Joel Mokyr on living standards during the Industrial Revolution

One of the notable arithmetical truths about the period of the Industrial Revolution is that it is quite possible (if not certain) that biological living standards in both urban and rural areas rose and yet average living standards declined.  This can happen if urban living conditions are significantly worse than rural ones, and the proportion of people living in cities is rising because of migration from the countryside to the towns.  It seems likely that the biological measures of living standards were especially sensitive to urbanization.  While urban areas may have offered some positive amenities (such as entertainment and more choice in shopping), healthy living conditions were surely not among them.

That is from Mokyr's new and notable The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850.  The obvious question of course is why so many people moved into cities.  Did "new goods" make the urban living standard higher than some measures might suggest?  Was it to avoid boredom?  To avoid "rural idiocy" and invest in future IQ externalities for children?

Here is my previous post on the book.


Well - abundant income sources would be my main motivator.
Security - the next one. Security like neighbours to keep an eye on one another and proximity of police/healthcare.

Enclosures Acts

How is he measuring living standards? It seems odd that people would move, in flocks, to worse living standards. So my view is that they had different criteria for 'living standards' than what the author is measuring.

Think at the margin :)

Average living standards in rural areas could be higher than in the city, even if marginal living standards were lower. For example, primogeniture might be great for the wealthy first son but not so great for the subsequent children who must either starve or take their chances in the city.

I'd say Eirk hits the nail on the head.

Even if (big if) migration perfectly arbitraged the return to labour between city and countryside, the countryside would still contain most owners of land-as-capital, and its living conditions would reflect their return to labour plus returns of owning land.

We modern people are just not used anymore to a situation where farm land is the main capital of the country, or that capital owners are largely geographically connected to their capital.

We sort of implicitly assume that someone who inherits a patch of land would sell or rent it out it to the highest bidder and move to the place where his own returns to labour are highest.

Ray has it - the Enclosure Acts reduced the rural poor's access to common lands so that landowners could graze sheep. Before enclosure, the rural poor were subsistence farmers.

The classic Marxist explanation is that developments such as enclosure, technology/organizational changes putting domestic production out of business etc put rural workers out of work (and homeless) and pushed them to the cities. Recent econ history on specific British counties paints are more complex picture. In the first generations of industrialization, many workers did not see the move as a permanent change. Younger sons tended to go and work in new industrial areas (as opposed to cities -- most weren't cities -- they were industrial settlements that we would see as small towns or something akin to modern mining camps) on a temporary basis -- in the down time after harvest or if work was light. This pattern went on in South Wales until the late 19th C. As with emigration, the most likely to migrate to urban areas were young men. Descriptions of S Wales (which I am most familiar with)repeatedly note the number of young, unattached men -- they were doing what they have always done (i.e., looking for work, opportunity, spending money etc)and typically raising hell. The industrial towns sound more like mining camps than our normal image. I would imagine that health issues didn't matter much to them -- only when family began to come in the second generation. There hasn't been enough work done on this -- but probably men married girls from the old village (or new migrants), brought wives etc and the deterioration in conditions became more evident.

I can only cite one part of my families story. My grandmother's family came from Oxfordshire to S Wales in 1880s -- they came one at a time, young men first, then bring families. They went back and forth to Oxfordshire as work came and went. In the 20th C young men started to migrate to London and Cowely (i.e., Oxford for the car industry) and then brought the female members of their family. Young women tended to go into domestic service in London (by grandmother and all her sisters did this as their mothers had done) and even found husbands or went to live with their brothers to look for husbands.

In terms of Welsh farmers -- my Great, Great Grandfather came to the mines and steel works from the family farm. Boys commonly went in the winter and returned for the harvest. They sent their money home. As his older brother inherited the farm -- he eventually had to decide to immigrate to places farther away, stay in the mines and the mills or join the army. He took the arm and then into the mines. Typical story.

The whole picture is more complex than one factor driving families to the cities -- its was a back and forth where people got into things that they didn't necessarily bite fully formed.

maybe (country) people are just stupid.

Or let's call it irrational. Or lacking information.

Maybe they were persuaded by false arguments, perhaps by the people living in miserable cities who pretended they enjoyed it in the cities because they had invested in moving there.

Maybe people can't get out once they are in cities. It's like a fly trap.

More likely, it's just a helluva lot more fun in cities than in the lonely country side for a lot of people.

I suspect it's often the case that the rural living standard was mostly subsistence farming, with relatively little involvement of money and the market. By contrast, urban living was much more money and market oriented. The difference makes it hard for economists to compare; it may also affect the decision-making of the rural youth. That's certainly a theme of lots of jeremiads: don't be led astray by the tawdry pinchbeck charms of the big city, settle for the solid virtues of the rural life.

"While urban areas may have offered some positive amenities (such as entertainment and more choice in shopping), healthy living conditions were surely not among them."

While rural areas may have offered some positive amenities (although, having grown up on a farm, I cannot think of any) healthy living conditions were just as surely not among them.

Is there any evidence that urban living was less healthy than rural living? I have never seen any, and I would seriously question any purported evidence.

One of the problems of 20th and 21st century historiography of urbanization is that historians no longer have any experience of rural living. They all believe in an Arcadia that did not exist.

There is a reason that, in every generation since cities first appeared, anyone who could leave a farm for a city left a farm for a city.

Rural life -- even in the mid-20th century, when I grew up in it, could be characterized as Hobbes characterized nature: "no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

"rural idiocy"

Having used that quote from Marx myself, it has been pointed out to me that it translates more accurately as something like "rural isolation" or "rural idiosyncrasy."

I've given up looking for an answer to this question and instead just learn the conversation. Take, for instance, Capitalism and the Historians (Hayek, ed.) and E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. I don't know who or what is "right" but over the years I've struggled with both books. For the economists reading this post, you really must read chapter 10 of Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, "Standards and Experiences." It doesn't settle the debate - not by a long shot - but it shows you the questions and complexity involved in the issue. For instance, he demonstrates how people could be more well-off in terms of cash and material goods while simultaneously perceiving themselves to be degraded. It's quite worthwhile and apropos this conversation. I look forward to reading Mokyr.

Didn't Will Rogers say that the mass migration of Okies to the San Fernando Valley raised the average intelligence of both Oklahoma and California?

What is interesting about this discussion is it is all theory and conjecture. Are there any real historians here who can bring some primary source material to the discussion, such as letters written by people who moved to the city telling the people back home how it was going?

The obvious question of course is why so many people moved into cities.

Isn't this like the question of why so many factory workers have migrated from the easy and rewarding factory life into the much poorer and harder service sector of low wages and job insecurity?

The farmers and farm communities needed to be jacks of all trades, able to meet nearly every need for finished goods for the cost of moving food any distance was too great. This is the problem in Afghanistan today - why do Afghans produce opium instead of grain when a kilo of opium only nets them about the same price as a ton of grain in the city? Perhaps it is the thousand fold higher cost of moving a ton of grain to the city than a kilo of opium?

The land locked regions were revolutionized by railroads - food could flow rapidly to the city and in return goods from specialists in cities could flow to the farms. No longer was someone needed to process the cotton and wool into finished goods on the farm for the needs of the farm with excesses going to the cities. Instead, the raw material was sent to the city in return for finished goods. The need for labor on the farm was drastically reduced.

Circa 1900, the farms saw even greater revolution in mechanization that allowed certain kinds of farming to eliminate 90% of its labor needs by abandoning the labor intensive goods which people in cities and towns could grow. In the 50s when those city farming was abandoned, the garden foods were shipped by rail and then air for thousands of miles. And then with massive government investment in roads, by truck.

Government transportation policy, from the government controlling the seas, to governments extending the seas with canals and river locks, then creating the rail systems, then the road and air systems of today, has eliminated the need for labor on farms in most of the world. Without a need for labor on the farm, where else can you go but the cities in the hope of work?

Umm, Dan? It hasn't changed that much... 16 hour days (well, 14 outside of harvest, not counting winter) Check. Sweltering sun? Check. Freezing cold? Check. Loving it all? Check and check. Many find hard labor on your own land is quite enjoyable.

I didn't know anyone growing up who talked about leaving as soon as they could or anything like that. None of us thought about the fact that farms were getting larger while farm families averaged three kids. But everyone was expected to go to college. Most don't go back. There's no work.

I suppose one could test the converse theory by establishing a society where the least affluent people bred at a far greater rate than the most affluent and then examining the progress or decline of that society.

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