industrial revolution

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Book review: State, Economy, and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s – 1850s, by Peer Vries.

Yet another book on why Britain and China diverged dramatically starting around 1800. This one focuses on documenting the differences between the regions, with relatively little theorizing.

Some interesting differences of possible relevance to the divergence:

  • British per capita tax collections were 15 times China’s [1]; Vries emphasizes the underlying British bureaucratic competence.
  • Britain changed its tax rules often; China treated tax rules as if set in stone.
  • British tax policy caused it to promote standardization of a wide variety of weights and measures, which helped long-distance trades; China had nothing similar.
  • Britain’s taxation was more egalitarian than China’s (but still much less egalitarian than today).
  • British government debt looked recklessly high; China consistently had a surplus.
  • British elites wanted to keep the masses poor (to make them industrious); China’s elites seemed neutral or had slight preferences for the poor to prosper.
  • Most British workers were nearly slaves – laws restricted their mobility due to the expectation that most who left their area of work were beggars/thieves; China was less restrictive.
  • Britain condoned or supported powerful monopolies; China broke up concentrations of merchant power / capital under the assumption that they came at the expense of ordinary people.
  • Britain had three times as much farm land per capita as China.
  • Britain was more urban, so it had more commercial / monetary activity.
  • China denied that anything outside its borders mattered. Britain had a fairly global worldview.

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Book review: Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama.

This book describes the rise of modern nation-states, from the French revolution to the present.

Fukuyama focuses on three features that influence national success: state (effective bureaucracy), rule of law, and autonomy (democratic accountability).

Much of the book argues against libertarian ideas from a fairly centrist perspective, although he mostly avoids directly discussing libertarian beliefs. Instead, he implies that we should de-emphasize debates over big government versus small government, and look more at effectiveness versus corruption (i.e. we should pull sideways).

Many of these ideas build on what Fukuyama wrote in Trust – I suggest reading that book first.


War! What Is It Good For?. Fukuyama believes that war sometimes causes states to make their bureaucracy more efficient. Fukuyama is more credible here than Morris because Fukuyama is more cautious about the effects he claims to see.

The book suggests that young nations have some key stage where threat of conquest can create the right incentives for developing an efficient bureaucracy (i.e. without efficient support for the military, including effective taxation, they get absorbed into a state that does better at those tasks). Without such a threat, states can get stuck in an equilibrium where the bureaucracy simply serves a small number of powerful people. But with such a threat, politicians need to delegate enough authority that the bureaucracy develops some independence, which enables it to care about broader notions of national welfare. (Fukuyama talks as if the bureaucracies are somewhat altruistic. I think of it more as the bureaucracies caring about their long-term revenue source, when individual politicians don’t hold power long enough to care about the long term).

It seems plausible that China would have helped to lead the industrial revolution if it had faced a serious risk of being conquered in the 17th and 18th centuries. China’s relative safety back then seems to have left it complacent and stagnant.


Fukuyama hints that the three pillars of modern nation-states (state, law, autonomy) have roughly equal importance.

Yet I don’t buy that. I expect that whatever virtues are responsible for the rule of law are a good deal more important than effective bureaucracies or democratic accountability.

Fukuyama doesn’t make a strong case for the value of democracy for national success, presumably in part because he expects most readers to already agree with him about that. I’ll conjecture that democracy is mostly a byproduct of success at the other features that Fukuyama considers important.

It’s likely that democracy is somewhat valuable for generating fairness, but that has limited relevance to what Fukuyama tries to explain (i.e. mainly power and wealth).


Full-fledged rule of law might be needed to get all the benefits of the best modern societies. But the differences between good and bad nations seems to have originated well before those nations had more than a rudimentary version of rule of law.

That suggests some underlying factor that matters – maybe just the basic notion of law as something separate from individual leaders or ethnic groups (Fukuyama’s previous book says Christianity played an important role here); or maybe the kind of cultural advance suggested by Greg Clark.

Fukuyama argues that it’s risky to adopt democracy before creating effective states and the rule of law. He’s probably right to expect that such democracies will be dominated by people who fight to get the spoils of politics for their family / clan / ethnic group, with little thought to national wellbeing.


National identity is important for producing the kind of government that Fukuyama likes. It’s hard for government employees to focus on the welfare of the nation if they identify mainly as members of a non-majority ethnic group.

He mentions that the printing press helped create national identities out of more fragmented cultures. This seems important enough to Europe’s success that it deserves more emphasis than the two paragraphs he devotes to it.

He describes several countries that started out as a patchwork of ethnic groups, and had differing degrees of success at developing a unified national identity: Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I was a bit disappointed that the differences there seemed to be mostly accidents of the personalities of leading politicians.

He talks as if the only two options for such regions were to develop a clear national identity or be crippled by ethnic conflict. Why not also consider the option of splitting into smaller political units that can aim to become city-states such as Singapore and Dubai?


He makes many minor claims that sound suspicious enough for me to have moderate doubts about trusting his scholarship.

For example, he tries to refute claims that “industrial policy never works”, mainly by using the example of the government developing the internet. (His use of the word “never” suggests that he’s not exactly attacking the most sophisticated version of the belief in question). How familiar is he with the history of the internet? The entities in charge of internet tried to restrict commercial use until 1995. Actual commercial use of the internet started before the government made a clear decision to tolerate such use, much less endorse it. So Fukuyama either has a faulty understanding of internet history, or is using the phrase industrial policy in a way that puzzles me.

Then there’s the claim that the Spanish conquered important parts of the New World before the native nations had declined due to European diseases. Fukuyama seems unfamiliar with the contrary evidence reported by Charles C. Mann in 1491 and 1493. Mann may not be an ideal source, but he appears at least as reliable as the sources that Fukuyama cites.


That leads into more general doubts about history books, especially ambitiously broad books aimed at popular audiences.

Tetlock’s research into the accuracy of political pundits has led me to assume that a broad range of “expert” commentary is roughly equivalent to random guessing. Much of what historians do [1] seems quite similar to the opinions of the experts that Tetlock studies. Neither historians nor political pundits get adequate feedback about mistaken beliefs, or get significant rewards for insights that are later confirmed by new evidence. That leads me to worry that the study of history is little better than voodoo.


In sum, I can’t quite decide whether to recommend that you read this book.

[1] – I.e. drawing inferences from aggregations of data. That’s not to say that historians don’t devote lots of time to reporting observed facts. But most of those facts don’t have value to me unless I can generalize from them in ways that help me understand the future. Historian’s choices of what facts to emphasize will unavoidably influence any generalizations I draw.

Book review: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, by Ian Morris.

This book gives the impression that Morris had a halfway decent book in mind, but forgot to write down important parts of it.

He devotes large (possibly excessive) parts of the book to describing worldwide changes in what people value that correlate with the shifts to farming and then industry.

He convinces me that there’s some sort of connection between those values and how much energy per capita each society is able to use. He probably has a clue or two what that connection is, but the book failed to enlighten me about the connection.

He repeatedly claims that each age gets the thought that it needs. I find that about as reasonable as claiming that the widespread malnutrition associated with farming was what farming cultures needed. Indeed, his description of how farming caused gender inequality focuses on increased ability of men to inflict pain on women, and on increased incentives to do so. That sounds like a society made worse off, not getting what it needs.

He mentions (almost as an afterthought) some moderately interesting models of what caused specific changes in values as a result of the agricultural revolution.

He does an ok job of explaining the increased support for hierarchy in farming societies as an effect of the community size increasing past the Dunbar Number.

He attributes the reduced support for hierarchy in the industrial world to a need for interchangeable citizens. But he doesn’t document that increased need for interchangeability, and I’m skeptical that any such effect was strong. See The Institutional Revolution for a well thought out alternative model.

I had hoped to find some ideas about how to predict value changes that will result from the next big revolution. But I can’t figure out how to usefully apply his ideas to novel situations.

See also Robin Hanson’s review.

Book review: The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations, by Ian Morris.

The ambitious attempt to quantify the sophistication of societies is a partial success.

His goal is to compare the development of the two leading centers of human progress over the past 16000 years (western Eurasia and eastern Asia).

I read this book before looking at summaries of his previous book. The Measure of Civilization was designed to provide support for the claims in the prior book, but was objective enough that I didn’t infer from it what the main message of the prior book was.

When I focus on the numbers in this book and ignore other ideas I’ve read, the most plausible hypothesis I see is that the east followed a more risk-averse strategy than the west. The west suffered at least one crash (200-700 CE) that was a good deal worse than anything the east is known to have experienced.

He tries to measure four different quantities and aggregate them into an index. But the simplest way to scale them leaves two (information use and military power) insignificant until about 1900, then rising at a rate which seems likely to make them the only factors that matter to the index fairly soon. He briefly looks at some better ways to aggregate them, but they still seem inadequate.

In sum, the basic idea behind measuring those four quantities seems sound. If he wasn’t any more arbitrary about it than I suspect, then the book has been somewhat helpful at clarifying the trends over time of the leading human cultures, and maybe added a tiny bit of insight into the differences between east and west.

Book review: Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History, by William J. Bernstein.

This is a history of the world which sometimes focuses on how technology changed communication, and how those changes affected society.

Instead of carefully documenting a few good ideas, he wanders over a wide variety of topics (including too many descriptions of battles and of individual people).

His claims seem mostly correct, but he often failed to convince me that he has good reason for believing them. E.g. when trying to explain why the Soviet economy was inefficient (haven’t enough books explained that already?) he says the “absence of a meaningful price signal proved especially damaging in the labor market”, but supports that by mentioning peculiarities which aren’t clear signs of damage, then describing some blatant waste that wasn’t clearly connected to labor market problems (and without numbers, doesn’t tell us the magnitude of the problems).

I would have preferred that he devote more effort to evaluating the importance of changes in communication to the downfall of the Soviet Union. He documents increased ability of Soviet citizens to get news from sources that their government didn’t control at roughly the time Soviet power weakened. But it’s not obvious how that drove political change. It seems to me that there was an important decrease in the ruthlessness of Soviet rulers that isn’t well explained by communication changes.

I liked his description of affordable printing presses depended on a number of technological advance, suggesting that printing could not easily have arisen at other times or places.

The claim I found most interesting was that the switch from reading aloud to reading silently and the related ability to write alone (as opposed to needed a speaker and a scribe) made it easier to spread seditious and sexual writings due to increased privacy.

Bernstein is optimistic that improved communication technology will have good political effects in the future. I partly agree, but I see more risks than he does (e.g. his like of the democratic features of the Arab Spring aren’t balanced by much concern over the risks of revolutionary violence).

Book review: How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, by Rodney Stark.

This book is a mostly entertaining defense of Christian and libertarian cultures’ contribution to Western civilization’s dominance.

He wants us to believe that the industrial revolution resulted from mostly steady progress starting with Greek city-states, interrupted only by the Roman empire.

He defends the Catholic church’s record of helping scientific progress and denies that the Reformation was needed, although he suggests the Catholic church’s reaction to the Reformation created harmful anti-capitalist sentiments.

His ideas resemble those in Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, yet there’s little overlap between the content of the two books.

The early parts of the book have too many descriptions of battles and other killings whose relevance is unclear.

I was annoyed at how much space he devoted to attacking political correctness toward the end of the book.

In spite of those problems, he presents many interesting ideas. Some are fairly minor, such as changes in privacy due to the Little Ice Age triggering the invention of chimneys. Others provide potentially important insights into differences between religions, e.g. “many influential Muslim scholars have held that efforts to formulate natural laws are blasphemy because they would seem to deny Allah’s freedom to act.”

Alas, I can only give the book a half-hearted endorsement because I suspect many of his claims are poorly supported. E.g. he thinks increased visibility of child labor in the 1800s caused child labor laws via shocked sensibilities. Two alternatives that seem much more plausible to me are that the increased visibility made the laws feasible to enforce, and the increased concentration of employers into a separate class made them easier scapegoats.

Book review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.

This ambitious attempt to explain the rise of civilization (especially the rule of law) is partly successful.

The most important idea in the book is that the Catholic church (in the Gregorian Reforms) played a critical role in creating important institutions.

The church differed from religions in other cultures in that it was sufficiently organized to influence political policy, but not strong enough to become a state. This lead it to acquire resources by creating rules that enabled people to leave property to the church (often via wills, which hardly existed before then). This turned what had been resources belonging to some abstract group (families or ancestors) into things owned by individuals, and created rules for transferring those resources.

In the process, it also weakened the extended family, which was essential to having a state that impartially promoted the welfare of a society that was larger than a family.

He also provides a moderately good description of China’s earlier partial adoption of something similar in its merit-selected bureaucracy.

I recommend reading the first 7 chapters plus chapter 16. The rest of the book contains more ordinary history, including some not-too-convincing explanations of why northwest Europe did better than the rest of Christianity.

Book review: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

This book claims that “extractive institutions” prevent nations from becoming wealthy, and “inclusive institutions” favor wealth creation. It is full of anecdotes that occasionally have some relevance to their thesis. (The footnotes hint that they’ve written something more rigorous elsewhere).

The stereotypical extractive institutions certainly do harm that the stereotypical inclusive institutions don’t. But they describe those concepts in ways that do a mediocre job of generalizing to non-stereotypical governments.

They define “extractive institutions” broadly to include regions that don’t have “sufficiently centralized and pluralistic” political institutions. That enables them to classify regions such as Somalia as extractive without having to identify anything that would fit the normal meaning of extractive.

Their description of Somalia as having an “almost constant state of warfare” is strange. Their only attempt to quantify this warfare is a reference to a 1955 incident where 74 people were killed (if that’s a memorable incident, it would suggest war kills few people there; do they ignore the early 90’s because it was an aberration?). Wikipedia lists Somalia’s most recently reported homicide rate as 1.5 per 100,000 (compare to 14.5 for their favorite African nation Botswana, and 4.2 for the U.S.).

They don’t discuss the success of Dubai and Hong Kong because those governments don’t come very close to fitting their stereotype of a pluralistic and centralized nation.

They describe Mao’s China as “highly extractive”, but it looks to me more like ignorant destruction than an attempt at extracting anything. They say China’s current growth is unsustainable, somewhat like the Soviet Union (but they hedge and say it might succeed by becoming inclusive as South Korea did). Whereas I predict that China’s relatively decentralized planning will be enough to sustain modest growth, but it will be held back somewhat by the limits to the rule of law.

They do a good (but hardly novel) job of explaining why elites often fear that increased prosperity would threaten their position.

They correctly criticize some weak alternative explanations of poverty such as laziness. But they say little about explanations that partly overlap with theirs, such as Fukuyama’s Trust (a bit odd given that the book contains a blurb from Fukuyama). Fukuyama doesn’t seem to discuss Africa much, but the effects of slave trade seem to have large long-lasting consequences on social capital.

For a good introduction to some more thoughtful explanations of national growth such as the rule of law and the scientific method, see William Bernstein’s The Birth of Plenty.

Why Nations Fail may be useful for correcting myths among people who are averse to math, but for people who are already familiar with this subject, it will just add a few anecdotes without adding much insight.

Book review: The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.

This is an ambitious book centered around the nature of explanation, why it has been an important part of science (misunderstood by many who think of science as merely prediction), and why it is important for the future of the universe.

He provides good insights on jump during the Enlightenment to thinking in universals (e.g. laws of nature that apply to a potentially infinite scope). But he overstates some of its implications. He seems confident that greater-than-human intelligences will view his concept of “universal explainers” as the category that identifies which beings have the rights of people. I find this about as convincing as attempts to find a specific time when a fetus acquires the rights of personhood. I can imagine AIs deciding that humans fail often enough at universalizing their thought to be less than a person, or that they will decide that monkeys are on a trajectory toward the same kind of universality.

He neglects to mention some interesting evidence of the spread of universal thinking – James Flynn’s explanation of the Flynn Effect documents that low IQ cultures don’t use the abstract thought that we sometimes take for granted, and describes IQ increases as an escape from concrete thinking.

Deutsch has a number of interesting complaints about people who attempt science but are confused about the philosophy of science, such as people who imagine that measuring heritability of a trait tells us something important without further inquiry – he notes that being enslaved was heritable in 1860, but that was useless for telling us how to change slavery.

He has interesting explanations for why anthropic arguments, the simulation argument, and the doomsday argument are weaker in a spatially infinite universe. But I was disappointed that he didn’t provide good references for his claim that the universe is infinite – a claim which I gather is controversial and hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.

He sometimes gets carried away with his ambition and seems to forget his rule that explanations should be hard to vary in order to make it hard to fool ourselves.

He focuses on the beauty of flowers in an attempt to convince us that beauty is partially objective. But he doesn’t describe this objective beauty in a way that would make it hard to alter to fit whatever evidence he wants it to fit. I see an obvious alternative explanation for humans finding flowers beautiful – they indicate where fruit will be.

He argues that creativity evolved to help people find better ways of faithfully transmitting knowledge (understanding someone can require creative interpretation of the knowledge that they are imperfectly expressing). That might be true, but I can easily create other explanations that fit the evidence he’s trying to explain, such as that creativity enabled people to make better choices about when to seek a new home.

He imagines that he has a simple way to demonstrate that hunter-gatherer societies could not have lived in a golden age (the lack of growth of their knowledge):

Since static societies cannot exist without effectively extinguishing the growth of knowledge, they cannot allow their members much opportunity to pursue happiness.

But that requires implausible assumptions such as that happiness depends more on the pursuit of knowledge than availability of sex. And it’s not clear that hunter-gatherer societies were stable – they may have been just a few mistakes away from extinction, and accumulating knowledge faster than any previous species had. (I think Deutsch lives in a better society than hunter-gatherers, but it would take a complex argument to show that the average person today does).

But I generally enjoyed his arguments even when I thought they were wrong.

See also the review in the New York Times.

Book review: The Institutional Revolution: Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World, by Douglas W. Allen.

What do honor duels, purchases of commissions in the army, and privately managed lighthouses have in common?

According to Allen, they were institutions which made sense in the pre-modern age, but were abandoned when improvements in measurement (of labor quality, product quality, time, location, etc) made them obsolete in the nineteenth century.

Allen presents a grand theory of how large variations in job performance, product quality, etc, before 1800-1850 created large transaction costs which caused widespread differences from modern life, and which explain a wide variety of institutions which seem strange enough to people with a presentist bias that most have dismissed many pre-modern institutions as obviously foolish.

What starts out as an inquiry into some apparently quirky and unusual practices finishes as an ambitious attempt to explain the industrial revolution as a revolution whose institutional changes were more pervasive and valuable than the technological advances which triggered them.

The book convinced me that it explains the timing of some important and often forgotten social changes. But the frequent implication that the institutions in question were the most rational way to deal with limitations of pre-industrial life seem overdone. I suspect that there was often a mixture of reasons behind those institutions that included some foolishness and some catering to special interests.

For example, his theory requires that honor duels be designed so that skill at dueling is fairly unimportant compared to random luck. He provides some evidence that people tried to introduce randomness into the dueling process, but leaves me doubting that it made skill unimportant.

The book provides a framework that might be valuable in predicting future institutional changes as technological change further reduces transaction costs, and does a valuable job of offsetting the tendencies of economists other than Coase to downplay the importance of transaction costs.

This was the first book I’ve read in several years that seems too short.