Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Common Dynamics

Despite the continued effort of scholars to claim that China and Europe were fundamentally different in economic terms between 1500 and 1800, we have actually learned that there were important dynamics of expansion common to areas within each of these large regions.

Constraints of the Preindustrial World and the Historical Hinge of 1800 [VIDEO]

TRANSCRIPT: If Julius Caesar had been able to come back in the eighteenth century, he would have found that certain basic realities of life—the maximum yield you could get from an acre of farmland, the maximum distance that you could haul grain over land before the horses hauling it had eaten half the grain, the maximum speed you could move over land—all of those things would have been relatively unchanged since his time.

And if Han Wudi, the (second- to first-century B.C.) emperor in China had come back in the eighteenth century, he would have had much the same experience as well. Certain basic preindustrial realities had not changed. Whereas in the two centuries since steam power, those things have obviously changed incredibly.

So in certain ways, I think what we have to emphasize to our students is that the preindustrial world had certain fundamental constraints. Different societies are, to varying degrees, good at maximizing their productive potential within those constraints. So there are certain things you can do in a preindustrial world, and some societies are better at moving pretty close to the limit of what's possible. How good you are at that actually has very little to do with something completely different, which is, are you able to break out of those constraints, and get into a fundamentally new world based on steam and fossil fuels and extremely high-energy consumption per capita, and so on and so forth.

Europe, as we know, was very good at the latter. And sometimes we have, as a result, assumed that they were particularly good at the former, too. In other words, that they were already richer than the rest of the world. Better at doing the maximum that was possible within the preindustrial conditions. That turns out not to necessarily be true.

And I think it's important for our students to see the difference between those two kinds of questions. That we're talking about two different kinds of economic change, and the connection between them is loose at best. And I think that really helps us to see the ways in which the year 1800 is a real hinge in history. That the fundamental questions about what it means to be rich, what it means to be powerful, what it means to be developed—those changed in a really radical way that nobody living in the late-eighteenth century imagined.

Adam Smith does not foresee an industrial revolution. (He was) an awfully smart guy, (and he) knew an awful lot about the economics of his time. His little chapter on industrialization that everybody quotes, the one about the pin factory, is only around five pages or so, out of the massive (book) that is the Wealth of Nations. The rest is all about commerce and agriculture. And commerce and agriculture was something that lots of people in China and India and various other places were every bit as good at as Western Europeans.

I am not saying that either Europe as a whole or China as a whole was changing in a lockstep fashion. But I am suggesting that the available data suggest that in the most advanced areas of both of these large world regions, we find comparable dynamics of economic change, at least comparable enough to encourage us to first locate similarities and then with more precision and finesse, identify what we think are differences.

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