Precocious Albion: A New Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution

That is a new paper by Morgan Kelly, Joek Mokyr, and Cormac Ó Gráda, and the abstract is here:

Why was Britain the cradle of the Industrial Revolution? Answers vary: some focus on resource endowments, some on institutions, some on the role of empire. In this paper, we argue for the role of labour force quality or human capital. Instead of dwelling on mediocre schooling and literacy rates, we highlight instead the physical condition of the average British worker and his higher endowment of skills. These advantages meant that British workers were more productive and better paid than their Continental counterparts and better equipped to capitalize on the technological opportunities and challenges confronting them.

The British were fed better, they may have been smarter for nutritional reasons, and they also had a better system of apprenticeships.


And as a result of the Industrial Revolution, they lost the advantage. Australians fighting with the Brits at Gallipolli & elsewhere were struck by how much smaller, weaker and generally less healthy-looking the English soldiers were.

"And as a result of the Industrial Revolution, they lost the advantage."

And yet they mysteriously seem to have won it back. Third or fourth place at two successive Olympics, and a pretty respectable life expectancy. I blame the NHS myself.

Did they lose the advantage? Or were Australians just that much more healthy than their British contemporary?

In 1915, Australians had an immense amount of productive farmland per population. In contrast, the British population so few acres of farmland per person that the German strategy in WWI (and in WWII) was too starve Britain into surrendering by using U-boats to sink ships carry food to that small island.

Also, Australians had more space per capita, which cut down on infectious diseases.

Thus, Australians in 1915 were taller and healthier than Brits.

In WWI, the Australian army still had a minimum height restriction while the British army did not. Australians in those days might well have been larger and stronger than the poms, but using soldiers for a comparison was always going to skew the results.

How flexible was immigration in this period? The paper makes an argument that higher English wages should have drawn in laborers from abroad, but instead we see an outflow of English workers (particularly artisans), even before the Industrial Revolution. But if the ability of continental workers to work in England was greatly limited, then high wages could still be a factor in promoting labor-saving technology. It would just be one of them, alongside the potential for amplifying British skilled work with additional technology.

That said, it matches some of what I've also read about the British Industrial Revolution: the importance of skilled workers and machinists alongside new technologies. Contrast that with the American Industrial Revolution, where they had a scarcity of skilled artisans but plentiful natural resources.

Huh. It's almost like high capital inputs raise living standards or something. And from there, one might conclude that maybe we don't want to make labor so much cheaper than capital. And therefore, immigration ...[sirens go off in government-mandated headphones, nationwide CRIMETHINK alert, stormtroopers crash thru door]

How about 'and therefore, a higher minimum wage...'?

Perhaps for the system to be healthy labor needs more of a share of the pie? Not sure how that works with machines constantly improving to replace labor.

Minimum wage = price floor. Not the same effects at all.

A minimum wage raises the price of labor relative to capital.

The minimum wage is mandatory for all sectors and effectively sets a price floor for consumer goods, so no, the price of labor relative to capital doesn't change. If it did, Zuckerburg would just spend millions of dollars on capital instead of spending millions of dollars lobbying government to import more labor.

The Labour government issued a lot of propaganda about how Britain has always been "a nation of immigrants," but genetic and genealogical research shows striking few influxes over the last 900 years.

In general, the English (and their Scottish cousins) instead have been a conqueror people who acquired vast new territories (Ireland, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the best bits of Africa, such as the Cape, Rhodesia, and the highlands of Kenya) which they populated.

(1) After 1707 the UK was the largest free trade zone in the world; this geopolitical advantage was further increased after 1801 when Ireland was included in the UK. I think that this is a compelling reason. (2) After the US War of Independence the UK maintained very significant trade links with its former colony. (3) The UK also had huge trade links with the Caribbean which was then a dynamic economic zone. I think all of these trump the suggestions made in the abstract.

The British Empire was not a free trade zone; the notion of any such thing would have been utterly foreign to 18th-century Britons. You may remember that American dissatisfaction with British commercial regulations motivated the colonies' rebellion. The East India Company's trade monopoly and the tax on tea are two of the better-known examples.

Well, I don't buy any argument based on surplus of workers. The Industrial Revolution wasn't simply a social construction, it was created by the Scientific Revolution (and Newton had a fundamental importance in that creation). Any argument should explain why the UK was ahead on the sciences, and why science leaded to industrialization (was it inevitable?)... And that's why I liked this one. I have a big suspicious about the importance of water supply, I'm adding nutrition to the list.

Charles Murray already looked at this. You can also add proscriptions against cousin-marriage and the Hajnal lines (K-selection).

Underlying all the factors that Joel Mokyr and others have cited concerning the effects of differentiation of populations is the rise and development in the 14th and 15th centuries of individuality (as noted by Michael Oakeshott).

The social environment resulting from that development made possible transforming changes in the attitudes and concepts that determine how humans regard one another and their interactions as a result of those changes (as noted by Dierdre McCloskey).

While there were regional variances in the degree of those changes, they were more consistent than those occurring in other parts of Northwestern Europe, other than Holland (where many of those changes had preceded those occurring in England).

Though not widely noted in scholarly literature, Western civilization, over the past 100 years has probably been experiencing "reversions" in those concepts and attitudes of human regard for one another. Some writers have attributed those "reversions" to the fragmentation of ideologies and other sources of commonalities.

So, nothing to do with personal freedom and rule of law?

Why would you start building a great business enterprise, if you knew that you could always be arrested and executed by the greedy ruler and his minions? Or, at the very best, have everything confiscated and then find your sorry *behind* in Siberia or some other place of banishment?

Personal freedom and the rule of law are all predicated on power, they don't just drop out of the sky. When the mass of society is in high demand (because the ratio of people to capital is low) then people have the power to demand legal and cultural protections they wouldn't otherwise be able to.

That's why having a mass of impoverished slave caste is incompatible with freedom and liberty. Impoverished masses with no bargaining power are easy to control and can demand no rights or protections because they are powerless and can just be pitted off against each other.

well, that explains california

High wages also increases the incentives for coercing Lake. The US had pretty high people-capital(land) ratio.

Let's take Occam's razor over this claim:
Average height of British males in 1740 was about 1.60m: Floud & Harris, 1997,
Average height of Dutch males/females in 1750 was around 1.70m: Maat, 2006,
Stature is an excellent proxy for health and vigor: Evelyn & Tanner, 1991:

Thus, the authors' hypothesis leaves unanswered why the Industrial Revolution did not start in the Netherlands, where workers were healthier at the time.

Gregory Clark did much better in Farewell to Alms, and now hbd chick is upping the ante with her work on intermarriage.

"Thus, the authors’ hypothesis leaves unanswered why the Industrial Revolution did not start in the Netherlands, where workers were healthier at the time."

Superior health would not help if the Netherlands lacked some other necessary ingredient. The UK had a plentiful supply of agricultural workers who were available to move to the towns, since agricultural efficiency and food imports both rose as the industrial revolution got going.

I completely agree with you, but this is what the authors said: "we highlight instead the physical condition of the average British worker [...]", see Tyler's quote.

The scientific revolution in agriculture happened in Britain about the same time, perhaps a little earlier than the industrial revolution. British horse breeding, for example, became world famous -- all Thoroughbreds track back to 3 oriental stallions and 20 English mares in the 1700s. Around the world, horse racing became associated with progressive English methods. In places like France and Argentina, the Jockey Club was naturally the center of the forward-looking Anglophile element.

The scientific study of artificial selection in agriculture in 18th century England led quite directly to the greatest intellectual invention of 19th century England: the theory of natural selection.

From the first link: "in the early part of the nineteenth century, men who lived in Scotland and the north of England were between 1.0 and 1.5 cm taller than men who lived in London and the southeast, a pattern that has been almost entirely reversed over the last 150 years."

I quote this because I found it striking, but the further explanation appears to be that the rural population was taller than the urban. Which I suppose leads to the question, what is Britain, and what population must be measured?

Any explanation that carries the implication that racial IQ gaps cannot be closed within a person's lifetime via technocratic intervention must be dismissed out of hand, because that result is unacceptable.

How does this square with Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Dignity?

Shakespeare's theory of the English advantage included the crucial role of the English Channel:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

William Shakespeare, "King Richard II", Act 2 scene 1

Paul Johnson calls this the offshore islanders advantage. England was free to engage with the continent when it was to England's advantage, but the continent couldn't overrun England. In contrast, the Netherlands were possibly ahead of England in the golden age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, but a jealous Louis XIV invaded in 1672, more or less wrecking the Dutch economy and ending its Golden Age (Vermeer's family, for instance, was plunged into poverty).

Japan, which was the most economically and culturally progressive country in Asia in 1600-1850, enjoyed a somewhat similar offshore island advantage.

For at least 600 years before Malthus recommended that the British restrain their birth rates, they had been doing exactly what Malthus eventually suggested. According to Gregory Clark's "A Farewell to Alms," the average age of first marriage for English women from 1200 to 1800 had been 24 to 26 (and illegitimate births were in 3-4% range): this is a high degree of sexual restraint.

In contrast, Chinese women tended to marry in their teen years, so the Chinese population would boom in good times, than collapse horrifically in when the government messed up (Mao's Great Leap Forward famine was, hopefully, the last example of this). So, the English (and Western Europeans in general) lived farther from the Malthusian edge than the Chinese. The English had the best government because A. they were protected from invasion after 1066 (other than occasional romantic Scottish Highlander incursion) and B. they evolved the best institutions, in part because they were in less danger of invasion than continental European polities, and thus had to be less militaristic. Rather than need a giant army, the English needed a high tech navy, which paid all sorts of commercial and technological dividends.

Yes, I've always thought of it as mostly geography that encouraged a kind of industrious and cosmopolitan personality to develop. Too bad they threw the game to the schmaltzers.

Tyler knows where's he going -- he's not stupid, so he knows where the most interesting ideas are found these days.

He steals ideas from you and doesn't credit you. His new Time article on Texas is a complete rip-off of you.

the industrial revolution was not really that great a thing for the working class majority in terms of quality of life.

Probably the major factor was the sudden availability of cheap labor.
A bunch of peasants were being displaced because the upper class was usurping common land.

the owners of capital were able to use the displaced peasants for the factories. The cheap labor made the factories possible.

Before the peasants were kicked off the land they had a better quality of life. Yes, maybe clothing and other products were cheaper after the industrial revolution happened, but the price was still high.

The real question here is why academia always takes the perspective of Capital?

Who pays the bills?

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