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Understanding the Process of Economic Change

Author(s):North, Douglass C.
Reviewer(s):Field, Alexander J.

Published by EH.NET (February 2005)

Douglass C. North, Understanding the Process of Economic Change. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. xi + 187 pp. $29.95/?18.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-691-11805-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Alexander J. Field, Department of Economics, Santa Clara University.

Douglass North’s latest book addresses fundamental issues in understanding change and variation in economic performance. Early North (Davis and North, 1971; North and Thomas, 1973) treated institutional structures as epiphenomenal — largely reflective of resource endowments or available technologies. In later books (North 1981, 1990) his views evolved, acknowledging that some persisting rule structures might be dysfunctional, and that ideologies and social norms could play a role in explaining such outcomes. In this, his most recent book, he delves deeper, exploring the cognitive processes whereby individuals construct mental models of the world, and how such processes can, in the aggregate, influence economic performance.

Those familiar with North’s prior work on institutions will find that this contribution shares many characteristics. Although critical of economics as it is practiced, he never engages in a jeremiad. North wants to point the way forward rather than become mired in criticism, and as befits a Nobel Prize winner in economics, he has recruited and absorbed the ideas of many prominent scholars, both inside and outside the discipline. As in the earlier works, there is little original research reported here. This is a work of synthesis.

The book has two parts. The first addresses “Issues Involved in Understanding Economic Change,” and the second, presumably with no objections from Bill Gates, “The Road Ahead.” On the dustcover Barry Weingast describes the book as “vintage North.” When we refer to a vintage automobile, or vintage wine, we often refer to something with a provenance at least two or three decades earlier, and this characterization is most applicable to the second part of the book. For example, chapter 10, “The Rise of the Western World,” is largely derivative of arguments first advanced in the early 1970s. But Part I of the book contains generally newer material, and for those who have not been following the latest developments in North’s thinking, this is a good place to catch up.

More so than in North’s writings from the 1970s, the claims of the book are modest. In the preface the author asks rhetorically whether “we can develop a dynamic theory of change” and answers “probably not” (p. vii), claiming as his objective the old German objective of verstehen, or “understanding,” a word which also, of course, figures prominently in the book’s title. But “understanding” is not enough if we truly aspire to do social science. “Understanding” opens the door to “just so” stories that may be comforting and enjoyable to read, but have the appearance of giving us more insight than they do. One searches in vain in this book for hypotheses that could be tested against historical or contemporary data, and although North has, I think, situated the play in the right arena, he has done little to move the explanatory ball forward. Thus the book is ultimately disappointing for those seriously interested in these issues.

Let me briefly summarize what I see as our current state of knowledge. First, there are a number of universal features of human societies which almost certainly have a genetic substrate, either in terms of innate behavioral predispositions or differential preparedness to learn in certain directions. North seems to be on the same page here, acknowledging, for example that our abilities to cooperate in small groups, and our receptivity to religious/supernatural explanations have a biological basis (pp. viii-ix, 28-29, 45, 72). As is probably appropriate for a book of this scope, he avoids discussion of the processes or mechanisms of natural selection that would have been necessary for such predispositions to take hold.

Secondly, there is substantial variation in human culture, even where available technologies and resource endowments are similar, and such variation is consequential for economic performance. Third — and this for North is the new ground broken here — this variation reflects the consequences of different learning or acculturation, which results in different groups of people having different “mental models” of the world, particularly the world of human relationships.

Although I would probably choose somewhat different vocabulary from North, I’m with him on most of this. But for me, the frustrating feature of this book is that it does not really advance the discussion beyond this framing of the problem. Some of this is reflected in assertions that lack adequate substantiation. For example, a theme reiterated at several points is that “Problems posed by the transition of a belief system from one constructed to deal with the physical environment to one constructed to confront the complex problems of the human environment are at the core of the problems of economic development …” (pp. 44, see also p. 71). Are they? It’s not at all clear that the problems of navigating the human environment are fundamentally different from what they were two millennia ago or even earlier, one of the reasons students of politics and philosophy can still read with profit the writings of classical Greeks, or fifteenth-century Italians.

Another problematic area is the treatment of the cognitive sciences. North acknowledges lack of competence to choose among the various models of learning that have been set forth (p. 24), although he does seem to favor proponents of the neural networks or connectionist program. This approach attracted a great deal of excitement in the 1980s, but the enthusiasm for it, like that for the earlier AI (artificial intelligence) program, is now waning in many circles. If North is right about the importance of the formation of mental models in understanding economic change, we will have to be more definitive in making judgments about which seem to be the most promising lines of inquiry, and how specifically they can help us understand economic and political change.

North’s identification of the key issues that confront us is valuable, although some of the logic borders on the circular. For example, the “foundation of the study” (p. 36) seems to be the claim that societies that have successfully addressed big variations in their environment are likely to be able to successfully address big variations in their environment in the future, and therefore are likely to survive and prosper. Compared to earlier formulations there is novelty in identifying the mechanism for more flexible response in a population’s diversity of mental models of human interaction; this relates closely to the subsequent discussion of the benefits and costs of political conformity (p. 42) which is in turn linked to the role of political fragmentation in encouraging growth in the West that was prominently featured in North and Thomas (1973). But of course this is one of those statements that is true except when it is not, that is, when a previously diverse society becomes more ideologically conformist and less flexible. If we are to make progress, we are going to need to do better than simply offer ex post “understanding” of why such a change takes place.

Here is my most fundamental area of disagreement. North sees institutions “as an ongoing response to the … uncertainties that humans have confronted” (pp. 14-15). But institutions reflect more than this. They reflect the behavioral predispositions that make possible orderly interaction among humans, and some of these have little to do with uncertainty or strategies to reduce it. North’s framing of the problem comes from placing too much emphasis on the legacy of Herbert Simon’s work, particularly its emphasis on bounded rationality, as the most significant limitation to the rational choice approach. The Simon influence is reflected, for example in the statement that “If individuals have perfect perception, then there may not be any need for institutions even in the face of uncertainty” (p. 22)

Some of the most basic human predispositions, particularly those enabling orderly social interaction, have nothing to do with reducing uncertainty. Experimental evidence makes quite clear that some of us, some of the time, are prepared to cooperate in a one-shot prisoners’ dilemma, even though this represents the choice of a strictly dominated strategy, and even though the logic of choosing otherwise is completely independent of any uncertainty about what the counterparty will do. The willingness of substantial numbers of humans to violate the unambiguous predictions of game theory in both cooperating and in engaging in third party punishment underlies our ability to initiate and sustain social order.

It is true that we find throughout the book statements such as “Informal norms develop that blend the moral inference of genetic origin with the intentional aims of humans, which together provide the backbone of what we should mean by the term culture” (p. 42). But we also read that “If the highest rate of return is to piracy we can expect that the organizations will invest in skills and knowledge that make them better pirates” (p. 61). Well, not necessarily. If “informal norms … that blend the moral inference of genetic origin …” are strong enough, this won’t happen. The statement about piracy contributes no more to understanding an outcome than stating, as something so self evident that it requires no empirical validation, that if a player has a strictly dominant strategy she will play it. As the experimental evidence for PD games shows, this game theoretic conclusion may be quite unambiguous, but also, as an empirical matter, it is frequently wrong.

Here is another example: “the rash of entrepreneurial malfeasance in large U.S. corporations in 2001-02 has reflected the evolution of an institutional framework that has altered relative prices to provide incentives for such anti-social behavior” (p. 77). If the institutional framework is defined broadly enough so as to incorporate social norms and the mental models that undergird them, this cannot be wrong. But the statement gives us little insight into whether we should search for the explanation in some identifiable change in formal rules or whether this behavior reflected a broader cultural development.

Readers interested in North’s latest thinking about what sorts of issues we need to explore in understanding economic growth and development will find much in the book that is useful. Those looking to push out the frontiers of our scientific understanding will be disappointed. We face great challenges as well as opportunities in trying to make operational the types of explanations suggested by North’s roughly sketched out framework.

Alexander J. Field is the Michel and Mary Orradre Professor of Economics at Santa Clara University, and the author of Altruistically Inclined? The Behavioral Sciences, Evolutionary Theory, and the Origins of Reciprocity (University of Michigan Press, 2004, paperback).

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective

Author(s):Chang, Ha-Joon
Reviewer(s):Irwin, Douglas

Published by EH.NET (April 2004)

Ha-Joon Chang, Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective. London: Anthem Press, 2002. iv + 187 pp. $22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 1-84-331027-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Douglas Irwin, Department of Economics, Dartmouth College.

Ha-Joon Chang enlists economic history to mount a provocative critique of the “Washington Consensus” — the standard set of policy recommendations that aim to promote economic development in poor countries. According to the consensus, developing countries should adopt a set of “good policies” and “good institutions” to improve their economic performance. The good policies include stable macroeconomic policies, a liberal trade and investment regime, and privatization and deregulation. The good institutions include democratic government, protection of property rights (including intellectual property), an independent central bank, and transparent corporate governance institutions and financial establishments. These policies have been embraced by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and many mainstream economists, hence the term Washington Consensus.

Chang highlights the paradox that many of today’s high income countries did not pursue such policies when they were climbing the economic ladder of success in the nineteenth century. Rather, these countries implemented high tariffs and sectoral industrial policies, lagged in the introduction of democratic reforms, stole industrial technologies from one another, did not have independent central banks, and so forth. Therefore, in Chang’s view, developed countries are hypocritical when they seek to deny developing countries access to these same policy tools and when they urge them to adopt democratic reforms and protect intellectual property.

In some sense, this book pits Adam Smith (free market orthodoxy) against Friedrich List (managed intervention heterodoxy) and comes down on List’s side. In Chang’s view, developed countries preach Adam Smith’s policies to developing countries today but pursued Friedrich List’s policies themselves in the past. Developed countries are “kicking away the ladder” (in Friedrich List’s memorable phrase) that they used to become richer and instead are trying to foist upon developing countries a set of policies wholly unsuited for their economic condition and contrary to their economic interests. This book has already achieved high status as an iconoclastic critique of neo-liberal “market fundamentalism” as pronounced by establishment economics and international institutions.

Chang, who is Assistant Director of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge (UK), divides his slim book into four chapters. Each chapter focuses on the policies pursued a century ago by the leading rich countries of today (Britain, United States, Germany, Japan, and other European countries) and compares those policies to the ones that developing countries are urged to adopt the Washington Consensus. Chapter One introduces the book and asks “How Did the Rich Countries Really Become Rich?” Chapter Two looks at trade and industrial policies designed to allow developing countries to “catch up” with industrial countries. Chapter Three focuses on institutions and good governance. Chapter Four concludes with lessons from the past.

Chang’s book is provocative and interesting, but falls short of persuading. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Chang’s extremely superficial treatment of the historical experience of the now developed countries. He has simply chosen not to engage the work of economic historians on the questions he is raising. For example, chapter one — “How Did the Rich Countries Really Become Rich?” — does not contend with the work that economics historians have done on the topic. Given the broad question posed in this chapter, one might have expected Chang to confront such landmark works as Douglass North and Robert Thomas’s The Rise of the Western World (1973) or Nathan Rosenberg’s and L.E. Birdzell’s How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World (1986). These works stress the importance of political systems that provide security to economic transactions and economic systems that allow for competition, broadly construed. But Chang does not explain why the lessons from these works are not relevant to developing countries today.

Rather, in chapter 2, Chang elaborates on his contention that “infant industry promotion (but not just tariff protection, I hasten to add) has been the key to the development of most nations … Preventing the developing countries from adopting these policies constitutes a serious constraint on their capacity to generate economic development.” In my view, this statement is erroneous on two counts — that infant industries were the key to economic development, and that developing countries are prevented from adopting such policies today.

Just because certain trade and industrial policies were pursued and the economic outcome turned out to be good does not mean that the outcome can be attributed to those specific policies. Yet Chang does not advance our understanding beyond this “correlation therefore attribution” approach. Perhaps the success of developed countries came despite the distortions and inefficiencies created by their earlier policies because the broader institutional context was conducive to growth.

For example, the United States started out as a very wealth country with a high literacy rate, widely distributed land ownership, stable government and competitive political institutions that largely guaranteed the security of private property, a large internal market with free trade in goods and free labor mobility across regions, etc. Given these overwhelmingly favorable conditions, even very inefficient trade policies could not have prevented economic advances from taking place. (As Adam Smith once commented, the effort of individuals to improve their condition “is frequently powerful enough to maintain the natural progress of things towards improvement, in spite … of the greatest errors of administration.”)

And yet, in Chang’s story, these other things get no credit for America’s economic success; rather, it all comes down to infant industry promotion. Chang writes: “Although some commentators doubt whether the overall national welfare effect of protectionism was positive, the U.S. growth record during the protectionist period makes this scepticism look overly cautious, if not downright biased.” But, once again, correlation is not causation. Chang produces no evidence that protectionism was responsible for the growth. He does not investigate the various channels and mechanisms by which trade policy affects growth and compare them to other factors leading to economic expansion. He does not undertake a counterfactual analysis to determine the magnitude of benefits and costs of infant industry policies. In the reasoning style of Paul Bairoch, if tariffs were high and growth was strong, then there must be a causal relationship between the two. There is no need to examine alternative explanations, such as whether any effects of tariff policy were swamped by the advantages of other aspects of the American economy. Instead, Chang makes sweeping statements like “It is also clear that the U.S. economy would not have got where it is today without strong tariff protection at least in some key infant industries.”

The implication is that protecting manufacturing industries accounts for the success of rich countries. But Stephen Broadberry (1998) has shown that the United States overtook the United Kingdom in terms of per capita income in the late nineteenth century largely by increasing labor productivity in the service sector, not by raising productivity in the manufacturing sector. Broadberry’s research is not obscure, yet Chang makes no note of it.

Attributing the economic success of various other countries to their trade and industrial policies alone grossly inflates their role. In Europe, Broadberry and others have showed that growth was related to the shifting of resources out of agriculture and into industry and services. Yet trade policies may have slowed this transition for some countries. Britain industrialized with the textile industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but the Corn Laws during this period kept more labor and capital resources in agriculture, not industry. Similarly, to the extent that Germany’s tariff code protected agricultural goods (where it was a net importer), it actually slowed that transition and may have retarded growth in the late nineteenth century.

A broader problem afflicts Chang’s approach — sample selection bias. Chang only looks at countries that developed during the nineteenth century and a small number of the policies they pursued. He did not examine countries that failed to develop in the nineteenth century and see if they pursued the same heterodox policies only more intensively. This is a poor scientific and historical method. Suppose a doctor studied people with long lives and found that some smoked tobacco, but did not study people with shorter lives to see if smoking was even more prevalent. Any conclusions drawn only from the observed relationship would be quite misleading. Chang also overstates the degree to which developing countries today are prevented from pursuing interventionist trade and industrial policies. Trade agreements such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) pose few barriers to countries that wish to pursue activist trade policies, and indeed many countries did so during the years when import substitution was the rage among developing countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Article XVIII of the GATT allows governments to undertake trade measure to promote development, including the promotion of selected industries. Many countries are choosing not to do so because their past experience with such policies has not been successful.

No economic historian will deny the importance of lessons from history in guiding policy today. The question is “which” economic history is relevant. (This point was raised in some insightful comments on Chang’s work by Ken Sokoloff at last year’s EHA meeting.) Which historical experience is most relevant for developing countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa today — the perceived failure of state-led development and import substitution in those countries in recent decades, or the experience of Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century? Certainly China and India have answered by saying that their past policies of inward-looking socialism have failed them. Both countries have done better over the past decade or two by shedding heavy-handed government involvement in regulating the economy and allowing a greater role for market forces, even though they have not embraced every aspect of the “Washington Consensus.” In particular, China and India have decided to become much more open to world trade and investment and have reaped benefits by exposing long protected “infant industries” to global competition.

Even if the policy lessons of the distant past are relevant, it is unwise to make policy recommendations based on America’s experience a century ago without appreciating the broader institutional context of the U.S. growth experience and its differences from many developing countries today. In the U.S. case, competitive political institutions and limited government prevented policymakers from pursuing highly damaging policies. Governments in developing countries that are unaccountable, or possess unchecked power, can implement policies that have the potential to impose much greater costs on society for much longer periods of time.

This book raises a fascinating set of questions and succeeds in being provocative, but I think it ultimately fails to be convincing. If Chang had focused in-depth on one particular question, such as the degree to which protectionist policies account for the success of today’s developed countries, and came to terms with the work of economic historians more directly, he might have made more of a contribution.

Reference: Broadberry, Stephen. “How Did the United States and Germany Overtake Britain? A Sectoral Analysis of Comparative Productivity Levels, 1870-1990.” Journal of Economic History 58 (1998): 375-407.

Douglas A. Irwin is professor of economics at Dartmouth College. Among his recent works are “Interpreting the Tariff-Growth Correlation of the Late Nineteenth Century,” American Economic Review (May 2002), “Tariffs and Growth in Late Nineteenth Century America,” The World Economy (January 2001); and “Did Late Nineteenth Century U.S. Tariffs Promote Infant Industries? Evidence from the Tinplate Industry,” Journal of Economic History (June 2000).

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Institutional Change and American Economic Growth

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

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

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

Davis and North Launch Neoclassical Institutional Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Author(s):Weber, Max
Reviewer(s):Engerman, Stanley L.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Review Essay by Stanley Engerman, Departments of Economics and History, University of Rochester

Capitalism, Protestantism, and Economic Development:

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism after Almost One Century

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has had an enduring impact on the field of economic history. Ironically, Weber’s contemporary, Joseph Schumpeter (1991, 220-229) argued that, althoughWeber’s academic career began with chairs in economics, “he was not really an economist at all,” but rather a sociologist. Schumpeter (1954, 21 and 819) distinguished between economic analysis, which “deals with the questions of how people behave at any time and what the economic effects are they produce by so behaving,” and economic sociology, which “deals with the question how they came to behave as they do.” This concern with the latter question is reflected in Weber’s still important work on the development of capitalism.

Weber’s concerns within economic history, particularly in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, fit well into the general interests of the turn-of-the-century historical schools in Germany and in England. These scholars were concerned with explaining the rise of modern economies, as well as with the explanation of the institutions and conditions that influenced the development and operation of economies and societies. Weber, unlike others in the German School, spent little time describing the role played by economic policies of governments in economic change. He focused, as did Werner Sombart, more on the study of modern capitalism, its natureand the causes of its rise. As the interest in this topic waned, the interest in Weber’s work was lessened, a pattern that persisted for several decades.

Weber’s major contribution to the study of economic history no doubt remains his classic study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904-1905, and republished with some revision in 1920, with the addition of extensive footnotes. Weber did not originate the thesis linking Protestantism and capitalism, as he himself pointed out. Jacob Viner (1978, 151-189), among others, has indicated thatthis idea of linking religion to the onset of capitalism had a long history in regard to Protestantism and to other religions prior to Weber’s writings. Earlier writers, including the English economist William Petty, made some of these links. What Weber did was to provide the specifics for the argument, with the details of the mechanism by which the belief in a”calling” and in worldly asceticism developed, leading to modern capitalism. Nevertheless, Weber argues that these behavioral changes alone could not bring about modern capitalism as it required the appropriate set of conditions in the economic sphere.

To clarify his contention on the uniqueness of the west, Weber undertook several major studies in the sociology of religions in different areas, particularly Asia, in order to understand why other religions did not generate the emergence of a modern capitalism. These comparative religious studies have yielded insights into the impact of these different religious systems in China, India, and elsewhere, and their impacts on behavior. To some scholars, however, it was the political nature and openness to new beliefs and innovations in those countries in northwest Europe that lead to developments in science, business, and political freedom that permitted economic and scientific progress to take place.

The issue of the relation of Protestantism and capitalism remains a historic perennial, frequently cited and necessarily discussed and evaluated in all works dealing with its general time period. Weber clearly had raised a central issue for historic studies. The general question and Weber’s approach have remained important to recent works by economic historians for several reasons. First, they have made central the question of the uniqueness of western civilization and the nature of its economicand social development. Whatever might have been the relative incomes of different parts of the world before 1700, it is clear that since then economic growth has been much more rapid in Western Europe and its overseas off shoots than in other parts of the world.

Modern economic growth has taken place with a quite different economic and social structure from that which had existed earlier. Economic growth occurred at roughly the same time, or soon after, these areas experienced the rise of Protestant religions. Some may hold this similarity to be of completely different occurrences, but for many such a non-relationship would seem difficult to understand and accept. Second, Weber has pointed to the significance of non-pecuniary (or what some would call non-economic) factors in influencing economic change, at least in conjunction with some appropriate set of conditions. For Weber, the key non-pecuniary factor wasbased on a particular religion and set of religious codes; to others it was a religious influence, but from a different religion, such as Catholicism or Judaism; while to other scholars it has been some different factorleading to behavior changes, such as rationalism, individualism, or the development of an economic ethic. Some, such as R. H. Tawney (1926), invertWeber’s argument, making the economic change a basic contribution to the religious changes. To still other scholars, the major factor has been the nature of a minority group of penalized outsiders in society. These scholars include William Petty (1899, 260-264), who looked at several different areas in the seventeenth century, Sombart (1969) and Thorstein Veblen (1958) who wrote on the Jews, and Alexander Gerschenkron (1970) who examined the Russian Old Believers. Each of these explanations has been advanced in the attempt to describe the primary cause of those changes in economic behavior that have lead to the distinction between the modern and pre-modern worlds.

In explaining the rise of capitalism in the Western World, Weber makes it clear that “the impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism”; and “unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit.” The desire for gain has been seen in “all sorts of conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth.” Rather what developed in the West was “the rational capitalistic organization of formally free labor,” which was based on “the separation of business from the household” and “rational book keeping,” although the basic factor was the presence of free labor. The ability to calculate, the development of technical capabilities, the creation of systems of law and administration – all have been important to Western culture but, according to Weber, their economic usefulness is “determined by the ability and disposition of men to adopt certain types of practical rational conduct,” unobstructed by spiritual and magical beliefs.

Since religion has always had a major impact upon conduct, the particular development of the West is attributed by Weber to “the influence of certain religious ideas on the development of the economic system,” which, in the case “of the spirit of modern economic life [is] the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism.” That the impact of the actual teachings of the church was limited is suggested by Weber’s contention that his concerns were with “predominately unforeseen and even unwished-for results.” Hedenies that he believes that the spirit of capitalism could only have derived from the Reformation, and claims that he only wishes “to as certain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and of quantitative expansion of that spirit over the world.” Nevertheless, he often does suggest that is was Christianasceticism and Calvinism that provided the orientation that led to the development of such ideas as the “necessity of proving one’s faith in worldly activity,” “the preaching of hard, continuous bodily or mentallabor,” and “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling” that were to provide “the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism.”The recent literature by economic historians, dealing with “How the West Grew Rich,” “The Rise of the Western World,” “The European Miracle,” “The Lever of Riches,” “The Unbound Prometheus,” and related titles, has begun, as did Weber, with the perceived uniqueness of the Western European economy. These studies, by such leading economic historians as Nathan Rosenberg ((1986) with L.E. Birdzell, Jr.), Douglass North (alone (1990),and with Robert Paul Thomas (1973)), Eric Jones (1981), Joel Mokyr (1990),and David Landes (1969, 1998), with the related writings by Fernand Braudel(1981, 1982 and 1984), Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1980 and 1989), John R.Hicks (1969), and Deepak Lal (1998), focus on somewhat different explanatory factors from Weber’s, but the problem to be analyzed isidentical. Posited answers include the role of political freedom, the development of property rights, changes in technology and organization of workers, the changing ratio of land to labor, the reactions to different environmental conditions, the emergence of markets, the rise of rational thought, the inflow of specie and various others. Some focus more on what might be regarded as economic factors, while others are more in theWeberian tradition, even if there is no unanimity concerning specific causal factors. Rather curious, however, is that several of these recent works by economic historians do not refer to Weber’s work on the Protestantethic, and in those that do not completely ignore him, his work is not seen as central to explaining the rise of the West, either because the role of religion is seen as more endogenous, or because other religions have been consistent with economic development during the growth of the West. Nevertheless, it is clear that as long as there is a belief that the economic performance of Western Europe has been unique, Weber has presentedan argument that must be confronted. Early in the second half of the twentieth century a non-western nation, Japan, as well as, somewhat later, several East Asian nations, came to experience some of the characteristics of modern economic and social change, with the development of a pattern of thrift and of a work ethic (even if cooperative not individualist), but with a different form of religion. This seems, however, to have done more to reawaken interest in Weber’s arguments than to lead to their dismissal.

Despite the frequency of the criticism, of the specific hypothesis in the past, the Weber thesis remains central to posing questions about the onset of modern economic growth and social and religious change in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Western Europe. Its importance as a spiritual and ideological counter to a concentration on material conditions, as in the works of Karl Marx, provides an alternative approach to understanding economic change. In addition to the debates on economic growth there are subsidiary questions about related aspects of western development, which might be regarded as either substitutes for or complements to the Weber Thesis. These include debates on the rise of individualism, the causes ofthe development of a more deliberate and rational approach to economic and other behavior, and the link between the emergence of modern capitalism and modern science. Weber discussed the role of those climate and geographic factors that have interested such present-day economic historians as Eric Jones, arguing that the development of firstly cities, and then nation-states, left Europe, unlike Asia, with rational states and rational law. This set of developments reflected, according to Weber, initial differences in natural forces.

As with all “big theories,” there are several different types of criticisms that have been made, posing some rather different questions. First, it is often unclear what the proponent had really said, particularly crucial since we usually look only at the briefest summary of what was presented, without paying as much attention to the various qualifications and boundary conditions that the author was intelligent enough to have added. Second, there are these complications in defining precisely what are regarded ascauses, and what are the effects. In terms of the Weber Thesis, we need to be clearer both on what was to be considered the nature of religion and religious beliefs, and also what exactly we are trying to explain when we discuss capitalism. Third, is the manner by which the cause and effect can be linked, whether we believe they can be related by other than a pattern involving direct causation, and whether the same cause will yield a different effect or, alternatively, the same effects can be achieved with a broader range of causes. Variants of all these types of criticisms have been applied to The Protestant Ethic, and much more space than that available here would be needed to provide a complete examination of this debate.

Many of the disagreements about Weber’s linking of Protestantism and capitalism contain a distinct moral flavor. To those who find capitalism and the modern world morally distasteful, linking capitalism’s rise to religious beliefs places an unfortunate and unfair burden upon the religion, which can lead to a denial of any relationship between the two. Presumably those more sympathetic to modernism and capitalism would find a relationship more acceptable. Weber, himself, believed that capitalism generated important problems, and he did not believe that capitalist growth could continue indefinitely. The decline of capitalism was anticipated because of the development of rigid institutions and the rise of a bureaucratic state, posing a threat to political freedom as well as causing economic stagnation. Weber’s use of the image of the “iron cage” to describe modern society reflected his belief that certain cultural problems emerged because of capitalist development. And while Weber did not describe the same scenario for capitalism’s demise as that later presented by Schumpeter, it was similarly based upon the impact of increasing bureaucracy and rationalism on the belief system in society. Many of Weber’s works dealt with topics in the area of economic history, and even his more sociological writings were concerned with economic comparisons. Particularly rich in presenting his later views was his book devoted exclusively to the study of world economic history, GeneralEconomic History (1981), based on the transcripts of lectures in1919-1920, taken from students’ notes. A look at this work is useful inputting Weber’s economic history in a broad perspective.

General Economic History is an overall survey of economic developments,from ancient times to the modern world. It provides summary statements (insome cases, revisions) of key arguments found in earlier writings, useful descriptions of the pattern of western economic development, and insightful brief views of major economic changes that are sometimes detailed in other writings. Its major contributions include the claim that forms of what could be considered capitalism had long existed, leading to earlier accumulations of wealth, but it was only with the development of capital accounting and rational commerce, and with the need for rules and trust that arise when there are continued transactions among individuals, that the modern form of capitalism emerged in Western Europe. This development was unique to that particular geographic region. In describing this evolution Weber also provides discussions of the changing organization of the manor, the stages in the rise of industry, the impacts of slavery and other forms of labor organization upon the economy as well as the reasons for their transformation over time, and numerous other topics that are still covered, often in a quite similar manner, in today’s textbooks in European economic history.

Weber gave some attention to the importance of non-pecuniary tastes in actions within the economy. Following a strand of argument raised by a member of the Older German Historical School, Karl Knies, he argued that people did not necessarily profit-maximize at all times. Non-economic factors play a role in human behavior. Weber believed that it was certainly possible that there may be less extensive attempts at the maximum degree of maximization within a market economy, at least as a short term goal, than in other forms of social organization. Weber argued that “the notion that our rationalistic and capitalistic age is characterized by a stronger economic interest than other periods is childish,” and claims that while Cortez and Pizarro had strong economic interests, they certainly did not have “an idea of a rationalistic economic life.” Weber distinguished between economic interests, found in many past societies, and arationalistic, capitalistic channeling of those interests. To Weber, the market system was not an idealized means of solving social problems. He recognized the conflicts that existed within the market system, suggesting that price and market outcomes should be seen as the result of conflict, since people disagreed over the use of the economic surpluses that could exist. But to Weber the market, with its various difficulties, seemed to provide a reasonable way to resolve conflicts and to allocate resources with some limitations on destruction and loss of freedom.

While attention was given to the cultural problems due to capitalism, in Weber’s view the rise of capitalism was related to favorable changes in the distribution of economic resources within society. It was what Weber called the “democratization of luxuries” that was the key source of early market demand, rather than “Army, Luxury, or Court Demands.” None of these factors, important as they may have seemed at the time or to subsequent scholars (for example, Sombart), based on demand from a limited segment of the population, had led to prolonged economic growth anywhere. Prolonged growth, rather, was the result of growth of the mass market which arose with capitalism, and which lowered prices permitting the broad masses to imitate the consumption patterns of the rich. Weber argued that “first the prices fell relatively and then came capitalism,” the price declines being due to preceding shifts in technology and economic relations.

One of the major substantive legacies of Weber is his description of the characteristics of modern capitalism. Weber regarded capitalism as an evolving system, so that present-day capitalism has some features rather different from those at the onset of modern capitalism. He did not, however, regard commercial and capitalist activity as something new in the modern era, since such behavior had existed in most societies in earliertimes, as well as in other societies considered non-capitalist at the present time. Under modern capitalism, however, activities of a somewhat different pattern and nature occurred from those in the other forms of capitalism.

The principal characteristics of modern capitalism that Weber points to are the centrality of rationality and those measures that help to implementrational behavior. The emergence of a rationally organized formally free labor market to replace the various forms of labor institutions that had characterized earlier forms of capitalism, the development of rational law and administration in large firms and governments, the evolution of forms of rational bookkeeping and capital accounting, and the growth of bureaucracies in the public and private sectors to order the behavior of the larger-scale units in economic society – all these represent those factors developed out of Protestantism which permit continued capitalist accounting procedures to separate business and household capital in the interests of determining growth. Other accounting procedures of the modern capitalist economy include the use of interests of rational decisionmaking, and the increased number of business leaders whose leadership is based upon their personal charisma, not on either traditional or legal influences. Weber’s argument that charisma weakens the growth of bureaucracy resembles Schumpeter’s contention of the decline of the entrepreneurial function in modern capitalism, leading to a declining social appeal of capitalism. Recent studies in leadership of management, however, have focused upon so-called “change agents” and shapers of corporate culture, leading to attempts to determine what are the crucial characteristics of successful business leaders and what they have done to achieve their success.

Weber’s contribution to the study of economic history includes both methodological approaches and substantive conclusions. His general questions on the role of changing institutions and human behavior have again come into vogue, as has his interest in the law, legal rationality, and the process of historical development. Thus, in a number of ways, Weber reads very much like a present-day economic historian, a development that has taken place after a long period in which Weber was relatively ignored by economic historians. In part his loss of influence was due to a shift in questions, to those mainly dealing with only a relatively short, recent period in the history of the west, based, in the 1930’s, on a primary focuson the relatively short-run set of economic cycles, and, in the 1940’s, ona belief that with the right economic conditions all societies could achieve economic growth. As it became clear that the process of economic growth was rather more complex than believed in the mid-twentieth century, and that its understanding was based on happenings over a much longer timespan than was being examined, Weber’s analysis, with its broad chronological, spatial, and intellectual sweep, again became more central.

Bibliographical Note:

There have been several publications of The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism since the first English-language translation in 1930. All use the original translation by Talcott Parsons, differing only in their introductions. Among them are: – New York: Scribner, 1930, 1948, and 1958 (foreword by R. H. Tawney). – London: Allen & Unwin, 1976; London: Routledge, 1992 (introduction by Anthony Gidden)- Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 1996 and 1998 (introduction by Randall Collins) and- Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 2000 (introduction by Stephen Kalberg). A recent analysis of the work of Weber is in Stephen P. Turner, editor,Cambridge Companion to Weber (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2000). This includes my essay on “Max Weber as Economist and Economic Historian,” parts of which have been drawn upon here.


Braudel, Fernand. 1981, 1982, and 1984. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. New York: Harper and Row (French edition published in 1979).

Gerschenkron, Alexander. 1970. Europe in the Russian Mirror: Four Lecturesin Economic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hicks, John R. 1969. A Theory of Economic History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Eric L. 1981. The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lal, Deepak. 1998. Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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

Landes, David S. 1998. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are SoRich and Some So Poor. New York: W. W. Norton.

Mokyr, Joel. 1990. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. New York: Oxford University Press.

North, Douglass C. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Petty, William. 1899. The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenberg, Nathan and L. E. Birdzell, Jr. 1986. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books.

Sombart, Werner. 1969. The Jews and Modern Capitalism, New York: BurtFranklin (originally published 1913).

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

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1991. “Max Weber’s Work,” in Richard Swedberg,editor, Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Economics and Sociology of Capitalism.Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tawney, R. H. 1926. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Veblen, Thorstein. 1958. “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,” in Max Lerner, editor, The Portable Veblen. New York: Viking Press (originally published 1919).

Viner, Jacob. 1978. Religious Thought and Economic Society. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974, 1980, and 1989. The Modern World- System,New York: Academic Press.

Weber, Max. 1981. General Economic History. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books (originally published in English in 1927).


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined since AD 500

Author(s):van Bavel, Bas
Reviewer(s):Rubin, Jared

Published by EH.Net (May 2018)

Bas van Bavel, The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined since AD 500. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xi + 330 pp. $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-960813-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jared Rubin, Department of Economics, Chapman University.

What are the key drivers of economic prosperity? Why do societies that were at one point world economic leaders often end up falling behind? What role do factor markets play in this process? These are the questions addressed in Bas van Bavel’s fascinating entry into the “big think” literature, The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined since AD 500. In this book, van Bavel proposes a theory of cyclical economic growth and decline, and he supports this theory with three case studies: early medieval Iraq (c. 500-1100), high medieval northern Italy (c. 1000-1500), and the late medieval and early modern Low Countries (c. 1100-1800).

Van Bavel’s framework can be conceptualized as an economics counterpart to Ibn Khaldun’s political cyclical theory of empires. The (somewhat neo-Marxian) argument suggests that economic decline is a natural consequence of the type of economic growth that happens via factor markets. In other words, the growth of factor markets is a self-undermining process. This is a fairly significant departure from conventional economic history accounts, which largely view the development of market economies as more of a linear process.

Van Bavel’s argument can be summarized as follows. In societies with some sufficiently high level of personal and economic freedom as well as some degree of prosperity (due to non-market mechanisms of exchange for land, labor, and capital) factor markets are likely to emerge. In the process, a positive feedback loop occurs in which underutilized resources are more productively used, specialization and division of labor arise, economic growth results, which results in greater use of factor markets, and so on. However, with factor market growth comes inequality — both economic and political. As those who own the factors of production gain more political power, they use this power to dominate the markets for land, labor, and capital, as well as financial markets, making these markets less free in the process. This precipitates the economic decline of the society, as vested interests squeeze the little remaining productive power out of the economy, leaving little for the rest of society. The decline that van Bavel proposes is therefore endogenous to the very processes that contributed to the rise in the first place.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of The Invisible Hand? is the cases to which van Bavel applies the theory: early Islamic Iraq, Commercial Revolution Italy, and the late medieval and early modern Low Countries. These are not randomly plucked cases: one could make the case that they represent the world’s (or, at a minimum, western Eurasia’s) economic frontier from about 750 to 1700. Van Bavel must be commended for picking these three cases: few scholars have the breadth of knowledge to dig so deeply into three such vastly disparate cases. And indeed, the cases work quite well for the theory. Iraq of the Abbasid period was probably the wealthiest and most advanced region of the world. Indeed, in 800 the population of Baghdad was greater than the top thirteen Christian cities of Western Europe combined! Yet, it clearly started to fall behind at some point well before the Mongol invasion crushed what remained of the Abbasid Empire in 1258. Van Bavel convincingly points to the rise and decline of factor markets as a culprit. Although the evidence is scanter than it is for the others cases, van Bavel makes a strong case that the development of markets in labor, capital, finance, and especially land (and land lease) played an important role in the region’s growth, while the accumulation of these factors of production in a small number of hands ended up stifling growth and, ultimately, the very markets that spurred growth in the first place. Indeed, van Bavel presents data indicating that the Gini coefficient on wealth inequality in tenth century Iraq was a startling 0.99, making it one of the most unequal societies in world history.

Similar evidence is provided for the cases of northern Italy during and after the Commercial Revolution and the Low Countries in the late medieval and early modern periods. For these cases, the data and secondary sources are much more complete and the narratives are quite compelling. Indeed, one might suspect that the Low Countries case that van Bavel has researched so deeply was the motivating example behind the book (and it is indeed a good example). In both of these cases, societies that were wealthier than their neighbors — but not by much — saw a growth in factor and financial markets, with the resulting proceeds initially being relatively widely distributed. Over time, it was precisely access to these factor and financial markets that enabled the accumulation of wealth in a small amount of hands. This gave the economic elites access to political power and the capacity to buy up most of the rural hinterlands, which ultimately led to the (relative) decline of factor markets and, more generally, these economies. Seen from this perspective, the cultural achievements of the Renaissance or the Dutch Golden Age — funded as they were by the ultra-wealthy — were a symptom of decline, not vibrancy.

As one is reading the book, it is natural to think, “an economic rise followed by the accumulation of factors of production in a small amount of hands sounds a lot like the modern day U.S.” While historians are often hesitant to make such conjectures on more recent events, van Bavel provides a quite welcome chapter overviewing (in only slightly less depth) the trajectories of the UK and U.S. since the eighteenth century. Not surprisingly, he argues that both are reflective of the cyclical theory of economic development propounded throughout the book. These are important insights, as they suggest that modern day inequality may be a structural feature of the American and British economic rise.

I began reading this book not knowing what to expect (beyond the fact that I know and like van Bavel’s other academic work), but I came away convinced that factor markets can help explain both the rise and decline of economic fortunes. One always has a few small quibbles with any book — for instance, I think van Bavel misses a golden opportunity to discuss how the rise of socialist and communist thinking in the nineteenth century was a direct result of the processes he describes in the book — but these are mostly not important enough to include here. That said, there is one rather important question the book leaves largely unaddressed: on balance, what role have the rise and decline of factor markets played in the “great divergence” between the “West and the rest”? The Dutch Republic, England, and the U.S. — three of the five societies discussed in the book — played an enormous role in the rise of the modern economy. Even if these societies eventually declined in relative terms, they are still rich (a point that van Bavel concedes) and, more importantly, these riches have spread to some degree to the rest of the world. Indeed, even if the intra-society income and wealth distributions have become much more unequal in the past four decades, the inter-society income and wealth distributions have become somewhat more equal, at least if one is most concerned with the well-being of the poorest among us. The economic forces unleashed in the last two centuries have lifted billions out of poverty. This is a true economic achievement, and it finds its roots in the historical cases studied in this book.

In short, any social scientist interested in “big think” questions will benefit greatly from reading The Invisible Hand? While it presents only a piece of the “great divergence” puzzle, it is an understudied piece that is an important complement to existing theories based on institutions, culture, and governance.

Jared Rubin is an associate professor of economics at Chapman University. His recent book Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (2017, Cambridge University Press) analyzes the role that religious authorities and institutions played in the economic development — or lack thereof — of Western Europe and the Middle East.

Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (May 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

Author(s):Harper, Kyle
Reviewer(s):Temin, Peter

Published by EH.Net (April 2018)

Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. xiii + 417 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-16683-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Peter Temin, Department of Economics, MIT.

This is an exciting book that provides a fresh look at a perennial topic, the fall of the Roman Empire, in sparkling prose accessible to all economic historians. Harper, Professor of Classics and Letters and Provost of the University of Oklahoma, has written extensively about the later Roman Empire. In this book, he argues that climate change and pandemics caused the empire to collapse. The book alternates between ancient history and biological analyses, but it is clear and understandable to readers from all disciplines.

In Harper’s words, “The fate of Rome was played out by emperors and barbarians, senators and generals, soldiers and slaves. But it was equally decided by bacteria and viruses, volcanoes and solar cycles” (pp. 4-5). Harper gives space to both of these sets of characters, and he indicates along the way how far we have gotten in understanding the causes of ancient diseases and climate changes. For example, we are quite sure of the bugs involved in some Roman plagues and still in the process of figuring out which bugs were causing other plagues. While convincing to this reader, the book is a progress report in the use of modern biological tools to understand ancient history.

Harper starts his exposition with the early Roman Empire, arguing that both population and real incomes were rising. The cause of this violation of Malthusian rules has been debated in the ancient history literature, and the current thought is that it was due to increased trade as the Romans extended and pacified the shipping lanes around the Mediterranean Sea. Harper reproduces a graph from his article “People, Plagues and Prices from the Roman World: The Evidence from Egypt” (Journal of Economic History, 76 (3), 803-39) containing regression analyses of the trends in Egyptian prices and showing that wages were rising faster than wheat prices in Egypt. Readers of the book should consult the article for details of the regressions, which support the existence of trade throughout the Roman Mediterranean.

This economic integration, Harper argues, gave rise to germ mobility and then plagues as well. The first Roman plague, known as the Antonine Plague, took place in the late second century, after 160. It was caused by an outbreak of what probably was smallpox, and it began the deterioration of the Roman Empire. Inflation began after the plague, and the turnover of emperors became more frequent. I argued in The Roman Market Economy (Princeton, 2013) that these changes were due to the Antonine Plague, and Harper extends this argument.

The second Roman plague, known as the Cyprian Plague, took place about a century later. This plague may have been caused by what is now known as the Ebola Virus from recent outbreaks in Africa. Note that while smallpox is bacterial, plagues also can be caused by viruses. And the Cyprian Plague intensified the inflation and political instability of the Roman Empire.

The third shock to the Roman Empire was caused by climate change rather than a plague. The early Roman Empire was blessed with a stable and warm climate which lasted for several centuries. It began to break down in the late fourth century, and droughts and colder temperatures drove Rome’s neighbors to the northeast to move southward into what had become the Western Roman Empire. In Harper’s words, “These invasions were not mere raids; they were migrations, movements of people, with women and children in train” (p. 194). The Huns overwhelmed the Roman soldiers, but Alaric led his Goths into Italy and conquered Rome in 410. This dramatic event symbolized the decline of Rome and stimulated Augustine to write The City of God.

The third Roman plague, known as the Justinian Plague, and the fourth of Harper’s natural shocks, began in the sixth century and lasted for two centuries in and around the surviving Eastern Empire based in Constantinople. It was caused by a bacterium known as Yersinia pestis, or Y. pestis, and took the form of bubonic plague in most places and times. Given the spread-out population in the East and the paucity of human remains in any one place, historians have struggled to describe the Justinian Plague for a long time. Only recently have our powers of recovery and analysis become accurate enough for Harper and others to describe the causes and the extent of the plague.

Justinian’s reign had an epic cold snap that was global in scale; there were years in the mid-sixth century that had no summer at all. Harper speculates that the cold snap created conditions that tied the bacterium to black rats and their fleas and finally to us — with a few more steps in between. He says that interaction of diseases and plagues is very complex and decidedly non-linear, but he is sure it will be found. The cold snap also was a harbinger of what has been called the Little Ice Age that followed the Justinian Plague and intensified the chaos that followed.

The Justinian Plague devastated the remaining Roman parts of the Empire just as Islam was making its push into Europe. The disorganized and ailing Romans were no match for the invading Muslims. The Justinian Plague, in other words, not only caused the Eastern Roman Empire to collapse; it also increased the scope of Islam in and around Europe that lasted for many centuries.

I have emphasized the innovative parts of Harper’s work in this review, but ancient historians will find lots of descriptions of ancient events mixed in with the biological analyses. Others interested in plagues will find time lines and stories to ground the biology in its Roman context. And anyone who is attempting to use the fall of the Roman Empire as an example in contemporary life should read this book before expounding one or another outmoded theory of the fall of the Roman Empire.
Peter Temin is Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT and author of, most recently, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy (MIT Press, 2017).


Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (April 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient

Famine in European History

Editor(s):Alfani, Guido
Ó Gráda, Cormac
Reviewer(s):Naumenko, Natalya

Published by EH.Net (January 2018)

Guido Alfani and Cormac Ó Gráda, editors, Famine in European History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xi + 325 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-316-63183-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Natalya Naumenko, Department of Economics, Northwestern University.

This collection of essays undertakes to construct a comprehensive history of famine in Europe. Each of the authors is an expert on the history of famine in a particular country or group of countries. In the opening chapter, the editors introduce methodology and discuss the common factors that created famine conditions and their relative importance in the European context. The concluding chapter studies famines during World Wars I and II.

Throughout the book, a standard definition of famine is used: “Famine refers to a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced disease” (p. 2). Famines occur when food is scarce. Scarcity, in turn, occurs when either food production or distribution is impaired (or both). Weather, crop diseases, changes in technology and climate all affect production. Market integration and specific public institutions providing relief affect distribution. Population pressure can increase the probability of famine (the number of famine episodes notably decreased after the Black Death epidemics). Finally, war is another important factor affecting both production (by destroying crops and reducing available labor) and distribution (via extortions and disruption of trade). The relative importance of production versus distribution changed over time — while some medieval famines can probably be attributed mostly to a shortage of the total amount of available food due to adverse shocks to production, with improvement in technology and market integration the factors affecting the distribution started playing a major role.

The country-specific chapters have a similar structure. Each chapter reports a time series of famines using best available data (relying on chronicles for earlier events, time series of burials and foodstuff prices for later events) usually from the thirteenth century and up to nineteenth century, although for some countries the time series of famines start as early as seventh century. Each chapter then attempts to analyze the scope and the severity of the famines, highlights some of the most important ones, and discusses the factors that led to the famines.

Although the reasons leading to famine are similar for all countries and are summarized in the introduction, some interesting country-specific factors are worth highlighting. For Italy the authors name population pressure combined with crop failure due to the weather or war as the main reasons leading to famine. Introduction of new crops (especially maize) during the eighteenth century finally increased food security but led to spread of pellagra disease. In Spain in addition to all the factors mentioned earlier epidemics could lead to famine by decreasing labor and consequently harvest. The famine research in France has been so extensive that it is difficult to distinguish between true crises affecting large areas and a high share of population and relatively localized ones. The increase in fiscal dues and the growth of cities to some extent offset the improvement in agricultural technology and therefore increased the probability of famines. In Germany, Switzerland, and Austria the lack of centralization increased the probability of famines — in case of local dearth, neighboring lords could shut grain trade exacerbating local food shortages.

The northern Low Countries, escaped from famine as early as late sixteenth century (with the exception is the crisis of 1845-1850 caused by potato blight) due to the central position of Amsterdam in the European grain trade. Episodes of famine in the southern Low Countries are mostly linked to war. Similarly, England escaped famine as early as eighteenth century due to change in weather conditions, improvements in food production technology, market integration, and, most importantly, the presence of well-developed relief system. In Ireland, chronicles document severe famines as early as seventh century. The two most notable recent crises are the famines of 1740-1741 and the famine of the 1840s. Both were triggered by severe external shocks — extremely cold weather and potato blight respectively. The 1840s crisis is outstanding both in its scale and its long-term impact on the population as it triggered mass emigration. Finally, despite the fact that the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland) are located in areas that are less suitable for agriculture and therefore more prone to crop failures due to poor weather, widespread famine was a rare occurrence there due to diversified agriculture and well-integrated markets.

In Eastern Europe (Russia and the Soviet Union) little quantitative information is available before the eighteenth century (characteristically, in the Russian language there is no distinction between dearth and famine), although some notable famines of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are discussed. Most importantly, the nature of food difficulties was determined by specific geographic conditions: for strategic reasons the capital and major industrial centers were located in the grain-deficit North and food had to be extracted from grain surplus regions of the South. Thus, when markets disintegrated due to the war, the grain-deficit North suffered (as in 1918-1920), and when negative weather shock occurred, mortality increased where grain was produced (as in 1921-1922). According to Stephen Wheatcroft, the famine of 1927-1933 was triggered by severe drought, and 1941-1947 food shortages and famine were caused by the occupation of grain producing regions by the Germans, and by poor weather of 1946. Nevertheless, it remains an open question why unfavorable weather caused severe famines in the Soviet Union while in other European countries weather ceased to play a major role by the beginning of twentieth century.

The final chapter discusses the episodes of famines related to World War I and World War II. The unprecedented scale of these conflicts disrupted food production and distribution, negatively affecting both traditionally grain exporting and grain importing territories. In addition, famine relief efforts were hindered by the conflict, the population in the occupied territories suffered from over-extraction of foodstuffs, and many prisoner camps were inadequately supplied. These factors explain pockets of starvation occurring even in areas that had long been free of famine.

This book does not oversell, does not strike the reader with bold concepts, unorthodox perspectives, or loud slogans. It does exactly what it promises — delivers a comprehensive systematic history of famine based on rigorous data collection and careful analysis. The analysis in the introductory chapter provides an excellent summary of the complex phenomena that famines are and will take its deserved place in many economic history courses. And although famine is [hopefully] long gone in Europe, all factors discussed in the book are still relevant for less developed parts of the world.

Natalya Naumenko is completing her dissertation on famines in the Soviet Union at Northwestern University.

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Military and War
Household, Family and Consumer History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Energy and Civilization: A History

Author(s):Smil, Vaclav
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (August 2017)

Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. x + 552 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-262-03577-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.
The arrival of an encyclopedic tome of 550 pages, crammed with graphs, calculations, bar diagrams and the interruption of plentiful “boxes,” so giving every appearance of being a textbook, does not usually fill the breast of a reviewer with joy. Fortunately reading this volume turns out to be a pleasure. Vaclav Smil came to notice in 1984 with The Bad Earth, an early account of China’s environmental degradation, and has since written prolifically on topics concerning energy. He is described as an “incorrigible inter-disciplinarian,” a stance that helps him compare and calibrate sources over the widest possible range. His latest book is a greatly expanded version of an earlier volume and may be taken as a summary of his life’s work. It is immensely valuable for reference as well as for calm, decisive commentaries on the state of knowledge, besides on what is actually or potentially computable about uses of energy worldwide and throughout the very long term.

What Smil concludes about the early modern period provides some of the most insightful passages among a vast number of offerings. The immense stretches of time when most humans remained either hunter-gatherers or toiling peasants can, of course, be approached along an energy perspective. Interpretations of these tedious periods by many authors nevertheless tend to lean on mere assumptions about motive and on various anthropological analogies that are sometimes plausible but commonly arbitrary. They typically amount to pronouncements about indifference to accumulation (readily but unconvincingly supported by material poverty) and chronic aversion to physical labor. Nor is Smil impressed by assertions about the labor supposedly required to erect the great monuments of the past, such as the Great Pyramid, and demonstrates how exaggerated they often are. Better documented detail is available once 1850 is passed, when the Western world took up fossil fuels on a grand scale and soon became a fossil fuel civilization. From that date he pays even closer attention to the energy implications of inventions in sphere after sphere after sphere. He offers a new and informative slant on many of these developments. In principle all this is, however, familiar ground.

Smil’s work on early modern times accordingly stands out between these epochs. What one might call the early modern prologue was remarkably progressive compared with many previous centuries. Smil shows just how much human labor could produce with no more than sweat, levers, treadmills, animals, wind power and water power, and how gradual advances were being made in the diffusion and productivity of these every day methods. His “box” on the raising of Alexander’s column at St Petersburg in 1832 is especially impressive, notwithstanding the facts that foreign architects were employed and that the Monument to the Great Fire of London constructed in the 1670s is taller still. Far earlier than any of this the Romans had made strides in exploiting the power afforded by people and nature. Yet from our distant viewpoint the most interesting fact may be how gradually best practice had spread. The tapping of ostensibly straightforward sources of energy continued for a long time — very long. Water wheels, Smil says, were the most significant energy foundation of Western industrialization. Even allowing for the telescoping effect of hindsight, the ancient world had experienced phases of rapid advance that were not matched for a considerable spell. The later Western world, taken as a whole, was often slow by contrast but at least its gains tended to be cumulative. Permissible loads drawn by French horses in the mid-nineteenth century were about four times the Roman limit. But can we say that reaching this point had been achieved at a reasonable pace?

Agreed, pace depends to some extent on where one stands. Even in the modern period, best practice could diffuse with what to our eyes seems a marked sluggishness. From 1745 the English introduced a fantail to turn the sails of windmills automatically into the wind. Their neighbors, the Dutch, who owned the most windmills in Europe, did not take up this device until the early nineteenth century. For all such blemishes on attainable advance, and despite most labor in England and Wales remaining craft work in 1850, energy output had nevertheless risen fifteen-fold in two hundred years. Was that fast or slow? Either way it meant that industrialization as conventionally defined piggybacked on economic changes already springing up with some frequency. Studies of energy use show that the period leading to modernity was complete by the mid-nineteenth century and by any reasonable measure things changed rapidly thereafter.

Studies of individual subjects might perhaps be thought somewhat like single-issue politics, with the distortions it entails. However Smil explicitly avoids the trap of explaining world economic history in terms of energy alone. Although per capita GDP and energy supply are linked more closely than many elements in socio-economic life, they can be decoupled and a determining role for energy is repeatedly frustrated by political and other choices. Energy use is after all an input, though doubtless one with beneficial outputs, but distributional considerations often alter the expected results. The population response that development economists once thought likely to neutralize any income gained from slow technical advances may have been deflected because elites commandeered a lion’s share of the gains. Smil insists on the need to get the balance right between energy imperatives and a multitude of non-energy factors. He rejects tempting comparisons across sectors, such as the uncannily similar energy use by sailing ships and drainage windmills during the United Provinces’ Golden Age, pointing out that no volume of peat dug would have made possible the voyages to the East Indies. Certainly there were too many overlaps in types of exploitation at any one period to separate history into energy eras. There is long experience and a maturity of judgment in this book that inspire much confidence.

Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013) [with Charles Foster], Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton, 2016, paperback) and Middle Ridgeway and its Environment (Wessex Books, 2016) [with Patrick Dillon].

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (August 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Capital Gains: Business and Politics in Twentieth-Century America

Editor(s):John, Richard R.
Phillips-Fein, Kim
Reviewer(s):Benson, Erik

Published by EH.Net (July 2017)

Richard R. John and Kim Phillips-Fein, editors, Capital Gains: Business and Politics in Twentieth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. x + 301 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8122-4882-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Erik Benson, Humanities Division, Cornerstone University.

In this volume, Richard John of Columbia University and Kim Phillips-Fein of New York University compile eleven essays on the relationship between business and government in twentieth-century America. Contrary to popular perception, this relationship has not been exclusively adversarial, nor have business elites been exclusively committed to “free market fundamentalism” (p. 19). Their interests, views, and activities have varied significantly, and thus their involvement in politics has been complex.

In their introductory overview, the editors argue that in light of the importance of the political economy to the country, a renewed focus on and better understanding of its history is vitally necessary. They acknowledge the contributions of Progressive and corporate liberal scholars, but assert that the role of business elites in the policymaking process has suffered from neglect. Fortunately, a new generation of scholars is emerging who draw upon economic, political, and social perspectives to render a more complex portrayal of America’s political economy. Much as others have done with groups such as the working class, these scholars are presenting the business elite as real actors with complex and varied motives, approaches, and outcomes. At the same time, as a group, the business elite has been distinct in successfully influencing policymaking, at the municipal as well as national level. Acknowledging that the essays do not support overarching generalizations, the editors do note some common themes and insights. One is that the relationship between business and government has been “protean” — at times adversarial, at times not (pp. 19-20). Furthermore, when one considers local versus national perspectives, and the varied motives and interests of the different actors, the relationship becomes even more complex. Finally, sound scholarship based on archival research is necessary for a better understanding of the American political economy.

The volume has four parts. The first, covering the Progressive era through the 1920s, contains two essays. The first essay, by Laura Phillips Sawyer, reveals how business interests, worried by the unpredictability of court rulings in antitrust cases, successfully addressed this by establishing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC) in the 1910s. The USCC facilitated a working relationship with key federal officials and agencies that resulted in predictable economic policies. In the second essay, Daniel Amsterdam shows how business elites in Detroit and Atlanta successfully lobbied for dramatic increases in municipal spending, infrastructure, and regulation. Motivated by a mix of economic interest and reform impulse, these elites were quite willing to wield municipal power to establish a “civic welfare state,” even as they opposed a national welfare state (p. 45).

The second part, covering the New Deal and World War II, has three essays. In the first, Eric S. Hintz chronicles how the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) blunted a New Deal initiative to reform the patent process. The NAM did so with a sophisticated public relations campaign that celebrated past inventions as pioneering achievements under the existing patent system, thereby portraying most reform as unnecessary. The second essay, by Mark R. Wilson, contemplates the “privatization” of American military procurement. Contrary to most accounts, the evolution of the “military-industrial complex” did not follow a linear trajectory. During the Progressive era, the military developed “in-house” production facilities for war material (p. 80-81). Yet it subsequently reversed course, relying once again on private contractors; this corresponded to the anti-statist turn of the post-World War II period. The third essay, by Richard John and Jason Scott Smith, highlights the work of Thomas McCraw, a leading scholar in the history of America’s political economy. Over a long and prolific career, McCraw “helped lay the foundations” for the now-burgeoning “history of capitalism” (p. 116).

The third part contains three essays that focus on business and economic development. The first, by Tami J. Friedman, uncovers a significant division in business ranks over federal involvement in the post-World War II economy. Decades before the Reagan administration, national business organizations (e.g. the USCC) were articulating an ideology of “free enterprise” and criticizing federal largesse. Yet some local and regional business interests, notably in the Northeast where industries were already failing, welcomed federal aid. The second essay, by Brent Cebul, presents an analogous story set in postwar rural Georgia. Here, business leaders formed local and regional associations to pursue federal funding for development projects. This represented a continuation of the “supply-side liberalism” of the New Deal (p. 143). The third essay, by Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, examines the efforts of business leaders in southern and western states to tailor higher education systems to their interests. This involved complex dealings with political and educational leaders, and while the systems expanded greatly, tensions over the purpose of higher education persisted.

The three essays in part four address business and liberalism. The first, by Jennifer Delton, exposes an internecine struggle between “conservatives” and “liberals” in the NAM during the 1950s and ‘60s. Liberals argued that business needed to balance profitability with “social responsibility,” which conservatives roundly condemned (p. 182). For a brief time, the liberal viewpoint held sway in the historically conservative NAM. In the second essay, Eric R. Smith chronicles the campaign of “Business Executives Move for Peace” (BEM) against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. BEM played a unique role in the antiwar movement, employing economic arguments and distinct tactics. In the final essay, Pamela Walker Laird shows how business responded to the mandate for workplace equality in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Initially, businesses complied to protect their interests, but as time went on, they came to champion diversity as a corporate value, going beyond the governmental mandate.

As a collection of essays focused on select topics, this is not a comprehensive account of the relationship between business and politics in twentieth-century America, nor does it purport to be. Rather, its purpose is to challenge the conventional wisdom about the American political economy by highlighting oft-overlooked complexities. In whole, the essays do this. They evidence extensive research, especially in primary sources, and their arguments are generally well presented. For their part, the editors provide a very useful framework for the essays. The work certainly contains points that are up for debate, yet these do not detract from its value; in fact, they represent opportunities for future scholarly engagement. In addition to scholars, undergraduate courses in business history could benefit from this work, as the essays are quite accessible and ideal for class discussion. In all, this is a fine scholarly contribution.

Erik Benson is the author of Aviator of Fortune: Lowell Yerex and the Anglo-American Commercial Rivalry, 1931-46 (2006), a study of a pioneering airline entrepreneur. He is continuing research in the history of flight, and serves on the editorial staff of Essays in Economic and Business History.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (July 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Business History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War

Author(s):MacDonald, Alexander
Reviewer(s):Salter, Alexander

Published by EH.Net (June 2017)

Alexander MacDonald, The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. xi + 258 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-300-21932-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Alexander Salter, Rawls College of Business, Texas Tech University.

Alexander MacDonald, an economic historian trained at Oxford currently working as an economist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and as Senior Economic Advisor with NASA, has written an exciting account of the development of space capability in the United States.  MacDonald’s scholarship is both readable and precise, and this thesis — that private initiative in space has historically been much greater than recognized — certainly challenges conventional interpretations in the literature on the economics of space policy.

In the Introduction, MacDonald makes clear he is undertaking an ambitious project.  The conventional wisdom holds that space exploration was primarily driven by governments, and in particular by competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  The U.S.’s victory with the Apollo 11 landing, and eventual triumph with the waning and collapse of the Soviet Union, saw public activity in space shrink during the latter decades of the twentieth century, with private activity (privately funded commercial and exploratory ventures) just picking up in the first decades of the twenty-first.  MacDonald seeks to turn this narrative on its head.  Instead of government being the senior partner in space exploration and private initiative the junior, MacDonald shows how “if we look at the history of America space exploration on a longer timescale, a very different history emerges — one in which personal initiative and private funding is the dominant trend and government funding a recent one” (p. 3).  This justifies the author’s chosen title: the Space Age is “Long” because it cannot be fully understood without reference to private initiative in funding observatories, the major space exploration technology to precede spacecraft, dating back to the late eighteenth century.

MacDonald begins by surveying the history of celestial observation in America, from colonial days until the mid-nineteenth century.  He does an excellent job of detailing the rise of civic (community-funded) observatories, as well as the subtle shifts in public motives behind celestial exploration.  Most surprising, however, is the statistical information presented in the beginning of the chapter (pp. 15-19).  By adjusting the expenditures on observatories to capture changes in purchasing power (using an index more relevant to large capital outlays, rather than consumer expenditures), and then showing what the equivalent expenditure today would have to be in order for observatory expenditures to remain a constant share of GDP, MacDonald shows that private initiative was capable of mobilizing vast resources.  For example, expenditures on the Lick Observatory, finished in 1876, totaled $188 million in adjusted dollars.  The equivalent expenditure in 2015, as a percentage of GDP, would be over $1.5 billion, making this expenditure larger than many major NASA missions (pp. 14-16).  Altogether, MacDonald shows that expenditure on space-related observational activities from 1820 to 1940 was overwhelmingly private: 96.6% of funds were supplied by the private sector.  The picture that emerges from these statistics, and the narrative to follow, portrays the dominance of private (individual and community-led) initiative in celestial observation.

The second chapter continues the narrative of the development of American observatories, going up until the 1940’s.  One theme of this chapter is the changing means by which observatories were financed, beginning with community-based, and widely-purchased, subscription options, and later moving predominantly to large grants from wealthy philanthropists.  Others include the tensions between community members and professional astronomers in how observatories were used, and the public motives of politicians, astronomers, and the ordinary public in seeing these projects to fruition.

Chapter 3 focuses on the fundraising strategies of aerospace and rocketing pioneer Robert Goddard.  This is the narrowest of the chapters in terms of focus, and perhaps the one least easy to square with MacDonald’s thesis of private initiative in space exploration.  This is because a good deal of Goddard’s funding came from military contracts during and after the First World War.  However, it’s important to note — as MacDonald does — that most funding for Goddard’s projects did come from private sources, most notably the personal fortune of mining magnate Daniel Guggenheim, and later the Guggenheim Foundation (p. 155).

The final chapter brings us to the popular conception of the Space Age: 1957 (Sputnik) and beyond.  MacDonald analyzes national space programs, focusing on that of the United States, as driven by signaling, rather than national prestige per se (pp. 161-163).  MacDonald presents a simple model of two nations competing for allies.  Potential allies want to ally with the stronger of the two nations, but this information is incomplete and asymmetrically distributed.  The two courter nations can signal power by investing in a successful space program.  A successful space program is a good signal because, as the saying goes, such a program is “costly to make and costly to fake.”  MacDonald also analyzes late- and post-Cold War space activities in terms of signaling, although for obvious reasons the precise information to be signaled, and the goals for signaling in the first place, differed from the periods of fiercest competition with the U.S.S.R.

The Conclusion summarizes the arguments and reasserts MacDonald’s chief contribution: showing that private initiative was massively more important, relative to politically-led signaling efforts during the Space Race, to developing space capability than previously thought.  MacDonald also comments on the implications of his arguments for twenty-first century space policy.  Examples include resisting the temptation to rebuild existing organizations, such as NASA, on lines identical to those that existed in these organizations’ heyday, and instead embrace organizational novelty in the development of space capability, as well as recognizing that the private sector can play a much larger role than previously appreciated.

Overall, MacDonald succeeds in his arguments.  He convincingly shows that early astronomical observation was not a separate phenomenon from the later Space Age, but a necessary precursor that should be seen as contiguous with it.  I have only two quibbles with the book.  The first has to do with the discontinuity, for lack of a better word, between the first two chapters and the remaining chapters.  Chapters one and two form a single coherent narrative, whereas the transition to Goddard’s work and the Space Race can sometimes feel like add-ons.  However, this is probably an unavoidable result of a work that has the courage to be eclectic and wide-ranging in scope, and it does not distract from the thesis.  The second quibble has to do with MacDonald’s analysis of signaling and intrinsic motivation, especially in chapter four.  MacDonald introduces these concepts in the Introduction, seemingly indicating that they will be doing substantial work throughout.  But the heaviest lifting has to wait until his analysis of the Space Race.  I agree with MacDonald that these economic tools can shed vital light on the episodes in question; I only wish they had been as extensively applied in chapters one through three as in chapter four.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend MacDonald’s work to any scholars who are interested in issues at the intersection of political economy, economic history, and space issues.  In conjunction with the literature on the feasibility of private legal orders in space (e.g., Buxton 2004; Coffey 2009; Cooper 2003; Hertzfeld and von der Dunk 2005; Hudgins 2002; Salter, 2016, 2017; Salter and Leeson 2014; Simberg 2012a, 2012b; White 2003), MacDonald’s work can and should be used to make the case that private initiative will continue to be an invaluable component of space policy and engagement in the twenty-first century.


Buxton, Carol R.  2004.  Property in Outer Space: The Common Heritage of Mankind Principle vs. the First in Time, First in Right, Rule of Property. Journal of Air Law and Commerce 69: 689-708.

Coffey, Sarah. 2009. Establishing a Legal Framework for Property Rights to Natural Resources in Outer Space. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 41(1): 119-147.

Cooper, Lawrence A. 2003. Encouraging Space Exploration through a New Application of Space Property Rights. Space Policy 19(2): 111-118.

Hertzfeld, Henry R., and Frans G. von der Dunk.  2005.  Bringing Space Law into the Commercial World: Property Rights without Sovereignty. Chicago Journal of  International Law 6: 81-100.

Hudgins, Edward L., eds.  2002.  Space: The Free Market Frontier.  Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

Salter, Alexander W.  2016.  Space Debris: A Law and Economics Analysis of the Orbital Commons. Stanford Technology Law Review 19(2): 221-238.

Salter, Alexander W.  2017.  Ordering the Cosmos: Private Law and Celestial Property Rights.  Journal of Air Law and Commerce, forthcoming.

Salter, Alexander W. and Leeson, Peter T. 2014. Celestial Anarchy: A Threat to Outer Space Commerce? Cato Journal 34(3): 581-596.

Simberg, Rand. 2012a. Homesteading the Final Frontier: A Practical Proposal for Securing Property Rights in Space. Competitive Enterprise Institute, Issue Analysis No. 3.

Simberg, Rand.  2012b. Property Rights in Space. The New Atlantis: 20-31.

White, W. N. Jr. 2003.  Interpreting Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.  Paper presented at the 54th International Astronautical Conference.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (June 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII