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Britain, China, and the Irrelevance of Stage Theories

McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen (2009): Britain, China, and the Irrelevance of Stage Theories.

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Abstract

Britain was first, though the classical (and many of the neoclassical) economists did not recognize that its course was beginning the factor of 16. The slow British growth in the 18th century proposed by Crafts and Harley is unbelievable, but however one assigns growth within the period 1700-1900 it is now plain that something unprecedented was happening. Only non-economists recognized it at the time. The central puzzle is why innovation did not fizzle out, as Mokyr has put it---as it had at other times and places. Productivity in cotton textiles, for example, grew at computer-industry rates, and continued to into the 20th century. But Europe’s lead was not permanent. The California School of Pomeranz and Goldstone and Allen and others have shown that China led the West in 1500, and maybe as late as 1750, then fell dramatically behind. It was the continuation of European growth in the 19th and 20th centuries that is strange and new. Explaining the Great Divergence requires focusing on non-European events in the 19th century---not some deep-seated European cultural superiority. On the other hand, Europe’s fragmented polity was an advantage, as shown in the swift uptake of the printing press. The way that non-European places like Japan or Botswana or India have been able to grow demonstrates that the stage theories popular in European thought from the 18th century to the present (for example, in modern growth theory) are mistaken. The metaphors of biological stages or human foot races are inapt, as in the business-school talk of “competitiveness” nowadays. The “rise” of non-European economies does not presage a “decline” or Europe or its offshoots, merely a borrowing of social and engineering technologies such as Europe once borrowed from elsewhere. The dignity and liberty of ordinary people stands in the middle of such “technologies.”

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