taxes in the form of a wide variety of products and mobilizing labor to obtain the handicrafts and services it needed. From the late sixteenth to the early seventeenth century, invading armies from Japan and China shattered the command system and forced a transition to a market economy. The damaged bureaucracy started to receive taxes in money commodities — rice and cotton textiles — and eventually began to mint copper coins and lifted restrictions on trade. The wars also dealt a serious blow to slavery and the pre-war system of forced labor, allowing labor markets to emerge.

Markets were slow to develop: grain markets in agricultural regions of Korea appeared less integrated than those in comparable parts of China and Japan. Population and acreage, however, recovered quickly from the adverse impact of the wars. Population growth came to a halt around 1800, and a century of demographic stagnation followed due to a higher level of mortality. During the nineteenth century, living standards appeared to deteriorate. Both wages and rents fell, tax receipts shrank, and budget deficits expanded, forcing the government to resort to debasement. Peasant rebellions occurred more frequently, and poor peasants left Korea for northern China.

Given that both acreage and population remained stable during the nineteenth century, the worsening living standards imply that the aggregate output contracted, because land and labor were being used in an ever more inefficient way. The decline in efficiency appeared to have much to do with disintegrating system of water control, which included flood control and irrigation.

The water control problem had institutional roots, as in Q’ing China. Population growth caused rapid deforestation, as peasants were able to readily obtain farmlands by burning off forests, where property rights usually remained ill-defined. (This contrasts with Tokugawa Japan, where conflicts and litigation following competitive exploitation of forests led to forest regulation.) While the deforestation wrought havoc on reservoirs by increasing the incidence and intensity of flooding, private individuals had little incentives to repair the damages, as they expected others to free-ride on the benefits of their efforts. Keeping the system of water control in good condition required public initiatives, which the dynastic government could not undertake. During the nineteenth century, powerful landowning families took turns controlling minor or ailing kings, reducing the state to an instrument serving private interests. Failing to take measures to maintain irrigation, provincial officials accelerated its decay by taking bribes in return for conniving at the practice of farming on the rich soil alongside reservoirs. Peasants responded to the decaying irrigation by developing new rice seed varieties, which could better resist droughts but yielded less. They also tried to counter the increasingly unstable water supply by building waterways linking farmlands with rivers, which frequently met opposition from people farming further downstream. Not only did provincial administrators fail to settle the water disputes, but also some of them became central causes of clashes. In 1894 peasants protested against a local administrator’s attempts to generate private income by collecting fees for using waterways, which had been built by peasants. The uprising quickly developed into a nationwide peasant rebellion, which the crumbling government could suppress only by calling in military forces from China and Japan. An unforeseen consequence of the rebellion was the Sino-Japanese war fought on the Korean soil, where Japan defeated China, tipping the balance of power in Korea critically in her favor.

The water control problem affected primarily rice farming productivity: during the nineteenth century paddy land prices (as measured by the amount of rice) fell, while dry farm prices (as measured by the amount of dry farm products) rose. Peasants and landlords converted paddy lands into dry farms during the nineteenth century, and there occurred an exodus of workers out of agriculture into handicraft and commerce. Despite the proto-industrialization, late dynastic Korea remained less urbanized than Q’ing China, not to mention Tokugawa Japan. Seasonal fluctuations in rice prices in the main agricultural regions of Korea were far wider than those observed in Japan during the nineteenth century, implying a significantly higher interest rate, a lower level of capital per person, and therefore lower living standards for Korea. In the mid-nineteenth century paddy land productivity in Korea was about half of that in Japan.

Colonial Transition to Modern Economic Growth

Less than two decades after having been opened by Commodore Perry, Japan first made its ambitions about Korea known by forcing the country open to trade in 1876. Defeating Russia in the war of 1905, Japan virtually annexed Korea, which was made official five years later. What replaced the feeble and predatory bureaucracy of the ChosǑn dynasty was a developmental state. Drawing on the Meiji government’s experience, the colonial state introduced a set of expensive policy measures to modernize Korea. One important project was to improve infrastructure: railway lines were extended, and roads and harbors and communication networks were improved, which rapidly integrated goods and factor markets both nationally and internationally. Another project was a vigorous health campaign: the colonial government improved public hygiene, introduced modern medicine, and built hospitals, significantly accelerating the mortality decline set in motion around 1890, apparently by the introduction of the smallpox vaccination. The mortality transition resulted in a population expanding 1.4% per year during the colonial period. The third project was to revamp education. As modern teaching institutions quickly replaced traditional schools teaching Chinese classics, primary school enrollment ration rose from 1 percent in 1910 to 47 percent in 1943. Finally, the cadastral survey (1910-18) modernized and legalized property rights to land, which boosted not only the efficiency in land use, but also tax revenue from landowners. These modernization efforts generated sizable public deficits, which the colonial government could finance partly by floating bonds in Japan and partly by unilateral transfers from the Japanese government.

The colonial government implemented industrial policy as well. The Rice Production Development Program (1920-1933), a policy response to the Rice Riots in Japan in 1918, was aimed at increasing rice supply within the Japanese empire. In colonial Korea, the program placed particular emphasis upon reversing the decay in water control. The colonial government provided subsidies for irrigation projects, and set up institutions to lower information, negotiation, and enforcement costs in building new waterways and reservoirs. Improved irrigation made it possible for peasants to grow high yielding rice seed varieties. Completion of a chemical fertilizer factory in 1927 increased the use of fertilizer, further boosting the yields from the new type of rice seeds. Rice prices fell rapidly in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the wake of the world agricultural depression, leading to the suspension of the program in 1933.

Despite the Rice Program, the structure of the colonial economy has been shifting away from agriculture towards manufacturing ever since the beginning of the colonial rule at a consistent pace. From 1911-40 the share of manufacturing in GDP increased from 6 percent to 28 percent, and the share of agriculture fell from 76 percent to 41 percent. Major causes of the structural change included diffusion of modern manufacturing technology, the world agricultural depression shifting the terms of trade in favor of manufacturing, and Japan’s early recovery from the Great Depression generating an investment boom in the colony. Also Korea’s cheap labor and natural resources and the introduction of controls on output and investment in Japan to mitigate the impact of the Depression helped attract direct investment in the colony. Finally, subjugating party politicians and pushing Japan into the Second World War with the invasion of China in 1937, the Japanese military began to develop northern parts of Korea peninsula as an industrial base producing munitions.

The institutional modernization, technological diffusion, and the inflow of Japanese capital put an end to the Malthusian degeneration and pushed Korea onto the path of modern economic growth. Both rents and wages stopped falling and started to rise from the early twentieth century. As the population explosion made labor increasingly abundant vis-a-vis land, rents increased more rapidly than wages, suggesting that income distribution became less equal during the colonial period. Per capita output rose faster than one percent per year from 1911-38.

Per capita grain consumption declined during the colonial period, providing grounds for traditional criticism of the Japanese colonialism exploiting Korea. However, per capita real consumption increased, due to rising non-grain and non-good consumption, and Koreans were also getting better education and living longer. In the late 1920s, life expectancy at birth was 37 years, an estimate several years longer than in China and almost ten years shorter than in Japan. Life expectancy increased to 43 years at the end of the colonial period. Male mean stature was slightly higher than 160 centimeters at the end of the 1920s, a number not significantly different from the Chinese or Japanese height, and appeared to become shorter during the latter half of the colonial period.

South Korean Prosperity

With the end of the Second World War in 1945, two separate regimes emerged on the Korean peninsula to replace the colonial government. The U.S. military government took over the southern half, while communist Russia set up a Korean leadership in the northern half. The de-colonization and political division meant sudden disruption of trade both with Japan and within Korea, causing serious economic turmoil. Dealing with the post-colonial chaos with economic aid, the U.S. military government privatized properties previously owned by the Japanese government and civilians. The first South Korean government, established in 1948, carried out a land reform, making land distribution more egalitarian. Then the Korean War broke out in 1950, killing one and half million people and destroying about a quarter of capital stock during its three year duration.

After the war, South Korean policymakers set upon stimulating economic growth by promoting indigenous industrial firms, following the example of many other post-World War II developing countries. The government selected firms in targeted industries and gave them privileges to buy foreign currencies and to borrow funds from banks at preferential rates. It also erected tariff barriers and imposed a prohibition on manufacturing imports, hoping that the protection would give domestic firms a chance to improve productivity through learning-by-doing and importing advanced technologies. Under the policy, known as import-substitution industrialization (ISI), entrepreneurs seemed more interested in maximizing and perpetuating favors by bribing bureaucrats and politicians, however. This behavior, dubbed as directly unproductive profit-seeking activities (DUP), caused efficiency to falter and living standards to stagnate, providing a background to the collapse of the First Republic in April 1960.

The military coup led by General Park Chung Hee overthrew the short-lived Second Republic in May 1961, making a shift to a strategy of stimulating growth through export promotion (EP hereafter), although ISI was not altogether abandoned. Under EP, policymakers gave various types of favors — low interest loans being the most important — to exporting firms according to their export performance. As the qualification for the special treatment was quantifiable and objective, the room for DUP became significantly smaller. Another advantage of EP over ISI was that it accelerated productivity advances by placing firms under the discipline of export markets and by widening the contact with the developed world: efficiency growth was significantly faster in export industries than in the rest of the economy. In the decade following the shift to EP, per capita output doubled, and South Korea became an industrialized country: from 1960/62 to 1973/75 the share of agriculture in GDP fell from 45 percent to 25 percent, while the share of manufacturing rose from 9 percent to 27 percent. One important factor contributing to the achievement was that the authoritarian government could enjoy relative independence from and avoid capture by special interests.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam in the early 1970s and the subsequent conquest of the region by the communist regime alarmed the South Korean leadership, which has been coping with the threat of North Korea with the help of the U.S. military presence. Park Chung Hee’s reaction was to reduce the level of reliance on the U.S. armed support by expanding capability to produce munitions, which required returning to ISI to build heavy and chemical industries (HCI). The government intervened heavily in the financial markets, directing banks to provide low interest loans to chaebols — conglomerates of businesses owned by a single family — selected for the task of developing different sectors of HCI. Successfully expanding the capital-intensive industries more rapidly than the rest of the economy, the HCI drive generated multiple symptoms of distortion, including rapidly slowing growth, worsening inflation and accumulation of non-performing loans.

Again the ISI ended with a regime shift, triggered by Park Chung Hee’s assassination in 1979. In the 1980s, the succeeding leadership made systematic attempts to sort out the unwelcome legacy of the HCI drive by de-regulating trade and financial sectors. In the 1990s, liberalization of capital account followed, causing rapid accumulation of short-term external debts. This, together with a highly leveraged corporate sector and the banking sector destabilized by the financial repression, provided the background to the contagion of financial crisis from Southeast Asia in 1997. The crisis provided a strong momentum for corporate and financial sector reform.

In the quarter century following the policy shift in the early 1960s, the South Korean per capita output grew at an unusually rapid rate of 7 percent per year, a growth performance paralleled only by Taiwan and two city-states, Hong Kong and Singapore. The portion of South Koreans enjoying the benefits of the growth increased more rapidly from the end of 1970s, when the rising trend in the Gini coefficient (which measures the inequality of income distribution) since the colonial period was reversed. The growth was attributable far more to increased use of productive inputs — physical capital in particular — than to productivity advances. The rapid capital accumulation was driven by an increasingly high savings rate due to a falling dependency ratio, a lagged outcome of rapidly falling mortality during the colonial period. The high growth was also aided by accumulation of human capital, which started with the introduction of modern education under the Japanese rule. Finally, the South Korean developmental state, as symbolized by Park Chung Hee, a former officer of the Japanese Imperial army serving in wartime Manchuria, was closely modeled upon the colonial system of government. In short, South Korea grew on the shoulders of the colonial achievement, rather than emerging out of the ashes left by the Korean War, as is sometimes asserted.

North Korean Starvation

Neither did the North Korean economy emerge out of a void. Founders of the regime took over the system of command set up by the Japanese rulers to invade China. They also benefited from the colonial industrialization concentrated in the north, which had raised the standard of living in the north above that in the south at the end of the colonial rule. While the economic advantage led the North Korean leadership to feel confident enough to invade the South in 1950, it could not sustain the lead: North Korea started to lag behind the fast growing South from the late 1960s, and then suffered a tragic decline in living standards in the 1990s.

After the conclusion of the Korean War, the North Korean power elites adopted a strategy of driving growth through forced saving, which went quickly to the wall for several reasons. First, managers and workers in collective farms and state enterprises had little incentive to improve productivity to counter the falling marginal productivity of capital. Second, the country’s self-imposed isolation made it difficult for it to benefit from the advanced technologies of the developed world through trade and foreign investment. Finally, the despotic and militaristic rule diverted resources to unproductive purposes and disturbed the consistency of planning.

The economic stalemate forced the ruling elites to experiment with the introduction of material incentives and independent accounting of state enterprises. However, they could not push the institutional reform far enough, for fear that it might destabilize their totalitarian rule. Efforts were also made to attract foreign capital, which ended in failure too. Having spent the funds lent by western banks in the early 1970s largely for military purposes, North Korea defaulted on the loans. Laws introduced in the 1980s to draw foreign direct investment had little effect.

The collapse of centrally planned economies in the late 1980s virtually ended energy and capital goods imports at subsidized prices, dealing a serious blow to the wobbly regime. Desperate efforts to resolve chronic food shortages by expanding acreage through deforestation made the country vulnerable to climatic shocks in the 1990s. The end result was a disastrous subsistence crisis, to which the militarist regime responded by extorting concessions from the rest of the world through brinkmanship diplomacy.

Further Reading

Amsden, Alice. Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Ban, Sung Hwan. “Agricultural Growth in Korea.” In Agricultural Growth in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines, edited by Yujiro Hayami, Vernon W. Ruttan, and Herman M. Southworth, 96-116. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1979.

Cha, Myung Soo. “Imperial Policy or World Price Shocks? Explaining Interwar Korean Consumption Trend.” Journal of Economic History 58, no. 3 (1998): 731-754.

Cha, Myung Soo. “The Colonial Origins of Korea’s Market Economy.” In Asia-Pacific Dynamism, 1550-2000, edited by A.J.H. Latham and H. Kawakatsu, 86-103. London: Routledge, 2000.

Cha, Myung Soo. “Facts and Myths about Korea’s Economic Past.” Forthcoming in Australian Review of Economic History 44 (2004).

Cole, David C. and Yung Chul Park. Financial Development in Korea, 1945-1978. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Dollar, David and Kenneth Sokoloff. “Patterns of Productivity Growth in South Korean Manufacturing Industries, 1963-1979.” Journal of Development Economics 33, no. 2 (1990): 390-27.

Eckert, Carter J. Offspring of Empire: The Koch’ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945. Seattle: Washington University Press, 1991.

Gill, Insong. “Stature, Consumption, and the Standard of Living in Colonial Korea.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Joerg Baten, 122-138. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.

Gragert, Edwin H. Landownership under Colonial Rule: Korea’s Japanese Experience, 1900-1935. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1994.

Haggard, Stephan. The Political Economy of the Asian Financial Crisis. Washington: Institute of International Economics, 2000.

Haggard, Stephan, D. Kang and C. Moon. “Japanese Colonialism and Korean Development: A Critique.” World Development 25 (1997): 867-81.

Haggard, Stephan, Byung-kook Kim and Chung-in Moon. “The Transition to Export-led Growth in South Korea: 1954-1966.” Journal of Asian Studies 50, no. 4 (1991): 850-73.

Kang, Kenneth H. “Why Did Koreans Save So Little and Why Do They Now Save So Much?” International Economic Journal 8 (1994): 99-111.

Kang, Kenneth H, and Vijaya Ramachandran. “Economic Transformation in Korea: Rapid Growth without an Agricultural Revolution?” Economic Development and Cultural Change 47, no. 4 (1999): 783-801.

Kim, Kwang Suk and Michael Roemer. Growth and Structural Transformation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Kimura, Mitsuhiko. “From Fascism to Communism: Continuity and Development of Collectivist Economic Policy in North Korea.” Economic History Review 52, no.1 (1999): 69-86.

Kimura, Mitsuhiko. “Standards of Living in Colonial Korea: Did the Masses Become Worse Off or Better Off under Japanese Rule?” Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (1993): 629-652.

Kohli, Atul. “Where Do High Growth Political Economies Come From? The Japanese Lineage of Korea’s ‘Developmental State’.” World Development 9: 1269-93.

Krueger, Anne. The Developmental Role of the Foreign Sector and Aid. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Kwon, Tai Hwan. Demography of Korea: Population Change and Its Components, 1925-66. Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 1977.

Noland, Marcus. Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas. Washington: Institute for International Economics, 2000.

Palais, James B. Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Stern, Joseph J, Ji-hong Kim, Dwight H. Perkins and Jung-ho Yoo, editors. Industrialization and the State: The Korean Heavy and Chemical Industry Drive. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Woo, Jung-en. Race to the Swift: State and Finance in Korean Industrialization. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Young, Alwyn. “The Tyranny of Numbers: Confronting the Statistical Realities of the East Asian Growth Experience.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 110, no. 3 (1995): 641-80.

Citation: Cha, Myung. “The Economic History of Korea”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Japanese Industrialization and Economic Growth

Carl Mosk, University of Victoria

Japan achieved sustained growth in per capita income between the 1880s and 1970 through industrialization. Moving along an income growth trajectory through expansion of manufacturing is hardly unique. Indeed Western Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States all attained high levels of income per capita by shifting from agrarian-based production to manufacturing and technologically sophisticated service sector activity.

Still, there are four distinctive features of Japan’s development through industrialization that merit discussion:

The proto-industrial base

Japan’s agricultural productivity was high enough to sustain substantial craft (proto-industrial) production in both rural and urban areas of the country prior to industrialization.

Investment-led growth

Domestic investment in industry and infrastructure was the driving force behind growth in Japanese output. Both private and public sectors invested in infrastructure, national and local governments serving as coordinating agents for infrastructure build-up.

  • Investment in manufacturing capacity was largely left to the private sector.
  • Rising domestic savings made increasing capital accumulation possible.
  • Japanese growth was investment-led, not export-led.

Total factor productivity growth — achieving more output per unit of input — was rapid.

On the supply side, total factor productivity growth was extremely important. Scale economies — the reduction in per unit costs due to increased levels of output — contributed to total factor productivity growth. Scale economies existed due to geographic concentration, to growth of the national economy, and to growth in the output of individual companies. In addition, companies moved down the “learning curve,” reducing unit costs as their cumulative output rose and demand for their product soared.

The social capacity for importing and adapting foreign technology improved and this contributed to total factor productivity growth:

  • At the household level, investing in education of children improved social capability.
  • At the firm level, creating internalized labor markets that bound firms to workers and workers to firms, thereby giving workers a strong incentive to flexibly adapt to new technology, improved social capability.
  • At the government level, industrial policy that reduced the cost to private firms of securing foreign technology enhanced social capacity.

Shifting out of low-productivity agriculture into high productivity manufacturing, mining, and construction contributed to total factor productivity growth.


Sharply segmented labor and capital markets emerged in Japan after the 1910s. The capital intensive sector enjoying high ratios of capital to labor paid relatively high wages, and the labor intensive sector paid relatively low wages.

Dualism contributed to income inequality and therefore to domestic social unrest. After 1945 a series of public policy reforms addressed inequality and erased much of the social bitterness around dualism that ravaged Japan prior to World War II.

The remainder of this article will expand on a number of the themes mentioned above. The appendix reviews quantitative evidence concerning these points. The conclusion of the article lists references that provide a wealth of detailed evidence supporting the points above, which this article can only begin to explore.

The Legacy of Autarky and the Proto-Industrial Economy: Achievements of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868)

Why Japan?

Given the relatively poor record of countries outside the European cultural area — few achieving the kind of “catch-up” growth Japan managed between 1880 and 1970 – the question naturally arises: why Japan? After all, when the United States forcibly “opened Japan” in the 1850s and Japan was forced to cede extra-territorial rights to a number of Western nations as had China earlier in the 1840s, many Westerners and Japanese alike thought Japan’s prospects seemed dim indeed.

Tokugawa achievements: urbanization, road networks, rice cultivation, craft production

In answering this question, Mosk (2001), Minami (1994) and Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973) emphasize the achievements of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868) during a long period of “closed country” autarky between the mid-seventeenth century and the 1850s: a high level of urbanization; well developed road networks; the channeling of river water flow with embankments and the extensive elaboration of irrigation ditches that supported and encouraged the refinement of rice cultivation based upon improving seed varieties, fertilizers and planting methods especially in the Southwest with its relatively long growing season; the development of proto-industrial (craft) production by merchant houses in the major cities like Osaka and Edo (now called Tokyo) and its diffusion to rural areas after 1700; and the promotion of education and population control among both the military elite (the samurai) and the well-to-do peasantry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Tokugawa political economy: daimyo and shogun

These developments were inseparable from the political economy of Japan. The system of confederation government introduced at the end of the fifteenth century placed certain powers in the hands of feudal warlords, daimyo, and certain powers in the hands of the shogun, the most powerful of the warlords. Each daimyo — and the shogun — was assigned a geographic region, a domain, being given taxation authority over the peasants residing in the villages of the domain. Intercourse with foreign powers was monopolized by the shogun, thereby preventing daimyo from cementing alliances with other countries in an effort to overthrow the central government. The samurai military retainers of the daimyo were forced to abandon rice farming and reside in the castle town headquarters of their daimyo overlord. In exchange, samurai received rice stipends from the rice taxes collected from the villages of their domain. By removing samurai from the countryside — by demilitarizing rural areas — conflicts over local water rights were largely made a thing of the past. As a result irrigation ditches were extended throughout the valleys, and riverbanks were shored up with stone embankments, facilitating transport and preventing flooding.

The sustained growth of proto-industrialization in urban Japan, and its widespread diffusion to villages after 1700 was also inseparable from the productivity growth in paddy rice production and the growing of industrial crops like tea, fruit, mulberry plant growing (that sustained the raising of silk cocoons) and cotton. Indeed, Smith (1988) has given pride of place to these “domestic sources” of Japan’s future industrial success.

Readiness to emulate the West

As a result of these domestic advances, Japan was well positioned to take up the Western challenge. It harnessed its infrastructure, its high level of literacy, and its proto-industrial distribution networks to the task of emulating Western organizational forms and Western techniques in energy production, first and foremost enlisting inorganic energy sources like coal and the other fossil fuels to generate steam power. Having intensively developed the organic economy depending upon natural energy flows like wind, water and fire, Japanese were quite prepared to master inorganic production after the Black Ships of the Americans forced Japan to jettison its long-standing autarky.

From Balanced to Dualistic Growth, 1887-1938: Infrastructure and Manufacturing Expand

Fukoku Kyohei

After the Tokugawa government collapsed in 1868, a new Meiji government committed to the twin policies of fukoku kyohei (wealthy country/strong military) took up the challenge of renegotiating its treaties with the Western powers. It created infrastructure that facilitated industrialization. It built a modern navy and army that could keep the Western powers at bay and establish a protective buffer zone in North East Asia that eventually formed the basis for a burgeoning Japanese empire in Asia and the Pacific.

Central government reforms in education, finance and transportation

Jettisoning the confederation style government of the Tokugawa era, the new leaders of the new Meiji government fashioned a unitary state with powerful ministries consolidating authority in the capital, Tokyo. The freshly minted Ministry of Education promoted compulsory primary schooling for the masses and elite university education aimed at deepening engineering and scientific knowledge. The Ministry of Finance created the Bank of Japan in 1882, laying the foundations for a private banking system backed up a lender of last resort. The government began building a steam railroad trunk line girding the four major islands, encouraging private companies to participate in the project. In particular, the national government committed itself to constructing a Tokaido line connecting the Tokyo/Yokohama region to the Osaka/Kobe conurbation along the Pacific coastline of the main island of Honshu, and to creating deepwater harbors at Yokohama and Kobe that could accommodate deep-hulled steamships.

Not surprisingly, the merchants in Osaka, the merchant capital of Tokugawa Japan, already well versed in proto-industrial production, turned to harnessing steam and coal, investing heavily in integrated spinning and weaving steam-driven textile mills during the 1880s.

Diffusion of best-practice agriculture

At the same time, the abolition of the three hundred or so feudal fiefs that were the backbone of confederation style-Tokugawa rule and their consolidation into politically weak prefectures, under a strong national government that virtually monopolized taxation authority, gave a strong push to the diffusion of best practice agricultural technique. The nationwide diffusion of seed varieties developed in the Southwest fiefs of Tokugawa Japan spearheaded a substantial improvement in agricultural productivity especially in the Northeast. Simultaneously, expansion of agriculture using traditional Japanese technology agriculture and manufacturing using imported Western technology resulted.

Balanced growth

Growth at the close of the nineteenth century was balanced in the sense that traditional and modern technology using sectors grew at roughly equal rates, and labor — especially young girls recruited out of farm households to labor in the steam using textile mills — flowed back and forth between rural and urban Japan at wages that were roughly equal in industrial and agricultural pursuits.

Geographic economies of scale in the Tokaido belt

Concentration of industrial production first in Osaka and subsequently throughout the Tokaido belt fostered powerful geographic scale economies (the ability to reduce per unit costs as output levels increase), reducing the costs of securing energy, raw materials and access to global markets for enterprises located in the great harbor metropolises stretching from the massive Osaka/Kobe complex northward to the teeming Tokyo/Yokohama conurbation. Between 1904 and 1911, electrification mainly due to the proliferation of intercity electrical railroads created economies of scale in the nascent industrial belt facing outward onto the Pacific. The consolidation of two huge hydroelectric power grids during the 1920s — one servicing Tokyo/Yokohama, the other Osaka and Kobe — further solidified the comparative advantage of the Tokaido industrial belt in factory production. Finally, the widening and paving during the 1920s of roads that could handle buses and trucks was also pioneered by the great metropolises of the Tokaido, which further bolstered their relative advantage in per capita infrastructure.

Organizational economies of scale — zaibatsu

In addition to geographic scale economies, organizational scale economies also became increasingly important in the late nineteenth centuries. The formation of the zaibatsu (“financial cliques”), which gradually evolved into diversified industrial combines tied together through central holding companies, is a case in point. By the 1910s these had evolved into highly diversified combines, binding together enterprises in banking and insurance, trading companies, mining concerns, textiles, iron and steel plants, and machinery manufactures. By channeling profits from older industries into new lines of activity like electrical machinery manufacturing, the zaibatsu form of organization generated scale economies in finance, trade and manufacturing, drastically reducing information-gathering and transactions costs. By attracting relatively scare managerial and entrepreneurial talent, the zaibatsu format economized on human resources.


The push into electrical machinery production during the 1920s had a revolutionary impact on manufacturing. Effective exploitation of steam power required the use of large central steam engines simultaneously driving a large number of machines — power looms and mules in a spinning/weaving plant for instance – throughout a factory. Small enterprises did not mechanize in the steam era. But with electrification the “unit drive” system of mechanization spread. Each machine could be powered up independently of one another. Mechanization spread rapidly to the smallest factory.

Emergence of the dualistic economy

With the drive into heavy industries — chemicals, iron and steel, machinery — the demand for skilled labor that would flexibly respond to rapid changes in technique soared. Large firms in these industries began offering premium wages and guarantees of employment in good times and bad as a way of motivating and holding onto valuable workers. A dualistic economy emerged during the 1910s. Small firms, light industry and agriculture offered relatively low wages. Large enterprises in the heavy industries offered much more favorable remuneration, extending paternalistic benefits like company housing and company welfare programs to their “internal labor markets.” As a result a widening gulf opened up between the great metropolitan centers of the Tokaido and rural Japan. Income per head was far higher in the great industrial centers than in the hinterland.

Clashing urban/rural and landlord/tenant interests

The economic strains of emergent dualism were amplified by the slowing down of technological progress in the agricultural sector, which had exhaustively reaped the benefits due to regional diffusion from the Southwest to the Northeast of best practice Tokugawa rice cultivation. Landlords — around 45% of the cultivable rice paddy land in Japan was held in some form of tenancy at the beginning of the twentieth century — who had played a crucial role in promoting the diffusion of traditional best practice techniques now lost interest in rural affairs and turned their attention to industrial activities. Tenants also found their interests disregarded by the national authorities in Tokyo, who were increasingly focused on supplying cheap foodstuffs to the burgeoning industrial belt by promoting agricultural production within the empire that it was assembling through military victories. Japan secured Taiwan from China in 1895, and formally brought Korea under its imperial rule in 1910 upon the heels of its successful war against Russia in 1904-05. Tenant unions reacted to this callous disrespect of their needs through violence. Landlord/tenant disputes broke out in the early 1920s, and continued to plague Japan politically throughout the 1930s, calls for land reform and bureaucratic proposals for reform being rejected by a Diet (Japan’s legislature) politically dominated by landlords.

Japan’s military expansion

Japan’s thrust to imperial expansion was inflamed by the growing instability of the geopolitical and international trade regime of the later 1920s and early 1930s. The relative decline of the United Kingdom as an economic power doomed a gold standard regime tied to the British pound. The United States was becoming a potential contender to the United Kingdom as the backer of a gold standard regime but its long history of high tariffs and isolationism deterred it from taking over leadership in promoting global trade openness. Germany and the Soviet Union were increasingly becoming industrial and military giants on the Eurasian land mass committed to ideologies hostile to the liberal democracy championed by the United Kingdom and the United States. It was against this international backdrop that Japan began aggressively staking out its claim to being the dominant military power in East Asia and the Pacific, thereby bringing it into conflict with the United States and the United Kingdom in the Asian and Pacific theaters after the world slipped into global warfare in 1939.

Reform and Reconstruction in a New International Economic Order, Japan after World War II

Postwar occupation: economic and institutional restructuring

Surrendering to the United States and its allies in 1945, Japan’s economy and infrastructure was revamped under the S.C.A.P (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) Occupation lasting through 1951. As Nakamura (1995) points out, a variety of Occupation-sponsored reforms transformed the institutional environment conditioning economic performance in Japan. The major zaibatsu were liquidated by the Holding Company Liquidation Commission set up under the Occupation (they were revamped as keiretsu corporate groups mainly tied together through cross-shareholding of stock in the aftermath of the Occupation); land reform wiped out landlordism and gave a strong push to agricultural productivity through mechanization of rice cultivation; and collective bargaining, largely illegal under the Peace Preservation Act that was used to suppress union organizing during the interwar period, was given the imprimatur of constitutional legality. Finally, education was opened up, partly through making middle school compulsory, partly through the creation of national universities in each of Japan’s forty-six prefectures.

Improvement in the social capability for economic growth

In short, from a domestic point of view, the social capability for importing and adapting foreign technology was improved with the reforms in education and the fillip to competition given by the dissolution of the zaibatsu. Resolving tension between rural and urban Japan through land reform and the establishment of a rice price support program — that guaranteed farmers incomes comparable to blue collar industrial workers — also contributed to the social capacity to absorb foreign technology by suppressing the political divisions between metropolitan and hinterland Japan that plagued the nation during the interwar years.

Japan and the postwar international order

The revamped international economic order contributed to the social capability of importing and adapting foreign technology. The instability of the 1920s and 1930s was replaced with replaced with a relatively predictable bipolar world in which the United States and the Soviet Union opposed each other in both geopolitical and ideological arenas. The United States became an architect of multilateral architecture designed to encourage trade through its sponsorship of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the predecessor to the World Trade Organization). Under the logic of building military alliances to contain Eurasian Communism, the United States brought Japan under its “nuclear umbrella” with a bilateral security treaty. American companies were encouraged to license technology to Japanese companies in the new international environment. Japan redirected its trade away from the areas that had been incorporated into the Japanese Empire before 1945, and towards the huge and expanding American market.

Miracle Growth: Soaring Domestic Investment and Export Growth, 1953-1970

Its infrastructure revitalized through the Occupation period reforms, its capacity to import and export enhanced by the new international economic order, and its access to American technology bolstered through its security pact with the United States, Japan experienced the dramatic “Miracle Growth” between 1953 and the early 1970s whose sources have been cogently analyzed by Denison and Chung (1976). Especially striking in the Miracle Growth period was the remarkable increase in the rate of domestic fixed capital formation, the rise in the investment proportion being matched by a rising savings rate whose secular increase — especially that of private household savings – has been well documented and analyzed by Horioka (1991). While Japan continued to close the gap in income per capita between itself and the United States after the early 1970s, most scholars believe that large Japanese manufacturing enterprises had by and large become internationally competitive by the early 1970s. In this sense it can be said that Japan had completed its nine decade long convergence to international competitiveness through industrialization by the early 1970s.


There is little doubt that the social capacity to import and adapt foreign technology was vastly improved in the aftermath of the Pacific War. Creating social consensus with Land Reform and agricultural subsidies reduced political divisiveness, extending compulsory education and breaking up the zaibatsu had a positive impact. Fashioning the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (M.I.T.I.) that took responsibility for overseeing industrial policy is also viewed as facilitating Japan’s social capability. There is no doubt that M.I.T.I. drove down the cost of securing foreign technology. By intervening between Japanese firms and foreign companies, it acted as a single buyer of technology, playing off competing American and European enterprises in order to reduce the royalties Japanese concerns had to pay on technology licenses. By keeping domestic patent periods short, M.I.T.I. encouraged rapid diffusion of technology. And in some cases — the experience of International Business Machines (I.B.M.), enjoying a virtual monopoly in global mainframe computer markets during the 1950s and early 1960s, is a classical case — M.I.T.I. made it a condition of entry into the Japanese market (through the creation of a subsidiary Japan I.B.M. in the case of I.B.M.) that foreign companies share many of their technological secrets with potential Japanese competitors.

How important industrial policy was for Miracle Growth remains controversial, however. The view of Johnson (1982), who hails industrial policy as a pillar of the Japanese Development State (government promoting economic growth through state policies) has been criticized and revised by subsequent scholars. The book by Uriu (1996) is a case in point.

Internal labor markets, just-in-time inventory and quality control circles

Furthering the internalization of labor markets — the premium wages and long-term employment guarantees largely restricted to white collar workers were extended to blue collar workers with the legalization of unions and collective bargaining after 1945 — also raised the social capability of adapting foreign technology. Internalizing labor created a highly flexible labor force in post-1950 Japan. As a result, Japanese workers embraced many of the key ideas of Just-in-Time inventory control and Quality Control circles in assembly industries, learning how to do rapid machine setups as part and parcel of an effort to produce components “just-in-time” and without defect. Ironically, the concepts of just-in-time and quality control were originally developed in the United States, just-in-time methods being pioneered by supermarkets and quality control by efficiency experts like W. Edwards Deming. Yet it was in Japan that these concepts were relentlessly pursued to revolutionize assembly line industries during the 1950s and 1960s.

Ultimate causes of the Japanese economic “miracle”

Miracle Growth was the completion of a protracted historical process involving enhancing human capital, massive accumulation of physical capital including infrastructure and private manufacturing capacity, the importation and adaptation of foreign technology, and the creation of scale economies, which took decades and decades to realize. Dubbed a miracle, it is best seen as the reaping of a bountiful harvest whose seeds were painstakingly planted in the six decades between 1880 and 1938. In the course of the nine decades between the 1880s and 1970, Japan amassed and lost a sprawling empire, reorienting its trade and geopolitical stance through the twists and turns of history. While the ultimate sources of growth can be ferreted out through some form of statistical accounting, the specific way these sources were marshaled in practice is inseparable from the history of Japan itself and of the global environment within which it has realized its industrial destiny.

Appendix: Sources of Growth Accounting and Quantitative Aspects of Japan’s Modern Economic Development

One of the attractions of studying Japan’s post-1880 economic development is the abundance of quantitative data documenting Japan’s growth. Estimates of Japanese income and output by sector, capital stock and labor force extend back to the 1880s, a period when Japanese income per capita was low. Consequently statistical probing of Japan’s long-run growth from relative poverty to abundance is possible.

The remainder of this appendix is devoted to introducing the reader to the vast literature on quantitative analysis of Japan’s economic development from the 1880s until 1970, a nine decade period during which Japanese income per capita converged towards income per capita levels in Western Europe. As the reader will see, this discussion confirms the importance of factors discussed at the outset of this article.

Our initial touchstone is the excellent “sources of growth” accounting analysis carried out by Denison and Chung (1976) on Japan’s growth between 1953 and 1971. Attributing growth in national income in growth of inputs, the factors of production — capital and labor — and growth in output per unit of the two inputs combined (total factor productivity) along the following lines:

G(Y) = { a G(K) + [1-a] G(L) } + G (A)

where G(Y) is the (annual) growth of national output, g(K) is the growth rate of capital services, G(L) is the growth rate of labor services, a is capital’s share in national income (the share of income accruing to owners of capital), and G(A) is the growth of total factor productivity, is a standard approach used to approximate the sources of growth of income.

Using a variant of this type of decomposition that takes into account improvements in the quality of capital and labor, estimates of scale economies and adjustments for structural change (shifting labor out of agriculture helps explain why total factor productivity grows), Denison and Chung (1976) generate a useful set of estimates for Japan’s Miracle Growth era.

Operating with this “sources of growth” approach and proceeding under a variety of plausible assumptions, Denison and Chung (1976) estimate that of Japan’s average annual real national income growth of 8.77 % over 1953-71, input growth accounted for 3.95% (accounting for 45% of total growth) and growth in output per unit of input contributed 4.82% (accounting for 55% of total growth). To be sure, the precise assumptions and techniques they use can be criticized. The precise numerical results they arrive at can be argued over. Still, their general point — that Japan’s growth was the result of improvements in the quality of factor inputs — health and education for workers, for instance — and improvements in the way these inputs are utilized in production — due to technological and organizational change, reallocation of resources from agriculture to non-agriculture, and scale economies, is defensible.

With this in mind consider Table 1.

Table 1: Industrialization and Economic Growth in Japan, 1880-1970:
Selected Quantitative Characteristics

Panel A: Income and Structure of National Output

Real Income per Capita [a] Share of National Output (of Net Domestic Product) and Relative Labor Productivity (Ratio of Output per Worker in Agriculture to Output per Worker in the N Sector) [b]
Years Absolute Relative to U.S. level Year Agriculture Manufacturing & Mining



Construction & Facilitating Sectors [b]

Relative Labor Productivity


1881-90 893 26.7% 1887 42.5% 13.6% 20.0% 68.3
1891-1900 1,049 28.5 1904 37.8 17.4 25.8 44.3
1900-10 1,195 25.3 1911 35.5 20.3 31.1 37.6
1911-20 1,479 27.9 1919 29.9 26.2 38.3 32.5
1921-30 1,812 29.1 1930 20.0 25.8 43.3 27.4
1930-38 2,197 37.7 1938 18.5 35.3 51.7 20.8
1951-60 2,842 26.2 1953 22.0 26.3 39.7 22.6
1961-70 6,434 47.3 1969 8.7 30.5 45.9 19.1

Panel B: Domestic and External Sources of Aggregate Supply and Demand Growth: Manufacturing and Mining (Ma), Gross Domestic Fixed Capital Formation (GDFCF), and Trade (TR)

Percentage Contribution to Growth due to: Trade Openness and Trade Growth [c]
Years Ma to Output Growth GDFCF to Effective

Demand Growth

Years Openness Growth in Trade
1888-1900 19.3% 17.9% 1885-89 6.9% 11.4%
1900-10 29.2 30.5 1890-1913 16.4 8.0
1910-20 26.5 27.9 1919-29 32.4 4.6
1920-30 42.4 7.5 1930-38 43.3 8.1
1930-38 50.5 45.3 1954-59 19.3 12.0
1955-60 28.1 35.0 1960-69 18.5 10.3
1960-70 33.5 38.5

Panel C: Infrastructure and Human Development

Human Development Index (HDI) [d] Electricity Generation and National Broadcasting (NHK) per 100 Persons [e]
Year Educational Attainment Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) Overall HDI


Year Electricity NHK Radio Subscribers
1900 0.57 155 0.57 1914 0.28 n.a.
1910 0.69 161 0.61 1920 0.68 n.a.
1920 0.71 166 0.64 1930 2.46 1.2
1930 0.73 124 0.65 1938 4.51 7.8
1950 0.81 63 0.69 1950 5.54 11.0
1960 0.87 34 0.75 1960 12.28 12.6
1970 0.95 14 0.83 1970 34.46 21.9

Notes: [a] Maddison (2000) provides estimates of real income that take into account the purchasing power of national currencies.

[b] Ohkawa (1979) gives estimates for the “N” sector that is defined as manufacturing and mining (Ma) plus construction plus facilitating industry (transport, communications and utilities). It should be noted that the concept of an “N” sector is not standard in the field of economics.

[c] The estimates of trade are obtained by adding merchandise imports to merchandise exports. Trade openness is estimated by taking the ratio of total (merchandise) trade to national output, the latter defined as Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P.). The trade figures include trade with Japan’s empire (Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, etc.); the income figures for Japan exclude income generated in the empire.

[d] The Human Development Index is a composite variable formed by adding together indices for educational attainment, for health (using life expectancy that is inversely related to the level of the infant mortality rate, the IMR), and for real per capita income. For a detailed discussion of this index see United Nations Development Programme (2000).

[e] Electrical generation is measured in million kilowatts generated and supplied. For 1970, the figures on NHK subscribers are for television subscribers. The symbol n.a. = not available.

Sources: The figures in this table are taken from various pages and tables in Japan Statistical Association (1987), Maddison (2000), Minami (1994), and Ohkawa (1979).

Flowing from this table are a number of points that bear lessons of the Denison and Chung (1976) decomposition. One cluster of points bears upon the timing of Japan’s income per capita growth and the relationship of manufacturing expansion to income growth. Another highlights improvements in the quality of the labor input. Yet another points to the overriding importance of domestic investment in manufacturing and the lesser significance of trade demand. A fourth group suggests that infrastructure has been important to economic growth and industrial expansion in Japan, as exemplified by the figures on electricity generating capacity and the mass diffusion of communications in the form of radio and television broadcasting.

Several parts of Table 1 point to industrialization, defined as an increase in the proportion of output (and labor force) attributable to manufacturing and mining, as the driving force in explaining Japan’s income per capita growth. Notable in Panels A and B of the table is that the gap between Japanese and American income per capita closed most decisively during the 1910s, the 1930s, and the 1960s, precisely the periods when manufacturing expansion was the most vigorous.

Equally noteworthy of the spurts of the 1910s, 1930s and the 1960s is the overriding importance of gross domestic fixed capital formation, that is investment, for growth in demand. By contrast, trade seems much less important to growth in demand during these critical decades, a point emphasized by both Minami (1994) and by Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973). The notion that Japanese growth was “export led” during the nine decades between 1880 and 1970 when Japan caught up technologically with the leading Western nations is not defensible. Rather, domestic capital investment seems to be the driving force behind aggregate demand expansion. The periods of especially intense capital formation were also the periods when manufacturing production soared. Capital formation in manufacturing, or in infrastructure supporting manufacturing expansion, is the main agent pushing long-run income per capita growth.

Why? As Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973) argue, spurts in manufacturing capital formation were associated with the import and adaptation of foreign technology, especially from the United States These investment spurts were also associated with shifts of labor force out of agriculture and into manufacturing, construction and facilitating sectors where labor productivity was far higher than it was in labor-intensive farming centered around labor-intensive rice cultivation. The logic of productivity gain due to more efficient allocation of labor resources is apparent from the right hand column of Panel A in Table 1.

Finally, Panel C of Table 1 suggests that infrastructure investment that facilitated health and educational attainment (combined public and private expenditure on sanitation, schools and research laboratories), and public/private investment in physical infrastructure including dams and hydroelectric power grids helped fuel the expansion of manufacturing by improving human capital and by reducing the costs of transportation, communications and energy supply faced by private factories. Mosk (2001) argues that investments in human-capital-enhancing (medicine, public health and education), financial (banking) and physical infrastructure (harbors, roads, power grids, railroads and communications) laid the groundwork for industrial expansions. Indeed, the “social capability for importing and adapting foreign technology” emphasized by Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973) can be largely explained by an infrastructure-driven growth hypothesis like that given by Mosk (2001).

In sum, Denison and Chung (1976) argue that a combination of input factor improvement and growth in output per combined factor inputs account for Japan’s most rapid spurt of economic growth. Table 1 suggests that labor quality improved because health was enhanced and educational attainment increased; that investment in manufacturing was important not only because it increased capital stock itself but also because it reduced dependence on agriculture and went hand in glove with improvements in knowledge; and that the social capacity to absorb and adapt Western technology that fueled improvements in knowledge was associated with infrastructure investment.


Denison, Edward and William Chung. “Economic Growth and Its Sources.” In Asia’s Next Giant: How the Japanese Economy Works, edited by Hugh Patrick and Henry Rosovsky, 63-151. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1976.

Horioka, Charles Y. “Future Trends in Japan’s Savings Rate and the Implications Thereof for Japan’s External Imbalance.” Japan and the World Economy 3 (1991): 307-330.

Japan Statistical Association. Historical Statistics of Japan [Five Volumes]. Tokyo: Japan Statistical Association, 1987.

Johnson, Chalmers. MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982.

Maddison, Angus. Monitoring the World Economy, 1820-1992. Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2000.

Minami, Ryoshin. Economic Development of Japan: A Quantitative Study. [Second edition]. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1994.

Mitchell, Brian. International Historical Statistics: Africa and Asia. New York: New York University Press, 1982.

Mosk, Carl. Japanese Industrial History: Technology, Urbanization, and Economic Growth. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

Nakamura, Takafusa. The Postwar Japanese Economy: Its Development and Structure, 1937-1994. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1995.

Ohkawa, Kazushi. “Production Structure.” In Patterns of Japanese Economic Development: A Quantitative Appraisal, edited by Kazushi Ohkawa and Miyohei Shinohara with Larry Meissner, 34-58. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Ohkawa, Kazushi and Henry Rosovsky. Japanese Economic Growth: Trend Acceleration in the Twentieth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973.

Smith, Thomas. Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Uriu, Robert. Troubled Industries: Confronting Economic Challenge in Japan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Report, 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Citation: Mosk, Carl. “Japan, Industrialization and Economic Growth”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. January 18, 2004. URL

A Brief Economic History of Modern Israel

Nadav Halevi, Hebrew University

The Pre-state Background

The history of modern Israel begins in the 1880s, when the first Zionist immigrants came to Palestine, then under Ottoman rule, to join the small existing Jewish community, establishing agricultural settlements and some industry, restoring Hebrew as the spoken national language, and creating new economic and social institutions. The ravages of World War I reduced the Jewish population by a third, to 56,000, about what it had been at the beginning of the century.

As a result of the war, Palestine came under the control of Great Britain, whose Balfour Declaration had called for a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Britain’s control was formalized in 1920, when it was given the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. During the Mandatory period, which lasted until May 1948, the social, political and economic structure for the future state of Israel was developed. Though the government of Palestine had a single economic policy, the Jewish and Arab economies developed separately, with relatively little connection.

Two factors were instrumental in fostering rapid economic growth of the Jewish sector: immigration and capital inflows. The Jewish population increased mainly through immigration; by the end of 1947 it had reached 630,000, about 35 percent of the total population. Immigrants came in waves, particularly large in the mid 1920s and mid 1930s. They consisted of ideological Zionists and refugees, economic and political, from Central and Eastern Europe. Capital inflows included public funds, collected by Zionist institutions, but were for the most part private funds. National product grew rapidly during periods of large immigration, but both waves of mass immigration were followed by recessions, periods of adjustment and consolidation.

In the period from 1922 to 1947 real net domestic product (NDP) of the Jewish sector grew at an average rate of 13.2 percent, and in 1947 accounted for 54 percent of the NDP of the Jewish and Arab economies together. NDP per capita in the Jewish sector grew at a rate of 4.8 percent; by the end of the period it was 8.5 times larger in than in 1922, and 2.5 times larger than in the Arab sector (Metzer, 1998). Though agricultural development – an ideological objective – was substantial, this sector never accounted for more than 15 percent of total net domestic product of the Jewish economy. Manufacturing grew slowly for most of the period, but very rapidly during World War II, when Palestine was cut off from foreign competition and was a major provider to the British armed forces in the Middle East. By the end of the period, manufacturing accounted for a quarter of NDP. Housing construction, though a smaller component of NDP, was the most volatile sector, and contributed to sharp business cycle movements. A salient feature of the Jewish economy during the Mandatory period, which carried over into later periods, was the dominant size of the services sector – more than half of total NDP. This included a relatively modern educational and health sector, efficient financial and business sectors, and semi-governmental Jewish institutions, which later were ready to take on governmental duties.

The Formative Years: 1948-1965

The state of Israel came into being, in mid May 1948, in the midst of a war with its Arab neighbors. The immediate economic problems were formidable: to finance and wage a war, to take in as many immigrants as possible (first the refugees kept in camps in Europe and on Cyprus), to provide basic commodities to the old and new population, and to create a government bureaucracy to cope with all these challenges. The creation of a government went relatively smoothly, as semi-governmental Jewish institutions which had developed during the Mandatory period now became government departments.

Cease-fire agreements were signed during 1949. By the end of that year a total of 340,000 immigrants had arrived, and by the end of 1951 an additional 345,000 (the latter including immigrants from Arab countries), thus doubling the Jewish population. Immediate needs were met by a strict austerity program and inflationary government finance, repressed by price controls and rationing of basic commodities. However, the problems of providing housing and employment for the new population were solved only gradually. A New Economic Policy was introduced in early 1952. It consisted of exchange rate devaluation, the gradual relaxation of price controls and rationing, and curbing of monetary expansion, primarily by budgetary restraint. Active immigration encouragement was curtailed, to await the absorption of the earlier mass immigration.

From 1950 until 1965, Israel achieved a high rate of growth: Real GNP (gross national product) grew by an average annual rate of over 11 percent, and per capita GNP by greater than 6 percent. What made this possible? Israel was fortunate in receiving large sums of capital inflows: U.S. aid in the forms of unilateral transfers and loans, German reparations and restitutions to individuals, sale of State of Israel Bonds abroad, and unilateral transfers to public institutions, mainly the Jewish Agency, which retained responsibility for immigration absorption and agricultural settlement. Thus, Israel had resources available for domestic use – for public and private consumption and investment – about 25 percent more than its own GNP. This made possible a massive investment program, mainly financed through a special government budget. Both the enormity of needs and the socialist philosophy of the main political party in the government coalitions led to extreme government intervention in the economy.

Governmental budgets and strong protectionist measures to foster import-substitution enabled the development of new industries, chief among them textiles, and subsidies were given to help the development of exports, additional to the traditional exports of citrus products and cut diamonds.

During the four decades from the mid 1960s until the present, Israel’s economy developed and changed, as did economic policy. A major factor affecting these developments has been the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its influence is discussed first, and is followed by brief descriptions of economic growth and fluctuations, and evolution of economic policy.

The Arab-Israel Conflict

The most dramatic event of the 1960s was the Six Day War of 1967, at the end of which Israel controlled the West Bank (of the Jordan River) – the area of Palestine absorbed by the Jordan since 1949 – and the Gaza Strip, controlled until then by Egypt.

As a consequence of the occupation of these territories Israel was responsible for the economic as well as the political life in the areas taken over. The Arab sections of Jerusalem were united with the Jewish section. Jewish settlements were established in parts of the occupied territories. As hostilities intensified, special investments in infrastructure were made to protect Jewish settlers. The allocation of resources to Jewish settlements in the occupied territories has been a political and economic issue ever since.

The economies of Israel and the occupied territories were partially integrated. Trade in goods and services developed, with restrictions placed on exports to Israel of products deemed too competitive, and Palestinian workers were employed in Israel particularly in construction and agriculture. At its peak, in 1996, Palestinian employment in Israel reached 115,000 to 120,000, about 40 percent of the Palestinian labor force, but never more than 6.5 percent of total Israeli employment. Thus, while employment in Israel was a major contributor to the economy of the Palestinians, its effects on the Israeli economy, except for the sectors of construction and agriculture, were not large.

The Palestinian economy developed rapidly – real per capita national income grew at an annual rate of close to 20 percent in 1969-1972 and 5 percent in 1973-1980 – but fluctuated widely thereafter, and actually decreased in times of hostilities. Palestinian per capita income equaled 10.2 percent of Israeli per capita income in 1968, 22.8 percent in 1986, and declined to 9.7 percent in 1998 (Kleiman, 2003).

As part of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians initiated in the 1990s, an economic agreement was signed between the parties in 1994, which in effect transformed what had been essentially a one-sided customs agreement (which gave Israel full freedom to export to the Territories but put restrictions on Palestinian exports to Israel) into a more equal customs union: the uniform external trade policy was actually Israel’s, but the Palestinians were given limited sovereignty regarding imports of certain commodities.

Arab uprisings (intifadas), in the 1980s, and especially the more violent one beginning in 2000 and continuing into 2005, led to severe Israeli restrictions on interaction between the two economies, particularly employment of Palestinians in Israel, and even to military reoccupation of some areas given over earlier to Palestinian control. These measures set the Palestinian economy back many years, wiping out much of the gains in income which had been achieved since 1967 – per capita GNP in 2004 was $932, compared to about $1500 in 1999. Palestinian workers in Israel were replaced by foreign workers.

An important economic implication of the Arab-Israel conflict is that Israel must allocate a major part of its budget to defense. The size of the defense budget has varied, rising during wars and armed hostilities. The total defense burden (including expenses not in the budget) reached its maximum relative size during and after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, close to 30 percent of GNP in 1974-1978. In the 2000-2004 period, the defense budget alone reached about 22 to 25 percent of GDP. Israel has been fortunate in receiving generous amounts of U.S. aid. Until 1972 most of this came in the form of grants and loans, primarily for purchases of U.S. agricultural surpluses. But since 1973 U.S. aid has been closely connected to Israel’s defense needs. During 1973-1982 annual loans and grants averaged $1.9 billion, and covered some 60 percent of total defense imports. But even in more tranquil periods, the defense burden, exclusive of U.S. aid, has been much larger than usual in industrial countries during peace time.

Growth and Economic Fluctuations

The high rates of growth of income and income per capita which characterized Israel until 1973 were not achieved thereafter. GDP growth fluctuated, generally between 2 and 5 percent, reaching as high as 7.5 percent in 2000, but falling below zero in the recession years from 2001 to mid 2003. By the end of the twentieth century income per capita reached about $20,000, similar to many of the more developed industrialized countries.

Economic fluctuations in Israel have usually been associated with waves of immigration: a large flow of immigrants which abruptly increases the population requires an adjustment period until it is absorbed productively, with the investments for its absorption in employment and housing stimulating economic activity. Immigration never again reached the relative size of the first years after statehood, but again gained importance with the loosening of restrictions on emigration from the Soviet Union. The total number of immigrants in 1972-1982 was 325,000, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union immigration totaled 1,050,000 in 1990-1999, mostly from the former Soviet Union. Unlike the earlier period, these immigrants were gradually absorbed in productive employment (though often not in the same activity as abroad) without resort to make-work projects. By the end of the century the population of Israel passed 6,300,000, with the Jewish population being 78 percent of the total. The immigrants from the former Soviet Union were equal to about one-fifth of the Jewish population, and were a significant and important addition of human capital to the labor force.

As the economy developed, the structure of output changed. Though the service sectors are still relatively large – trade and services contributing 46 percent of the business sector’s product – agriculture has declined in importance, and industry makes up over a quarter of the total. The structure of manufacturing has also changed: both in total production and in exports the share of traditional, low-tech industries has declined, with sophisticated, high-tech products, particularly electronics, achieving primary importance.

Fluctuations in output were marked by periods of inflation and periods of unemployment. After a change in exchange rate policy in the late 1970s (discussed below), an inflationary spiral was unleashed. Hyperinflation rates were reached in the early 1980s, about 400 percent per year by the time a drastic stabilization policy was imposed in 1985. Exchange rate stabilization, budgetary and monetary restraint, and wage and price freezes sharply reduced the rate of inflation to less than 20 percent, and then to about 16 percent in the late 1980s. Very drastic monetary policy, from the late 1990s, finally reduced the inflation to zero by 2005. However, this policy, combined with external factors such as the bursting of the high-tech bubble, recession abroad, and domestic insecurity resulting from the intifada, led to unemployment levels above 10 percent at the beginning of the new century. The economic improvements since the latter half of 2003 have, as yet (February 2005), not significantly reduced the level of unemployment.

Policy Changes

The Israeli economy was initially subject to extensive government controls. Only gradually was the economy converted into a fairly free (though still not completely so) market economy. This process began in the 1960s. In response to a realization by policy makers that government intervention in the economy was excessive, and to the challenge posed by the creation in Europe of a customs union (which gradually progressed into the present European Union), Israel embarked upon a very gradual process of economic liberalization. This appeared first in foreign trade: quantitative restrictions on imports were replaced by tariff protection, which was slowly reduced, and both import-substitution and exports were encouraged by more realistic exchange rates rather than by protection and subsidies. Several partial trade agreements with the European Economic Community (EEC), starting in 1964, culminated in a free trade area agreement (FTA) in industrial goods in 1975, and an FTA agreement with the U.S. came into force in 1985.

By late 1977 a considerable degree of trade liberalization had taken place. In October of that year, Israel moved from a fixed exchange rate system to a floating rate system, and restrictions on capital movements were considerably liberalized. However, there followed a disastrous inflationary spiral which curbed the capital liberalization process. Capital flows were not completely liberalized until the beginning of the new century.

Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s there were additional liberalization measures: in monetary policy, in domestic capital markets, and in various instruments of governmental interference in economic activity. The role of government in the economy was considerably decreased. On the other hand, some governmental economic functions were increased: a national health insurance system was introduced, though private health providers continued to provide health services within the national system. Social welfare payments, such as unemployment benefits, child allowances, old age pensions and minimum income support, were expanded continuously, until they formed a major budgetary expenditure. These transfer payments compensated, to a large extent, for the continuous growth of income inequality, which had moved Israel from among the developed countries with the least income inequality to those with the most. By 2003, 15 percent of the government’s budget went to health services, 15 percent to education, and an additional 20 percent were transfer payments through the National Insurance Agency.

Beginning in 2003, the Ministry of Finance embarked upon a major effort to decrease welfare payments, induce greater participation in the labor force, privatize enterprises still owned by government, and reduce both the relative size of the government deficit and the government sector itself. These activities are the result of an ideological acceptance by the present policy makers of the concept that a truly free market economy is needed to fit into and compete in the modern world of globalization.

An important economic institution is the Histadrut, a federation of labor unions. What had made this institution unique is that, in addition to normal labor union functions, it encompassed agricultural and other cooperatives, major construction and industrial enterprises, and social welfare institutions, including the main health care provider. During the Mandatory period, and for many years thereafter, the Histadrut was an important factor in economic development and in influencing economic policy. During the 1990s, the Histadrut was divested of many of its non-union activities, and its influence in the economy has greatly declined. The major unions associated with it still have much say in wage and employment issues.

The Challenges Ahead

As it moves into the new century, the Israeli economy has proven to be prosperous, as it continuously introduces and applies economic innovation, and to be capable of dealing with economic fluctuations. However, it faces some serious challenges. Some of these are the same as those faced by most industrial economies: how to reconcile innovation, the switch from traditional activities which are no longer competitive, to more sophisticated, skill-intensive products, with the dislocation of labor it involves, and the income inequality it intensifies. Like other small economies, Israel has to see how it fits into the new global economy, marked by the two major markets of the EU and the U.S., and the emergence of China as a major economic factor.

Special issues relate to the relations of Israel with its Arab neighbors. First are the financial implications of continuous hostilities and military threats. Clearly, if peace can come to the region, resources can be transferred to more productive uses. Furthermore, foreign investment, so important for Israel’s future growth, is very responsive to political security. Other issues depend on the type of relations established: will there be the free movement of goods and workers between Israel and a Palestinian state? Will relatively free economic relations with other Arab countries lead to a greater integration of Israel in the immediate region, or, as is more likely, will Israel’s trade orientation continue to be directed mainly to the present major industrial countries? If the latter proves true, Israel will have to carefully maneuver between the two giants: the U.S. and the EU.

References and Recommended Reading

Ben-Bassat, Avi, editor. The Israeli Economy, 1985-1998: From Government Intervention to Market Economics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Ben-Porath, Yoram, editor. The Israeli Economy: Maturing through Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Fischer, Stanley, Dani Rodrik and Elias Tuma, editors. The Economics of Middle East Peace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Halevi, Nadav and Ruth Klinov-Malul, The Economic Development of Israel. New York: Praeger, 1968.

Kleiman, Ephraim. “Palestinian Economic Viability and Vulnerability.” Paper presented at the UCLA Burkle Conference in Athens, August 2003. (Available at

Metz, Helen Chapin, editor. Israel: A Country Study. Washington: Library of Congress Country Studies, 1986.

Metzer, Jacob, The Divided Economy of Mandatory Palestine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Patinkin, Don. The Israel Economy: The First Decade. Jerusalem: Maurice Falk Institute for Economic Research in Israel, 1967.

Razin, Assaf and Efraim Sadka, The Economy of Modern Israel: Malaise and Promise. London: Chicago University Press, 1993.

World Bank. Developing the Occupied Territories: An Investment in Peace. Washington D.C.: The World Bank, September, 1993.

Citation: Halevi, Nadav. “A Brief Economic History of Modern Israel”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Islamic Economics: What It Is and How It Developed

M. Umer Chapra, Islamic Research and Training Institute

Islamic economics has been having a revival over the last few decades. However, it is still in a preliminary stage of development. In contrast with this, conventional economics has become a well-developed and sophisticated discipline after going through a long and rigorous process of development over more than a century. Is a new discipline in economics needed? If so, what is Islamic economics, how does it differ from conventional economics, and what contributions has it made over the centuries? This article tries to briefly answer these questions.

It is universally recognized that resources are scarce compared with the claims on them. However, it is also simultaneously recognized by practically all civilizations that the well-being of all human beings needs to be ensured. Given the scarcity of resources, the well-being of all may remain an unrealized dream if the scarce resources are not utilized efficiently and equitably. For this purpose, every society needs to develop an effective strategy, which is consciously or unconsciously conditioned by its worldview. If the worldview is flawed, the strategy may not be able to help the society actualize the well-being of all. Prevailing worldviews may be classified for the sake of ease into two board theoretical constructs (1) secular and materialist, and (2) spiritual and humanitarian.

The Role of the Worldview

Secular and materialist worldviews attach maximum importance to the material aspect of human well-being and tend generally to ignore the importance of the spiritual aspect. They often argue that maximum material well-being can be best realized if individuals are given unhindered freedom to pursue their self-interest and to maximize their want satisfaction in keeping with their own tastes and preferences.[1] In their extreme form they do not recognize any role for Divine guidance in human life and place full trust in the ability of human beings to chalk out a proper strategy with the help of their reason. In such a worldview there is little role for values or government intervention in the efficient and equitable allocation and distribution of resources. When asked about how social interest would be served when everyone has unlimited freedom to pursue his/her self-interest, the reply is that market forces will themselves ensure this because competition will keep self-interest under check.

In contrast with this, religious worldviews give attention to both the material as well as the spiritual aspects of human well-being. They do not necessarily reject the role of reason in human development. They, however, recognize the limitations of reason and wish to complement it by revelation. They do not also reject the need for individual freedom or the role that the serving of self-interest can play in human development They, however, emphasize that both freedom and the pursuit of self-interest need to be toned down by moral values and good governance to ensure that everyone’s well-being is realized and that social harmony and family integrity are not hurt in the process of everyone serving his/her self-interest.

Material and Spiritual Needs

Even though none of the major worldviews prevailing around the world is totally materialist and hedonist, there are, nevertheless, significant differences among them in terms of the emphasis they place on material or spiritual goals and the role of moral values and government intervention in ordering human affairs. While material goals concentrate primarily on goods and services that contribute to physical comfort and well-being, spiritual goals include nearness to God, peace of mind, inner happiness, honesty, justice, mutual care and cooperation, family and social harmony, and the absence of crime and anomie. These may not be quantifiable, but are, nevertheless, crucial for realizing human well-being. Resources being limited, excessive emphasis on the material ingredients of well-being may lead to a neglect of spiritual ingredients. The greater the difference in emphasis, the greater may be the difference in the economic disciplines of these societies. Feyerabend (1993) frankly recognized this in the introduction to the Chinese edition of his thought-provoking book, Against Method, by stating that “First world science is only one science among many; by claiming to be more it ceases to be an instrument of research and turns into a (political) pressure group” (p.3, parentheses are in the original).

The Enlightenment Worldview and Conventional Economics

There is a great deal that is common between the worldviews of most major religions, particularly those of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is because, according to Islam, there is a continuity and similarity in the value systems of all Revealed religions to the extent to which the Message has not been lost or distorted over the ages. The Qur’an clearly states that: “Nothing has been said to you [Muhammad] that was not said to the Messengers before you” (Al-Qur’an, 41:43). If conventional economics had continued to develop in the image of the Judeo-Christian worldview, as it did before the Enlightenment Movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there may not have been any significant difference between conventional and Islamic economics. However, after the Enlightenment Movement, all intellectual disciplines in Europe became influenced by its secular, value-neutral, materialist and social-Darwinist worldview, even though this did not succeed fully. All economists did not necessarily become materialist or social-Darwinist in their individual lives and many of them continued to be attached to their religious worldviews. Koopmans (1969) has rightly observed that “scratch an economist and you will find a moralist underneath.” Therefore, while theoretically conventional economics adopted the secular and value neutral orientation of the Enlightenment worldview and failed to recognize the role of value judgments and good governance in the efficient and equitable allocation and distribution of resources, in practice this did not take place fully. The pre-Enlightenment tradition never disappeared completely (see Baeck, 1994, p. 11).

There is no doubt that, in spite of its secular and materialist worldview, the market system led to a long period of prosperity in the Western market-oriented economies. However, this unprecedented prosperity did not lead to the elimination of poverty or the fulfillment of everyone’s needs in conformity with the Judeo-Christian value system even in the wealthiest countries. Inequalities of income and wealth have also continued to persist and there has also been a substantial degree of economic instability and unemployment which have added to the miseries of the poor. This indicates that both efficiency and equity have remained elusive in spite of rapid development and phenomenal rise in wealth.

Consequently there has been persistent criticism of economics by a number of well-meaning scholars, including Thomas Carlyle (Past and Present, 1843), John Ruskin (Unto this Last, 1862) and Charles Dickens (Hard Times, 1854-55) in England, and Henry George (Progress and Poverty, 1879) in America. They ridiculed the dominant doctrine of laissez-faire with its emphasis on self-interest. Thomas Carlyle called economics a “dismal science” and rejected the idea that free and uncontrolled private interests will work in harmony and further the public welfare (see Jay and Jay, 1986). Henry George condemned the resulting contrast between wealth and poverty and wrote: “So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent” (1955, p. 10).

In addition to failing to fulfill the basic needs of a large number of people and increasing inequalities of income and wealth, modern economic development has been associated with the disintegration of the family and a failure to bring peace of mind and inner happiness (Easterlin 2001, 1995 and 1974; Oswald, 1997; Blanchflower and Oswald, 2000; Diener and Oshi, 2000; and Kenny, 1999). Due to these problems and others the laissez-faire approach lost ground, particularly after the Great Depression of the 1930s as a result of the Keynesian revolution and the socialist onslaught. However, most observers have concluded that government intervention alone cannot by itself remove all socio-economic ills. It is also necessary to motivate individuals to do what is right and abstain from doing what is wrong. This is where the moral uplift of society can be helpful. Without it, more and more difficult and costly regulations are needed. Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen has, therefore, rightly argued that “the distancing of economics from ethics has impoverished welfare economics and also weakened the basis of a good deal of descriptive and predictive economics” and that economics “can be made more productive by paying greater and more explicit attention to ethical considerations that shaped human behaviour and judgment” (1987, pp. 78-79). Hausman and McPherson also conclude in their survey article “Economics and Contemporary Moral Philosophy” that “An economy that is engaged actively and self-critically with the moral aspects of its subject matter cannot help but be more interesting, more illuminating and, ultimately, more useful than the one that tries not to be” (1993, p. 723).

Islamic Economics – and How It Differs from Conventional Economics

While conventional economics is now in the process of returning to its pre-Enlightenment roots, Islamic economics never got entangled in a secular and materialist worldview. It is based on a religious worldview which strikes at the roots of secularism and value neutrality. To ensure the true well-being of all individuals, irrespective of their sex, age, race, religion or wealth, Islamic economics does not seek to abolish private property, as was done by communism, nor does it prevent individuals from serving their self-interest. It recognizes the role of the market in the efficient allocation of resources, but does not find competition to be sufficient to safeguard social interest. It tries to promote human brotherhood, socio-economic justice and the well-being of all through an integrated role of moral values, market mechanism, families, society, and ‘good governance.’ This is because of the great emphasis in Islam on human brotherhood and socio-economic justice.

The Integrated Role of the Market, Families, Society, and Government

The market is not the only institution where people interact in human society. They also interact in the family, the society and the government and their interaction in all these institutions is closely interrelated. There is no doubt that the serving of self-interest does help raise efficiency in the market place. However, if self-interest is overemphasized and there are no moral restraints on individual behavior, other institutions may not work effectively – families may disintegrate, the society may be uncaring, and the government may be corrupt, partisan, and self-centered. Mutual sacrifice is necessary for keeping the families glued together. Since the human being is the most important input of not only the market, but also of the family, the society and the government, and the family is the source of this input, nothing may work if families disintegrate and are unable to provide loving care to children. This is likely to happen if both the husband and wife try to serve just their own self-interest and are not attuned to the making of sacrifices that the proper care and upbringing of children demands. Lack of willingness to make such sacrifice can lead to a decline in the quality of the human input to all other institutions, including the market, the society and the government. It may also lead to a fall in fertility rates below the replacement level, making it difficult for society not only to sustain its development but also its social security system.

The Role of Moral Values

While conventional economics generally considers the behavior and tastes and preferences of individuals as given, Islamic economics does not do so. It places great emphasis on individual and social reform through moral uplift. This is the purpose for which all God’s messengers, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, came to this world. Moral uplift aims at the change in human behavior, tastes and preferences and, thereby, it complements the price mechanism in promoting general well-being. Before even entering the market place and being exposed to the price filter, consumers are expected to pass their claims through the moral filter. This will help filter out conspicuous consumption and all wasteful and unnecessary claims on resources. The price mechanism can then take over and reduce the claims on resources even further to lead to the market equilibrium. The two filters can together make it possible to have optimum economy in the use of resources, which is necessary to satisfy the material as well as spiritual needs of all human beings, to reduce the concentration of wealth in a few hands, and to raise savings, which are needed to promote greater investment and employment. Without complementing the market system with morally-based value judgments, we may end up perpetuating inequities in spite of our good intentions through what Solo calls inaction, non-choice and drifting (Solo, 1981, p. 38)

From the above discussion, one may easily notice the similarities and differences between the two disciplines. While the subject matter of both is the allocation and distribution of resources and both emphasize the fulfillment of material needs, there is an equal emphasis in Islamic economics on the fulfillment of spiritual needs. While both recognize the important role of market mechanism in the allocation and distribution of resources, Islamic economics argues that the market may not by itself be able to fulfill even the material needs of all human beings. This is because it can promote excessive use of scarce resources by the rich at the expense of the poor if there is undue emphasis on the serving of self-interest. Sacrifice is involved in fulfilling our obligations towards others and excessive emphasis on the serving of self-interest does not have the potential of motivating people to make the needed sacrifice. This, however, raises the crucial question of why a rational person would sacrifice his self-interest for the sake of others?

The Importance of the Hereafter

This is where the concepts of the innate goodness of human beings and of the Hereafter come in – concepts which conventional economics ignores but on which Islam and other major religions place a great deal of emphasis. Because of their innate goodness, human beings do not necessarily always try to serve their self-interest. They are also altruistic and are willing to make sacrifices for the well-being of others. In addition, the concept of the Hereafter does not confine self-interest to just this world. It rather extends it beyond this world to life after death. We may be able to serve our self-interest in this world by being selfish, dishonest, uncaring, and negligent of our obligations towards our families, other human beings, animals, and the environment. However, we cannot serve our self-interest in the Hereafter except by fulfilling all these obligations.

Thus, the serving of self-interest receives a long-run perspective in Islam and other religions by taking into account both this world and the next. This serves to provide a motivating mechanism for sacrifice for the well-being of others that conventional economics fails to provide. The innate goodness of human beings along with the long-run perspective given to self-interest has the potential of inducing a person to be not only efficient but also equitable and caring. Consequently, the three crucial concepts of conventional economics – rational economic man, positivism, and laissez-faire – were not able to gain intellectual blessing in their conventional economics sense from any of the outstanding scholars who represent the mainstream of Islamic thought.

Rational Economic Man

While there is hardly anyone opposed to the need for rationality in human behavior, there are differences of opinion in defining rationality (Sen, 1987, pp. 11-14). However, once rationality has been defined in terms of overall individual as well as social well-being, then rational behavior could only be that which helps us realize this goal. Conventional economics does not define rationality in this way. It equates rationality with the serving of self-interest through the maximization of wealth and want satisfaction, The drive of self-interest is considered to be the “moral equivalent of the force of gravity in nature” (Myers, 1983, p. 4). Within this framework society is conceptualized as a mere collection of individuals united through ties of self-interest.

The concept of ‘rational economic man’ in this social-Darwinist, utilitarian, and material sense of serving self–interest could not find a foothold in Islamic economics. ‘Rationality’ in Islamic economics does not get confined to the serving of one’s self-interest in this world alone; it also gets extended to the Hereafter through the faithful compliance with moral values that help rein self-interest to promote social interest. Al-Mawardi (d. 1058) considered it necessary, like all other Muslim scholars, to rein individual tastes and preferences through moral values (1955, pp. 118-20). Ibn Khaldun (d.1406) emphasized that moral orientation helps remove mutual rivalry and envy, strengthens social solidarity, and creates an inclination towards righteousness (n.d., p.158).


Similarly, positivism in the conventional economics sense of being “entirely neutral between ends” (Robbins, 1935, p. 240) or “independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgment” (Friedman, 1953) did not find a place in Muslim intellectual thinking. Since all resources at the disposal of human beings are a trust from God, and human beings are accountable before Him, there is no other option but to use them in keeping with the terms of trust. These terms are defined by beliefs and moral values. Human brotherhood, one of the central objectives of Islam, would be a meaningless jargon if it were not reinforced by justice in the allocation and distribution of resources.

Pareto Optimum

Without justice, it would be difficult to realize even development. Muslim scholars have emphasized this throughout history. Development Economics has also started emphasizing its importance, more so in the last few decades.[2] Abu Yusuf (d. 798) argued that: “Rendering justice to those wronged and eradicating injustice, raises tax revenue, accelerates development of the country, and brings blessings in addition to reward in the Hereafter” (1933/34, p. 111: see also pp. 3-17). Al-Mawardi argued that comprehensive justice “inculcates mutual love and affection, obedience to the law, development of the country, expansion of wealth, growth of progeny, and security of the sovereign” (1955, p. 27). Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) emphasized that “justice towards everything and everyone is an imperative for everyone, and injustice is prohibited to everything and everyone. Injustice is absolutely not permissible irrespective of whether it is to a Muslim or a non-Muslim or even to an unjust person” (1961-63, Vol. 18, p. 166).

Justice and the well-being of all may be difficult to realize without a sacrifice on the part of the well-to-do. The concept of Pareto optimum does not, therefore, fit into the paradigm of Islamic economics. This is because Pareto optimum does not recognize any solution as optimum if it requires a sacrifice on the part of a few (rich) for raising the well-being of the many (poor). Such a position is in clear conflict with moral values, the raison d’être of which is the well-being of all. Hence, this concept did not arise in Islamic economics. In fact, Islam makes it a religious obligation of Muslims to make a sacrifice for the poor and the needy, by paying Zakat at the rate of 2.5 percent of their net worth. This is in addition to the taxes that they pay to the governments as in other countries.

The Role of State

Moral values may not be effective if they are not observed by all. They need to be enforced. It is the duty of the state to restrain all socially harmful behavior[3] including injustice, fraud, cheating, transgression against other people’s person, honor and property, and the non-fulfillment of contracts and other obligations through proper upbringing, incentives and deterrents, appropriate regulations, and an effective and impartial judiciary. The Qur’an can only provide norms. It cannot by itself enforce them. The state has to ensure this. That is why the Prophet Muhammad said: “God restrains through the sovereign more than what He restrains through the Qur’an” (cited by al-Mawardi, 1955, p. 121). This emphasis on the role of the state has been reflected in the writings of all leading Muslim scholars throughout history.[4] Al-Mawardi emphasized that an effective government (Sultan Qahir) is indispensable for preventing injustice and wrongdoing (1960, p. 5). Say’s Law could not, therefore, become a meaningful proposition in Islamic economics.

How far is the state expected to go in the fulfillment of its role? What is it that the state is expected to do? This has been spelled out by a number of scholars in the literature on what has come to be termed as “Mirrors for Princes.”[5] None of them visualized regimentation or the owning and operating of a substantial part of the economy by the state. Several classical Muslim scholars, including al-Dimashqi (d. after 1175) and Ibn Khaldun, clearly expressed their disapproval of the state becoming directly involved in the economy (Al-Dimashqi, 1977, pp. 12 and 61; Ibn Khaldun, pp. 281-83). According to Ibn Khaldun, the state should not acquire the character of a monolithic or despotic state resorting to a high degree of regimentation (ibid., p. 188). It should not feel that, because it has authority, it can do anything it likes (ibid, p. 306). It should be welfare-oriented, moderate in its spending, respect the property rights of the people, and avoid onerous taxation (ibid, p. 296). This implies that what these scholars visualized as the role of government is what has now been generally referred to as ‘good governance’.

Some of the Contributions Made by Islamic Economics

The above discussion should not lead one to an impression that the two disciplines are entirely different. One of the reasons for this is that the subject matter of both disciplines is the same, allocation and distribution of scarce resources. Another reason is that all conventional economists have never been value neutral. They have made value judgments in conformity with their beliefs. As indicated earlier, even the paradigm of conventional economics has been changing – the role of good governance has now become well recognized and the injection of a moral dimension has also become emphasized by a number of prominent economists. Moreover, Islamic economists have benefited a great deal from the tools of analysis developed by neoclassical, Keynesian, social, humanistic and institutional economics as well as other social sciences, and will continue to do so in the future.

The Fallacy of the ‘Great Gap’ Theory

A number of economic concepts developed in Islamic economics long before they did in conventional economics. These cover a number of areas including interdisciplinary approach; property rights; division of labor and specialization; the importance of saving and investment for development; the role that both demand and supply play in the determination of prices and the factors that influence demand and supply; the roles of money, exchange, and the market mechanism; characteristics of money, counterfeiting, currency debasement, and Gresham’s law; the development of checks, letters of credit and banking; labor supply and population; the role of the state, justice, peace, and stability in development; and principles of taxation.I t is not possible to provide comprehensive coverage of all the contributions Muslim scholars have made to economics. Only some of their contributions will be highlighted below to remove the concept of the “Great Gap” of “over 500 years” that exists in the history of conventional economic thought as a result of the incorrect conclusion by Joseph Schumpeter in History of Economic Analysis (1954), that the intervening period between the Greeks and the Scholastics was sterile and unproductive.[6] This concept has become well embedded in the conventional economics literature as may be seen from the reference to this even by the Nobel-laureate, Douglass North, in his December 1993 Nobel lecture (1994, p. 365). Consequently, as Todd Lowry has rightly observed, “the character and sophistication of Arabian writings has been ignored” (See his ‘Foreword’ in Ghazanfar, 2003, p. xi).

The reality, however, is that the Muslim civilization, which benefited greatly from the Chinese, Indian, Sassanian and Byzantine civilizations, itself made rich contributions to intellectual activity, including socio-economic thought, during the ‘Great Gap’ period, and thereby played a part in kindling the flame of the European Enlightenment Movement. Even the Scholastics themselves were greatly influenced by the contributions made by Muslim scholars. The names of Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037), Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198) and Maimonides (d. 1204, a Jewish philosopher, scientist, and physician who flourished in Muslim Spain) appear on almost every page of the thirteenth-century summa (treatises written by scholastic philosophers) (Pifer, 1978, p. 356).

Multidisciplinary Approach for Development

One of the most important contributions of Islamic economics, in addition to the above paradigm discussion, was the adoption of a multidisciplinary dynamic approach. Muslim scholars did not focus their attention primarily on economic variables. They considered overall human well-being to be the end product of interaction over a long period of time between a number of economic, moral, social, political, demographic and historical factors in such a way that none of them is able to make an optimum contribution without the support of the others. Justice occupied a pivotal place in this whole framework because of its crucial importance in the Islamic worldview There was an acute realization that justice is indispensable for development and that, in the absence of justice, there will be decline and disintegration.

The contributions made by different scholars over the centuries seem to have reached their consummation in Ibn Khaldun’s Maquddimah, which literally means ‘introduction,’ and constitutes the first volume of a seven-volume history, briefly called Kitab al-‘Ibar or the Book of Lessons [of History].[7] Ibn Khaldun lived at a time (1332-1406) when the Muslim civilization was in the process of decline. He wished to see a reversal of this tide, and, as a social scientist, he was well aware that such a reversal could not be envisaged without first drawing lessons (‘ibar) from history to determine the factors that had led the Muslim civilization to bloom out of humble beginnings and to decline thereafter. He was, therefore, not interested in knowing just what happened. He wanted to know the how and why of what happened. He wanted to introduce a cause and effect relationship into the discussion of historical phenomena. The Muqaddimah is the result of this desire. It tries to derive the principles that govern the rise and fall of a ruling dynasty, state (dawlah) or civilization (‘umran).

Since the centre of Ibn Khaldun’s analysis is the human being, he sees the rise and fall of dynasties or civilizations to be closely dependent on the well-being or misery of the people. The well-being of the people is in turn not dependent just on economic variables, as conventional economics has emphasized until recently, but also on the closely interrelated role of moral, psychological, social, economic, political, demographic and historical factors. One of these factors acts as the trigger mechanism. The others may, or may not, react in the same way. If the others do not react in the same direction, then the decay in one sector may not spread to the others and either the decaying sector may be reformed or the decline of the civilization may be much slower. If, however, the other sectors react in the same direction as the trigger mechanism, the decay will gain momentum through an interrelated chain reaction such that it becomes difficult over time to identify the cause from the effect. He, thus, seems to have had a clear vision of how all the different factors operate in an interrelated and dynamic manner over a long period to promote the development or decline of a society.

He did not, thus, adopt the neoclassical economist’s simplification of confining himself to primarily short-term static analysis of only markets by assuming unrealistically that all other factors remain constant. Even in the short-run, everything may be in a state of flux through a chain reaction to the various changes constantly taking place in human society, even though these may be so small as to be imperceptible. Therefore, even though economists may adopt the ceteris paribus assumption for ease of analysis, Ibn Khaldun’s multidisciplinary dynamics can be more helpful in formulating socio-economic policies that help improve the overall performance of a society. Neoclassical economics is unable to do this because, as North has rightly asked, “How can one prescribe policies when one does not understand how economies develop?” He, therefore, considers neoclassical economics to be “an inappropriate tool to analyze and prescribe policies that will induce development” (North, 1994, p. 549).

However, this is not all that Islamic economics has done. Muslim scholars, including Abu Yusuf (d. 798), al-Mawardi (d. 1058), Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), al-Sarakhsi (d. 1090), al-Tusi (d. 1093), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Dimashqi (d. after 1175), Ibn Rushd (d. 1187), Ibn Taymiyyah (d.1328), Ibn al-Ukhuwwah (d. 1329), Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 1350), al-Shatibi (d. 1388), Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), al-Maqrizi (d. 1442), al-Dawwani (d. 1501), and Shah Waliyullah (d. 1762) made a number of valuable contributions to economic theory. Their insight into some economic concepts was so deep that a number of the theories propounded by them could undoubtedly be considered the forerunners of some more sophisticated modern formulations of these theories.[8]

Division of Labor, Specialization, Trade, Exchange and Money and Banking

A number of scholars emphasized the necessity of division of labor for economic development long before this happened in conventional economics. For example, al-Sarakhsi (d. 1090) said: “the farmer needs the work of the weaver to get clothing for himself, and the weaver needs the work of the farmer to get his food and the cotton from which the cloth is made …, and thus everyone of them helps the other by his work…” (1978, Vol. 30, p. 264). Al-Dimashqi, writing about a century later, elaborates further by saying: “No individual can, because of the shortness of his life span, burden himself with all industries. If he does, he may not be able to master the skills of all of them from the first to the last. Industries are all interdependent. Construction needs the carpenter and the carpenter needs the ironsmith and the ironsmith needs the miner, and all these industries need premises. People are, therefore, necessitated by force of circumstances to be clustered in cities to help each other in fulfilling their mutual needs” (1977, p. 20-21).

Ibn Khaldun ruled out the feasibility or desirability of self-sufficiency, and emphasized the need for division of labor and specialization by indicating that: “It is well-known and well-established that individual human beings are not by themselves capable of satisfying all their individual economic needs. They must all cooperate for this purpose. The needs that can be satisfied by a group of them through mutual cooperation are many times greater than what individuals are capable of satisfying by themselves” (p. 360). In this respect he was perhaps the forerunner of the theory of comparative advantage, the credit for which is generally given in conventional economics to David Ricardo who formulated it in 1817.

The discussion of division of labor and specialization, in turn, led to an emphasis on trade and exchange, the existence of well-regulated and properly functioning markets through their effective regulation and supervision (hisbah), and money as a stable and reliable measure, medium of exchange and store of value. However, because of bimetallism (gold and silver coins circulating together) which then prevailed, and the different supply and demand conditions that the two metals faced, the rate of exchange between the two full-bodied coins fluctuated. This was further complicated by debasement of currencies by governments in the later centuries to tide over their fiscal problems. This had, according to Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) (1961-63, Vol. 29, p. 649), and later on al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) and al-Asadi (d. 1450), the effect of bad coins driving good coins out of circulation (al-Misri, 1981, pp. 54 and 66), a phenomenon which was recognized and referred to in the West in the sixteenth century as Gresham’s Law. Since debasement of currencies is in sheer violation of the Islamic emphasis on honesty and integrity in all measures of value, fraudulent practices in the issue of coins in the fourteenth century and afterwards elicited a great deal of literature on monetary theory and policy. The Muslims, according to Baeck, should, therefore, be considered forerunners and critical incubators of the debasement literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Baeck, 1994, p. 114).

To finance their expanding domestic and international trade, the Muslim world also developed a financial system, which was able to mobilize the “entire reservoir of monetary resources of the mediaeval Islamic world” for financing agriculture, crafts, manufacturing and long-distance trade (Udovitch, 1970, pp. 180 and 261). Financiers were known as sarrafs. By the time of Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir (908-32), they had started performing most of the basic functions of modern banks (Fischel, 1992). They had their markets, something akin to the Wall Street in New York and Lombard Street in London, and fulfilled all the banking needs of commerce, agriculture and industry (Duri, 1986, p. 898). This promoted the use of checks (sakk) and letters of credit (hawala). The English word check comes from the Arabic term sakk.

Demand and Supply

A number of Muslim scholars seem to have clearly understood the role of both demand and supply in the determination of prices. For example, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) wrote: “The rise or fall of prices may not necessarily be due to injustice by some people. They may also be due to the shortage of output or the import of commodities in demand. If the demand for a commodity increases and the supply of what is demanded declines, the price rises. If, however, the demand falls and the supply increases, the price falls” (1961-3, Vol. 8, p. 523).

Even before Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Jahiz (d. 869) wrote nearly five centuries earlier that: “Anything available in the market is cheap because of its availability [supply] and dear by its lack of availability if there is need [demand] for it” (1983, p. 13), and that “anything the supply of which increases, becomes cheap except intelligence, which becomes dearer when it increases” (ibid., p. 13).

Ibn Khaldun went even further by emphasizing that both an increase in demand or a fall in supply leads to a rise in prices, while a decline in demand or a rise in supply contributes to a fall in prices (pp. 393 and 396). He believed that while continuation of ‘excessively low’ prices hurts the craftsmen and traders and drives them out of the market, the continuation of ‘excessively high’ prices hurts the consumers. ‘Moderate’ prices in between the two extremes were, therefore, desirable, because they would not only allow the traders a socially-acceptable level of return but also lead to the clearance of the markets by promoting sales and thereby generating a given turnover and prosperity (ibid, p. 398). Nevertheless, low prices were desirable for necessities because they provide relief to the poor who constitute the majority of the population (ibid, p. 398). If one were to use modem terminology, one could say that Ibn Khaldun found a stable price level with a relatively low cost of living to be preferable, from the point of view of both growth and equity in comparison with bouts of inflation and deflation. The former hurts equity while the latter reduces incentive and efficiency. Low prices for necessities should not, however, be attained through the fixing of prices by the state; this destroys the incentive for production (ibid, pp. 279-83).

The factors which determined demand were, according to Ibn Khaldun, income, price level, the size of the population, government spending, the habits and customs of the people, and the general development and prosperity of the society (ibid, pp.398-404). The factors which determined supply were demand (ibid, pp. 400 and 403), order and stability (pp. 306-08), the relative rate of profit (ibid, pp. 395 and 398), the extent of human effort (p. 381), the size of the labor force as well as their knowledge and skill (pp. 363 and 399-400), peace and security (pp. 394-95 and 396), and the technical background and development of the whole society (pp. 399-403). All these constituted important elements of his theory of production. If the price falls and leads to a loss, capital is eroded, the incentive to supply declines, leading to a recession. Trade and crafts also consequently suffer (p. 398).

This is highly significant because the role of both demand and supply in the determination of value was not well understood in the West until the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Pre-classical English economists like William Petty (1623-87), Richard Cantillon (1680-1734), James Steuart (1712-80), and even Adam Smith (1723-90), the founder of the Classical School, generally stressed only the role of the cost of production, and particularly of labor, in the determination of value. The first use in English writings of the notions of both demand and supply was perhaps in 1767 (Thweatt, 1983). Nevertheless, it was not until the second decade of the nineteenth century that the role of both demand and supply in the determination of market prices began to be fully appreciated (Groenewegen, 1973). While Ibn Khaldun had been way ahead of conventional economists, he probably did not have any idea of demand and supply schedules, elasticities of demand and supply and most important of all, equilibrium price, which plays a crucial role in modern economic discussions.

Public Finance


Long before Adam Smith (d. 1790), who is famous, among other things, for his canons of taxation (equality, certainty, convenience of payment, and economy in collection) (see Smith, 1937, pp. 777-79), the development of these canons can be traced in the writings of pre-Islamic as well as Muslim scholars, particularly the need for the tax system to be just and not oppressive. Caliphs Umar (d. 644), Ali (d. 661) and Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (d. 720), stressed that taxes should be collected with justice and leniency and should not be beyond the ability of the people to bear. Tax collectors should not under any circumstances deprive the people of the necessities of life (Abu Yusuf, 1933/34, pp. 14, 16 and 86). Abu Yusuf, adviser to Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), argued that a just tax system would lead not only to an increase in revenues but also to the development of the country (Abu Yusuf, 1933/34, p. 111; see also pp. 14, 16, 60, 85, 105-19 and 125). Al-Mawardi also argued that the tax system should do justice to both the taxpayer and the treasury – “taking more was iniquitous with respect to the rights of the people, while taking less was unfair with respect to the right of the public treasury” (1960, p. 209; see also pp. 142-56 and 215).[9]

Ibn Khaldun stressed the principles of taxation very forcefully in the Muqaddimah. He quoted from a letter written by Tahir ibn al-Husayn, Caliph al-Ma’mun’s general, advising his son, ‘Abdullah ibn Tahir, Governor of al-Raqqah (Syria): “So distribute [taxes] among all people making them general, not exempting anyone because of his nobility or wealth and not exempting even your own officials or courtiers or followers. And do not levy on anyone a tax which is beyond his capacity to pay” (p. 308).[10] In this particular passage, he stressed the principles of equity and neutrality, while in other places he also stressed the principles of convenience and productivity.

The effect of taxation on incentives and productivity was so clearly visualized by Ibn Khaldun that he seems to have grasped the concept of optimum taxation. He anticipated the gist of the Laffer Curve, nearly six hundred years before Arthur Laffer, in two full chapters of the Muqaddimah.[11] At the end of the first chapter, he concluded that “the most important factor making for business prosperity is to lighten as much as possible the burden of taxation on businessmen, in order to encourage enterprise by ensuring greater profits [after taxes]” (p. 280). This he explained by stating that “when taxes and imposts are light, the people have the incentive to be more active. Business therefore expands, bringing greater satisfaction to the people because of low taxes …, and tax revenues also rise, being the sum total of all assessments” (p. 279). He went on to say that as time passes the needs of the state increase and rates of taxation rise to increase the yield. If this rise is gradual people become accustomed to it, but ultimately there is an adverse impact on incentives. Business activity is discouraged and declines, and so does the yield of taxation (pp. 280-81). A prosperous economy at the beginning of the dynasty, thus, yields higher tax revenue from lower tax rates while a depressed economy at the end of the dynasty, yields smaller tax revenue from higher rates (p. 279). He explained the reasons for this by stating: “Know that acting unjustly with respect to people’s wealth, reduces their will to earn and acquire wealth … and if the will to earn goes, they stop working. The greater the oppression, the greater the effect on their effort to earn … and, if people abstain from earning and stop working, the markets will stagnate and the condition of people will worsen” (pp. 286-87); tax revenues will also decline (p. 362). He, therefore, advocated justice in taxation (p. 308).

Public Expenditure

For Ibn Khaldun the state was also an important factor of production. By its spending it promotes production and by its taxation it discourages production (pp. 279-81). Since the government constitutes the greatest market for goods and services, and is a major source of all development (pp. 286 and 403), a decrease in its spending leads to not only a slackening of business activity and a decline in profits but also a decline in tax revenue (p. 286). The more the government spends, the better it may be for the economy (p. 286).[12] Higher spending enables the government to do the things that are needed to support the population and to ensure law and order and political stability (pp. 306 and 308). Without order and political stability, the producers have no incentive to produce. He stated that “the only reason [for the accelerated development of cities] is that the government is near them and pours its money into them, like the water [of a river] that makes green everything around it, and irrigates the soil adjacent to it, while in the distance everything remains dry” (p. 369).

Ibn Khaldun also analyzed the effect of government expenditure on the economy and is, in this respect, a forerunner of Keynes. He stated: “A decrease in government spending leads to a decline in tax revenues. The reason for this is that the state represents the greatest market for the world and the source of civilization. If the ruler hoards tax revenues, or if these are lost, and he does not spend them as they should be, the amount available with his courtiers and supporters would decrease, as would also the amount that reaches through them to their employees and dependents [the multiplier effect]. Their total spending would, therefore, decline. Since they constitute a significant part of the population and their spending constitutes a substantial part of the market, business will slacken and the profits of businessmen will decline, leading also to a decline in tax revenues … Wealth tends to circulate between the people and the ruler, from him to them and from them to him. Therefore, if the ruler withholds it from spending, the people would become deprived of it” (p. 286).

Economic Mismanagement and Famine

Ibn Khaldun established the causal link between bad government and high grain prices by indicating that in the later stage of the dynasty, when public administration becomes corrupt and inefficient, and resorts to coercion and oppressive taxation, incentive is adversely affected and the farmers refrain from cultivating the land. Grain production and reserves fail to keep pace with the rising population. The absence of reserves causes supply shortages in the event of a famine and leads to price escalation (pp. 301-02).

Al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) who, as muhtasib (market supervisor), had intimate knowledge of the economic conditions during his times, applied Ibn Khaldun’s analysis in his book (1956) to determine the reasons for the economic crisis of Egypt during the period 1403-06. He identified that the political administration had become very weak and corrupt during the Circassian period. Public officials were appointed on the basis of bribery rather than ability.[13] To recover the bribes, officials resorted to oppressive taxation. The incentive to work and produce was adversely affected and output declined. The crisis was further intensified by debasement of the currency through the excessive issue of copper fulus, or fiat money, to cover state budgetary deficits. All these factors joined hands with the famine to lead to a high degree of inflation, misery of the poor, and impoverishment of the country.

Hence, al-Maqrizi laid bare the socio-political determinants of the prevailing ‘system crisis’ by taking into account a number of variables like corruption, bad government policies, and weak administration. All of these together played a role in worsening the impact of the famine, which could otherwise have been handled effectively without a significant adverse impact on the population. This is clearly a forerunner of Sen’s entitlement theory, which holds the economic mismanagement of illegitimate governments to be responsible for the poor people’s misery during famines and other natural disasters (Sen, 1981). What al-Maqrizi wrote of the Circassian Mamluks was also true of the later Ottoman period (See Meyer, 1989).

Stages of Development

Ibn Khaldun stated the stages of development through which every society passes, moving from the primitive Bedouin stage to the rise of village, towns and urban centers with an effective government, development of agriculture, industry and sciences, and the impact of values and environment on this development ( Muqaddimah, pp. 35, 41-44, 87-95, 120-48, 172-76). Walliyullah[14] (d. 1762) later analyzed the development of society through four different stages from primitive existence to a well-developed community with khilafah (morally-based welfare state), which tries to ensure the spiritual as well as material well-being of the people. Like Ibn Khaldun, he considered political authority to be indispensable for human well-being. To be able to serve as a source of well-being for all and not of burden and decay, it must have the characteristics of the khilafah. He applied this analysis in various writings to the conditions prevailing during his life-time. He found that the luxurious life style of the rulers, along with their exhausting military campaigns, the increasing corruption and inefficiency of the civil service, and huge stipends to a vast retinue of unproductive courtiers, led them to the imposition of oppressive taxes on farmers, traders and craftsmen, who constituted the main productive section of the population. These people had, therefore, lost interest in their occupations, output had slowed down, state financial resources had declined, and the country had become impoverished (Waliyullah, 1992, Vol. I, pp. 119-52). Thus, in step with Ibn Khaldun and other Muslim scholars, al-Maqrizi and Waliyullah combined moral, political, social and economic factors to explain the economic phenomena of their times and the rise and fall of their societies.

Muslim Intellectual Decline

Unfortunately, the rich theoretical contribution made by Muslim scholars up until Ibn Khaldun did not get fertilized and irrigated by later scholars to lead to the development of Islamic economics, except by a few isolated scholars like al-Maqrizi, al-Dawwani (d. 1501), and Waliyullah. Their contributions were, however, only in specific areas and did not lead to a further development of Ibn Khaldun’s model of socio-economic and political dynamics. Islamic economics did not, therefore, develop as a separate intellectual discipline in conformity with the Islamic paradigm along the theoretical foundations and method laid down by Ibn Khaldun and his predecessors. It continued to remain an integral part of the social and moral philosophy of Islam.

One may ask here why the rich intellectual contributions made by Muslim scholars did not continue after Ibn Khaldun. The reason may be that, as indicated earlier, Ibn Khaldun lived at a time when the political and socio-economic decline of the Muslim world was underway.[15] He was perhaps “the sole point of light in his quarter of the firmament” (Toynbee, 1935, Vol. 3, p. 321). According to Ibn Khaldun himself, sciences progress only when a society is itself progressing (p. 434). This theory is clearly upheld by Muslim history. Sciences progressed rapidly in the Muslim world for four centuries from the middle of the eighth century to the middle of the twelfth century and continued to do so at a substantially decelerated pace for at least two more centuries, tapering off gradually thereafter (Sarton 1927, Vol. 1 and Book 1 of Vol. 2). Once in a while there did appear a brilliant star on an otherwise unexciting firmament. Economics was no exception. It also continued to be in a state of limbo in the Muslim world. No worthwhile contributions were made after Ibn Khaldun.

The trigger mechanism for this decline was, according to Ibn Khaldun, the failure of political authority to provide good governance. Political illegitimacy, which started after the end of khilafah in 661 gradually led to increased corruption and the use of state resources for private benefit at the neglect of education and other nation-building functions of the state. This gradually triggered the decline of all other sectors of the society and economy.[16]

The rapidly rising Western civilization took over the torch of knowledge from the declining Muslim world and has kept it burning with even greater brightness. All sciences, including the social sciences, have made phenomenal progress. Conventional economics became a separate academic discipline after the publication of Alfred Marshall’s great treatise, Principles of Economics, in 1890 (Schumpeter, 1954, p.21),[17] and has continued to develop since then at a remarkable speed. With such a great achievement to its credit, there is no psychological need to allow the ‘Great Gap’ thesis to persist. It would help promote better understanding of Muslim civilization in the West if textbooks started giving credit to Muslim scholars. They were “the torchbearers of ancient learning during the medieval period” and “it was from them that the Renaissance was sparked and the Enlightenment kindled” (Todd Lowry in his ‘Foreword’ in Ghazanfar, 2003, p. xi). Watt has been frank enough to admit that, “the influence of Islam on Western Christendom is greater than is usually realized” and that, “an important task for Western Europeans, as we move into the era of the one world, is … to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islamic world” (Watt, 1972, p. 84).

Conventional economics, however, took a wrong turn after the Enlightenment Movement by stripping itself of the moral basis of society emphasized by Aristotelian and Judeo-Christian philosophies. This deprived it of the role that moral values and good governance can play in helping society raise both efficiency and equity in the allocation and distribution of scarce resources needed for promoting the well-being of all. However, this has been changing. The role of good governance has already been recognized and that of moral values is gradually penetrating the economics orthodoxy. Islamic economics is also reviving now after the independence of Muslim countries from foreign domination. It is likely that the two disciplines will converge and become one after a period of time. This will be in keeping with the teachings of the Qur’an, which clearly states that mankind was created as one but became divided as a result of their differences and transgression against each other (10:19, 2:213 and 3: 19). This reunification [globalization, as it is new called], if reinforced by justice and mutual care, should help promote peaceful coexistence and enable mankind to realize the well-being of all, a goal the realization of which we are all anxiously looking forward to.


Abu Yusuf, Ya ‘qub ibn Ibrahim. Kitab al-Kharaj. Cairo: al-Matab‘ah al-Salafiyyah, second edition, 1933/34. (This book has been translated into English by A. Ben Shemesh. Taxation in Islam. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969.)

Allouche, Adel. Mamluk Economics: A Study and Translation of Al-Maqrizi’s Ighathah. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994.

Baeck Louis. The Mediterranean Tradition in Economic Thought. London: Routledge, 1994.

Blanchflower, David, and Andrew Oswald. “Well-being over Time in Britain and USA.” NBER, Working Paper No. 7487, 2000.

Blaug Mark. Economic Theory in Retrospect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Boulakia, Jean David C. “Ibn Khaldun: A Fourteenth-Century Economist.” Journal of Political Economy 79, no. 5 (1971): 1105-18.

Chapra, M. Umer. The Future of Economics: An Islamic Perspective. Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation, 2000.

Cline, William R. Potential Effects of Income Redistribution on Economic Growth. New York: Praeger, 1973.

DeSmogyi, Joseph N. “Economic Theory in Classical Arabic Literature.” Studies in Islam (Delhi), (1965): 1-6.

Diener E., and Shigehiro Oshi. “Money and Happiness: Income and Subjective Well-being.” In Culture and Subjective Well-being, edited by E. Diener and E. Suh. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Dimashqi, Abu al-Fadl Ja‘far ibn ‘Ali al-. Al-Isharah ila Mahasin al-Tijarah, Al-Bushra al-Shurbaji, editor. Cairo: Maktabah al-Kulliyat al-Azhar, 1977.

Duri, A.A. “Baghdad.” The Encyclopedia of Islam, 894-99. Leiden: Brill, 1986.

Easterlin, Richard. “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence.” In Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of Moses Abramowitz, edited by Paul David and Melvin Reder. New York: Academic Press, 1974.

Easterlin, Richard. “Will Raising the Income of All Increase the Happiness of All?” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 27, no. 1 (1995): 35-48.

Easterlin, Richard (2001), “Income and Happiness: Towards a Unified Theory” in Economic Journal, 111: 473 (2001).

Essid, M. Yassine. A Critique of the Origins of Islamic Economic Thought. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. London: Verso, third edition, 1993.

Fischel, W.J. “Djahbadh.” In Encyclopedia of Islam, volume 2, 382-83. Leiden: Brill, 1992.

Friedman, Milton. Essays in Positive Economics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

George, Henry. Progress and Poverty. New York: Robert Schalkenback Foundation, 1955.

Ghazanfar, S.M. Medieval Islamic Economic Thought: Filling the Great Gap in European Economics. London: Routledge Curzon, 2003.

Groenewegen, P.D. “A Note on the Origin of the Phrase, ‘Supply and Demand.’” Economic Journal 83, no. 330 (1973): 505-09.

Hausman, Daniel, and Michael McPherson. “Taking Ethics Seriously: Economics and Contemporary Moral Philosophy.” Journal of Economic Literature 31, no. 2 (1993): 671-731.

Ibn Khaldun. Muqaddimah. Cairo: Al-Maktabah al-Tijariyyah al-Kubra. See also its translation under Rosenthal (1967) and selections from it under Issawi (1950).

Ibn Taymiyyah. Majmu‘ Fatawa Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah. ‘Abd al-Rahman al-‘Asimi, editor. Riyadh: Matabi‘ al-Riyad, 1961-63.

Islahi, A. Azim. History of Economic Thought in Islam. Aligharh, India: Department of Economics, Aligharh Muslim University, 1996.

Issawi, Charles. An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406). London: John Muray, 1950.

Jahiz, Amr ibn Bahr al-. Kitab al-Tabassur bi al-Tijarah. Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-Jadid, 1983.

Jay, Elizabeth, and Richard Jay. Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactions to Political Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Kenny, Charles. “Does Growth Cause Happiness, or Does Happiness Cause Growth?” Kyklos 52, no. 1 (1999): 3-26.

Koopmans, T.C. (1969), “Inter-temporal Distribution and ‘Optimal’ Aggregate Economic Growth”, in Fellner et. al., Ten Economic Studies in the Tradition of Irving Fisher (John Willey and Sons).

Mahdi, Mohsin. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Maqrizi, Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Ali al-. Ighathah al-Ummah bi Kashf al-Ghummah. Hims, Syria: Dar ibn al-Wahid, 1956. (See its English translation by Allouche, 1994).

Mawardi, Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali al-. Adab al-Dunya wa al-Din. Mustafa al Saqqa, editor. Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al Halabi, 1955.

Mawardi, Abdu al-Hasan. Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah wa al-Wilayat al-Diniyyah. Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, 1960. (The English translation of this book by Wafa Wahba has been published under the title, The Ordinances of Government. Reading: Garnet, 1996.)

Mirakhor, Abbas. “The Muslim Scholars and the History of Economics: A Need for Consideration.” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (1987): 245-76.

Misri Rafiq Yunus al-. Al-Islam wa al-Nuqud. Jeddah: King Abdulaziz University, 1981.

Meyer, M.S. “Economic Thought in the Ottoman Empire in the 14th – Early 19th Centuries.” Archiv Orientali 4, no. 57 (1989): 305-18.

Myers, Milton L. The Soul of Modern Economic Man: Ideas of Self-Interest, Thomas Hobbes to Adam Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

North, Douglass C. Structure and Change in Economic History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.

North, Douglass C. “Economic Performance through Time.” American Economic Review 84, no. 2 (1994): 359-68.

Oswald, A.J. “Happiness and Economic Performance,” Economic Journal 107, no. 445 (1997): 1815-31.

Pifer, Josef. “Scholasticism.” Encyclopedia Britannica 16 (1978): 352-57.

Robbins, Lionel. An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. London: Macmillan, second edition, 1935.

Rosenthal, Franz. Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Sarakhsi, Shams al-Din al-. Kitab al-Mabsut. Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, third edition, 1978 (particularly “Kitab al-Kasb” of al-Shaybani in Vol. 30: 245-97).

Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Science. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute (three volumes issued between 1927 and 1948, each of the second and third volumes has two parts).

Schumpeter, Joseph A. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Sen, Amartya. On Ethics and Economics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Siddiqi, M. Nejatullah. “History of Islamic Economic Thought.” In Lectures on Islamic Economics, Ausaf Ahmad and K.R. Awan, 69-90. Jeddah: IDB/IRTI, 1992.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library, 1937.

Solo, Robert A. “Values and Judgments in the Discourse of the Sciences.” In Value Judgment and Income Distribution, edited by Robert A. Solo and Charles A. Anderson, 9-40. New York, Praeger, 1981.

Spengler, Joseph. “Economic Thought in Islam: Ibn Khaldun.” Comparative Studies in Society and History (1964): 268-306.

Thweatt, W.O. “Origins of the Terminology, Supply and Demand.” Scottish Journal of Political Economy (1983): 287-94.

Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. London: Oxford University Press, second edition, 1935.

Udovitch, Abraham L. Partnership and Profit in Medieval Islam. Princeton; NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Waliyullah, Shah. Hujjatullah al-Balighah. M.Sharif Sukkar, editor. Beirut: Dar Ihya al- Ulum, second edition, two volumes, 1992. (An English translation of this book by Marcia K. Hermansen was published bu Brill, Leiden, 1966.)

Watt, W. Montgomery. The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1972.

[1] This is the liberal version of the secular and materialist worldviews. There is also the totalitarian version which does not have faith in the individuals’ ability to manage private property in a way that would ensure social well-being. Hence its prescription is to curb individual freedom and to transfer all means of production and decision making to a totalitarian state. Since this form of the secular and materialist worldview failed to realize human well-being and has been overthrown practically everywhere, it is not discussed in this paper.

[2] The literature on economic development is full of assertions that improvement in income distribution is in direct conflict with economic growth. For a summary of these views, see Cline, 1973, Chapter 2. This has, however, changed and there is hardly any development economist now who argues that injustice can help promote development.

[3] North has used the term ‘nasty’ for all such behavior. See the chapter “Ideology and Free Rider,” in North, 1981.

[4] Some of these scholars include Abu Yusuf (d. 798), al-Mawardi (d. 1058), Abu Ya’la (d. 1065), Nazam al-Mulk (d.1092), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), Shah Walliyullah (d. 1762), Jamaluddin al-Afghani (d. 1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905), Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949), Sayyid Mawdudi (d. 1979), and Baqir al-Sadr (d. 1980).

[5] Some of these authors include al-Katib (d. 749), Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. 756) al-Nu‘man (d. 974), al-Mawardi (d. 1058), Kai Ka’us (d. 1082), Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Turtushi (d. 1127). (For details, see Essid, 1995, pp.19-41.)

[6] For the fallacy of the Great Gap thesis, see Mirakhor (1987) and Ghazanfar (2003), particularly the “Foreword” by Todd Lowry and the “Introduction” by Ghazanfar.

[7] The full name of the book (given in the bibliography) may be freely translated as “The Book of Lessons and the Record of Cause and Effect in the History of Arabs, Persians and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries.” Several different editions of the Muqaddimah are now available in Arabic. The one I have used is that published in Cairo by al-Maktabah al-Tijarriyah al-Kubra without any indication of the year of publication. It has the advantage of showing all vowel marks, which makes the reading relatively easier. The Muqaddimah was translated into English in three volumes by Franz Rosenthal. Its first edition was published in 1958 and the second edition in 1967. Selections from the Muqaddimah by Charles Issawi were published in 1950 under the title, An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406).

A considerable volume of literature is now available on Ibn Khaldun. This includes Spengler, 1964; Boulakia, 1971; Mirakhor, 1987; and Chapra, 2000.

[8] For some of these contributions, see Spengler, 1964; DeSmogyi, 1965; Mirakhor, 1987; Siddiqi, 1992; Essid, 1995; Islahi, 1996; Chapra, 2000; and Ghazanfar, 2003.

[9] For a more detailed discussion of taxation by various Muslim scholars, see the section on “Literature on Mirrors for Princes” in Essid, 1995, pp. 19-41.

[10] This letter is a significant development over the letter of Abu Yusuf to Caliph Harun al-Rashid (1933/34, pp. 3-17). It is more comprehensive and covers a larger number of topics.

[11] These are “On tax revenues and the reason for their being low and high” (pp. 279-80) and “Injustice ruins development” (pp. 286-410).

[12] Bear in mind the fact that this was stated at the time when commodity money, which it is not possible for the government to ‘create,’ was used, and fiduciary money, had not become the rule of the day.

[13] This was during the Slave (Mamluk) Dynasty in Egypt, which is divided into two periods. The first period was that of the Bahri (or Turkish) Mamluks (1250-1382), who have generally received praise in the chronicles of their contemporaries. The second period was that of the Burji Mamluks (Circassians, 1382-1517). This period was beset by a series of severe economic crises. (For details see Allouche, 1994.)

[14] Shah Walliyullah al-Dihlawi, popularly known as Walliyullah, was born in 1703, four years before the death of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707). Aurangzeb’s rule, spanning a period of forty-nine years, was followed by a great deal of political instability – ten different changes in rulers during Walliyullah’s life-span of 59 years – leading ultimately to the weakening and decline of the Mughal Empire.

[15] For a brief account of the general decline and disintegration of the Muslim world during the fourteenth century, see Muhsin Mahdi, 1964, pp. 17-26.

[16] For a discussion of the causes of Muslim decline, see Chapra, 2000, pp. 173-252.

[17] According to Blaug (1985), economics became an academic discipline in the 1880s (p. 3).

Citation: Chapra, M. “Islamic Economics: What It Is and How It Developed”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Ireland’s Great Famine

Ireland’s Great Famine

Cormac Ó Gráda, University College Dublin

The proximate cause of the Great Irish Famine (1846-52) was the fungus phythophtera infestans (or potato blight), which reached Ireland in the fall of 1845. The fungus destroyed about one-third of that year’s crop, and nearly all that of 1846. After a season’s remission, it also ruined most of the 1848 harvest. These repeated attacks made the Irish famine more protracted than most. Partial failures of the potato crop were nothing new in Ireland before 1845, but damage on the scale wrought by the ecological shock of potato blight was utterly unprecedented (Solar 1989; Clarkson and Crawford 2001). However, the famine would not have been so lethal had dependence on the potato been less. Poverty had reduced the bottom one-third or so of the population to almost exclusive dependence on the potato for sustenance. For those in this category, the daily intake was enormous: 4 to 5 kilos (9 to 11 pounds) daily per adult male equivalent for most of the year. That, coupled with an inadequate policy response from the authorities, made the consequences of repeated failures devastating (Bourke 1993).

Ireland was a poor country in 1845, income per head being about half that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The half-century or so before the famine was a period of increasing impoverishment for the landless poor. With impoverishment came rising inequality. Increasing population pressure was only partly relieved by an increase in the emigration rate and a fall in the birth rate (Boyle and Ó Gráda 1986). Moreover, demographic adjustment was weakest in the western and southern areas most at risk. The nutritional content of the potato and widespread access to heating fuel in the form of turf eased somewhat the poverty of Ireland’s three million ‘potato people.’ They were healthier and lived longer than the poor in other parts of Europe at the time. However, their poverty meant that when the potato failed, there was no trading down to a cheap alternative food (Ó Gráda 1994). Nowhere else in Europe had the potato, like tobacco a gift from the New World, made such inroads into the diet of the poor. It bears noting that the potato also failed throughout Europe in the 1840s. This brought hardship in many places, and excess mortality in the Low Countries and in parts of Germany. Yet nowhere was Ireland’s cataclysm repeated (Solar 1997).

The first attack of potato blight inflicted considerable hardship on rural Ireland, though no significant excess mortality. The catastrophe of the Great Famine really dates from the fall of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. At first there were food riots and protests, but they subsided as hope and anger gave way to despair (Eiriksson 1997). During the winter and spring of 1846-7 the carnage reached its peak, but the famine continued for another three years. Like all major famines, the Irish potato famine produced many instances of roadside deaths, of neglect of the very young and the elderly, of heroism and of anti-social behavior, of evictions, and of a rise in crimes against property. It was widely reported in the contemporary press at first, both in Ireland and abroad. It elicited a massive response in terms of private donations for a time, especially through the Catholic Church worldwide and the Society of Friends. Philanthropists in Britain were also moved by Irish suffering. That was before compassion fatigue set in. For narrative accounts of the tragedy see Edwards and Williams (1956), Woodham-Smith (1962), Ó Gráda (1999), and Donnelly (2001).

Public Action

The debate about relief measures for Ireland in the press and in parliament in the 1840s has quite a modern resonance (compare Drèze and Sen 1989). At first the government opted for reliance on the provision of employment through public works schemes, the cost of which was to be split between local taxpayers and the central government. At their height in the spring of 1847 the works employed seven hundred thousand people or one-in-twelve of the entire population. The works did not contain the famine, partly because they did not target the neediest, partly because the average wage paid was too low, and partly because they entailed exposing malnourished and poorly clothed people (mostly men) to the elements during the worst months of the year.

The publicly-financed soup kitchens which replaced the public works reached three million people daily at their peak in early 1847. Mortality seemed to fall while they operated, though doubts remain about the effectiveness of a diet of thin meal-based gruel on weakened stomachs. The drop in food prices during the summer of 1847 prompted the authorities to treat the famine henceforth as a manageable, local problem. The main burden of relieving the poor henceforth was placed on the workhouses established under the Irish Poor Law of 1838. In principal those requiring relief were supposed to pass ‘the workhouse test,’ i.e. refusal to enter the workhouse was deemed evidence of being able to support one’s self. In practice, most of the workhouses were ill-equipped to meet the demands placed upon them, and in the event about one-quarter of all excess famine mortality occurred within their walls. Local histories highlight mismanagement and the impossible burden placed on local taxpayers; and the high overall proportion of workhouse deaths due to contagious diseases is an indictment of this form of relief. The very high mortality in some workhouses in 1850 and 1851 is evidence of the long-lasting character of the famine in some western areas (Guinnane and Ó Gráda 2002; Ó Murchadha 1998).

Traditional accounts of the famine pit the more humane policies of Sir Robert Peel’s Tories against the dogmatic stance of Sir John Russell’s Whig administration, which succeeded them. Peel was forced out of office in July 1846 when his party split on the issue of the Corn Laws. The contrast between Peel and Russell oversimplifies. Though Peel was more familiar with Ireland’s problems of economic backwardness than Whig ideologues such as Charles Wood, the crisis confronting him in 1845-6 was mild compared to what was to follow. Moreover, Peel broadly supported the Whig line in opposition, and it was left to his former Tory colleagues to mount a parliamentary challenge against Russell and Wood. Assessment of the public policy response cannot ignore the apocalyptic character of the crisis that it faced. Nonetheless, the government’s obsession with parsimony and its determination to make the Irish pay for ‘their’ crisis cannot but have increased the death rate. The same goes for the insistence on linking relief with structural reform (e.g. by making the surrender of all landholdings over a quarter of an acre in size a strict condition for relief). At the height of the crisis the policy stance adopted by the Whigs was influenced by Malthusian providentialism, i.e. the conviction that the potato blight was a divinely ordained remedy for Irish overpopulation. Compassion on the part of the British elite was in short supply. The fear that too much kindness would entail a Malthusian lesson not learnt also conditioned both the nature and extent of intervention (Gray 1999).

The Irish famine killed about one million people, or one-eighth of the entire population. This made it a major famine, relatively speaking, by world-historical standards. In pre-1845 Ireland famines were by no means unknown — that caused by arctic weather conditions in 1740-41 killed a higher share of a much smaller population (Dickson 1998) — but those that struck during the half-century or so before the Great Famine were mini-famines by comparison. The excess death toll of one million is an informed guess, since in the absence of civil registration excess mortality cannot be calculated directly (Mokyr 1985; Boyle and Ó Gráda 1986). The record of deaths in the workhouses and other public institutions is nearly complete, but the recording of other deaths depended on the memory of survivors in households where deaths had taken place. In many homes, of course, death and emigration meant that there were no survivors. The estimate does not include averted births, nor does it allow for famine-related deaths in Britain and further afield (Neal 1997).

Mortality was regionally very uneven. No part of Ireland escaped entirely, but the toll ranged from one-quarter of the population of some western counties to negligible fractions in counties Down and Wexford on the east coast. The timing of mortality varied too, even in some of the worst hit areas. In west Cork, a notorious problem area, the worst was over by late 1847, but the deadly effects of the famine ranged in county Clare until 1850 or even 1851. Infectious diseases — especially typhoid fever, typhus and dysentery/diarrhea — rather than literal starvation were responsible for the bulk of mortality. While Karl Marx was almost right to claim that the Irish famine killed ‘poor devils only,’ many who were not abjectly poor and starving died of famine-related diseases. Medical progress, by shielding the rich from infection, has made subsequent famines even more class-specific. By and large, the higher the death toll, the higher the proportion of starvation deaths (Mokyr and Ó Gráda 2002). As in most famines, the elderly and the young were most likely to succumb, but women proved marginally more resilient than men.

The famine also resulted in migration on a massive scale. Again precise estimates are impossible. Though these migrants were also victims of the famine, their departure improved not only their own survival chances, but also those of the majority who remained in Ireland. True, the Atlantic crossing produced its own carnage, particularly in Quebec’s Grosse-Isle, but most of those who fled made it safely to the other side. There thus is a sense in which migration was a crude form of disaster relief, and that more spending on subsidized emigration would have reduced the aggregate famine death toll (Ó Gráda and O’Rourke 1997). Most of those who emigrated relied on their own resources; some landlords helped through direct subsidies or by relieving those who left of their unpaid rent bills. The landless poor simply could not afford to leave.

A Hierarchy of Suffering

Like all famines, the Irish famine produced its hierarchy of suffering. The rural poor, landless or near-landless, were most likely to perish, and the earliest victims were in that category. Farmers found their effective land endowment reduced, since their holdings could no longer yield the same quantity of potatoes as before. They also faced increased labor costs, forcing them to reduce their concentration on tillage. Landlords’ rental income plummeted by as much a third. Many clergymen, medical practitioners, and poor law officials died of infectious diseases. Pawnbrokers found their pledges being unredeemed as the crisis worsened. Least affected were those businesses and their work forces who relied on foreign markets for their raw materials and their sales. The relative impact of the famine on different occupational groups may be inferred from the 1841 and 1851 censuses. The overall decline in the labor force was 19.1 percent. There were 14.4 percent fewer farmers, and 24.2 percent fewer farm laborers. Not surprisingly, given their vulnerability, the number of physicians and surgeons dropped by 25.3 percent. The small number of coffin makers (eight in 1841, twenty-two in 1851) is a reminder that during the famine most coffins were not made by specialist coffin makers. It is difficult to identify any significant class of ‘winners’ in the 1840s, though the census indicates increases in the numbers of millers and bakers, of barristers and attorneys, and of bailiffs and rate collectors. The huge fall in the numbers of spinners and weavers was partly a consequence of the famine, partly due to other causes (Ó Gráda 1999: chapter 4; 2001).

Post-Famine Adjustment

The Great Irish Famine was not just a watershed in Irish history, but also a major event in global history, with far-reaching and enduring economic and political consequences. Individual memories of the famine, coupled with ‘collective memory’ of the event in later years, influenced the political culture of both Ireland and Irish-America — and probably still do (Cullen 1997; Donnelly 2000; Ó Gráda 2001). The famine brought the era of famines in Ireland to a brutal end. Serious failures of the potato in the early 1860s and late 1870s, also due to potato blight, brought privation in the west of the country, but no significant excess mortality. The famine also resulted in higher living standards for survivors. The bargaining power of labor was greater. Any negative impact on landlords’ income from a declining population was more than compensated for by the relative increase in the prices of land-intensive output and the prompter payment of rents due. Higher emigration was another by-product of the famine, as the huge outflow of the crisis years generated its own ‘friends and neighbors’ dynamic. Only in a few remote and tiny pockets in the west did population fill the vacuum left by the ‘Great Hunger,’ and then only very briefly (Guinnane 1997).

Whether or not the famine led to the decline of certain native industries by reducing the domestic market remains a moot point, worthy of further research (Whelan 1999). The long-run impact of the famine on the health of affected survivors is another unresearched topic (compare Lumey 1998). Finally, though the introduction of new potato varieties offered some respite against phythophtera infestans thereafter, no reliable defense would be found against it until the 1890s.

Note: This essay builds on my entry on the Great Irish Famine in Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll, editors, Encyclopedia of Population (New York: Macmillan, 2003).

Further Reading

Bourke, Austin. The Visitation of God? The Potato and the Great Irish Famine. Dublin: Lilliput, 1993.

Boyle, P.P. and C. Ó Gráda. “Fertility Trends, Excess Mortality, and the Great Irish Famine.” Demography 23 (1986): 543-62.

Clarkson, L.E. and E.M. Crawford. Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Cullen, L.M. ‘The Politics of the Famine and Famine Historiography,” Comhdháil an Chraoibhín 1996 (Roscommon, Ireland) 1997: 9-31.

Dickson, David. Arctic Ireland. Belfast: White Row Press, 1998.

Donnelly, James S. The Irish Potato Famine. London: Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Edwards, R.D. and T.D. Williams. The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-52. Dublin; Browne & Nolan, 1956 [new edition published by Lilliput Press, 1994].

Eiriksson, Andrés. “Food Supply and Food Riots.” In Famine 150: The Teagasc/UCD Lectures, edited by Cormac Ó Gráda, 67-93. Dublin: Teagasc, 1997.

Gray, Peter. Famine, Land, and Politics: British Government and Irish Society, 1843-50, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999.

Guinnane, Timothy W. The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Guinnane, Timothy W. and Cormac Ó Gráda. “Workhouse Mortality and the Great Irish Famine.” In Famine Demography, edited by Tim Dyson and Cormac Ó Gráda, 44-64. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lumey, L.H. “Reproductive Outcomes in Women Prenatally Exposed to Undernutrition from the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 57 (1998): 129-35.

Mokyr, Joel. Why Ireland Starved: An Analytical and Quantitative History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Mokyr, Joel and Cormac Ó Gráda. “What Do People Die of during Famines? The Great Irish Famine in Comparative Perspective.” European Review of Economic History 6, no. 3 (2002): 339-64.

Neal, Frank. Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Famine, Trauma, and Memory. ” Béaloideas 69 (2001): 121-43.

Ó Gráda, Cormac and Kevin H. O’Rourke. “Mass Migration as Disaster Relief: Lessons from the Great Irish Famine.” European Review of Economic History 1, no. 1 (1997): 3-25.

Ó Murchadha, Ciarán. Sable Wings over the Sand: Ennis, County Clare, and Its Wider Community during the Great Famine. Ennis: Clasp Press, 1998.

Solar, Peter M. “The Great Famine Was No Ordinary Subsistence Crisis.” In Famine: The Irish Experience, 900-1900, edited by E.M. Crawford. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1989.

Solar, Peter M. 1997. “The Potato Famine in Europe.” In Famine 150: The Teagasc/UCD Lectures, edited by Cormac Ó Gráda, 113-27. Dublin: Teagasc, 1997.

Whelan, Karl. “Economic Geography and the Long-run Effects of the Great Irish Famine.” Economic and Social Review 30, no. 1 (1999): 1-20.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-49, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962.

Citation: O Grada, Cormac. “Ireland’s Great Famine”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Life Insurance in the United States through World War I

Sharon Ann Murphy

The first American life insurance enterprises can be traced back to the late colonial period. The Presbyterian Synods in Philadelphia and New York set up the Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers in 1759; the Episcopalian ministers organized a similar fund in 1769. In the half century from 1787 to 1837, twenty-six companies offering life insurance to the general public opened their doors, but they rarely survived more than a couple of years and sold few policies [Figures 1 and 2]. The only early companies to experience much success in this line of business were the Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities (chartered 1812), the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company (1818), the Baltimore Life Insurance Company (1830), the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company (1830), and the Girard Life Insurance, Annuity and Trust Company of Pennsylvania (1836). [See Table 1.]

Despite this tentative start, the life insurance industry did make some significant strides beginning in the 1830s [Figure 2]. Life insurance in force (the total death benefit payable on all existing policies) grew steadily from about $600,000 in 1830 to just under $5 million a decade later, with New York Life and Trust policies accounting for more than half of this latter amount. Over the next five years insurance in force almost tripled to $14.5 million before surging by 1850 to just under $100 million of life insurance spread among 48 companies. The top three companies – the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York (1842), the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of New Jersey (1845), and the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company (1846) – accounted for more than half of this amount. The sudden success of life insurance during the 1840s can be attributed to two main developments – changes in legislation impacting life insurance and a shift in the corporate structure of companies towards mutualization.

Married Women’s Acts

Life insurance companies targeted women and children as the main beneficiaries of insurance, despite the fact that the majority of women were prevented by law from gaining the protection offered in the unfortunate event of their husband’s death. The first problem was that companies strictly adhered to the common law idea of insurable interest which required that any person taking out insurance on the life of another have a specific monetary interest in that person’s continued life; “affection” (i.e. the relationship of husband and wife or parent and child) was not considered adequate evidence of insurable interest. Additionally, married women could not enter into contracts on their own and therefore could not take out life insurance policies either on themselves (for the benefit of their children or husband) or directly on their husbands (for their own benefit). One way around this problem was for the husband to take out the policy on his own life and assign his wife or children as the beneficiaries. This arrangement proved to be flawed, however, since the policy was considered part of the husband’s estate and therefore could be claimed by any creditors of the insured.

New York’s 1840 Law

This dilemma did not pass unnoticed by promoters of life insurance who viewed it as one of the main stumbling blocks to the growth of the industry. The New York Life and Trust stood at the forefront of a campaign to pass a state law enabling women to procure life insurance policies protected from the claims of creditors. The law, which passed the New York state legislature on April 1, 1840, accomplished four important tasks. First, it established the right of a woman to enter into a contract of insurance on the life of her husband “by herself and in her name, or in the name of any third person, with his assent, as her trustee.” Second, that insurance would be “free from the claims of the representatives of her husband, or of any of his creditors” unless the annual premiums on the policy exceeded $300 (approximately the premium required to take out the maximum $10,000 policy on the life of a 40 year old). Third, in the event of the wife predeceasing the husband, the policy reverted to the children who were granted the same protection from creditors. Finally, as the law was interpreted by both companies and the courts, wives were not required to prove their monetary interest in the life of the insured, establishing for the first time an instance of insurable interest independent of pecuniary interest in the life of another.

By December of 1840, Maryland had enacted an identical law – copied word for word from the New York statute. The Massachusetts legislation of 1844 went one step further by protecting from the claims of creditors all policies procured “for the benefit of a married woman, whether effected by her, her husband, or any other person.” The 1851 New Jersey law was the most stringent, limiting annual premiums to only $100. In those states where a general law did not exist, new companies often had the New York law inserted into their charter, with these provisions being upheld by the state courts. For example, the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company (1846), the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (1849), and the Jefferson Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati, Ohio (1850) all provided this protection in their charters despite the silence of their respective states on the issue.


The second important development of the 1840s was the emergence of mutual life insurance companies in which any annual profits were redistributed to the policyholders rather than to stockholders. Although mutual insurance was not a new concept – the Society for Equitable Assurances on Lives and Survivorships of London had been operating under the mutual plan since its establishment in 1762 and American marine and fire companies were commonly organized as mutuals – the first American mutual life companies did not begin issuing policies until the early 1840s. The main impetus for this shift to mutualization was the panic of 1837 and the resulting financial crisis, which combined to dampen the enthusiasm of investors for projects ranging from canals and railroads to banks and insurance companies. Between 1838 and 1846, only one life insurance company was able to raise the capital essential for organization on a stock basis. On the other hand, mutuals required little initial capital, relying instead on the premium payments from high-volume sales to pay any death claims. The New England Mutual Life Insurance Company (1835) issued its first policy in 1844 and the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York (1842) began operation in 1843; at least fifteen more mutuals were chartered by 1849.

Aggressive Marketing

In order to achieve the necessary sales volume, mutual companies began to aggressively promote life insurance through advertisements, editorials, pamphlets, and soliciting agents. These marketing tactics broke with the traditionally staid practices of banks and insurance companies whereby advertisements generally had provided only the location of the local office and agents passively had accepted applications from customers who inquired directly at their office.

Advantages of Mutuality

The mutual marketing campaigns not only advanced life insurance in general but mutuality in particular, which held widespread appeal for the public at large. Policyholders who could not afford to own stock in a proprietary insurance company could now share in the financial success of the mutual companies, with any annual profits (the excess of invested premium income over death payments) being redistributed to the policyholders, often in the form of reduced premium payments. The rapid success of life insurance during the late 1840s, as seen in Figure 3, thus can be attributed both to this active marketing as well as to the appeal of mutual insurance itself.

Regulation and Stagnation after 1849

While many of these companies operated on a sound financial basis, the ease of formation opened the field to several fraudulent or fiscally unsound companies. Stock institutions, concerned both for the reputation of life insurance in general as well as with self-preservation, lobbied the New York state legislature for a law to limit the operation of mutual companies. On April 10, 1849 the legislature passed a law requiring all new insurance companies either incorporating or planning to do business in New York to possess $100,000 of capital stock. Two years later, the legislature passed a more stringent law obligating all life insurance companies to deposit $100,000 with the Comptroller of New York. While this capital requirement was readily met by most stock companies and by the more established New York-based mutual companies, it effectively dampened the movement toward mutualization until the 1890s. Additionally, twelve out-of-state companies ceased doing business in New York altogether, leaving only the New England Mutual and the Mutual Benefit of New Jersey to compete with the New York companies in one of the largest markets. These laws were also largely responsible for the decade-long stagnation in insurance sales beginning in 1849 [Figure 3].

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

By the end of the 1850s life insurance sales again began to increase, climbing to almost $200 million by 1862 before tripling to just under $600 million by the end of the Civil War; life insurance in force peaked at $2 billion in 1871 [Figures 3 and 4]. Several factors contributed to this renewed success. First, the establishment of insurance departments in Massachusetts (1856) and New York (1859) to oversee the operation of fire, marine, and life insurance companies stimulated public confidence in the financial soundness of the industry. Additionally, in 1861 the Massachusetts legislature passed a non-forfeiture law, which forbade companies from terminating policies for lack of premium payment. Instead, the law stipulated that policies be converted to term life policies and that companies pay any death claims that occurred during this term period [term policies are issued only for a stipulated number of years, require reapplication on a regular basis, and consequently command significantly lower annual premiums which rise rapidly with age]. This law was further strengthened in 1880 when Massachusetts mandated that policyholders have the additional option of receiving a cash surrender value for a forfeited policy.

The Civil War was another factor in this resurgence. Although the industry had no experience with mortality during war – particularly a war on American soil – and most policies contained clauses that voided them in the case of military service, several major companies decided to ensure war risks for an additional premium rate of 2% to 5%. While most companies just about broke even on these soldiers’ policies, the goodwill and publicity engendered with the payment of each death claim combined with a generally heightened awareness of mortality to greatly increase interest in life insurance. In the immediate postbellum period, investment in most industries increased dramatically and life insurance was no exception. Whereas only 43 companies existed on the eve of the war, the newfound popularity of life insurance resulted in the establishment of 107 companies between 1865 and 1870 [Figure 1].


The other major innovation in life insurance occurred in 1867 when the Equitable Life Assurance Society (1859) began issuing tontine or deferred dividend policies. While a portion of each premium payment went directly towards an ordinary insurance policy, another portion was deposited in an investment fund with a set maturity date (usually 10, 15, or 20 years) and a restricted group of participants. The beneficiaries of deceased policyholders received only the face value of the standard life component while participants who allowed their policy to lapse either received nothing or only a small cash surrender value. At the end of the stipulated period, the dividends that had accumulated in the fund were divided among the remaining participants. Agents often promoted these policies with inflated estimates of future returns – and always assured the potential investor that he would be a beneficiary of the high lapse rate and not one of the lapsing participants. Estimates indicate that approximately two-thirds of all life insurance policies in force in 1905 – at the height of the industry’s power – were deferred dividend plans.

Reorganization and Innovation

The success and profitability of life insurance companies bred stiff competition during the 1860s; the resulting market saturation and a general economic downtown combined to push the industry into a severe depression during the 1870s. While the more well-established companies such as the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, the New York Life Insurance Company (1843), and the Equitable Life Assurance Society were strong enough to weather the depression with few problems, most of the new corporations organized during the 1860s were unable to survive the downturn. All told, 98 life insurance companies went out of business between 1868 and 1877, with 46 ceasing operations during the depression years of 1871 to 1874 [Figure 1]. Of these, 32 failed outright, resulting in $35 million of losses for policyholders. It was 1888 before the amount of insurance in force surpassed that of its peak in 1870 [Figure 4].

Assessment and Fraternal Insurance Companies

Taking advantage of these problems within the industry were numerous assessment and fraternal benefit societies. Assessment or cooperative companies, as they were sometimes called, were associations in which each member was assessed a flat fee to provide the death benefit when another member died rather than paying an annual premium. The two main problems with these organizations were the uncertain number of assessments each year and the difficulty of maintaining membership levels. As members aged and death rates rose, the assessment societies found it difficult to recruit younger members willing to take on the increasing risks of assessments. By the turn of the century, most assessment companies had collapsed or reorganized as mutual companies.

Fraternal organizations were voluntary associations of people affiliated through ethnicity, religion, profession, or some other tie. Although fraternal societies had existed throughout the history of the United States, it was only in the postbellum era that they mushroomed in number and emerged as a major provider of life insurance, mainly for working-class Americans. While many fraternal societies initially issued insurance on an assessment basis, most soon switched to mutual insurance. By the turn of the century, the approximately 600 fraternal societies in existence provided over $5 billion in life insurance to their members, making them direct competitors of the major stock and mutual companies. Just 5 years later, membership was over 6 million with $8 billion of insurance in force [Figure 4].

Industrial Life Insurance

For the few successful life insurance companies organized during the 1860s and 1870s, innovation was the only means of avoiding failure. Aware that they could not compete with the major companies in a tight market, these emerging companies concentrated on markets previously ignored by the larger life insurance organizations – looking instead to the example of the fraternal benefit societies. Beginning in the mid-1870s, companies such as the John Hancock Company (1862), the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (1868), and the Prudential Insurance Company of America (1875) started issuing industrial life insurance. Industrial insurance, which began in England in the late 1840s, targeted lower income families by providing policies in amounts as small as $100, as opposed to the thousands of dollars normally required for ordinary insurance. Premiums ranging from $0.05 to $0.65 were collected on a weekly basis, often by agents coming door-to-door, instead of on an annual, semi-annual, or quarterly basis by direct remittance to the company. Additionally, medical examinations were often not required and policies could be written to cover all members of the family instead of just the main breadwinner. While the number of policies written skyrocketed to over 51 million by 1919, industrial insurance remained only a fraction of the amount of life insurance in force throughout the period [Figures 4 and 5].

International Expansion

The major life insurance companies also quickly expanded into the global market. While numerous firms ventured abroad as early as the 1860s and 1870s, the most rapid international growth occurred between 1885 and 1905. By 1900, the Equitable was providing insurance in almost 100 nations and territories, the New York Life in almost 50 and the Mutual in about 20. The international premium income (excluding Canada) of these Big Three life insurance companies amounted to almost $50 million in 1905, covering over $1 billion of insurance in force.

The Armstrong Committee Investigation

In response to a multitude of newspaper articles portraying extravagant spending and political payoffs by executives at the Equitable Life Assurance Society – all at the expense of their policyholders – Superintendent Francis Hendricks of the New York Insurance Department reluctantly conducted an investigation of the company in 1905. His report substantiated these allegations and prompted the New York legislature to create a special committee, known as the Armstrong Committee, to examine the conduct of all life insurance companies operating within the state. Appointed chief counsel of the investigation was future United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Among the abuses uncovered by the committee were interlocking directorates, the creation of subsidiary financial institutions to evade restrictions on investments, the use of proxy voting to frustrate policyholder control of mutuals, unlimited company expenses, tremendous spending for lobbying activities, rebating (the practice of returning to a new client a portion of their first premium payment as an incentive to take out a policy), the encouragement of policy lapses, and the condoning of “twisting” (a practice whereby agents misrepresented and libeled rival firms in order to convince a policyholder to sacrifice their existing policy and replace it with one from that agent). Additionally, the committee severely chastised the New York Insurance Department for permitting such malpractice to occur and recommended the enactment of a wide array of reform measures. These revelations induced numerous other states to conduct their own investigations, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Nebraska.

New Regulations

In 1907, the New York legislature responded to the committee’s report by issuing a series of strict regulations specifying acceptable investments, limiting lobbying practices and campaign contributions, democratizing management through the elimination of proxy voting, standardizing policy forms, and limiting agent activities including rebating and twisting. Most devastating to the industry, however, were the prohibition of deferred dividend policies and the requirement of regular dividend payments to policyholders. Nineteen other states followed New York’s lead in adopting similar legislation but the dominance of New York in the insurance industry enabled it to assert considerable influence over a large percentage of the industry. The state invoked the Appleton Rule, a 1901 administrative rule devised by New York Deputy Superintendent of Insurance Henry D. Appleton that required life insurance companies to comply with New York legislation both in New York and in all other states in which they conducted business, as a condition of doing business in New York. As the Massachusetts insurance commissioner immediately recognized, “In a certain sense [New York’s] supervision will be a national supervision, as its companies do business in all the states.” The rule was officially incorporated into New York’s insurance laws in 1939 and remained both in effect and highly effective until the 1970s.

Continued Growth in the Early Twentieth Century

The Armstrong hearings and the ensuing legislation renewed public confidence in the safety of life insurance, resulting in a surge of new company organizations not seen since the 1860s. Whereas only 106 companies existed in 1904, another 288 were established in the ten years from 1905 to 1914 [Figure 1]. Life insurance in force likewise rose rapidly, increasing from $20 billion on the eve of the hearings to almost $46 billion by the end of World War I, with the share insured by the fraternal and assessment societies decreasing from 40% to less than a quarter [Figure 5].

Group Insurance

One major innovation to occur during these decades was the development of group insurance. In 1911 the Equitable Life Assurance Society wrote a policy covering the 125 employees of the Pantasote Leather Company, requiring neither individual applications nor medical examinations. The following year, the Equitable organized a group department to promote this new product and soon was insuring the employees of Montgomery Ward Company. By 1919, 29 companies wrote group policies, which amounted to over a half billion dollars worth of life insurance in force.

War Risk Insurance

Not included in Figure 5 is the War Risk insurance issued by the United States government during World War I. Beginning in April 1917, all active military personnel received a $4,500 insurance policy payable by the federal government in the case of death or disability. In October of the same year, the government began selling low-cost term life and disability insurance, without medical examination, to all active members of the military. War Risk insurance proved to be extremely popular during the war, reaching over $40 billion of life insurance in force by 1919. In the aftermath of the war, these term policies quickly declined to under $3 billion of life insurance in force, with many servicemen turning instead to the whole life policies offered by the stock and mutual companies. As was the case after the Civil War, life insurance sales rose dramatically after World War I, peaking at $117 billion of insurance in force in 1930. By the eve of the Great Depression there existed over 120 million life insurance policies – approximately equivalent to one policy for every man, woman, and child living in the United States at that time.

(Sharon Ann Murphy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia.)

References and Further Reading

Buley, R. Carlyle. The American Life Convention, 1906-1952: A Study in the History of Life Insurance. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1953.

Grant, H. Roger. Insurance Reform: Consumer Action in the Progressive Era. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1988.

Keller, Morton. The Life Insurance Enterprise, 1885-1910: A Study in the Limits of Corporate Power. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1963.

Kimball, Spencer L. Insurance and Public Policy: A Study in the Legal Implications of Social and Economic Public Policy, Based on Wisconsin Records 1835-1959. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

Merkel, Philip L. “Going National: The Life Insurance Industry’s Campaign for Federal Regulation after the Civil War.” Business History Review 65 (Autumn 1991): 528-553.

North, Douglass. “Capital Accumulation in Life Insurance between the Civil War and the Investigation of 1905.” In Men in Business: Essays on the Historical Role of the Entrepreneur, edited by William Miller, 238-253. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1952.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch. “Tontine Insurance and the Armstrong Investigation: A Case of Stifled Innovation, 1868-1905.” Journal of Economic History 47, no. 2 (June 1987): 379-390.

Stalson, J. Owen. Marketing Life Insurance: Its History in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Table 1

Early American Life Insurance Companies, 1759-1844

Company Year Chartered Terminated Insurance in Force in 1840
Corp. for the Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers (Presbyterian Ministers Fund) 1759
Corporation for the Relief of the Widows and Children of Clergymen in the Communion of the Church of England in America (Episcopal Ministers Fund) 1769
Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania 1794 1798
Insurance Company of North America, PA 1794 1798
United Insurance Company, NY 1798 1802
New York Insurance Company 1798 1802
Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities 1812 1872* 691,000
New York Mechanics Life & Fire 1812 1813
Dutchess County Fire, Marine & Life, NY 1814 1818
Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company 1818 1867* 342,000
Union Insurance Company, NY 1818 1840
Aetna Insurance Company (mainly fire insurance; separate life company chartered in 1853) 1820 1853
Farmers Loan & Trust Company, NY 1822 1843
Baltimore Life Insurance Company 1830 1867 750,000 (est.)
New York Life Insurance & Trust Company 1830 1865* 2,880,000
Lawrenceburg Insurance Company 1832 1836
Mississippi Insurance Company 1833 1837
Protection Insurance Company, Mississippi 1833 1837
Ohio Life Ins. & Trust Co. (life policies appear to have been reinsured with New York Life & Trust in the late 1840s) 1834 1857 54,000
New England Mutual Life Insurance Company, Massachusetts (did not begin issuing policies until 1844) 1835 0
Ocean Mutual, Louisiana 1835 1839
Southern Life & Trust, Alabama 1836 1840
American Life Insurance & Trust Company, Baltimore 1836 1840
Girard Life Insurance, Annuity & Trust Company, Pennsylvania 1836 1894 723,000
Missouri Life & Trust 1837 1841
Missouri Mutual 1837 1841
Globe Life Insurance, Trust & Annuity Company, Pennsylvania 1837 1857
Odd Fellow Life Insurance and Trust Company, Pennsylvania 1840 1857
National of Pennsylvania 1841 1852
Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York 1842
New York Life Insurance Company 1843
State Mutual Life Assurance Company, Massachusetts 1844

*Date company ceased writing life insurance.

Citation: Murphy, Sharon. “Life Insurance in the United States through World War I”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2002. URL

Harold Adams Innis

Robin Neill, University of Prince Edward Island

Harold Innis has been called “the first Canadian-born social scientist to achieve an international reputation” and “the father of Canadian Economic History.” He was the second president of the Economic History Association (1942-1944) and the fifty-fourth President of the American Economic Association (1951). He has been credited with joint authorship of the Staple Theory of Canadian Economic Development (W.T. Easterbrook, 967, p. 261). In a backhanded posthumous complement a Keynesian said of him that he led the Canadian economics profession down the wrong path for fifteen years.

Innis’s influence in Canadian social science was pervasive in the pre-Keynesian period. His studies of the fur trade, the cod fisheries, and the mining and forest frontiers broke new ground, and provided an economic underpinning for the Laurentian School of Canadian historians. His students, W.T. Easterbrook, Hugh G.J. Aitken, Albert Faucher, and two of the then famous four Saskatonians, Vernon C. Fowke and Kenneth A.H. Buckley, are still cited in current Canadian economic history texts. The building-of-the-Canadian-nation histories that typified the Laurentian School have lost some of their appeal. Regional and community histories are now more frequently celebrated. Close reading of Innis, and particularly of Fowke (R.F. Neill, 1999), however, shows the two to have made a greater contribution in this regard than one would surmise from reading the general texts that draw on their work.

Innis’s influence in economic history in general has been considerable. His reworking of the “vent for surplus” theory of economic development, that is the “staple,” “primary products” or “export base” theory of economic development, was extended by Douglass North in applications to regional development in the United States, and to the experience of what were then called underdeveloped countries. Subsequently it was elaborated in generalized export-base models used to describe the experience of newly industrializing countries.

Innis’s contribution to historical economics, we have to assume, was noted. His success in the profession would indicate that it was. But that sort of Old Institutional, historical theorizing fell out of fashion after the Second World War. Neither Innis’s “cyclonics” nor J.M Clark’s “non Euclidian economics” had any formal standing in the period following general acceptance of Keynesian macroeconomic theory. Nonetheless, Innis had some influence beyond economic history. His most celebrated student, Harry G. Johnson, referred back to Innis as his “greatest teacher in economics” (Johnson and Johnson, 1978, p. 234).

The studies of communication media that characterized the so-called “later Innis” were not understood by, or, better, were outside the grasp of, economists preoccupied with positivistic testing of neoclassical, neo-Keynesian, and Monetarist-New Classical hypotheses. The root of the media studies can be traced back to the work of nineteenth-century historical economists, such as J.K. Ingram, who had much to say about “the prevalent mode of thinking” that shaped the nature of economic theory in any given period (Ingram, 1888, p. 2-3). Innis’s studies of communication media were an attempt to specify one causal factor in changes in the prevalent mode of thinking. His approach gave him grounds for assessing the economics profession itself.

He was not alone in this. J.J. Spengler, whose work also emerged from 1930s discussion of the nature of economics, also adopted an “external” approach to the history of economics (Spengler, 1940). This approach has had considerable acceptance among historians of economic thought, and it has been taken up by intellectual historians in general. Indeed, it gained high fashion following Michel Foucault’s discussion of the biased information environments that he called “epistemes,” and following Jacques Derrida’s emphasis on the linguistic context of all knowledge, both of which were related to analyses of prevalent modes of thinking.

Harold Adams Innis was born on November 5, 1894, in Otterville, Ontario, the first born of William Anson and Mary (Adams) Innis. His parents worked a hundred-acre farm outside of Otterville in Oxford County. At age eleven Harold was admitted to the Otterville high school. Two years later, in the fall of 1908, he began commuting twenty miles to the Woodstock Collegiate Institute. After graduation, he taught grade school for a year and then registered at McMaster University in Hamilton at the western end of Lake Ontario. The First World War interrupted his education. Upon graduating from McMaster, in the spring of 1916, he enlisted in the Canadian Army. By Christmas his group, the 69th Battery, was on the front in France. By the end of July, Innis had been wounded and sent to England for convalescence. During his stay in England he studied for a Master’s degree through a wartime institution called Khaki College. On arrival back in Canada he passed the examination for an M.A. in Economics. Disappointment over what he had learned was a major motivation in his enrolling in the doctoral program at the University of Chicago, a Baptist institution appropriate for one raised strictly in that faith.

When Innis arrived at Chicago there was considerable dissent in the United States with respect to the tenets of neoclassical economic theory. Its fundamental assumptions were being questioned by the Institutionalist Thorstein Veblen and by his student and colleague, John R. Commons. Some of the controversy was brought to Innis’s attention by his mentors, C.W. Wright and C.S. Duncan, but his most effective contact with current economic thought was through Frank H. Knight, who was then an instructor at Chicago. Knight’s skepticism captured Innis’s imagination and drew him into a small, informal group, including Carter Goodrich, Morris Copeland, W.B. Smith, J.W. Angel, and, of course, Knight himself. Their discussions focused on the nature and implications of Veblen’s critique of received economic doctrine.

Innis returned to Canada in 1920 to take a position in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto. With the exception of its redoubtable Head, James Mavor, the Department was young and aware that it had the economics of Canada still to discover. Mavor had attempted an introduction to Canadian economic history, but had left it unfinished. C.R. Fay, the economic historian, was at Toronto in those years, and was aware that there was something to be done. He and Innis became life long friends in their mutual endeavor to see that it did. V.W. Bladen, recently arrived from Oxford, was pulled into the effort by Innis who insisted that Bladen could not understand the economics of Canada unless he personally visited every part of it.

The first fifteen of Innis’s years at Toronto were a difficult but fruitful time. He was not always understood, and, at one point, he was withdrawn from teaching a course because he pursued its subject “along too radical lines.” Still, his efforts began to produce results with the 1930 publication of his own introduction to Canadian economic history, The Fur Trade of Canada. Following the 1929 stock market crash, the Canadian Political Science Association was reestablished. Innis was deeply involved. A year earlier, with the help of the Bladens, he initiated a periodical, Contributions to Canadian Economics. The publication provided a medium for the Canadian Political Science Association, and its success in that capacity was a major factor in the Association’s decision to launch the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. Innis’s contributions to the literature on Canadian economic history, and his involvement in the institutionalization of economics brought public recognition. In 1934 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was promoted to Full Professor rank in 1936. He was an invited member of the Nova Scotia Royal Commission of Economic Enquiry in 1933. In 1937 he was appointed Head of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, and he remained Head until his death in 1952. From 1947 until 1952 he was Dean of Graduate Studies at Toronto, and had, in the meantime been a member of a Federal Royal Commission on Transportation. These public appointments say much for his influence on the economics profession in Canada, but they are not the end of it. He took a personal interest in the politics of the Department of Economics and Political Science at the University of Saskatchewan, which was headed by his student and close friend George Britnell. Perhaps his greatest influence was exercised through Canada’s Social Science Research council of which he was Chairman in 1945-46, and Chairman of the Grants-in-Aid Committee for its first nine years. Funds then available to assist research in the social sciences were minuscule by later standards, but none were allocated without Innis’s concurrence. He met regularly with Anne Bezanson, another sometime president of the EHA, who represented the Carnegie Foundation. Together they poured over names and projects related to social science research in Canada. In recommending reorganization of the Canadian Social Science Research Council in 1968, Mabel Timlin stated that in the beginning elaborate organization was not needed because Innis knew everyone.

For all his involvement in the institutionalization of economics in Canada, Innis did not withdraw from contacts in the United States. He was involved in the founding of the Economic History Association and the launching of the Journal of Economic History. He was the Association’s second president, and was deeply involved with the Committee on Research in Economic History, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council of the United States. It was these activities that brought Innis into close contact with American economic historians, Arthur H. Cole, Anne Bezanson, Robert B. Warren, and Earl J. Hamilton. At the same time Innis continued his interest in the general debates over the nature of economics in the United States, reviving his interaction with Frank Knight and eventually leading to his presidency of the American Economics Association in 1951. Innis has been the only president of the Economic History Association or the American Economic Association never to become an American citizen.

The lines of cleavage in the 1930s American debate over the nature of economics are now being clarified (Yonay, 1998; Morgan and Rutherford, 1998). One was drawn over the extent to which the values of elites should direct government economic policy. Another was drawn over the role of values in social science in general, but, particularly, in economics. With respect to these cleavages, Innis found himself in opposition to Frank Underhill and the socialist League for Social Reconstruction, which was active at the University of Toronto. Knight opposed the interventionist economics of the New Deal “brains trust” economist Guy Rexford Tugwell. Neither Innis nor Knight was well disposed towards the rise of Keynesian macroeconomics. Innis found it to be too interventionist given what he thought to be the unreliable state of the economics on which it was based. Perhaps it was for this reason that, from 1943 to 1947, Innis had an open invitation from the University of Chicago, where other, now famous, dissenters were gathering (Kitch, 1983).

Harold Innis died November 8, 1952. He was at the peak of his career. He had been invited to give the Beit Lectures in Imperial History at Oxford in 1949. While in England he was invited to give the Cust Lecture at Nottingham, and he spoke at the University of London. His thesis was, perhaps, not clearly presented, and not well received. Still, he continued to develop it over the succeeding years, leaving behind a body of writing well ahead of its time in intellectual history, and well off from contemporary paradigms in economics.

Selected Publications of Harold Innis: Books and Collections of Articles

A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. London: P.S. King, 1923; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930.

Peter Pond: Fur Trader and Adventurer. Toronto, 1930.

Select Documents in Canadian Economic History, Volume 1 (1497-1783), Volume 2 (1783-1885), co-edited with A.R.M. Lower. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1929 and 1933.

Problems of Staple Production in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1933.

Settlement and the Mining Frontier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1936.

The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940.

Political Economy and the Modern State. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946.

Empire and Communications. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950.

The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951.

Changing Concepts of Time. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1952.

Essays in Canadian Economic History, ( M.Q. Innis, editor). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1956.

The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis, (introduced and edited by William Christian). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

Innis on Russia: The Russian Diary and Other Writings (edited with a preface by William Christian). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Selected Writings about Innis: Biographical, Bibliographical, and Interpretative

Barnes, T.J. “Focus: A Geographical Appreciation of Harold A. Innis.” Canadian Geographer. 37 (1993): 352-364.

Creighton, Donald. Harold Adams Innis: Portrait of a Scholar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Havelock, E.A. “Harold Innis: A Man of His Times” and “Harold Innis: The Philosophical Historian.” Et cetra 38 (1981): 242-268.

Neill, Robin. A New Theory of Value: The Canadian Economics of Harold Adams Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.

Neill, Robin. “Rationality and the Information Environment: A Reassessment of the Work of Harold Adams Innis.” Journal of Canadian Studies 22 (1987-88): 78-92.

Patterson, Graeme. History and Communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, the Interpretation of History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Stamps, Judith. Unthinking Modernity: Innis, McLuhan, and the Frankfurt School. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.

Additional References: Relevant to the Presented Interpretation

Ingram, J.K. A History of Political Economy. New York: Augustus M. Kelly (1888, 1967).

Johnson, E.S. and Johnson, H.G. In the Shadow of Keynes. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978.

Kitch, E.W. “Fire of Truth: A Remembrance of Law and Economics at Chicago, 1932-1970.” Journal of Law and Economics 26 (1983): 163-233.

Morgan, M.S. and Rutherford, M., editors. From Interwar Pluralism to Postwar Neoclassicism. Durham, NC: Duke University, 1998.

Neill, R.F. “Economic Historiography in the 1950s: The Saskatchewan School.” Journal of Canadian Studies 34 (1999): 243-260.

Spengler, J.J. “Sociological Presuppositions in Economic Theory.” Southern Economic Journal 7 (1940): 131-157.

Yonay, Y.P. The Struggle over the Soul of Economics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998.

Citation: Neill, Robin. “Harold Adams Innis”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

The Roots of American Industrialization, 1790-1860

David R. Meyer, Brown University

The Puzzle of Industrialization

In a society which is predominantly agricultural, how is it possible for industrialization to gain a foothold? One view is that the demand of farm households for manufactures spurs industrialization, but such an outcome is not guaranteed. What if farm households can meet their own food requirements, and they choose to supply some of their needs for manufactures by engaging in small-scale craft production in the home? They might supplement this production with limited purchases of goods from local craftworkers and purchases of luxuries from other countries. This local economy would be relatively self-sufficient, and there is no apparent impetus to alter it significantly through industrialization, that is, the growth of workshop and factory production for larger markets. Others would claim that limited gains might come from specialization, once demand passed some small threshold. Finally, it has been argued that if the farmers are impoverished, some of them would be available for manufacturing and this would provide an incentive to industrialize. However, this argument begs the question as to who would purchase the manufactures. One possibility is that non-farm rural dwellers, such as trade people, innkeepers, and professionals, as well as a small urban population, might provide an impetus to limited industrialization.

The problem with the “impoverished agriculture” theory

The industrialization of the eastern United States from 1790 to 1860 raises similar conundrums. For a long time, scholars thought that the agriculture was mostly poor quality. Thus, the farm labor force left agriculture for workshops, such as those which produced shoes, or for factories, such as the cotton textile mills of New England. These manufactures provided employment for women and children, who otherwise had limited productive possibilities because the farms were not economical. Yet, the market for manufactures remained mostly in the East prior to 1860. Consequently, it is unclear who would have purchased the products to support the growth of manufactures before 1820, as well as to undergird the large-scale industrialization of the East during the two decades following 1840. Even if the impoverished-agriculture explanation of the East’s industrialization is rejected, we are still left with the curiosity that as late as 1840, about eighty percent of the population lived in rural areas, though some of them were in nonfarm occupations.

In brief, the puzzle of eastern industrialization between 1790 and 1860 can be resolved – the East had a prosperous agriculture. Farmers supplied low-cost agricultural products to rural and urban dwellers, and this population demanded manufactures, which were supplied by vigorous local and subregional manufacturing sectors. Some entrepreneurs shifted into production for larger market areas, and this transformation occurred especially in sectors such as shoes, selected light manufactures produced in Connecticut (such as buttons, tinware, and wooden clocks), and cotton textiles. Transportation improvements exerted little impact on these agricultural and industrial developments, primarily because the lowly wagon served effectively as a transport medium and much of the East’s most prosperous areas were accessible to cheap waterway transportation. The metropolises of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore, and the satellites of each (together, each metropolis and its satellites is called a metropolitan industrial complex), became leading manufacturing centers, and other industrial centers emerged in prosperous agricultural areas distant from these complexes. The East industrialized first, and, subsequently, the Midwest began an agricultural and industrial growth process which was underway by the 1840s. Together, the East and the Midwest constituted the American Manufacturing Belt, which was formed by the 1870s, whereas the South failed to industrialize commensurately.

Synergy between Agriculture and Manufacturing

The solution to the puzzle of how industrialization can occur in a predominantly agricultural economy recognizes the possibility of synergy between agriculture and manufacturing. During the first three decades following 1790, prosperous agricultural areas emerged in the eastern United States. Initially, these areas were concentrated near the small metropolises of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and in river valleys such as the Connecticut Valley in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys in New York, the Delaware Valley bordering Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the Susquehanna Valley in eastern Pennsylvania. These agricultural areas had access to cheap, convenient transport which could be used to reach markets; the farms supplied the growing urban populations in the cities and some of the products were exported. Furthermore, the farmers supplied the nearby, growing non-farm populations in the villages and small towns who provided goods and services to farmers. These non-farm consumers included retailers, small mill owners, teamsters, craftspeople, and professionals (clergy, physicians, and lawyers).

Across every decade from 1800 to 1860, the number of farm laborers grew, thus testifying to the robustness of eastern agriculture (see Table 1). And, this increase occurred in the face of an expanding manufacturing sector, as increasing numbers of rural dwellers left the farms to work in the factories, especially after 1840. Even New England, the region which presumably was the epitome of declining agriculture, witnessed a rise in the number of farm laborers all the way up to 1840, and, as of 1860, the drop off from the peak was small. Massachusetts and Connecticut, which had vigorous small workshops and increasing numbers of small factories before 1840, followed by a surge in manufacturing after 1840, matched the trajectory of farm laborers in New England as a whole. The numbers in these two states peaked in 1840 and fell off only modestly over the next twenty years. The Middle Atlantic region witnessed an uninterrupted rise in the number of farm laborers over the sixty-year period. New York and Pennsylvania, the largest states, followed slightly different paths. In New York, the number of farm laborers peaked around 1840 and then stabilized near that level for the next two decades, whereas in Pennsylvania the number of farm laborers rose in an uninterrupted fashion.

Table 1
Number of Farm Laborers by Region and Selected States, 1800-1860

Year 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860
New England 228,100 257,700 303,400 353,800 389,100 367,400 348,100
Massachusetts 73,200 72,500 73,400 78,500 87,900 80,800 77,700
Connecticut 50,400 49,300 51,500 55,900 57,000 51,400 51,800
Middle Atlantic 375,700 471,400 571,700 715,000 852,800 910,400 966,600
New York 111,800 170,100 256,000 356,300 456,000 437,100 449,100
Pennsylvania 112,600 141,000 164,900 195,200 239,000 296,300 329,000
East 831,900 986,800 1,178,500 1,422,600 1,631,000 1,645,200 1,662,800

Source: Thomas Weiss, “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860,”American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), table 1A.9, p. 51.

The farmers, retailers, professionals, and others in these prosperous agricultural areas accumulated capital which became available for other economic sectors, and manufacturing was one of the most important to receive this capital. Entrepreneurs who owned small workshops and factories obtained capital to turn out a wide range of goods such as boards, boxes, utensils, building hardware, furniture, and wagons, which were in demand in the agricultural areas. And, some of these workshops and factories enlarged their market areas to a subregion as they gained production efficiencies; but, this did not account for all industrial development. Selected manufactures such as shoes, tinware, buttons, and cotton textiles were widely demanded by urban and rural residents of prosperous agricultural areas and by residents of the large cities. These products were high value relative to their weight; thus, the cost to ship them long distances was low. Astute entrepreneurs devised production methods and marketing approaches to sell these goods in large market areas, including New England and the Middle Atlantic regions of the East.

Manufactures Which Were Produced for Large Market Areas

Shoes and Tinware

Small workshops turned out shoes. Massachusetts entrepreneurs devised an integrated shoe production complex based on a division of labor among shops, and they established a marketing arm of wholesalers, principally in Boston, who sold the shoes throughout New England, to the Middle Atlantic, and to the South (particularly, to slave plantations). Businesses in Connecticut drew on the extensive capital accumulated by the well-to-do rural and urban dwellers of that state and moved into tinware, plated ware, buttons, and wooden clocks. These products, like shoes, also were manufactured in small workshops, but a division of labor among shops was less important than the organization of production within shops. Firms producing each good tended to agglomerate in a small subregion of the state. These clusters arose because entrepreneurs shared information about production techniques and specialized skills which they developed, and this knowledge was communicated as workers moved among shops. Initially, a marketing system of peddlers emerged in the tinware sector, and they sold the goods, first throughout Connecticut, and then they extended their travels to the rest of New England and to the Middle Atlantic. Workshops which made other types of light, high-value goods soon took advantage of the peddler distribution system to enlarge their market areas. At first, these peddlers operated part-time during the year, but as the supply of goods increased and market demand grew, peddlers operated for longer periods of the year and they traveled farther.

Cotton Textiles

Cotton textile manufacturing was an industry built on low-wage, especially female, labor; presumably, this industry offered opportunities in areas where farmers were unsuccessful. Yet, similar to the other manufactures which enlarged their market areas to the entire East before 1820, cotton textile production emerged in prosperous agricultural areas. That is not surprising, because this industry required substantial capital, technical skills, and, initially, nearby markets. These requirements were met in rich farming areas, which also could draw on wealthy merchants in large cities who contributed capital and provided sale outlets beyond nearby markets as output grew. The production processes in cotton textile manufacturing, however, diverged from the approaches to making shoes and small metal and wooden products. From the start, production processes included textile machinery, which initially consisted of spinning machines to make yarn, and later (after 1815), weaving machines and other mechanical equipment were added. Highly skilled mechanics were required to build the machines and to maintain them. The greater capital requirements for cotton mills, compared to shoes and small goods’ manufactures in Connecticut, meant that merchant wholesalers and wealthy retailers, professionals, mill owners, and others, were important underwriters of the factories.

Starting in the 1790s, New England, and, especially, Rhode Island, housed the leaders in early cotton textile manufacturing. Providence merchants funded some of the first successful cotton spinning mills, and they drew on the talents of Samuel Slater, an immigrant British machinist. He trained many of the first important textile mechanics, and investors in various parts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York hired them to build mills. Between 1815 and 1820, power-loom weaving began to be commercially feasible, and this effort was led by firms in Rhode Island and, especially, in Massachusetts. Boston merchants, starting with the Boston Manufacturing Company at Waltham, devised a business plan which targeted large-scale, integrated cotton textile manufacturing, with a marketing/sales arm housed in a separate firm. They enlarged their effort significantly after 1820, and much of the impetus to the growth of the cotton textile industry came from the success entrepreneurs had in lowering the cost of production.

The Impact of Transportation Improvements

Following 1820, government and private sources invested substantial sums in canals, and after 1835, railroad investment increased rapidly. Canals required huge volumes of low-value commodities in order to pay operating expenses, cover interest on the bonds which were issued for construction, and retire the bonds at maturity. These conditions were only met in the richest agricultural and resource (lumbering and coal mining, for example) areas traversed by the Erie and Champlain Canals in New York and the coal canals in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The vast majority of the other canals failed to yield benefits for agriculture and industry, and most were costly debacles. Early railroads mainly carried passengers, especially within fifty to one hundred miles of the largest cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Industrial products were not carried in large volumes until after 1850; consequently, railroads built before that time had little impact on industrialization in the East.

Canals and railroads had minor impacts on agricultural and industrial development because the lowly wagon provided withering competition. Wagons offered flexible, direct connections between origins and destinations, without the need to transship goods, as was the case with canals and railroads; these modes required wagons at their end points. Within a distance of about fifty miles, the cost of wagon transport was competitive with alternative transport modes, so long as the commodities were high value relative to their weight. And, infrequent transport of these goods could occur over distances of as much as one hundred miles. This applied to many manufactures, and agricultural commodities could be raised to high value by processing prior to shipment. Thus, wheat was turned into flour, corn and other grains were fed to cattle and pigs and these were processed into beef and pork prior to shipment, and milk was converted into butter and cheese. Most of the richest agricultural and industrial areas of the East were less than one hundred miles from the largest cities or these areas were near low-cost waterway transport along rivers, bays, and the Atlantic Coast. Therefore, canals and railroads in these areas had difficulty competing for freight, and outside these areas the limited production generated little demand for long distant transport services.

Agricultural Prosperity Continues

After 1820, eastern farmers seized the increasing market opportunities in the prosperous rural areas as nonfarm processing expanded and village and small town populations demanded greater amounts of farm products. The large number of farmers who were concentrated around the rapidly growing metropolises (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) and near urban agglomerations such as Albany-Troy, New York, developed increasing specialization in urban market goods such as fluid milk, fresh vegetables, fruit, butter, and hay (for horse transport). Farmers farther away responded to competition by shifting into products which could be transported long distances to market, including wheat into flour, cattle which walked to market, or pigs which were converted into pork. During the winter these farms sent butter, and cheese was a specialty which could be lucrative for long periods of the year when temperatures were cool.

These changes swept across the East, and, after 1840, farmers increasingly adjusted their production to compete with cheap wheat, cattle, and pork arriving over the Erie Canal from the Midwest. Wheat growing became less profitable, and specialized agriculture expanded, such as potatoes, barley, and hops in central New York and cigar tobacco in the Connecticut Valley. Farmers near the largest cities intensified their specialization in urban market products, and as the railroads expanded, fluid milk was shipped longer distances to these cities. Farmers in less accessible areas and on poor agricultural land which was infertile or too hilly, became less competitive. If these farmers and their children stayed, their incomes declined relative to others in the East, but if they moved to the Midwest or to the burgeoning industrial cities of the East, they had the chance of participating in the rising prosperity.

Metropolitan Industrial Complexes

The metropolises of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore, led the industrial expansion after 1820, because they were the greatest concentrated markets, they had the most capital, and their wholesalers provided access to subregional and regional markets outside the metropolises. By 1840, each of them was surrounded by industrial satellites – manufacturing centers in close proximity to, and economically integrated with, the metropolis. Together, these metropolises and their satellites formed metropolitan industrial complexes, which accounted for almost one-quarter of the nation’s manufacturing (see Table 2). For example, metropolises and satellites included Boston and Lowell, New York and Paterson (New Jersey), Philadelphia and Reading (Pennsylvania), and Baltimore and Wilmington (Delaware), which also was a satellite of Philadelphia. Among the four leading metropolises, New York and Philadelphia housed, by far, the largest share of the nation’s manufacturing workers, and their satellites had large numbers of industrial workers. Yet, Boston’s satellites contained the greatest concentration of industrial workers in the nation, with almost seven percent of the national total. The New York, Philadelphia, and Boston metropolitan industrial complexes each had approximately the same share of the nation’s manufacturing workers. These complexes housed a disproportionate share of the nation’s commerce-serving manufactures such as printing-publishing and paper and of local, regional, and national market manufactures such as glass, drugs and paints, textiles, musical instruments, furniture, hardware, and machinery.

Table 2
Manufacturing Employment in the Metropolitan Industrial Complexes
of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore
as a Percentage of National Manufacturing Employment in 1840

Metropolis Satellites Complex
New York 4.1% 3.4% 7.4%
Philadelphia 3.9 2.9 6.7
Boston 0.5 6.6 7.1
Baltimore 2.0 0.2 2.3
Four Complexes 10.5 13.1 23.5

Note: Metropolitan county is defined as the metropolis for each complex and “outside” comprises nearby counties; those included in each complex were the following. New York: metropolis (New York, Kings, Queens, Richmond); outside (Connecticut: Fairfield; New York: Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange; New Jersey: Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset). Philadelphia: metropolis (Philadelphia); outside (Pennsylvania: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery; New Jersey: Burlington, Gloucester, Mercer; Delaware: New Castle). Boston: metropolis (Suffolk); outside (Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth). Baltimore: metropolis (Baltimore); outside (Anne Arundel, Harford).

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Sixth Census, 1840 (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1841).

Also, by 1840, prosperous agricultural areas farther from these complexes, such as the Connecticut Valley in New England, the Hudson Valley, the Erie Canal Corridor across New York state, and southeastern Pennsylvania, housed significant amounts of manufacturing in urban places. At the intersection of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the Albany-Troy agglomeration contained one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing outside the metropolitan complexes. And, industrial towns such as Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo were strung along the Erie Canal Corridor. Many of the manufactures (such as furniture, wagons, and machinery) served subregional markets in the areas of prosperous agriculture, but some places also developed specialization in manufactures (textiles and hardware) for larger regional and interregional market areas (the East as a whole). The Connecticut Valley, for example, housed many firms which produced cotton textiles, hardware, and cutlery.

Manufactures for Eastern and National Markets


In several industrial sectors whose firms had expanded before 1820 to regional, and even, multiregional markets, in the East, firms intensified their penetration of eastern markets and reached to markets in the rapidly growing Midwest between 1820 and 1860. In eastern Massachusetts, a production complex of shoe firms innovated methods of organizing output within and among firms, and they developed a wide array of specialized tools and components to increase productivity and to lower manufacturing costs. In addition, a formidable wholesaling, marketing, and distribution complex, headed by Boston wholesalers, pushed the ever-growing volume of shoes into sales channels which reached throughout the nation. Machinery did not come into use until the 1850s, and, by 1860, Massachusetts accounted for half of the value of the nation’s shoe production.

Cotton Textiles

In contrast, machinery constituted an important factor of production which drove down the price of cotton textile goods, substantially enlarging the quantity consumers demanded. Before 1820, most of the machinery innovations improved the spinning process for making yarn, and in the five years following 1815, innovations in mechanized weaving generated an initial substantial drop in the cost of production as the first integrated spinning-weaving mills emerged. During the next decade and a half the price of cotton goods collapsed by over fifty percent as large integrated spinning-weaving mills became the norm for the production of most cotton goods. Therefore, by the mid-1830s vast volumes of cotton goods were pouring out of textile mills, and a sophisticated set of specialized wholesaling firms, mostly concentrated in Boston, and secondarily, in New York and Philadelphia, channeled these items into the national market.

Prior to 1820, the cotton textile industry was organized into three cores. The Providence core dominated and the Boston core occupied second place; both of these were based mostly on mechanized spinning. A third core in the city of Philadelphia was based on hand spinning and weaving. Within about fifteen years after 1820, the Boston core soared to a commanding position in cotton textile production as a group of Boston merchants and their allies relentlessly replicated their business plan at various sites in New England, including at Lowell, Chicopee, and Taunton in Massachusetts, at Nashua, Manchester, and Dover in New Hampshire, and at Saco in Maine. The Providence core continued to grow, but its investors did not seem to fully grasp the strategic, multi-faceted business plan which the Boston merchants implemented. Similarly, investors in an emerging core within about fifty to seventy-five miles of New York City in the Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey likewise did not seem to fully understand the Boston merchants’ plan, and these New York City area firms never reached the scale of the firms of the Boston Core. The Philadelphia core enlarged to nearby areas southwest of the city and in Delaware, but these firms stayed small, and the Philadelphia firms created a small-scale, flexible production system which turned out specialized goods, not the mass-market commodity textiles of the other cores.

Capital Investment in Cotton Textiles

The distribution of capital investment in cotton textiles across the regions and states of the East between 1820 and 1860 capture the changing prominence of the cores of cotton textile production (see Table 3). The New England and the Middle Atlantic regions contained approximately similar shares (almost half each) of the nation’s capital investment. However, during the 1820s the cotton textile industry restructured to a form which was maintained for the next three decades. New England’s share of capital investment surged to about seventy percent, and it maintained that share until 1860, whereas the Middle Atlantic region’s share fell to around twenty percent by 1840 and remained near that until 1860. The rest of the nation, primarily the South, reached about ten percent of total capital investment around 1840 and continued at that level for the next two decades. Massachusetts became the leading cotton textile state by 1831 and Rhode Island, the early leader, gradually slipped to a level of about ten percent by the 1850s; New Hampshire and Pennsylvania housed approximately similar shares as Rhode Island by that time.

Table 3
Capital Invested in Cotton Textiles
by Region and State as a Percentage of the Nation

Region/state 1820 1831 1840 1850 1860
New England 49.6% 69.8% 68.4% 72.3% 70.3%
Maine 1.6 1.9 2.7 4.5 6.1
New Hampshire 5.6 13.1 10.8 14.7 12.8
Vermont 1.0 0.7 0.2 0.3 0.3
Massachusetts 14.3 31.7 34.1 38.2 34.2
Connecticut 11.6 7.0 6.2 5.7 6.7
Rhode Island 15.4 15.4 14.3 9.0 10.2
Middle Atlantic 46.2 29.5 22.7 17.3 19.0
New York 18.8 9.0 9.6 5.6 5.5
New Jersey 4.7 5.0 3.4 2.0 1.3
Pennsylvania 6.3 9.3 6.5 6.1 9.3
Delaware 4.0 0.9 0.6 0.6 0.6
Maryland 12.4 5.3 2.6 3.0 2.3
Rest of nation 4.3 0.7 9.0 10.4 10.7
Nation 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Total capital (thousands) $10,783 $40,613 $51,102 $74,501 $98,585

Sources: David J. Jeremy, Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies Between Britain and America, 1790-1830s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), appendix D, table D.1, p. 276; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Sixth Census, 1840 (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1841); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Report on the Manufactures of the United States at the Tenth Census, 1880 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1883).

Connecticut’s Industries

In Connecticut, industrialists built on their successful production and sales prior to 1820 and expanded into a wider array of products which they sold in the East and South, and, after 1840, they acquired more sales in the Midwest. This success was not based on a mythical “Yankee ingenuity,” which, typically, has been framed in terms of character. Instead, this ingenuity rested on fundamental assets: a highly educated population linked through wide-ranging social networks which communicated information about technology, labor opportunities, and markets; and the abundant supplies of capital in the state supported the entrepreneurs. The peddler distribution system provided efficient sales channels into the mid-1830s, but, after that, firms took advantage of more traditional wholesaling channels. In some sectors, such as the brass industry, firms followed the example of the large Boston-core textile firms, and the brass companies founded their own wholesale distribution agencies in Boston and New York City. The achievements of Connecticut’s firms were evident by 1850. As a share of the nation’s value of production, they accounted for virtually all of the clocks, pins, and suspenders, close to half of the buttons and rubber goods, and about one-third of the brass foundry products, Britannia and plated ware, and hardware.

Difficulty of Duplicating Eastern Methods in the Midwest

The East industrialized first, based on a prosperous agricultural and industrialization process, as some of its entrepreneurs shifted into the national market manufactures of shoes, cotton textiles, and diverse goods turned out in Connecticut. These industrialists made this shift prior to 1820, and they enhanced their dominance of these products during the subsequent two decades. Manufacturers in the Midwest did not have sufficient intraregional markets to begin producing these goods before 1840; therefore, they could not compete in these national market manufactures. Eastern firms had developed technologies and organizations of production and created sales channels which could not be readily duplicated, and these light, high-value goods were transported cheaply to the Midwest. When midwestern industrialists faced choices about which manufactures to enter, the eastern light, high-value goods were being sold in the Midwest at prices which were so low that it was too risky for midwestern firms to attempt to compete. Instead, these firms moved into a wide range of local and regional market manufactures which also existed in the East, but which cost too much to transport to the Midwest. These goods included lumber and food products (e.g., flour and whiskey), bricks, chemicals, machinery, and wagons.

The American Manufacturing Belt

The Midwest Joins the American Manufacturing Belt after 1860

Between 1840 and 1860, Midwestern manufacturers made strides in building an industrial infrastructure, and they were positioned to join with the East to constitute the American Manufacturing Belt, the great concentration of manufacturing which would sprawl from the East Coast to the edge of the Great Plains. This Belt became mostly set within a decade or so after 1860, because technologies and organizations of production and of sales channels had lowered costs across a wide array of manufactures, and improvements in transportation (such as an integrated railroad system) and communication (such as the telegraph) reduced distribution costs. Thus, increasing shares of industrial production were sold in interregional markets.

Lack of Industrialization in the South

Although the South had prosperous farms, it failed to build a deep and broad industrial infrastructure prior to 1860, because much of its economy rested on a slave agricultural system. In this economy, investments were heavily concentrated in slaves rather than in an urban and industrial infrastructure. Local and regional demand remained low across much of the South, because slaves were not able to freely express their consumption demands and population densities remained low, except in a few agricultural areas. Thus, the market thresholds for many manufactures were not met, and, if thresholds were met, the demand was insufficient to support more than a few factories. By the 1870s, when the South had recovered from the Civil War and its economy was reconstructed, eastern and midwestern industrialists had built strong positions in many manufactures. And, as new industries emerged, the northern manufacturers had the technological and organizational infrastructure and distribution channels to capture dominance in the new industries.

In a similar fashion, the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the West were settled too late for their industrialists to be major producers of national market goods. Manufacturers in these regions focused on local and regional market manufactures. Some low wage industries (such as textiles) began to move to the South in significant numbers after 1900, and the emergence of industries based on high technology after 1950 led to new manufacturing concentrations which rested on different technologies. Nonetheless, the American Manufacturing Belt housed the majority of the nation’s industry until the middle of the twentieth century.

This essay is based on David R. Meyer, The Roots of American Industrialization, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Additional Readings

Atack, Jeremy, and Fred Bateman. To Their Own Soil: Agriculture in the Antebellum North. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Baker, Andrew H., and Holly V. Izard. “New England Farmers and the Marketplace, 1780-1865: A Case Study.” Agricultural History 65 (1991): 29-52.

Barker, Theo, and Dorian Gerhold. The Rise and Rise of Road Transport, 1700-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bodenhorn, Howard. A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation-Building. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Brown, Richard D. Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, Christopher. The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Dalzell, Robert F., Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Durrenberger, Joseph A. Turnpikes: A Study of the Toll Road Movement in the Middle Atlantic States and Maryland. Cos Cob, CT: John E. Edwards, 1968.

Field, Alexander J. “On the Unimportance of Machinery.” Explorations in Economic History 22 (1985): 378-401.

Fishlow, Albert. American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-Bellum Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Fishlow, Albert. “Antebellum Interregional Trade Reconsidered.” American Economic Review 54 (1964): 352-64.

Goodrich, Carter, ed. Canals and American Economic Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Gross, Robert A. “Culture and Cultivation: Agriculture and Society in Thoreau’s Concord.” Journal of American History 69 (1982): 42-61.

Hoke, Donald R. Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Jeremy, David J. Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies between Britain and America, 1790-1830s. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Jones, Chester L. The Economic History of the Anthracite-Tidewater Canals. University of Pennsylvania Series on Political Economy and Public Law, no. 22. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1908.

Karr, Ronald D. “The Transformation of Agriculture in Brookline, 1770-1885.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 15 (1987): 33-49.

Lindstrom, Diane. Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region, 1810-1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

McClelland, Peter D. Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

McMurry, Sally. Transforming Rural Life: Dairying Families and Agricultural Change, 1820-1885. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

McNall, Neil A. An Agricultural History of the Genesee Valley, 1790-1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1952.

Majewski, John. A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Mancall, Peter C. Valley of Opportunity: Economic Culture along the Upper Susquehanna, 1700-1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Margo, Robert A. Wages and Labor Markets in the United States, 1820-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Meyer, David R. “The Division of Labor and the Market Areas of Manufacturing Firms.” Sociological Forum 3 (1988): 433-53.

Meyer, David R. “Emergence of the American Manufacturing Belt: An Interpretation.” Journal of Historical Geography 9 (1983): 145-74.

Meyer, David R. “The Industrial Retardation of Southern Cities, 1860-1880.” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 366-86.

Meyer, David R. “Midwestern Industrialization and the American Manufacturing Belt in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Economic History 49 (1989): 921-37.

Ransom, Roger L. “Interregional Canals and Economic Specialization in the Antebellum United States.” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 5, no. 1 (1967-68): 12-35.

Roberts, Christopher. The Middlesex Canal, 1793-1860. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Rothenberg, Winifred B. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Scranton, Philip. Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800-1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Shlakman, Vera. “Economic History of a Factory Town: A Study of Chicopee, Massachusetts.” Smith College Studies in History 20, nos. 1-4 (1934-35): 1-264.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Invention, Innovation, and Manufacturing Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Northeast.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John J. Wallis, 345-78. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Inventive Activity in Early Industrial America: Evidence from Patent Records, 1790-1846.” Journal of Economic History 48 (1988): 813-50.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Productivity Growth in Manufacturing during Early Industrialization: Evidence from the American Northeast, 1820-1860.” In Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 679-729. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Ware, Caroline F. The Early New England Cotton Manufacture: A Study in Industrial Beginnings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Weiss, Thomas. “Economic Growth before 1860: Revised Conjectures.” In American Economic Development in Historical Perspective, edited by Thomas Weiss and Donald Schaefer, 11-27. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Weiss, Thomas. “Long-Term Changes in U.S. Agricultural Output per Worker, 1800-1900.” Economic History Review 46 (1993): 324-41.

Weiss, Thomas. “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 19-75. Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Wood, Frederic J. The Turnpikes of New England. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1919.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Zevin, Robert B. “The Growth of Cotton Textile Production after 1815.” In The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, edited by Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, 122-47. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Citation: Meyer, David. “American Industrialization”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Industrial Sickness Funds

John E. Murray, University of Toledo

Overview and Definition

Industrial sickness funds provided an early form of health insurance. They were financial institutions that extended cash payments and in some cases medical benefits to members who became unable to work due to sickness or injury. The term industrial sickness funds is a later construct which describes funds organized by companies, which were also known as establishment funds, and by labor unions. These funds were widespread geographically in the United States; the 1890 Census of Insurance found 1,259 nationwide, with concentrations in the Northeast, Midwest, California, Texas, and Louisiana (U.S. Department of the Interior, 1895). By the turn of the twentieth century, some industrial sickness funds had accumulated considerable experience at managing sickness benefits. A few predated the Civil War. When the U. S. Commissioner of Labor surveyed a sample of sickness funds in 1908, it found 867 non-fraternal funds nationwide that provided temporary disability benefits (U.S. Commissioner of Labor, 1909). By the time of World War I, these funds, together with similar funds sponsored by fraternal societies, covered 30 to 40 percent of non-agricultural wage workers in the more industrialized states, or by extension, eight to nine million nationwide (Murray 2007a). Sickness funds were numerous, widespread, and in general carefully operated.

Industrial sickness funds were among the earliest providers of any type of health or medical benefits in the United States. In fact, their earliest product was called “workingman’s insurance” or “sickness insurance,” terms that described their clientele and purpose accurately. In the late Progressive Era, reformers promoted government insurance programs that would supplant the sickness funds. To sound more British, they used the term “health insurance,” and that is the phrase we still use for this kind of insurance contract (Numbers 1978). In the history of health insurance, the funds were contemporary with benefit operations of fraternal societies (see fraternal sickness insurance) and led into the period of group health insurance (see health insurance, U. S.). They should be distinguished from the sickness benefits provided by some industrial insurance policies, which required weekly premium payments and paid a cash benefit upon death, which was intended to cover burial expenses.

Many written histories of health insurance have missed the important role industrial sickness funds played in both relief of worker suffering and in the political process. Recent historians have tended to criticize, patronize, or ignore sickness funds. Lubove (1986) complained that they stood in the way of government insurance for all workers. Klein (2003) claimed that they were inefficient, without making explicit her standard for that judgment. Quadagno (2005) simply asserted that no one had thought of health insurance before the 1920s. Contemporary commentators such as I. M. Rubinow and Irving Fisher criticized workers who preferred “hopelessly inadequate” sickness fund insurance over government insurance as “infantile” (Derickson 2005). But these criticisms stemmed more from their authors’ ideological preconceptions than from close study of these institutions.

Rise and Operations of Industrial Sickness Funds

The period of their greatest extent and importance was from the 1880s to around 1940. The many state labor bureau surveys of individual workers, since digitized by the University of California’s Historical Labor Statistics Project and available for download at, often asked questions such as “do you belong to a benefit society,” meaning a fraternal sickness benefit fund or an industrial sickness fund. Of the surveys from the early 1890s that included this question, around a quarter of respondents indicated that they belonged to such societies. Later, closer to 1920, several states examined the extent of sickness insurance coverage in response to movements to create governmental health insurance for workers (Table 1). These later studies indicated that in the Northeast, Midwest, and California, between thirty and forty percent of non-agricultural workers were covered. Thus, remarkably, these societies had actually increased their market share over a three decade period in which the labor force itself grew from 13 to 30 million workers (Murray 2007a). Industrial sickness funds were dynamic institutions, capable of dealing with an ever expanding labor market

Table 1:
Sources of Insurance in Three States (thousands of workers)

Source/state Illinois Ohio California
Fraternal society 250 200 291
Establishment fund 116 130 50
Union fund 140 85 38
Other sick fund 12 N/a 35
Commercial insurance 140 85 2 (?)
Total 660 500 416
Eligible labor force 1,850 1,500 995
Share insured 36% 33% 42%
Sources: Illinois (1919), Ohio, (1919), California (1917), Lee et al. (1957).

Industrial sickness funds operated in a relatively simple fashion, but one that enabled them to mitigate the usual information problems that emerge in insurance markets. The process of joining a fund and making a claim typically worked as follows. A newly hired worker in a plant with such a fund explicitly applied to join, often after a probationary period during which fund managers could observe his baseline health and work habits. After admission to the fund, he paid an entrance fee followed by weekly dues. Since the average industrial worker in the 1910s earned about ten dollars a week, the entrance fee of one dollar was a half-day’s pay and the dues of ten cents made the cost to the worker around one percent of his pay packet.

A member who was unable to work contacted his fund, which then sent either a committee of fellow fund members, a physician, or both to check on the member-now-claimant. If they found him as sick as he had said he was, and in their judgment he was unable to work, after a one week waiting period he received around half his weekly pay. The waiting period was intended to let transient, less serious illnesses resolve so that the fund could support members with longer-term medical problems. To continue receiving the sick pay the claimant needed to allow periodic examinations by a physician or visiting committee. In rough terms, the average worker missed two percent of a work year, or about a week every year, a rate that varied by age and industry. The quarter of all workers who missed any work lost on average one month’s pay; thus a typical incapacitated worker received three and a half weeks of benefit per year. Comparing the cost of dues and expected value of benefits shows that the sickness funds were close to an actuarially fair bet: $5.00 in annual dues compared to (0.25 chance of falling ill) x (3.5 weeks of benefits) x ($5.00 weekly benefit), or about four and a half dollars in expected benefits. Thus, sickness funds appear to have been a reasonably fair deal for workers.

Establishment funds did not invent sickness benefits by any means. Rather, they systematized previous arrangements for supporting sick workers or the survivors of deceased workers. The old way was to pass the hat, which was characterized by random assessments and arbitrary financial awards. Workers and employers both observed that contributors and beneficiaries alike detested passing the hat. Fellow workers complained about the surprise nature of the hat’s appearance, and beneficiaries faced humiliation upon grief when the hat contained less money than had been collected for a more popular co-worker. Eventually rules replaced discretion, and benefits were paid according to a published schedule, either as a flat rate per diem or as a percentage of wages. The 1890 Census of Insurance reported that only a few funds extended benefits “at the discretion of the society,” and by the time of the 1908 Commissioner of Labor survey the practice had disappeared (Murray 2007).

Labor union funds began in the early nineteenth century. In the earliest union funds, members of craft unions pledged to complete jobs that ill brothers had contracted to perform but could not finish due to illness. Eventually cash benefit payments replaced the in-kind promises of labor, accompanied by cash premium payments into the union’s kitty. While criticized by many observers as unstable, labor union funds actually operated in transparent fashion. Even funds that offered unemployment benefits survived the depression of the mid-1890s by reducing benefit payments and enacting other conservative measures. Another criticism was that their benefits were too small in amount and too brief in duration, but according to the 1908 Commissioner of Labor survey, labor union funds and establishment funds offered similar levels of benefits. The cost-benefit ratio did favor establishment funds, but establishment fund membership ended with employment at a particular company, while union funds offered the substantial attraction of benefits that were portable from job to job.

The cash payment to sick workers created an incentive to take sick leave that workers without sickness insurance did not face; this is the moral hazard of sick pay. Further, workers who believed that they were more likely to make a sick claim would have a stronger incentive to join a sickness fund than a worker in relatively good health; this is called adverse selection. Early twentieth century commentators on government sickness insurance disagreed on the extent and even the existence of moral hazard and adverse selection in sickness insurance. Later statistical studies found evidence for both in establishment funds. However, the funds themselves had understood the potential financial damage each could wreak and strategized to mitigate such losses. The magnitude of the sick pay moral hazard was small, and affected primarily the tendency of the worker to make a claim in the first place. Many sickness funds limited their liability here by paying for the physician who examined the claimant and thus was responsible for approving extended sickness payments. Physicians appear to have paid attention to the wishes of those who paid them. Among claimants in funds that paid the examining physician directly, the average duration of their illness ended significantly earlier. By the same token, physicians who were paid by the worker tended to approve longer absences for that worker—a sign that physicians too responded to incentives.

Testing for adverse selection depends on whether membership in a company’s fund was the worker’s choice (that is, it was voluntary) or the company’s choice (that is, it was compulsory). In fact among establishment funds in which membership was voluntary, claim rates per member were significantly higher than in mandatory membership funds. This indicates that voluntary funds were especially attractive to sicker workers, which is the essence of adverse selection. To reduce the risks of adverse selection, funds imposed age limits to keep out older applicants, physical examinations to discourage the obviously ill, probationary periods to reveal chronic illness, and pre-existing condition clauses to avoid paying for such conditions (Murray 2007a). Sickness funds thus cleverly managed information problems typical of insurance markets.

Industrial Sickness Funds and Progressive Era Politics

Industrial sickness funds were the linchpin of efforts to promote and to oppose the Progressive campaign for state-level mandatory government sickness insurance. One consistent claim made by government insurance supporters was that workers could neither afford to pay for sickness insurance nor to save in advance of financially damaging health problems. The leading advocacy organization, the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL), reported in its magazine that “Savings of Wage-Earners Are Insufficient to Meet this Loss,” meaning lost income during sickness (American Association for Labor Legislation 1916a). However, worker surveys of savings, income, and insurance holdings revealed that workers rationally strategized according to their varying needs and abilities across the life-cycle. Young workers saved little and were less likely to belong to industrial sickness funds—but were less likely to miss work due to illness as well. Middle aged workers, married with families to support, were relatively more likely to belong to a sickness fund. Older workers pursued a different strategy, saving more and relying on sickness funds less; among other factors, they wanted greater liquidity in their financial assets (Murray 2007a). Worker strategies reflected varying needs at varying stages of life, some (but not all) of which could be adequately addressed by membership in sickness funds.

Despite claims to the contrary by some historians, there was little popular support for government sickness insurance in early twentieth century America. Lobbying by the AALL led twelve states to charge investigatory commissions with determining the need for and feasibility of government sickness insurance (Moss 1996). The AALL offered a basic bill that could be adjusted to meet a state’s particular needs (American Association for Labor Legislation 1916b). Typically the Association prodded states to adopt a version of German insurance, which would keep the many small industrial sickness funds while forcing new members into some and creating new funds for other workers. However, these bills met consistent defeat in statehouses, earning only a fleeting victory in the New York Senate in 1919, which was followed by the bill’s death in an Assembly committee (Hoffman 2001). In the previous year a California referendum on a constitutional amendment that would allow the government to provide sickness insurance lost by nearly three to one (Costa 1996).

After the Progressive campaign exhausted itself, industrial sickness funds continued to grow through the 1920s, but the Great Depression exposed deep flaws in their structure. Many labor union funds, without a sponsoring firm to act as lender of last resort, dissolved. Establishment funds failed at a surprisingly low rate, but their survival was made possible by the tendency of firms to fire less healthy workers. Federal surveys in Minnesota found that ill-health led to earlier job loss in the Depression, and comparisons of self reported health in later surveys indicated that the unemployed were in fact in poorer health than the employed, and the disparity grew as the Depression deepened. Thus, industrial sickness funds paradoxically enjoyed falling claim rates (and thus reduced expenses) as the economy deteriorated (Murray 2007).

Decline and Rebirth of Sickness Funds

At the same time, commercial insurers had been engaging in ever more productive research into the actuarial science of group health insurance. Eventually the insurers cut premium rates while offering benefits comparable to those available through sickness funds. As a result, the commercial insurers and Blue CrossBlue Shield came to dominate the market for health benefits. A federal survey that covered the early 1930s found more firms with group health than with mutual benefit societies but the benefit societies still insured more than twice as many workers (Sayers, et al 1937). By the later 1930s that gap in the number of firms had widened in favor of group health (Figure 1), and the number of workers insured was about equal. After the mid-1940s, industrial sickness funds were no longer a significant player in markets for health insurance (Murray 2007a).

Figure 1: Health Benefit Provision and Source
Source: Dobbin (1992) citing National Industrial Conference Board surveys.

More recently, a type of industrial sickness fund has begun to stage a comeback. Voluntary employee beneficiary associations (VEBAs) fall under a 1928 federal law that was created to govern industrial sickness funds. VEBAs are trusts set up to pay employee benefits without earning profits for the company. In late 2007, the Big Three automakers each contracted with the United Auto Workers (UAW) to operate a VEBA that would provide health insurance for UAW members. If the automakers and their workers succeed in establishing VEBAs that stand the test of time, they will have resurrected a once-successful financial institution previously thought relegated to the pre-World War II economy (Murray 2007b).


American Association for Labor Legislation. “Brief for Health Insurance.” American Labor Legislation Review 6 (1916a): 155–236.

American Association for Labor Legislation. “Tentative Draft of an Act.” American Labor Legislation Review 6 (1916b): 239–68.

California Social Insurance Commission. Report of the Social Insurance Commission of the State of California, January 25, 1917. Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1917.

Costa, Dora L. “Demand for Private and State Provided Health Insurance in the 1910s: Evidence from California.” Photocopy, MIT, 1996.

Derickson, Alan. Health Security for All: Dreams of Universal Health Care in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Dobbin, Frank. “The Origins of Private Social Insurance: Public Policy and Fringe Benefits in America, 1920-1950,” American Journal of Sociology 97 (1992): 1416-50.

Hoffman, Beatrix. The Wages of Sickness: The Politics of Health Insurance in Progressive America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Klein, Jennifer. For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Lee, Everett S., Ann Ratner Miller, Carol P. Brainerd, and Richard A. Easterlin, under the direction of Simon Kuznets and Dorothy Swaine Thomas. Population Redistribution and Economic Growth, 1870-1950: Volume I, Methodological Considerations and Reference Tables. Philadelphia: Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 45, 1957.

Lubove, Roy. The Struggle for Social Security, 1900-1930. Second edition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

Moss, David. Socializing Security: Progressive-Era Economists and the Origins of American Social Policy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Murray, John E. Origins of American Health Insurance: A History of Industrial Sickness Funds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007a.

Murray, John E. “UAW Members Must Treat Health Care Money as Their Own,” Detroit Free Press, 21 November 2007b.

Ohio Health and Old Age Insurance Commission. Health, Health Insurance, Old Age Pensions: Report, Recommendations, Dissenting Opinions. Columbus: Heer, 1919.

Quadagno, Jill. One Nation, Uninsured: Why the U. S. Has No National Health Insurance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sayers, R. R., Gertrud Kroeger, and W. M. Gafafer. “General Aspects and Functions of the Sick Benefit Organization.” Public Health Reports 52 (November 5, 1937): 1563–80.

State of Illinois. Report of the Health Insurance Commission of the State of Illinois, May 1, 1919. Springfield: State of Illinois, 1919.

U.S. Department of the Interior. Report on Insurance Business in the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890; pt. 2, “Life Insurance.” Washington, DC: GPO, 1895.

U.S. Commissioner of Labor. Twenty-third Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor, 1908: Workmen’s Insurance and Benefit Funds in the United States. Washington, DC: GPO, 1909.

Citation: Murray, John. “Industrial Sickness Funds, US”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. June 5, 2008. URL