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Muddied Waters: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Management of Forests and Fisheries in Island Southeast Asia

Author(s):Boomgaard, Peter
Henley, David
Osseweijer, Manon
Reviewer(s):Nawiyanto, S.

Published by EH.NET (August 2006)


Peter Boomgaard, David Henley and Manon Osseweijer, editors, Muddied Waters: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Management of Forests and Fisheries in Island Southeast Asia. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2005. viii + 418 pp. ?35 (paperback), ISBN: 90-6718-243-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by S. Nawiyanto, Division of Pacific and Asian History, RSPAS, Australian National University and Department of History, Jember University, Indonesia.

This book is edited by three prominent scholars in Southeast Asian studies. Peter Boomgaard is Professor of Environmental History of Southeast Asia at the University of Amsterdam and senior researcher at the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology (KITLV) in Leiden. David Henley is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). Manon Osseweijer is academic affairs coordinator at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden. This volume is the outcome of a workshop on “Sustainability and Depletion in Island Southeast Asia: Forests and Fisheries, Past and Present,” held in Leiden in 2002 and is the sequel to a pioneering work, entitled Paper Landscapes: Explorations in the Environmental History of Indonesia (Boomgaard, Henley, and Colombijn, 1997). The two volumes, however, are quite different. Drawn heavily upon archival and published materials, the earlier work focused on historical developments exerting great influence on current environmental realities. The present volume, by contrast, puts a much stronger emphasis on contemporary conditions, and is strongly supported by close observation through field work and experience as “muddy-boots environmentalists.” It contains sixteen contributions, organized under two headings — fisheries (six papers) and forests (eight papers), preceded by two introductory papers by Henley and Osseweijer, and by Fox, which make this collection of papers systematically hang together well.

By focusing the history of human-environment relationships in Southeast Asia, this volume seeks to identify several preconditions for sustainable marine and forest resource uses. It wrestles with a complex of broad questions: Why did the exploitation of forest and marine resources in the past have limited consequences on the environment? Did these limited consequences result from better management and institutions in the past? Or did it have something to do with lower population densities, less developed markets and less efficient extraction technology? It is surely not an easy task to establish conclusive answers to these questions due primarily to the unavailability or unreliability of statistical data on resources. Such problems are paramount particularly in the section on fisheries. But quite surprisingly, similar problems still persist, even in contemporary forest statistics. In the fisheries section, most papers focus on Indonesia, while other countries are only cursorily discussed. There is no paper specifically dealing with fisheries in the Philippines, which obviously makes up one major part of the island Southeast Asia. In this connection, the forests section is much more balanced with the inclusion of various contributions specifically discussing forest issues in island Southeast Asian countries other than Indonesia.

Despite the imbalance, contributions in the fisheries section are able to grasp core issues in this sector. One major view arising from most papers concerns the issues of declining marine resources. A macro study by Butcher argues that a great variety of marine populations in Southeast Asia had been on the decline since 1850, but steep decreases took place only from around 1960. Butcher’s argument is adequately supported with evidence taken from across the region, such as rays and slipmouths in the Gulf of Thailand, flying fish off the southwest coast of Sulawesi, fusiliers and groupers in the Philippines and Indonesia, and trepang and shellfish in many places in Southeast Asia. According to Butcher, this depletion was the result of improved boats and fishing gear and rising numbers of fishing vessels, marking what Butcher describes as “the great fish race.” Boomgaard’s study suggests a relatively similar view, stating that particular marine species, with a special reference to trepang and turtles, experienced depletion only in the last decade of the twentieth century. But, unlike Butcher’s broad assertion of little impact of human activities on marine populations until 1850, Boomgaard suggests that local depletion of fish stocks might have appeared much earlier — beginning around 1600.

The use of resources, however, is not the only variable in the question of marine resource sustainability. There are other factors that also exert great influence on the issue of resource sustainability. On the basis of the Singapore case, Reeves and Reeves argue that the development of this island as a multi-faceted port city caused the demise of inshore and culture fisheries. The ways in which marine resources were managed and with which groups the control over resources rested, however, seem to be key issues requiring broader investigation. Atun?s’ micro study on Kei Besar, Maluku clearly demonstrates that changes in power relationships and wealth distribution in the community-based resource management system led to unsustainable exploitation. In his study on island Riau, Osseweijer underlines that a complex of problems, including the lack of consensus among state institutions, different points of view between government and fishing communities, and the growing environmental problems, inhibits the success of the state in promoting sustainable marine development. A study by Arnscheidt on marine conservation in Indonesia argues that the inability of the government to create effective communication among bureaucrats was responsible for the failure of the well-designed marine protected areas to promote the sustainable use of resources.

The section on forests provides much deeper and detailed insights into the questions of resource depletion and sustainability, reflecting the longer and more established academic interests and concerns about this topic. Deforestation and biodiversity loss are in focus in many contributions and there seems to be some agreement on certain issues. One of them is the consensus about the rapid rate of natural forest and biodiversity loss in many parts of inland Southeast Asia from the second half of the twentieth century, despite diverse estimates of the exact rates due to data limitations and other methodological problems. Strongly voiced in part by Fox’s study, the two trends are well-discussed either together or separately in broad studies by Boomgaard on Indonesian forests, by Aiken on Peninsular Malaysian forests, by Kummer on Philippine forests, and also in more regional studies by Persoon and Wakker on Sumatran forests, and by Potter on Kalimantan forests. As most papers suggest, the assault of the Southeast Asian forest was caused by the combined forces of population growth, commercialization, and technological advances.

But, as the section shows, the relationship between population, commercialization, and technology on one side and deforestation on the other is often more complicated than what has been previously thought. As Henley underlines in the introductory chapter, the role of these structural forces is ambivalent and is also greatly affected by other variables including property rights, economic development, and resources management systems. Under particular circumstances, demographic and commercial pressures stimulated sustainable forms of forest resource use and provided incentives for conservation. Aiken observes that in Peninsular Malaysia the rate of deforestation has declined with the successful achievement of economic development, despite continuing commercialization. Kummer notes that in several parts of the Philippines, extensive reforestation took place in the 1990s under the farmers’ own initiatives in response to market opportunities. But, Budidarsono and Burgers highlight that in Java during the crisis and Reformasi era, demographic and commercial pressures brought an alarming increase in deforested areas.

The contributions on forests also cast a new light on the role of the state in the context of resource sustainability. What emerges from the discussion is that there is no single, uniform conclusion on this issue. Boomgaard notes that in Indonesia the Dutch colonial state was relatively successful in achieving sustainable use of teak forests, but that was no longer the case for the state after independence. Fox’s contribution suggests that the Indonesian state during both colonial and post-colonial period was responsible for the sandalwood depletion. Similarly, Kummer describes the Philippines as a good example of a state with a policy of “how not to manage natural resources.” Two other studies by Henley on sago in pre-colonial Sulawesi and Colombijn on non-timber forest products in pre-1870 Sumatra provide examples of the successful role of ‘pre-colonial states” in promoting sustainable use of forest resources. Henley argues that in certain cases, direct state control and effective government agents are preconditions required for successful management of resources. Meanwhile, Colombijn underlines that sustainable exploitation of non-timber forest products depended also on other factors including the regenerative power of the crops, geographical distribution, and mode of collection.

On the whole, Muddied Waters offers an invaluable contribution to the environmental study of Southeast Asia. It joins pioneering efforts on the environmental history of the region in general and Indonesia in particular to expand the historical horizon beyond conventional interests. Henley and Colombijn’s contributions, in particular, provide excellent model of the historical study on non-timber forest resources and pre-colonial management systems, important issues that have frequently been neglected. For environmental studies, this volume provides a better understanding of the historical roots of contemporary environmental issues. Deforestation, overfishing, and biodiversity loss obviously are not new, but phenomena that have deep historical roots in colonial times. What makes them look new is the scale and intensity of problems and the fast-growing role of human agency in changing the environment, either for good or bad. For resource management studies, this volume brings a new awareness that there is basically no single panacea — either centralized state, decentralized or community-based management — for marine and forest resource depletion in order to achieve a sustainable level of resource use. Effective resource management in the present context seems to require a balance combining multiple parties, interests and institutions. This balance, however, should be flexible both in spatial and temporal settings, given the characteristically different ecological, economic, and socio-political circumstances from one locality to another. The volume is also well illustrated with photographs from early and more recent times, taking the readers’ imagination through time and helping their understanding of the region, its people and its changing environment.

S. Nawiyanto is a Ph.D. student in the Division of Pacific and Asian History, RSPAS, Australian National University, Canberra and lecturer in the Department of History, Jember University, Indonesia. He is currently writing his thesis on the environmental history of Besuki residency, East Java, Indonesia. His publications include: “The Economy of Besuki during the 1930s Depression,” in P. Boomgaard and I. Brown, editors, Weathering the Storms: The Economies of Southeast Asia in the 1930s Depression (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000); Translator, Fondasi Historis Ekonomi Indonesia [Historical Foundations of a National Economy], edited by J.T. Lindblad (Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar, 2002); Agricultural Development in a Frontier Region of Java: Besuki, 1870-Early 1970 (Yogyakarta: Galang Press, 2003); The Rising Sun in a Javanese Rice Granary: Change and Impact of Japanese Occupation on the Agricultural Economy of Besuki Residency 1942-1945 (Yogyakarta: Galang Press, 2005); “Responses to the Crises in a Javanese Frontier Society: Besuki’s Experience in Historical Perspective” (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Irrigation Development and Agrarian Change: A Study of Sindh, Pakistan

Author(s):Perera, Jayantha
Reviewer(s):Naseem, Anwar

Published by EH.NET (May 2006)

Jayantha Perera, Irrigation Development and Agrarian Change: A Study of Sindh, Pakistan. Jaipur and New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2003. 312 pp. Rupees 595 (hardcover), ISBN: 81-7033-814-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Anwar Naseem, Department of Agricultural Economics, McGill University.

The objective of Jayantha Perera’s book is to “examine irrigation development and agricultural change in the last 150 years in the lower Indus basin” (p. 27). To this end Perera presents a detailed historical account of irrigation development in Pakistan’s Sindh province, covering both the physical and institutional aspects. The underlying theme of the book is that the development of irrigation in Sindh has not only been influenced by the attributes of the physical landscape, but just as importantly by the contemporary institutional, socio-economic and political setup of the province. Perera argues — and convincingly so — that throughout much of Sindh’s modern history, the physical changes brought about by irrigation have been a consequence of the larger institutional context, in particular the relationships of the different stakeholders to each other.

By presenting a more holistic and historical account of irrigation development, Perera makes the case that infrastructure development projects must not be evaluated on economic criteria alone (as they often are) but need to take into account their impact on social relationships, especially those between the state and the different economic and political groups. A key insight of the book is that in Sindh the dominant forces in such relationships have — more often than not — influenced the development of irrigation in ways that preserve the inequitable status quo favoring primarily the state and large land-holding classes.

This principal theme is meticulously built in the nine chapters of the book, written from a anthropologist’s point of view by chronologically detailing (from the nineteenth century to the present) the development of irrigation and analyzing how each major irrigation initiative influenced the socio-economic conditions of Sindhi society.

The introductory chapter presents some facts about the lower Indus river basin and outlines the scope of the study. Sindh province is the southernmost delta of the Indus River, which runs from northeast to southwest through present-day Pakistan and has played an important role in the irrigation system and agricultural development of the region, which is still evolving. In understanding agrarian change brought about by irrigation development, Perera seeks to examine the inter-play of the increased involvement of the state in irrigation, geo-physical improvements to the irrigation infrastructure, and the social dynamics of the competing and cooperative interests of different groups in agricultural development. Perera discusses the changing mosaic of these characteristics over the course of the different periods, broadly differentiating between the colonial and post-independence periods.

Chapter 2 focuses on irrigation policies and development under the British. Prior to the arrival of the British, Sindh had only a rudimentary irrigation system, relying mainly on the annual flooding of the Indus. This did not cause the British much concern as agricultural development was not considered the principal aim of their conquest of Sindh in 1843. Their real economic aim was to transform the province into a commercial hub based on a progressive and free-market economy. Realizing that Sindh was an inferior candidate to the neighboring port of Bombay for such a purpose, the imperial focus shifted to developing agriculture — specifically irrigated agriculture — as a way of generating revenues.

The imperatives of the new strategy involved the maintenance of law and order, development of irrigation infrastructure and assigning property rights to collect revenues. Law and order was effectively maintained through the appeasement of the local elite by bestowing upon them special titles and honors. With the populace largely under their control, the British embarked on irrigation development in the province that often progressed more through trial and error than based on well-laid-out blueprints. Yet, by the end of the colonial period, Sindh could boast of a state-run irrigation infrastructure built almost from the scratch.

The author uses his anthropologist’s insight to good effect in exploring the impact of the different irrigation policies and projects implemented by the British on agrarian society in some detail in chapter 3. He focuses on two sets of relationship clusters — the one between the British rulers and the local elite/landholders and the other between landholders and those who cultivated the land. Perera finds that the British were conflicted in their twin objectives of promoting a free market economy and maximizing revenue collection, on the one hand, and of maintaining law and order on the other. The conflict compelled them to woo the local landlords, who were their main political support base. This, however, had the perverse effect of perpetuating the feudal system even though the British initially had set out “to curb the powers of Jagirdars [landowners] by promoting the emergence of an independent peasantry as a counter group in Sindh” (p. 74)

Three chapters of the book (Chapters 4 to 6) are devoted to a detailed history of irrigation, drainage and land policies (and their development) in the post independence period. After a discussion of the various irrigation projects undertaken by Pakistan under the Indus Basin Water Treaty with India and the financial support of the World Bank, Chapter 4 reviews the evolution of irrigation policies in Pakistan in three major phases. While the first phase (1947-1970’s), concentrated on building the irrigation infrastructure, the second (1970’s to 1990) focused on farm management of water resources and finally the last fifteen years have been devoted to improving the efficiency of the irrigation and drainage system.

A major adverse consequence of the expansion of irrigation in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, was waterlogging and salinity which rendered large areas of land uncultivable. The author was closely involved as a resident social scientist in the World Bank-funded Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) Project launched in the 1980s to deal with this serious threat to agricultural productivity. Perera reports that due to the LBOD project irrigation water supplies increased dramatically from 1983 to 1992 and that by the end of 1997 there was a considerable decline in the water table in the project areas. While the project’s technical efficiency was undeniable, the author finds that it was not unassailable on grounds of equity. It failed to consider the impacts of highly skewed land distribution, the concentration of political power of large landholders and, despite the rhetoric of more farmer participation, an overly hierarchical operational structure. For example, while water supplies had increased by 1992, they began to precipitously decline from that point on as “some influential politicians in Punjab had diverted more than their authorized water allocations to their large tracts of lands causing this reversal of water supplies in the lower Sindh” (p. 151). The equitable distribution of water among provinces continues to be a hot political issue in Pakistan today. Perera’s book provides a useful insight into the political and regional dimensions of this issue.

Perhaps, the weakest chapter of the book, Chapter 6, is the one which examines how the improved irrigation and drainage programs impacted productivity and growth in the post-independence period. The chapter presents many statistical details about changes in cropping intensities, cropping patterns, cultivated area, yields and other production indicators. Unfortunately, theses figures are presented in a disjointed manner that will cause the reader difficulty in appreciating the correlation between irrigation and agricultural production. A more rigorous analysis of the trends over the entire post-independence period would be needed to demonstrate the social profitability of the LBOD and other projects.

The most perceptive and interesting chapters of the book, in this reviewer’s view, are chapters 7 and 8, which provide a narrative of his observations about how the Sindhi farmers involve themselves in the operation and maintenance of irrigation canals. Chapter 7 provides a glimpse into the role water and its allocation between the different farmer groups plays in the daily lives of the people. Perera highlights property rights issues and the responsibilities of the groups for maintenance of facilities. He also deals with the nature of conflicts and the mechanisms of their resolution. Here, too, the author cites examples of how the inequitable distribution of land and political power subverts the writ of the state and consequently the efficient allocation of water resources. Chapter 8 discusses the relationships among three main economic classes in rural Sindh, namely the Zamindars (landholders), haris (sharecroppers) and the wage laborers. While the relationships among these groups are very hierarchical, there are hopeful signs that the situation could improve. At one level the increased off-farm opportunities for haris and small Zamindars may shift the balance of power away from the large Zamindars who would have to offer more favorable terms to haris. Secondly the expansion of cultivated land through irrigation has led to upward mobility for some landless wage laborers as they become haris, which would not have been possible without irrigation. However, there is very little empirical evidence cited to show that these theoretical possibilities are being realized.

In the concluding chapter, Perera offers competing perspectives on the impact of irrigation development in rural Sindh. There is little doubt that the expansion of irrigation has brought more land under cultivation and increased productivity which, in turn, has had a positive impact on poverty reduction and higher incomes for farmers. But this positive effect has led to more land becoming uncultivable due to waterlogging and salinity-a direct consequence of expanded irrigation-and raises legitimate concerns of the sustainability of irrigated agriculture. Similarly given the skewed land distribution, the increases in income have helped primarily the large landholders become even richer. However this too needs to be evaluated in the context of better income and employment opportunities that have become available for the landless class. The author suggests some policy reforms that would result in more efficient and equitable use of water resources. These include market mechanisms such as demand-driven distribution of water and increased investment by the private sector. While these and other measures are surely needed they are unlikely to come about any time soon. The political power of the two groups who stand to lose the most (the bureaucracy and large landholders) is too strong to allow for any meaningful reform.

Notwithstanding the deficiencies in economic analysis pointed out in this review, Perera’s book provides a useful and holistic perspective on the socioeconomic impact of infrastructure development for the case of irrigation development in Sindh.

Anwar Naseem is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, McGill University, Montreal. His recent works include “Does Plant Variety Intellectual Property Protection Improve Farm Productivity? Evidence from Cotton Varieties” (with J.F. Oehmke and D.E. Schimmelpfennig) AgBioForum (2005) and “Biotechnology R&D: Policy Options to Ensure Access and Benefits for the Poor” (with C.E. Pray) FAO Working Paper 2004.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Henry George’s Legacy in Economic Thought

Author(s):Laurent, John
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.NET (May 2006)


John Laurent, editor, Henry George’s Legacy in Economic Thought. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005. vii + 271 pp. $110 (hardcover), ISBN:1-84376-885-2

Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

This book, edited by John Laurent (University of Southern Queensland, Australia), contains eleven essays dealing with highly diverse aspects of the ideas of Henry George, the nineteenth century American economic reformer. Several of the contributors are Australians, in whose country George had a significant influence on public policy. Although George is little known today, these essays demonstrate that he was significant in the history of economics and that his ideas have some relevance to contemporary issues. George’s most famous work was Progress and Poverty (1879), which I summarize next before reviewing the book at hand.

Henry George’s Progress and Poverty

George tried to explain the paradox of persistent poverty amidst economic progress; he sought an alternative to Laissez Faire, which he understood to justify the inevitability of poverty. Laissez Faire, as theory, rested on a triple base: the wages-fund theory, Malthusian population theory and Ricardo’s rent theory. The first held that wages were paid from a pool of funds set aside by employers. This left the worker beholden to the employer class and devoid of any claim to the economic output that workers themselves produced. Malthusian theory held that population would outrun food production, thus driving wages down to subsistence (i.e., the wages-fund would be divided among more and more workers). Finally, Ricardo’s rent theory held that fertile land would reap higher and higher rents as farmers bid more and more for the right to till the better land; growing population would intensify the bidding for fertile land as more marginal land was forced into production. George emphasized that these theories had an ethical meaning: “poverty, want, and starvation are by this theory not chargeable either to individual greed or to social maladjustments; they are the inevitable results of universal laws, with which … it were as hopeless to quarrel as with the law of gravitation” (George, Progress and Poverty, p. 99). George set out to show that because two of these laws were wrong, poverty was not inevitable; further, poverty could be ended by just laws that captured land rents for the public good.

In his attack on the wages-fund, George argued that workers are paid from current production — i.e., workers had a legitimate claim on what they produced, and what they produced was growing, not a static fund. In this approach George anticipated modern income and product accounts, which treat wages as charges against production. In his attack on Malthusianism, George argued that injustice, not over-population, was the cause of poverty. In fact, claimed George, denser populations resulted in more productive industry. Although his discussion of productivity increases is not entirely clear, George seemed to invoke what are now known as urbanization economies, which occur when economic activity is densely concentrated. Productivity would far outpace Malthusian population growth, he thought.

Although productivity growth ought to have made all people richer, this was not occurring because landlords were reaping most of the gains, which were generated by the creativity of society itself. Without lifting a finger, land owners collected rising land rents and land prices as a more productive economy, needing space, drove up the value of good locations. In short, George generalized Ricardo’s rent theory beyond an agricultural framework.

George thus attributed poverty in the midst of highly productive societies to the inequality created by huge land rents. This could not be morally justified, he argued. First, poverty itself was so distorting of human goodness, that it should not be tolerated if a remedy could be had (e.g., George, p. 461). Secondly, absolute private-property rights to land were wrong because “no one can be rightfully entitled to the ownership of which is not the produce of his labor [i.e., land]” (George, p. 336). Land, which is not produced by any human, is part of the common heritage of all. He said “the unjust distribution of wealth” (George, p. 342) was due to the “fundamental wrong” of land ownership.

His solution to this was a steep tax on the value of land. Set high enough to capture all rents for society, he thought that a land tax could replace other taxes; because of this, others dubbed it the “Single Tax.” George never advocated outright expropriation of land, recognizing that society could capture the fruits of progress without government ownership. Though some considered this socialistic, it was decidedly non-Marxian, for capitalists were as victimized by landlords as were laborers.

George also refuted the restatement of Laissez Faire presented by the Social Darwinists. He referred to the “hopeful fatalism” of popular Social Darwinism, in which social evils “are the impelling causes which drive man on, by eliminating poorer types,” relying on “hereditary transmission” through fitter individuals who shape society (George, p. 480). But, he said, this argument comes face to face with “an enormous fact,” namely that civilizations generally don’t progress (p. 481-2): “If progress is to be the result of fixed laws, inevitable and eternal, which impel men forward, how shall we account for [retrograde civilizations] ” (George, p. 482)? George concluded that “what has destroyed all previous civilizations has been the conditions produced by the growth of civilization itself” (George, p. 488). In nineteenth-century western nations, the obvious civilization-destroyer in his view would have been private appropriation of land rent (George, p.514).

Review of Henry George’s Legacy in Economic Thought

Henry George’s Legacy divides into chapters devoted to George’s connection to the ideas of his own time and chapters considering current issues where his ideas might be relevant. The introductory chapter provides a very useful outline of George’s influence in Australia and New Zealand and a short introduction to most of the issues considered in later chapters.

In the second chapter, Erin McLaughlin-Jenkins dissects the 1890s attack on Henry George by an aging Thomas Huxley, well-known defender of Darwinism and capitalism. Determined to blast socialism, Huxley chose to refute George, whom he erroneously considered a socialist; George was even lower in Huxley’s estimation for also daring to question the way Darwinism had been applied to social thought. McLaughlin-Jenkins argues that Huxley erroneously claimed George followed Rousseau, misrepresented George as a leveler, advanced a fictitious history of property to justify vested land interests, and generally missed the point of George’s Progress and Poverty. Huxley also used physical-science concepts mostly to obfuscate the issues and support the wages-fund. According to McLaughlin-Jenkins, Huxley — an agnostic — was also angered by George’s temerity in noting the similarity between Darwinist social thought and that of “the natural theologians whose authority the Darwinians had undermined in the first half of the century” (Laurent, p. 47). In short, Huxley’s stance on capitalism and science, which had once been progressive, had become reactionary by the 1890s. The essay illustrates beautifully how often special pleading passed as social analysis in the nineteenth century. Perhaps George was wrong, but not for Huxley’s reasons.

The Duke of Argyll was a class-interest reactionary, who defended the landed aristocracy against George. The chapter on the Duke on Argyll by Warren Samuels, Kirk Johnson and Marianne Johnson roams leisurely through the social and intellectual landscape of Argyll’s writing and George’s reactions. (Only 13 pages of a 48-page essay are expressly devoted to Argyll’s writings; the rest sets the context of the debate at great length.) The essay points out Argyll’s essentially feudal view of relations between landowners and renters, and his assertion that landownership itself is productive activity. Argyll also sought to legitimate existing patterns of land ownership, despite their checkered history. Again, this chapter is less about George and his ideas than about the reaction of vested interests to him. The chapter also usefully points out how elastic natural-law arguments could be: both Argyll and George made natural-law arguments about land rights, yet drew opposite conclusions.

Another historical essay, by John Laurent, asks whether George was an evolutionary economist. Laurent, who draws from George’s later essays, reviews the many points at which George showed familiarity with and interacted with evolutionary ideas, which were Malthusian in nature. Laurent questions why George rejected Malthusian population theory, given that population pressure drove the rent increases that were central to his own theory. Laurent notes what I consider the central reason, namely that George rejected Malthus for moral reasons: Malthusianism made poverty “inevitable” and so absolved society of ethical responsibility for poverty. Yet, despite this insight, Laurent still seems to think George should have appreciated the contribution of Malthus to his own theory. Here, I would disagree; George did not need Malthusian population growth to create land rents. My reading of George’s model does not have rising rents resulting from rising population, per se. Rather George explained rising rents as the result of increasing productivity due to increasing population density (and perhaps other causes) rather than due to population as such (see Progress and Poverty, Book IV, II).

Laurent shows that over his life-time George had a strong grasp of evolutionary ideas and agreed in some places with the Social Darwinists. However, in making an assessment, most weight probably should be given to George’s major work, Progress and Poverty, which is distinctly negative toward Social Darwinism. In that work, George, the religious humanist, objected to the materialistic and reductionist tendencies in Darwinism. Also, he rejected Lamarkian ideas held by Social Darwinists (correctly observing that a “child no more inherits his father’s knowledge than he inherits his father’s glass eye”). And he rejected the evolutionary implication that societies invariably progress (which would have portrayed nineteenth-century industrial economies as the apex of human development). In fact, he argued, most societies become static and decline; in his era, that decline would be due to land-ownership laws that divert the fruits of progress to an unproductive landlord class.

A chapter by Rob Knowles demonstrates that George’s ideas could be translated into another idiom. Knowles argues that Leo Tolstoy appropriated many of George’s ideas to advance his own reform agenda for Russia. Perhaps the largest lesson of these historical chapters is that George was seen through the lenses that contemporary readers brought with them to his writings. However, the second portion of Henry George’s Legacy shows that George’s ideas can also emerge in modern debates as well.

Laurence Moss’s chapter argues that the increment in land values caused by social progress, which George identified, may provide a way to fund public goods (provided they bestow most benefits on those located closest). Moss observes the standard economic result that projects with public-good characteristics may go undone in the absence of subsidy. However, if a proposed real-estate development with public-good characteristics promises to raise the value of surrounding locations, the developer who owned the surrounding properties could provide the public good and be compensated by the gains in surrounding property values. Moss notes that “the private provision of public goods … is one of the most stunning accomplishments of private entrepreneurs in the post-war U.S. economy” (Laurent, p. 163). Indeed, planned communities (e.g. Columbia, MD) have been developed on this principle. Although his interpretation stands Henry George on his head, Moss credits him with identifying the phenomenon.

In the first of a pair of articles, John Pullen takes a philosophical look at the distinction between private ownership and private possession of land. George believed that his tax proposal would effectively replace private ownership with private possession. Pullen argues that this way of putting it may have been a rhetorical mistake that alienated potential support for George’s ideas; Pullen suggests a term such as “conditional” ownership. In his second chapter, Pullen reviews a series of objections to George’s land-value tax; these range from the philosophical to the pragmatic. His conclusion is that the objections are formidable enough that a thorough-going Single Tax is still unlikely to occur.

Terry Dwyer’s chapter relates land-value taxation to contemporary trends in regulatory economics — specifically the tendency toward privatization of industry with monopoly characteristics. Dwyer notes that bad implications for efficiency of monopoly have dropped from recent discourse as inefficient prices are charged to cover capital investment by privatized monopolies. He argues the efficiency might be restored — as well as a measure of equity — by taxing enhanced land values created by an infrastructure monopoly.

Two concluding chapters argue that heavy taxes on land, of the sort inspired by George, have more relevance in the twenty-first century than before. The essay by Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan and the essay by Phillip Day both argue that a land tax is compatible with environmentalism. As Laurent notes in his introduction, this is a novel interpretation, for George and his followers argued that the Single Tax would encourage more intensive use of land. Typically, they argued that the Single Tax would capture speculative profits from those who held idle land while awaiting for a price rise. A steep tax on land would encourage its development to earn a return to pay the tax. More intense development hardly seems something that would conserve nature. I think a case could be made (perhaps a general-equilibrium analysis to the effect that more intense use of urban land would result in denser use of less land overall). However, the chapter does not set out a model and convincing detail.

These authors also point out that there may be new reasons for considering a land tax that were not relevant in George’s own era. In our era of globalization, taxes on other factors, which have become increasingly mobile, may be shifted. The immobility of land may become a particularly important consideration for taxation policy as taxes on land cannot be shifted. This immobility also means that society suffers no efficiency penalty in taxing land.

None of these authors suggests that George’s recommendations could have radically changed social history. However, each of them shows, in one way or another, that George left a significant legacy in economic thought and policy.

Reference: Henry George. Progress and Poverty (fiftieth anniversary edition), New York: Schalkenbach Foundation, 1936.

Donald Frey is completing a manuscript, America’s Economic Moralists, which includes a discussion of Henry George.


Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000

Author(s):McCann, James C.
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (September 2005)

James C. McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. xiii + 289 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-01718-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Department of History, University of Wisconsin.

A historian and African Studies specialist, James C. McCann has studied in Africa, conducted research there for international philanthropic agencies and written histories of Ethiopia and the African environment. In this book he describes “maize’s historical encounter with the landscapes of Africa” from introduction to its current status as Africa’s dominant food crop. Of concern also is the “implicit question” of whether the New World’s gift of this crop has bestowed a blessing (grace) upon Africa.

More important as a food source in Africa than in comparable entities maize is expected to double production by 2020. It is the world and Africa’s most adapted food crop, thriving in many environmental conditions and farming systems. Some African nations devote more than seventy percent of their cereal acreage to maize. Old African farmers were artisans adapting crop mixes to local ecology, soils, elevation, and moisture. Initially corn was a garden plant valued for early maturity and easy food preparation. In contrast, writes McCann, North America and Europe developed an industrial model pointing to monocropping and use of chemicals to overcome differences in soil capability. As a cereal in Africa, maize displaced wheat and sorghums, less often rice. A great variety of colors, field characteristics, and disease resistance developed in a process of folk selection of seed. Women gardened it; men tended it in field. It had political implications because it could feed armies or support social objectives. Early Africanization produced heterogeneity — now replaced by standardization of cultivation methods, reflecting, says McCann, the political ecology changing from local initiative, through colonialism to globalism. Some unique features remain including the fact that in Africa maize is primarily used as human food. Industrial phase maize is preferred in today’s global system, explains McCann, because it can be controlled by the state and corporate agriculture, features economies of scale, and is comparable across geography and cultures.

In his first chapter McCann introduces the maize plant, explains its American origins, its need for human care in propagation, its five major families — sweet, pop, floury, flint, and dent — and their many colors and characteristics. Africa’s maize crop increased area most strikingly in the twentieth century, particularly since 1950. In some African states it provides more than fifty percent of the food calories. “For better or worse,” writes McCann, “modern genetic alchemy has transformed maize from an obligingly adaptive vegetable crop to a hegemonic leviathan that dominates regional diets and international grain markets” (p. 21).

Documentary evidence of maize’s arrival in Africa as a “stranger” cultivar is fragmentary. Those types introduced reflected the New World contacts of the European nations whose traders worked the African coastlines. A trail of flint types also led from Seville to Venice and thence to Egypt and the Nile valley. The types and varieties later present and regional names for maize left tracks of the introduction process. The speed of acceptance varied; in some of West Africa maize became a basic part of the intercropping, rotation, and burning of pioneer forest agriculture and a slave trade staple. Here floury maize supplanted flints. But in some areas maize long remained a vegetable. With the adoption of African experiment station initials and numbers in naming new varieties it was “no longer the stranger” (p. 38}.

Having covered such introductory matters, McCann describes major features of the crop’s adoption and development in key areas of Africa beginning with the Asante in Ghana where maize fueled that tribe’s “hegemonic growth” (p. 43). Here maize produced two crops a year, fitting into the forest fallow system along with cassava. The Asante’s maize-fed army expanded tribal reach into neighboring savannahs, adapting floury maize to the drier climate. Currently quality protein maize from the Ghana Crop Research Institute is allowing a shift toward monocropping. Despite some differences with Ghana, Nigerian farmers also found that maize produced the greatest returns. But McCann cautions that diversion from “a biodiverse forest ecology to virtual monocropping may be an increasingly fragile” trend (p. 57).

Next McCann provides a discussion of maize in two peasant empires, that occupying the northeastern Ethiopian highlands and the Venetian Republic, the latter enhancing the book’s comparative dimensions. Dominant in the Mediterranean trades, the Venetian elites suffered with the opening of transatlantic connections and diverted investments into the agricultural hinterland. Here, the landlords wished their tenants to produce wheat. But due to peasant resistance and initiative, maize became the primary crop, supporting grain and livestock production and providing the peasant’s major food, a dependence that later produced the scourge of pellagra. In Ethiopia maize remained a garden plant for centuries. Despite some overlord presence, Ethiopian farmers controlled the crop selection on their plots, developing a conservative agrarian culture, its members satisfied with their mix of cereals. Maize emerged as a field crop in the twentieth century along the southern edge of the highlands where commercial production began in the 1930s and a coffee-maize economy developed after World War II. Government controls on coffee during the socialist era, 1974-1991, persuaded many to expand their maize crop, as did demographic crisis and other government policies. By 1991 half of Ethiopia’s cereal production was maize. Italy by the 1990s was the world’s thirteenth leading maize producer, its dent hybrids supporting dairy and meat agroindustries. But in Ethiopia the late turn to maize accompanied “a decline into precarious subsistence” and efforts on the part of the state and international agencies to “break traditional cropping patterns.” If a blessing in Italy, maize was not so in Ethiopia (p. 93).

Southern Africa developed two patterns of maize culture — one of small farms, often operated by women, following a subsistence strategy but also selling surplus grain in competition with large commercial farms in a national market supervised by marketing boards. Maize had arrived in southern Africa by the mid 1600s, Brazilian flints, floury types and North American dents following in sequence by 1900. Dutch settlers brought mechanized agriculture which also revolutionized hinterland native agriculture, maize replacing sorghums. Diamonds, gold, and railroads industrialized the economy and created a national grain market. After World War I, white farmers used open pollinated white dents as a cash crop that provided the “agrarian economic base of the rapid expansion of settlers’ rule in southern Africa.” By 1930 maize had superseded wheat as a cereal in northern South Africa and the families of industrial workers left behind “on impoverished farms in the black homelands” of an apartheid society lived on the local crop (p. 110). Meanwhile white settler farms grew, assisted by price controls, government credit, extension, and marketing activities that encouraged monocropping. So marked was the influence of southern Africa in maize research and administration that white dent became dominant in Africa.

McCann’s last regional story describes the successes of hybrid varieties in Rhodesia and its successor states, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. Learning of American hybrid corn research in the 1930s, plant breeders at the Salisbury Agricultural Research Station in southern Rhodesia began to develop inbred dent lines. Working solely to sustain European-style agriculture they produced a promising parent line in the 1940s, suited to the soils of the white commercial farmers, and continued work when the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland emerged. They released the phenomenally successful hybrid, SR52 in 1960. Only after creation of the Rhodesian heir states, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi did black farmers benefit from improvements in hybrid maize, although the resulting monoculture increased vulnerability to drought. Maize had somewhat different histories in the three states but all (as also Kenya) are now marked by hybrid monocropping, production for a national market, and the major presence of agricultural science.

Interspersed amid the historical accounts of maize in various settings, McCann discusses two crises in African cereal culture. In Sierra Leone in 1949 a devastating attack of American Rust on the maize crop occurred, spreading rapidly over the next several years along the West African Coast and finally reaching Southern Rhodesia, Kenya, and Tanganyika. The villain was P. polysora an American resident but left behind in the Atlantic crossing. Local plant scientists and “multilateral international agencies” rushed development of rust resistant maize and by 1953 promising strains were ready when the infection disappeared. P. polysora is now an African resident. The reaction to the outbreak, writes McCann, was that of a “mature imperial world” transitioning to one dominated by “the modern development industry and invasive multilateral organizations” (p. 121). He also describes the severe malaria epidemic that swept Ethiopia’s northwest high lands in 1998. Here the government with assistance from a Japanese philanthropic program, Sasakawa Global 2000, and the Carter Center had continued its “infatuation with improved types of maize” by encouraging the use of new hybrids, increasing production substantially (p. 186). BH 660, the major variety, tasseled late. McCann shared in research that found expansion of maize areas, using this variety, when linked with late rains, fortified the mosquito breeding catch basins with corn pollen. This supported the development of a large proportion of mosquito larvae thus reinforcing the vector of infection.

Africa’s agricultural production is increasing at two percent per year while population grows at a three percent rate. This book is an invaluable source of information on a basic element in the situation, essential reading for anyone interested in Africa’s history or current problems. In the conclusion McCann suggests that the current emphasis on maize in Africa may have a Jurassic Park effect given the narrowing of genetic flexibility entailed in monocropping hybrid maize, the possibility of plant disease outbreaks, a growing danger from mycotoxins, drought and climate change, human epidemics enhanced by population mobility, and the volatility of international markets. “It is a gloomy prospect,” he writes, “a cautionary alarm is justified” (p. 210). Threaded through the narrative is a policy critique. African plant breeders long served the needs of only white commercial farmers and by ignoring the old varicolored maizes of the black farmers they restricted future options. McCann’s ideal is biodiversity and local initiative. International philanthropic organizations are “invasive” servants of globalism. In beginning his book McCann in effect promises a benefit/cost analysis of maize’s contribution to African history and this he delivers if somewhat impressionistically. We should be grateful. But there is still an opportunity for economic historians to provide a more rigorous analysis. At a less notable level this reviewer was impressed, as will be others, by the author’s success in moving a pun-laden title past the Harvard University Press editors.

Allan G. Bogue is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His publications include articles and books in American agricultural history, the most recent being The Farm on the North Talbot Road (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Smallholders and Stockbreeders: Histories of Foodcrop and Livestock Farming in Southeast Asia

Author(s):Boomgaard, Peter
Henley, David
Reviewer(s):Huijzendveld, Frans D.

Published by EH.NET (September 2005)


Peter Boomgaard and David Henley, editors, Smallholders and Stockbreeders: Histories of Foodcrop and Livestock Farming in Southeast Asia. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004. vii + 344 pp. ?30 (paperback), ISBN: 90-6718-255-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Frans D. Huijzendveld, Rural History Department, Wageningen University and Faculty of Arts, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Like many in other parts in the world, most of the people of Southeast Asia have been farmers for much of their recorded history. Traditionally historians’ attention has been more directed to politics, culture and trade than to agriculture. However Smallholders and Stockbreeders surveys the history of food crop farming in the region and takes initial steps towards a history of animal husbandry. The book is divided into two sections — one on “food crops” and one on “livestock.” Most of the processes of change described within these separate parts are highly interconnected. In the editors’ introductory chapter the theoretical coherence of the different essays is presented. It is a pity that this interconnectedness could not be established on a more empirical level throughout the book, as well, but this is always difficult to accomplish in a volume based on a range of authors’ workshop papers.

Although archival and published sources are voluminous for this part of the non-western world, in time and space they are very fragmented and scattered. This is especially true of the period before high colonial-imperialism, and this inevitably has an impact on this survey. While some use is made of research results from disciplines, most of the sources used are inscriptions, illustrations in the relief panels on temples, pre-colonial documentary texts of visitors (e.g. Zhao Ru-gua, Ma Huan, Marco Polo, Tom? Pires), VOC-material and (colonial) records. Relatively little use is made of linguistics and oral history. An exception is Janowski, who undertook fieldwork. Nonetheless, the reader is presented with an interesting history of food crop farming in which the old, persistent theory of long-term agricultural change based on a hierarchy of more and less elevated cultural-technological levels is convincingly corrected. Moreover, a challenging first effort is made to clarify the history of livestock farming in Southeast Asia. This is a volume that is not only interesting for scholars in agrarian history and those who are interested in the region. The essay on the Mekong Delta, for example, offers important insights for development studies. In addition several parts in this volume — especially those on trade — are of interest for scholars of the history of the wider Indian Ocean.

Let us consider some of the main themes discussed. The majority of the essays are concerned with the archipelagic part of this region, now Indonesia and the Philippines. Two essays deal with the mainland. After a review of potential sources, Hill presents a broad impression of the state of affairs around our — still limited — knowledge of local domestications and the diffusion of crops, animals and farming techniques. The conclusion is that this process led to a very uneven — both in space and time — addition of “foreign” crops and animals to local repertoires.

Since rice is the region’s staple food crop par excellence, it is not surprising that most of the contributions on farming deal with this. Although these essays are concerned with others crops (and livestock) too, only Ellen’s contribution is really focused on another staple food, sago. His essay offers a dynamic and nuanced view of the evolution of the rather complex processing technology which is required to extract edible starch from Metroxylon sagu palms. Interestingly, the Metroxylon sagu variety spread westwards, largely through human agency (cutting and replanting suckers), and this was in the opposite direction to the spread of proto-Austronesian languages. So probably the people who were extracting Mertroxylon starch were using a technology developed by pre-Austronesian speakers of the Moluccas and New Guinea, who originally applied it to other species.

Ellen shows that (sea) trade in sago flour and products has been a crucial part of archipelagic economies for centuries (see also Henley on sago). Used for subsistence, it permitted a rapid growth of other trading crops like nutmeg and clove. For a long time it was generally accepted that reliance on sago palms was inversely correlated to the development of conventional agriculture. Ellen demonstrates that, on the contrary, Metroxylon extraction should not be dismissed as a survival of an archaic specialist strategy.

The other essays on farming also focus on food crops rather than cash crops, although it is acknowledged that the two categories are difficult to separate. Foodstuffs and other crops, grown not only for subsistence but also for domestic trade and export, formed the core of the early economies of Java and Bali, as Christie shows. Rice has been the major staple crop on these islands at least since the first millennium. Alternative staples such as foxtail millet, Job’s tears, taro, yams and sago played a more important role in other parts of the archipelago, but not on these two islands. This early predominant position of rice related to the development of internally stratified communities with highly commercialized economies. And foodstuffs, especially rice, were among the main commodities which played a role in developing trading networks in the archipelago as well as in the wider Indian Ocean, long before the Common Era. This trade apparently introduced many new crops and a number of livestock varieties. A highly productive wet-rice agriculture developed in relation with demographic concentration, state encouragement (tax, irrigation and trade) and a form of land tenure that favored individuals and families rather than larger collectivities or rulers.

In some ways these developments in early Java and Bali show similarity with those described by Le Coq, Tr?buil and Dufumier in their contribution on the development of rice production in the Mekong Delta since 1989. They emphasize the need to understand long-term historical developments in order to explain the successful policies of market-oriented economic liberalization. As in early Java and Bali, we see that small family farmers increased their agricultural revenue when simulated by government incentives and trade possibilities. Henley also shows that where transition to wet rice farming occurred, it was due to political and/or population pressure, or an enhanced commercial demand for rice. Furthermore, such a shift was not a result of diffusion of rice cultivation from one area to another, but developed out of an increased emphasis on rice within diversified local farming systems which already included it. Henley and Janowski make clear that this kind of transition in general meant a move away from previous (swidden) systems with intercropping and double cropping — systems which have many advantages from an ecological point of view and in terms of risk spreading, utilization of labor throughout the year and diet.

By collecting and analyzing the available historical data on livestock keeping in Southeast Asia, a first attempt is made to describe the region’s livestock history. Three essays are mainly focused on horses, while the others deal with buffalos and cattle. Some mention is made of other livestock, such as pigs, goats, sheep, and deer.

Clarence-Smith presents an inventory of data on the contribution of equids to the history of mainland Southeast Asia, while Boomgaard is concerned with horse-breeding and horse trade between 1500 and 1900 in what is now Indonesia, and Bankoff focuses on changing conditions in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. Horses, as we learn, helped to shape the political map of the region. Especially prior 1800 they were markers of prestige, and they were used in sport, entertainment, hunting deer and as riding animals for the rich and powerful. On the mainland they were also used for farming, while ponies and mules played an important role in urban and upland transport systems. Horses, on the mainland and in the archipelagos, were used in increasing numbers for these kinds of tasks, particularly in connection with “industrialization.” Their use declined after the First World War, but much more gradually than in the West.

Horses, on the mainland and in the archipelagos, were mainly raised in the upland, cool and lightly populated valleys. With increasing population densities, horse breeding in such suitable areas was not sustainable, as pastures had to be turned into rice fields in the long run. As a result horse breeding activities moved to less densely populated areas further afield. This stimulated an extensive trade in horses through internal networks in Southeast Asia, and the development of new horse varieties.

European experts frequently criticized local methods of breeding (horses and cattle alike) and attempts were made to “improve” the indigenous stock. Clarence-Smith appreciates that practical indigenous methods bred animals accustomed to the many local conditions and needs. In Boomgaard’s article the recurring theme is the link between royal courts and horse breeding. An interesting (if implicit) difference can be seen in the essays by Clarence-Smith and Boomgaard in their judgments on traditional breeding methods and the success of cross-breeding. In the course of the nineteenth century, larger numbers of horses were traded and used for more mundane purposes and a “deterioration in quality” of breeds was observed. As we learn from the essay of Barwegen on cattle, each breed had a preference for a certain environment and occupied a specific niche in the economy and society. The same is. of course, true for horses. So, speaking in terms of “good” or “bad” breeds without specifying their different and changing usage is not very useful.

Boomgaard, in yet another essay, discusses the distribution of buffalo, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and deer in the archipelago between 1500 an 1850, mainly focusing on (water) buffalo and cattle and discussing the changing numbers of these livestock populations. Political, economic and social factors are presented to explain these changes, as well as an impression of the economic and environmental consequences of these changes. Cattle east of Wallace’s line, at least in large numbers, are a colonial or even a post-colonial phenomenon. Yet, the process of “Bosification” (an increase in the number of cattle) is a relatively recent feature west of this line as well. The period in which the number of cattle exceeded that of buffalo is roughly dated between 1850 and 2000, a period covered by Barwegen. She examines the various economic and cultural factors that influenced the specific breeding patterns of buffalo and cattle varieties, and the role these livestock types played in the changing ecological settings, farming systems, and economy and society on Java.

According to Boomgaard, in the period 1820-1850, and possibly from ca. 1750 onwards, a different process occurred — that of “Bubalification” or an increase in the number of buffalos. This was stimulated by massive sawah construction, the movement of people from high and dry to wet and low areas, the rise of “industrial” establishments and forest exploitation, together with an ongoing reliance on buffalo power (and an increasing reliance on horse power), as well as a remaining wealth-slavery-buffalo-feasting-bridewealth complex.

In summary, then, Smallholders and Stockbreeders presents a survey of the long-term development of an increasingly complex assemblage of Southeast Asian crop and livestock types — a process that reached its peak in the nineteenth century. Thereafter the growing population, commercialization, modern infrastructure, urbanization, deforestation, globalization, and in connection with this, changing needs and habits like the consumption of milk and meat (Doeppers), led to a reverse process of declining biological diversity within agriculture. To illuminate the root causes of this historical process three theoretical points of view are presented in the introduction by the editors; the cultural-technological, economic-demographic, and political-economic perspectives. But, none of the contributors explicitly use these analytic tools in their essays.

Frans D. Huijzendveld obtained his Ph.D. on agrarian change in East Africa in 1997. He is working as a historian in African History and World History at the Rural History department of Wageningen University and at the Faculty of Arts of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His recent research is on changing local identities in connection with changing relations of East African harbor cities with their foreland, uplands and hinterland, ca. 1850-1950.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Slavery in the Development of the Americas

Author(s):Eltis, David
Lewis, Frank D.
Sokoloff, Kenneth L.
Reviewer(s):Wright, Gavin

Published by EH.NET (June 2005)


David Eltis, Frank D. Lewis, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, editors, Slavery in the Development of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ix + 372 pp. $75 (hardback) ISBN: 0-521-83277-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gavin Wright, Department of Economics, Stanford University.

This collection of essays is a worthy and fitting tribute to Stanley L. Engerman, the honoree. The editors — David Eltis of Emory University, Frank Lewis of Queen’s University, and Kenneth Sokoloff of UCLA – open the volume with an affectionate appreciation for Stan Engerman and close with a ten-page bibliography of Engermaniana. But unlike most festschriften, this one has real thematic unity, with sections devoted to the origins of African slavery in the Americas, patterns of slave use, and the implications of slavery for productivity, growth, and distribution.

A brief review can hardly do justice to all of the contributions, but there are many highlights to be noted. Several chapters offer new data series or explore new sources on various aspects of the slave economies. Francisco Vidal Luna and Herbert S. Klein present new evidence on the use of slaves to produce food crops in the region surrounding S?o Paulo, Brazil; David Eltis and David Richardson report new estimates of long term (1673-1865) trends in prices of newly arrived African slaves; Laird W. Bergad compares slave prices in the U.S., Cuba and Brazil during the 1850s, calling attention to common patterns; James R. Irwin offers new probate data on wealth in colonial Virginia, showing that the positive accumulation trend for slaveholders preceded (and was not interrupted by) the American Revolution. Lorena Walsh draws upon new databases on the Chesapeake slave and servant trades to explore the links among merchant strategies, credit networks and labor supply in the tobacco regions. Frank Lewis analyzes slave manumission (in the tradition of Ronald Findlay) as a principal-agent problem, showing that manumission was more likely for skilled slaves, at an “optimal age” inversely related to productivity — predictions generally confirmed by a rich set of manumission records from the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe. Robert Margo presents a comprehensive compilation of data on north-south wage differentials during the second half of the nineteenth century. Although there are some indications that an area of low-wage white labor was emerging in the South Atlantic during the antebellum era, Margo’s principal finding is that the Civil War marked a fundamental break point in regional labor history. All parts of the South experienced a pronounced decline in relative wages after the war, and despite some recovery during the 1870 and 1880s, the region’s relative wage status at the end of the century was no higher than in the late 1860s.

Other essays survey more general themes: Pieter Emmer asks why the British surpassed the Dutch, who were the early seventeenth century leaders in the Atlantic slave economy. His answer has many elements (loss of naval superiority; inflexible financial institutions; the absence of young, mobile Dutch settlers), but seems to boil down to the view that the early Dutch position was somewhat accidental and therefore unsustainable in the wake of Britain’s historic surge. Philip D. Morgan’s essay considers the distribution of material conditions among slaves and poor whites, exploring a wide range of indicators. Although the editorial introduction stresses the “overlap between the condition of slave and free labor” (p. 19), Morgan holds that the difference was fundamental: “Poverty is a relative condition, and varies according to the prevailing standards of time and place. …Slavery is a legal institution; poverty a material state. Slavery was an absolute, poverty a relative, condition” (p. 291). The contrast was most vivid in the case of sugar, whose “cultivation was literally a killing regime” (p. 302). In Barbados, white servants worked in sugar initially, but “they soon learned of its rigors and avoided it at all costs” (p. 313).

One essay returns to familiar cliometric territory, as Elizabeth Field-Hendry and Lee Craig present a new variation on their frontier production function estimates, using the Parker-Gallman sample of southern farms in 1859-60. The main novelty here is integrating the dataset with a sample from the Bateman-Foust sample of northern farms. Although the editors assert that Field-Hendry and Craig’s results “largely support Fogel and Engerman’s original conclusions” (p. 16), this is not entirely accurate. The authors find that controlling for the share of cotton in total output, large slave plantations in the southeast had no productivity advantage over free northern farms; similarly, the advantage of large plantations over free farms in the southwest disappears when cotton shares are controlled (pp. 246-248). These same large slave farms are also found to have the highest average inefficiency level, defined as the shortfall relative to the frontier. Despite Field-Hendry and Craig’s noble attempt at comprehensiveness, however, these results cannot be considered definitive. Cotton shares are said to be treated as endogenous, but the first-stage regressions are not displayed, so that the model of crop choice and crop mix remains implicit. Further, no allowance is made for the exceptional southwestern cotton yields of 1859-60, documented by Donald Schaefer.[1] Finally, labor inputs are aggregated into units of “male equivalent labor,” a specification that fails when subjected to econometric test.[2] Still, this is as close as the gang labor thesis comes to critical scrutiny in the volume.

One chapter is notable as a contribution of lasting potential impact. Seymour Drescher’s “White Atlantic?” is a protracted inquiry into the racial basis for New World slavery. The editors are to be commended for giving Drescher space to elaborate his argument, since its primary target is the proposition associated, with David Eltis, that enslavement of Europeans by fellow Europeans was inhibited by a cultural/psychological taboo against this practice.[3] To the contrary, argues Drescher, who shows in grisly detail that Europeans had few compunctions against torturing, raping, killing, and incarcerating other Europeans in galleys, especially during the war-torn centuries between 1500 and 1700 when the Atlantic slave system took shape. Drescher maintains that there was “no insuperable psychological or cultural barrier” to enslavement of fellow Europeans, but institutional and political constraints to such an innovation were far more important. Despite the cogency, sophistication, and persuasiveness of Drescher’s argument, one wonders if there might yet be something to be said for the Eltis position, if viewed from a New World as opposed to an Old World perspective, and if understood as the outcome of an institutional selection process rather than a reductionist cause. Economic historians can agree on the primacy of economic motives for the rise of slavery, yet we should not deny the force of Abbott Emerson Smith’s observation that “there was never any such thing as perpetual slavery for any white man in any English colony.”[4]

A final note about the volume is that the extended editorial introduction is itself a substantive contribution to the slavery debates. In summarizing the essays and setting the historiographical context, the editors advance a number of provocative assertions, not all of which would necessarily be endorsed by Stanley Engerman himself, so renowned for moderation in spoken and written word. For example, the editors suggest that the shift of the world’s economic center of gravity from the tropics to the temperate zone might only have occurred because of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself (p. 17). They go on to write that “greater inequality of both income and political power is perhaps more properly seen as a result rather than a prerequisite of development” (p. 23). The introduction is well worth reading, and indeed the volume as a whole is essential reading for those following the economics of slavery. But for the wisdom of Engerman, my advice is to read him in the original. Best wishes to Stan for continued good health and productivity.


1. Donald F. Schaefer, “The Effect of the 1860 Crop Year upon Relative Productivity in the Antebellum Cotton South,” Journal of Economic History 43 (December 1983): 851-865.

2. Jane Toman, “The Gang System and Comparative Advantage,” Explorations in Economic History 42 (April 2005): 310-323.

3. David Eltis, “Europeans and the Rise and Fall of African Slavery in the Americas: An Interpretation,” American Historical Review 98 (1993): 1399-1423; and The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 63-70.

4. Abbott Emerson Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1775 (University of North Carolina Press, 1947), p. 171.

Gavin Wright is former editor of the Journal of Economic History and the author of “Slavery and American Agricultural History,” Agricultural History 77 (Fall 2003): 527-552.


Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Russia’s Economic Transitions: From Late Tsarism to the New Millennium

Author(s):Spulber, Nicolas
Reviewer(s):Leonard, Carol

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)

Nicolas Spulber, Russia’s Economic Transitions: From Late Tsarism to the New Millennium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xxiv + 420 pp. $80 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-81699-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carol Leonard, Interdisciplinary Area Studies, Oxford University.

This is a lucid and richly detailed history of Russia’s transformation in the tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Written by a distinguished economic historian and drawing on a large range of sources, the book is a survey that embraces policies, population movements, state institutions and sectoral developments in each of three periods. The three transitions include two periods of roughly seventy years each, after the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and after the revolution of 1917, and the shorter period after the introduction of markets in 1991. The data presentation stops at 1998, but this is far enough into the last transition to justify his comparison of periods.

As defined by Spulber, transition refers to “the period of transformations through which a country passes while experiencing the impact of newly emerging ownership and production relations” (p. xix). Transitions embrace background conditions, policies, population movements, sectoral dynamics and social accounting (banking and state finance). Despite their enormous reach, the transition themes are nevertheless clear, since they are carefully laid out in section summaries and lengthy overviews. This book ventures into almost impassable terrain, but it never loses the reader.

The bundling of transitions focuses the reader’s attention on the background and consequences of policies that resulted in vast structural displacement. The cultural and political features of transition, covered as “issues,” show the author’s considerable knowledge of literature, including memoirs, and there is much social history in this account of “the exaltations and the grieving” of Russia (p. xxiii). The author sketches for the reader the original debates that were central to popular movements as well as to economic outcomes. Indeed, this history essentially unfolds within and around issues. For example, in part 1, Chapter 2, Spulber describes the strains of Marxism affecting views of the development of capitalism. The introduction to Plekhanov, Lenin and others serves effectively to prepare the reader for an even more condensed and incisive summary of the “principles and rules of organization of the Soviet state … the concepts on the basis of which the economy was supposed to be reorganized and managed” (p. 174). Such broad coverage of institutional and cultural features of history suggests that the book will be of use to the general reader as well as to researchers on all periods of this history.

The first transition is from the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to the revolution in 1917. The abolition is loosely attributed to Russia’s military defeat in the Crimean War. Spulber gives no space to the enormous literature on how this reform was planned, timed and implemented. His concern in part I is, rather, to explain and demonstrate continuing rural backwardness and problems in industrial development, and he succeeds with a breadth similar to that in Peter Gatrell’s The Tsarist Economy, 1850-1917 (1986). There is a striking difference between Spulber and Gatrell, however. For the pre-revolutionary period he shows the contrast between the country’s overall and per capita achievement, emphasizing Gerschenkron’s interpretation (1962), even though his data are largely from Paul Gregory’s more positive work on Russian national income (1982). Relative backwardness is the salient feature he finds in the pre-revolutionary regime; Russia remained a semi-feudal country through the era of revolution. He does, however, closely assess the critiques. On the question of whether the state actually had an industrial policy, for example, his summary (pp. 134-137) is highly useful. On the whole, he tends to follow the views of the classic economic writings on the tsarist era, including by Margaret Miller (1926) and Raymond Goldsmith (1961), with few references to the voluminous historical works written over the past three decades.

Russia’s second transition is from 1917 through the Gorbachev era. Spulber highlights the crucial events, including collectivization, and their aftermath, and he lays out with clarity the economic bottlenecks of the ambitious Soviet experiment. The emphasis falls on the large discrepancy between policy objectives and actual results, particularly for the period from 1960 to 1989. His discussion of the attempted economic and social changes introduced by Gorbachev closes this part. He underscores that Gorbachev’s efforts failed to resolve problems of agricultural backwardness, a problem visible for many years in net imports of grain. In addition, there were “multiple, complex and internal dislocations” that became “increasingly hard to handle” (p. 192). His view of the end of Communism is that it was due to problems of maintaining essentially a war economy over seventy years, a task that proved insuperable. The data are presented in extensive tables, and they are used mainly to illustrate the character of the economy’s capital stock, the poor productivity of most sectors, and “manifest underdevelopment outside of the main urban centres” (p. 284). Despite reforms, in other words, according to Spulber, Gorbachev was unable to stop the disintegration of the economy.

The last section is the transition to markets. He begins with the power struggle between Gorbachev and Yeltsin and the social consequences of severe recession early in transition. He traces the deepening of influence over the media, the economy and the power structure by the seven top bankers and businesspeople and the uncertainties produced by the drift in reform. Sector by sector he argues that there was an economically devastating impact of contradictory policies. He finds that the government constructed interconnected, bureaucratically organized and directed markets rather than a foundation for real competition and democratization (p. 327).

In summary, the first two parts of this book are particularly useful. Spulber’s inclusiveness and his balanced presentation make this book a major contribution on both periods. Social and economic historians will find important linkages across the century and a half. The third part is also well conceived, but it is inconclusive, due to the continuing course of market development.


A. Gerschenkron (1962), Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

R. Goldsmith (1961), “The Economic Growth of Tsarist Russia,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 9: 441-475.

P. Gregory (1982), Russian National Income, 1885-1913. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

M.S. Miller (1926), The Economic Development of Russia, 1905-1914: With Special Reference to Trade, Industry, and Finance. London: P. S. King & Son.

Carol Leonard is University Lecturer in Regional Studies of the Post-Communist States at Oxford University. Her recent projects and publications focus on agrarian reform in transition Russia and general technological advancement in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. Her publications include Reform and Regicide: The Reign of Peter III of Russia (1993) and Agrarian Reform in Russia: The Road from Serfdom (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Women, Work, and Wages in England, 1600-1850

Author(s):Lane, Penelope
Raven, Neil
Snell, K. D. M.
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)


Penelope Lane, Neil Raven, and K. D. M. Snell, editors, Women, Work, and Wages in England, 1600-1850. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004. xi + 239 pp. $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-84383-077-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

If you are wary of buying edited collections because they often turn out to be simply reprints of articles published elsewhere, or because the quality of the articles is sometimes disappointing, you can cast aside your fears in this case. The articles collected in this volume offer high-quality original research that deserves attention from scholars in the field, and that students will find readable and informative. The book does not try to cover all aspects of women’s work, but highlights some aspects of women’s work that have not been widely studied in the past.

The multi-dimensional nature of women’s work experiences is a theme that runs through many chapters. A good example is the chapter by Steven King, who notes that poor relief payments were not so much an alternative to work as a complement to it, supplementing low earnings. Letters women wrote to overseers requesting payment emphasized their work activities. King emphasizes women’s agency, as they pieced together incomes by combining these sources, and suggests that overseers of the poor seem to have been more sympathetic to requests from women than to those from men.

The importance of the poor law system in the lives of the poor is well documented in this volume. In addition to the chapter by King, chapters by Steve Hindle and Samantha Williams examine the pauper apprentice system in the seventeenth century and sick-nurses paid by the poor relief system. In Hindle’s chapter we see a coercive poor law system; poor parents were forced to part with their children, and masters were forced to take pauper apprentices. Overseers seem to have been more concerned with preventing idleness than with providing training, and most pauper apprentices were bound to the trades of husbandry and housewifery rather than to more skilled trades. For another perspective on the poor law system, Williams uses poor law records to examine the otherwise ill-documented female occupation of nursing. Some of the nurses hired by the parish were also poor relief recipients, but they were the minority. Some women combined occasional nursing work with other types of casual work, but other women were regular nurses. There is also evidence that a private market in nursing services existed.

We also see that women’s economic lives included more than just paid employment in the chapter by Pamela Sharpe on the wives of men sailing for the East India Company. Though they received a portion of their husband’s salaries, sailors’ wives still had to rely on various types of work such as making supplies or packing goods for the Company, or taking in lodgers. But the participation of these women in the economy included much more than paid work. These women had greater independence than most other married women; they could represent their husbands in court, and conduct business in their husband’s name. The seaman’s right to carry a small amount of cargo meant that sailing families engaged in private trade.

Another theme that runs through many of the chapters is the question of whether wages were determined by custom or market forces, or by some combination of the two. Various authors take different positions on this question. Penelope Lane argues that the gap between male and female wages cannot be explained by productivity. As her chapter is largely a refutation of my 1997 Economic History Review article, I will leave it to the reader to decide whose arguments are more compelling. Nicola Verdon concludes that, while productivity differences did play a role in creating the wage gap among agricultural laborers, the market explanation is not sufficient to explain observed wages. She points to the inflexibility of wages as evidence that wages were at least partially determined by custom. Michael Roberts also appeals to the stability of wages over long periods of time, a feature which he suggests can only be understood by appealing to culture. Not everyone, however, agrees that women’s wages were inflexible. While he suggests that female wages were in some instances sticky, perhaps due to income supplements from the poor law, Steven King notes that female wages in the Lancashire textile industry did respond to supply and demand conditions. Roberts notes that even if the money wage was fixed, the value of the portion of the wage given in kind fluctuated. Penelope Lane admits that wages may have responded to market conditions, but she does not admit this as a refutation of customary wages, noting that “flexibility that breaks with custom is not evidence of a market wage” (p. 118). This raises the questions of what would constitute evidence of market wages, and whether we simply have two different stories that we might tell about the same observable phenomenon. Part of what makes the debate about customary wages difficult is that historians disagree not only about the characteristics of wages in the past, but also about what characteristics customary wages would have. There is no definition of “customary wages” agreed upon by all, and often the claim that wages were customary lacks testable implications.

Michael Roberts suggests a different approach: instead of setting up a dichotomy between custom and the market, we should acknowledge the extent to which they work together. Customs might actually help the market to operate by providing information. There is much truth in this. Custom and market usually pointed in the same direction, and thus were compatible. Does this mean the debate between customary and market wages is futile? Surely there must have been some cases where custom and market conflicted, and it is meaningful to ask which took precedence. Even if the locomotive and the caboose usually go in the same direction, it is still worth knowing which is driving the train and which is following behind.

While suggesting that custom and market may be compatible, Roberts still emphasizes custom in his chapter on harvest work. He criticizes his own earlier study of harvest labor for focusing too narrowly on the process of cutting the crop, and in this chapter branches out to talk about the customs and folklore of the harvest, as well as the manufacture of scythes. He highlights the variation across regions and over time in the work women did, even within a specific task such as harvesting.

Neil Raven turns his attention to the relatively neglected factories of southern England. Cheap female labor attracted factories to the countryside, but limited the potential for growth since the wages were too low to attract labor from other locations. These southern factories maintained ties to London, so that the southern towns did not contain the wide range of ancillary trades present in northern towns.

Examining the wage accounts of southern farms, Nicola Verdon finds that at some farms women were an important part of the workforce engaged in a wide variety of tasks, while at other farms women were used only for a few seasonal tasks. Contrary to what is sometimes supposed, the Napoleonic Wars do not seem to have caused an increase in female farm employment. While the “petticoat harvest” is a compelling image, there is no evidence of it in the farm accounts. Verdon finds some variation in women’s wages, but 8d. was the most common wage paid over the three decades between 1800 and 1830. She also notes that female wages were less likely than male wages to vary from one individual to another. Male wages varied more with skill, and men were more likely to be paid piece-rates.

Joyce Burnette is Associate Professor of Economics at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. Her most recent work is “The Wages and Employment of Female Day-labourers in English Agriculture, 1740-1850,” Economic History Review, November 2004.


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Baetica Felix: People and Prosperity in Southern Spain from Caesar to Septimius Severus

Author(s):Haley, Evan W.
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Evan W. Haley, Baetica Felix: People and Prosperity in Southern Spain from Caesar to Septimius Severus. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2003. xviii + 277 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-292-73464-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Classical economic history is currently experiencing a revolutionary paradigm shift stimulated by archaeological findings culled from numerous emergency excavations that are a continuing by-product of Europe’s post-war construction boom. Its proponents represent a new generation of classical scholars possessing passing acquaintance with conventional economic theory, and aided by an increasingly digitized corpus of literary texts and inscriptions. Although still embryonic, the new classical economic history marks the first major shift in the economic historiography of Antiquity since the 1930s, when the founders of the Annales School displaced the birth of western civilization from its traditional place in Greece and Rome to the Middle Ages. The revaluing of medieval society — which focused on the economic achievement of the eleventh through thirteenth century — had its counterpart in the devaluing of antiquity, henceforth stylized as an economic failure explained by cultural and sociological factors inimical to innovation, enterprise, and investment. The new archaeological evidence and reinterpretation of the available textual material refute this pessimistic vision. Taken together with recent evidence showing the persistence of Roman political, administrative and legal structures, and the continuity of commercial contacts between the different parts of the old economy through the early medieval period, it is becoming increasingly clear that a new chronology of the “rise of the West” is in order. That new chronology must shift the starting point of European economic growth from the so-called “barbarian centuries” following the fall of Rome to the Late Iron Age, when the economic links between the different parts of western Europe were originally forged..

The present contribution to this literature is a survey of the rural economy of Southwest Spain from the accession of Augustus in 27 BC to the middle of the third century AD. The province of Baetica was one of the most prosperous parts of the Roman Empire, richly endowed with lead and silver mines, possessing fertile soils, and drained by a river system navigable to the Mediterranean coast whence grain, wine, olive oil, and fish sauce were exported to points on the Mediterranean littoral. A lightly settled hinterland of Phoenician and Carthaginian trading posts punctuated here and there by Iberian oppida, Baetica appears to have “taken off” during the long peace ushered in by the Augustan era. Archaeological data suggest an acceleration of rural settlement and foreign trade lasting through the first century AD. The magnitude of that growth is impossible to assess, but in the first two centuries AD, the annual export of Baetican oil to Rome probably approached seven million liters. The province’s advanced farming was described in first century AD by the agronomist Columella, whose father operated an estate there. The wealth it generated was the foundation of several senatorial fortunes and many lesser ones. At the top of the social scale Trajan’s Spanish ancestors are known to have participated in the oil trade, and his successor Hadrian (whose mother hailed from Cadiz) is thought to have possessed an estate there. One of the book’s central questions concerns the extent to which families lower on the social ladder benefited from the province’s exceptional agricultural and commercial opportunities. Precisely what caused the surge in agricultural production and export cannot be inferred from archeological evidence alone, which tells us only about the facilities for production and the pattern of trade insofar as they have left physical remains. Like other classicists, Haley privileges the role of government demand to explain Baetica’s participation in the Roman economy. The chief textual evidence for this hypothesis consists of documents showing that the importing of staples to Rome was under the administrative control of the annona, the bureau which licensed traders charged with importing the capital’s food supply. While the importance of that function is evident from imperial decrees exempting shippers from jury duty and other onerous municipal offices, regulations requiring merchants importing foodstuffs to Rome to keep half their capital in the provisioning trade by no means imply that the provisioning trade was “non-commercial.” The regulations attempted to prevent merchants from avoiding the financial burden of municipal service by nominal participation in it. None of this makes the state the engine of growth. A more likely scenario for the expansion of Baetica’s export economy is that growing prosperity in the western and central Mediterranean widened trading opportunities, thereby facilitating a division of labor based on regional comparative advantage. Haley proposes that the export of foodstuffs to Rome was originally cross-subsidized by shipments of precious metals, but it is likely that civil peace, stable government, a system of law suited to the needs of trade, and lengthy history of long-distance commerce in metals and fish sauce provided a sufficient foundation for trade in the bulkier agricultural staples.

The bulk of the book is devoted to describing the evidence for economic growth in the early Roman era. Chronologically arranged chapters open with a brief review of the political and administrative history followed by a survey of the archaeological findings on the pace of settlement, production, and export of the main agricultural staples. Haley adopts a cautious stance with respect to generalizing from this evidence. The general impression is that agricultural expansion began under Augustus and flagged somewhat during the troubled period following his death. A long period of vigorous growth marked by the construction of villas, farmsteads and facilities for pressing and bottling wine and olive oil began around AD 50 and lasted into the early second century. The province seems to have remained reasonably prosperous into the fourth century. As befits a specialist work, much of the discussion is given over to detailed criticism of particular findings, which makes for tedious reading by non-specialists. It contains an excellent discussion of stamps and painted inscriptions on amphorae that recorded the weight, contents, shipper, and other relevant commercial information, all of which testify to the sophistication of Roman trading technique. It is hard to credit the hypothesis that the Roman economy was in any way primitive.

Economic historians in a hurry will turn to the final chapter on the province’s income distribution. On the questionable assumption that population growth was roughly constant between 25 BC and 170 AD, Haley concludes that per capita income rose substantially. It is hard to know what to make of this argument, which would seem to be ignotium per ignotius, but it is not implausible. The estimate of the level of per capita has scattered documentary support suggesting that small farmers and skilled workers may have earned incomes exceeding by nine-fold the cost of bare subsistence as calculated by the cost of an annual ration of wheat. Comparing this ballpark estimate of family income with the minimum property qualification for jurors recorded on the recently discovered tablets of the Lex Irnitana, Haley conjectures that possibly half of the province’s population met the qualification for membership in the Roman “middle class.” We know little of this class of farmers and small businessmen, although some had small funerary inscriptions inscribed to record their accomplishments. That they may have constituted a significant proportion of the population suggests that the stylized picture of a society divided between a wealthy minority monopolizing wealth and political authority and a majority of plebs scratching out subsistence from tiny plots of poorly cultivated land is mistaken. Commercialization in the first two Roman centuries was not a reflection of luxury consumption by the super-rich, but the response to demand from hundreds of thousands of families whose incomes compared favorably with those that supported the expansion of trade in early modern and early industrial Europe.

That the economy of classical antiquity was organized by markets from at least the middle of the first millennium BC seems irrefutable. There is enough evidence to prove that the Roman economy extended beyond the limes into the “barbarian” territories of central and northern Europe and Africa. Yet to know that fact is ultimately to know little about the processes that caused that economy to expand and to contract. What part of economic change belongs to demographic events? What part to technological change? What part to path-dependent processes driven by increasing return? What part to fiscal and monetary events? And behind these economic causes, what part of change can be attributed to the evolution of political, administrative and social structures? What part to long-term changes in the distribution of wealth and power? Recent events remind us that one cannot take the stability of background conditions for granted, and that high-stakes politics is not simply white noise relative to the groundswell of an economy’s fundamental data. The classical economy was at once similar to and different from the economies of the later pre-industrial era. Defining and analyzing those similarities and differences is the central task of classical economic history.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient

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