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Published by EH.NET (October 2005)

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Leandro Prados de la Escosura, editor, Exceptionalism and Industrialisation: Britain and Its European Rivals, 1688-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xv + 335 pp., $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-79304-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gregory Clark, Department of Economics, University of California, Davis and Fellow, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

This book, edited by Leandro Prados of Carlos III, Madrid, is a Festschrift for the well-known English economic historian Patrick O’Brien, the papers for which originated in a conference held in his honor in Madrid in 2001. The contributors include Robert Allen, Daniel Baugh, Richard Bonney, Forrest Capie, Nick Crafts, Stanley Engerman, Javier Cuenca Esteban, Rainer Fremdling, Knick Harley, Christine MacLeod, Larry Neal, James Simpson, James Thompson, and Gianni Toniolo.

“When traveling should you eat the local specialties?” A widely circulated economic theorem in the U.S. asserts “No.” If the local specialty was any good, it would be available everywhere. (This perhaps explains why American economists have an international, and not just a national, reputation for dullness.) There is a lesser known corollary amongst academics which similarly answers “Should you read Festschrifts?” with “No, anything good in them is available elsewhere.” Given the incentives of academic life, contributors to Festschrifts have an unfortunate motive to deliver what is on the menu else where, or to offer from the larder something that for good reason has been long lying on the bottom shelf untouched.

It is thus a mark of the esteem with which Patrick O’Brien is held by his students and colleagues that this volume, though of variable quality, contains interesting pieces of original research that are unique to this outlet. The thirteen contributions each give at least lip service to detailing what allowed Britain to achieve the great lead in industrialization by 1815. But the diversity of answers reveals once again just how mysterious the Industrial Revolution is, and how little hope there seems at present of a convincing answer to the questions “Why Britain? Why 1770?” They are loosely organized into six sections labeled respectively: the origins of British primacy, agriculture and industrialization, technological change, institutions and growth, war and hegemony, and conclusions.

This reviewer found the pieces on agriculture and technology the most informative and thought provoking. Nick Crafts and Knick Harley, for example, employ their computable general equilibrium (CGE) model of the English Industrial Revolution to ask what explains England’s unusually low share of employment in agriculture by 1841? Was it population growth, agricultural productivity gains, or the peculiar institutional structures of English agriculture? Their conclusion vindicates a long held position of Patrick O’Brien and Caglar Kaydar in their 1978 book that England’s advantage lay more in very high labor productivity in agriculture in the nineteenth century than in high industrial labor productivity. Using the CGE model Crafts and Harley argue that had two thirds of English land remained farmed by peasant farmers, as they assume for 1770, then the share of labor in agriculture in 1841 would have been 47% instead of 22%. The reason this assumption has such a large effect on employment in agriculture is that it would imply that two thirds of all land rents in 1841 were allocated to subsidizing workers to stay in agriculture.

This conclusion seems, to say the least, a little suspect. Already by 1770 English farmland was mainly owned by large owners and rented out for cash rents at market rates to cultivators, who paid the rents to the landlords, not to surplus relatives with low value to their labor time on the farm. And there are strong indications that labor productivity in English agriculture was already high by 1770 by European standards before the Industrial Revolution was under way. But agree or disagree, anyone interested in these issues will want to read this piece.

James Simpson, in another piece that is original to this volume, also supports the O’Brien/Kaydar hypothesis through a consideration of the details of English agriculture versus that of its continental competitors. This piece again is a fresh perspective on these issues.

There are three essays on the role of technological change. The first of these, by Christine MacLeod, though just a survey of technological developments and their institutional structures in Britain and its competitors is well executed, and is an excellent introduction to the subject. The main conclusion is that, if anything, institutions in France provided more incentives for innovation than those in England in the eighteenth century. The other articles in this section by James Thompson and Rainer Fremdling, while not uninteresting, seemed to get lost in the details of the innovations discussed and forget the larger question “Why was Britain different?”

The sections on institutions and war were less rewarding. Another version of the “restaurant theorem” above is the following. “Can local institutions explain the success of particular economies? No, because if any local institution was particularly valuable it would have been copied everywhere.” The authors of these sections seem not to have taken on board this maxim, and attribute wonderful powers to the most mundane institutional differences.

Every institutional difference between England and less successful economies is taken as evidence of the true power and wonder of institutions. No matter how trivial these differences might appear, or how little theory there is in advance of what Industrial Revolution producing institutions look like, the writers have faith they matter. Money, banks, government bonds, taxes, naval organization – did any of these make the British Industrial Revolution? To a skeptic it all seems on a par with those fervent believers who see Weeping Madonnas in tree stumps. But with belief every institution becomes wondrous, and the power of institutions is manifest in every detail of ordinary life.

Gregory Clark is author of “Human Capital, Fertility, and the Industrial Revolution,” Journal of the European Economic Association 3 (2005), and “The Condition of the Working-Class in England, 1209-2004,” Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming, December, 2005).

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