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Last Modified: 1999-07-02
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Reading Notes for September 15, The British Industrial Revolution

Economics 210a, Fall 1999

N.F.R. Crafts (1985), British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 1-114.

Nick Crafts tried to put together a new--revisionist--view of the industrial revolution. He succeeded: his version is now the conventional wisdom. In Crafts's view:

  • Productivity growth and technological innovation is slower than previous authors had believed.
  • Investment is slow to increase.
  • Growth in material standards of living is well-nigh nonexistent until after 1830 or so--hence the extraordinary (to us) fact that Britons before 1860 could argue over whether industrialization raised living standards.
  • The change of Britain from an agricultural to an industrial society was slower than previous authors had believed.

As you read, watch how Crafts constructs his argument. Where are his arguments against the previous--more optimistic--view of the industrial revolution convincing? Where were you not persuaded? Did he seem to you to draw reasonable inferences from his new data?

Crafts's estimates, because they slow the growth rate, leave Britain in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries considerably richer than previously thought. This should be seen as a point for Jan de Vries in his argument that the commercial economies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were actually surprisingly modern.

David Landes (1993), "The Fable of the Dead Horse; or, The Industrial Revolution Revisited," in Joel Mokyr, ed., The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective (Boulder: Westview Press), pp. 132-170.

David Landes's polemical argument against N.F.R. Crafts and C. Knick Harley has a very simple structure: "I'm talking oranges and you're talking apples."

Landes is concerned with innovative best-practice as opposed to economy-wide average practice.

Landes is concerned with leading-edge productivity as opposed to economy-wide material standards of living.

Landes is concerned with invention as opposed to economy-wide diffusion.

I think that he scores on all points. After all, consider a sign wave: at the point where it is moving upward the fastest, its value is average; at the point where it is accelerating upward the fastest, its value is least.

A more interesting question: the industrial revolution looked like a revolution--an extraordinary change, a world-overturning process--to the people who lived through it. But does it look like a revolution to us, who have another century and a half of history to look back at?

Peter Temin (1997), "Two Views of the Industrial Revolution," Journal of Economic History 57:1 (March), pp. 63-82.

Back when she and Roderick Floud edited the first edition of their British Economic Growth book, Deirdre McCloskey pointed out that productivity growth in the leading sectors of the British industrial revolution could not account for much of (pre-Crafts) economy-wide productivity growth. Thus people thought that there was a lot of "invisible" enterpreneur- and technology-driven productivity growth taking place in early nineteenth century Britain. Then came Crafts's revisions--after which there was no space left for any extra-leading-sector productivity growth.

So Peter Temin decided to use trade data to test whether the pattern of comparative advantage was consistent with British productivity stagnation outside of iron and cotton.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848), "The Communist Manifesto", pp. 469-500 of Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), pp. 469-500.

Worth reading as the foundational text of a world religion that shook the globe for a century and a half. Not an uninteresting interpretation of what was going on in mid-nineteenth-century Europe either--even if Marx and Engels did interpret what they saw through Chiliastic lenses, mistaking the birth pangs of industrial capitalism for its death throes...

Karl Marx (1849), "Wage Labor and Capital," pp. 203-217 of Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), pp. 469-500.

Worth reading because it is the closest Marx comes to writing down a model. Key because it is the argument that underlies Marx's constant prediction that capitalism can never generate persistent increases in real living standards for the overwhelming bulk of the population. (At least, Marx did make that constant prediction. And he never wrote down another argument.)

As you read along, ask yourself...

  • Is Marx's prediction of the inevitable immiserization of the working class--"...the forest of uplifted arms demanding work becomes ever thicker, while the arms themselves become ever thinner"--a Malthusian prediction? Or is it something else?
  • What went wrong with Marx's prediction of the inevitable immiserization of the working class? Where is the flaw in his argument?

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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
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