Saturday, December 4, 2010

Can the industrial revolution be attributed to economic freedom?

Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and ResponseBefore reading Eric Jones book, ‘Locating the Industrial Revolution’, I had thought that the reasons why the industrial revolution began when and where it did would have a lot to do with relative levels of economic freedom in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book seems to me to reinforce that view, even though it does not argue strongly in favour of it. The message I get from the book is that the political forces favouring greater economic freedom prevailed over opposing forces in those areas of economic policy that were most critical to economic growth at that time.

My prior view that the industrial revolution would have had a lot to do with relative levels of economic freedom was associated to some extent with dissatisfaction with alternative explanations such as that offered by Gregory Clark (discussed here). I admit, however, that my prior views were most strongly influenced by contemporary econometric evidence that greater economic freedom tends to promote higher economic growth. I would not be surprised if Eric Jones considers that such reasoning displays ‘too great a willingness to accept dubious data as proxies for the real thing, and too much of a preference for neat solutions’ (p. 6). He uses those words as a general criticism of economists.

The main question that Jones considers in this book is why the location of manufacturing industry shifted from the south to the north of England prior to the industrial revolution. This is an important question because the clustering of industry in the north provided an economic environment conducive to subsequent innovations, including use of coal-fired steam engines as an energy source.

Jones suggests that the economic history of England does not provide neat solutions to the problem of locating the industrial revolution. He claims:
‘There is no determinate solution to the puzzle of why the industrial revolution took place, and when and where it did so. All that can be achieved is a narrowing of the range of possible mixes’ (p. 245).

Jones sees problems with a simple explanation in terms of levels of economic freedom:
‘Ordinarily we might expect that economic growth would be spurred by market freedoms but there are problems with this line of argument. A number of the outcomes do not seem to have been stable. Free-market preferences within the judicial system were inconsistent, since the judges reverted to precedent when it suited them – not that every law was enforced. Protective duties were raised precisely when “a modest flow of works” was starting to extol the virtues of free trade. Nor was corruption decisively reduced until some way into the 19th century’ (p. 243).

However, similar objections have been raised against attempts to explain China’s economic growth in recent decades as a consequence of market freedoms. A point that is often overlooked is that in considering the potential for economic growth offered in a particular economy by a particular level of economic freedom the most relevant comparison is with levels of economic freedom generally prevailing in other economies with similar income levels. An improvement in economic freedom in a low income country can provide an impetus to more rapid growth even though economic freedom remains heavily restricted.

Jones suggests that the main factor responsible for the redistribution of manufacturing activity to northern England was market integration associated with improvements in transportation. The merging of markets led to greater competition and specialization on the basis of comparative advantage – with a greater focus on agriculture in the south and manufacturing in the north. He points out, however, that these improvements in transportation often had to overcome substantial political obstacles from wealthy land-owners, whose concern to protect the social status that land ownership offered (linked to landscapes, recreation and privacy) often outweighed their interest in increasing the rental value of their land. He suggests that privatising of rights of way – described as ‘judicial theft of the subjects rights’ – was an ‘astonishingly common’ adverse effect of the enclosure of the commons (p. 153). The merging of markets was only possible because the judges and parliament together increasingly embraced market ideology and overlooked, rejected or struck down local protectionist measures (p. 185).

It seems to me that Eric Jones has provided strong evidence that the industrial revolution occurred when and where it did because market ideology prevailed sufficiently to enable market integration, specialization on the basis of comparative advantage and the clustering of manufacturing industry. I am conscious, however, that he might suggest that in offering that summary my preference for neat solutions has gotten the better of me.

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