Five Books Interview on the Great Divergence
A few highlights from the transcript
In case some of you missed it, I was recently interviewed by Sophie Roell at Five Books on the Great Divergence. The premise of the site, as is probably obvious, is that you recommend, well, five books on a subject in which you’re an expert (or something like that). I recommended Eric Jones’ The European Miracle, Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, Joel Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and How the World Became Rich by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin.
Being only five books long, the list is non-exhaustive, and really comprises just a few of my favorite works in the area. I’ve been compiling a list of the volumes that I really should have included in a Twitter thread. If you still really think I missed stuff, then yell at me in the comments.
I’m pleased with how the interview came out; if you’re interested, I’ve reposted (with Sophie’s permission) a few extracts from the actual transcript below. It’s about as accessible as anything I’ve written or said, for what it’s worth, and it’s the least discursive answer I am physically capable of giving to the “what do you do at work” question.
You’re recommending books on ‘the Great Divergence’ which is something you’re very interested in. Perhaps you could start by saying what it is, and why you think it’s important that we know about it?
The Great Divergence is the large and increasing gap between the incomes of Europe and some of its colonial offshoots (plus Japan and a few countries in East Asia) and the rest of the world. When it began is debated—we’ll talk about that when we get to the books—but the ‘West’ was moving ahead of the ‘rest’ at least by the beginning of the 18th century, and the gulf between them has continued to widen ever since.
Ideas flow across borders, technologies can be transmitted to different places, and countries in the rest of the world can trade freely with Europe and its offshoots. Low-wage countries should theoretically be expected to catch up with the leaders on the back of technology adoption and capital investment. Still, perplexingly, there’ve been only halting signs of economic convergence. People who study the Great Divergence are trying to figure out exactly why it happened and why it continues to widen rather than shrinking—as economic theory would predict.
Quite a few of the books you’ve chosen are looking at things that happened hundreds of years ago. Are you saying the reason the Great Divergence is relevant today is that some of these factors are still at play?
Yes. The reason why it’s significant is that the distribution of economic success has many correlates, including military power and modernized political systems. It has ramifications for culture. The nations that were first to industrialize and, subsequently, parlayed that into modern economic success, have been able to exercise a disproportionate influence upon the operation of the global economy. They have transmitted their cultures and political and economic systems to the nations of the rest of the world. So, if you want to understand why the balance of economic and geopolitical power is as it is in the world today, you need to understand why the Great Divergence happened.
A few other highlights, including my discussion of the counter-evidence on Pomeranz:
So is Pomeranz’s book, his theory about the Great Divergence, now the received wisdom?
It’s the received wisdom among some historians. However, I would say that the empirical evidence has moved against it in the last 20 years. Pomeranz’s main contention is that the advanced regions of Europe and Asia are at the same level of economic complexity, free market activity and living standards prior to 1800. This isn’t really the case. Empirical work has been done getting real wages in Britain and several European cities and then also cities in the Yangtze delta, which is Pomeranz’s leading region in China. It turns out that in England silver wages were three times those in the Yangtze delta and five times those in India already by 1600. So the latest you can probably put the Great Divergence is 1700, which means that Pomeranz’s story about it being all about colonial windfalls and British coal use is probably misguided. These were definitely important factors and it’s possible that European industrialization would not have continued without them. But there was definitely something different about Europe from an earlier stage.
There are also other questions. One historian, Deirdre McCloskey, has pointed out that if coal was so important, Chinese industries could just have moved closer to coal because they have tons of it. Also, if Britain didn’t have coal, it simply could have imported it from other countries, which is what ended up happening during the Industrial Revolution itself. Britain exported a bunch of coal and continental countries imported it.
Also, the fascinating chapter in Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches on the so-called “Needham Puzzle” of Chinese technological stagnation/regression after the Song dynasty.
It’s a nice book. I like the pictures he has of the inventions he’s discussing. I noticed there was a chapter on China. What’s that about?
What I’ve discussed so far is the opening chapter of the book where he lays out his theory. At least half of the book is a narrative: first of technological progress through the last several centuries of history, and then a series of comparisons between first medieval Europe and the classical world and then between Europe and China. He is endeavoring to explain why China, which during the Song dynasty from 900 to the late 13th century seems to have been the most scientifically and technologically advanced civilization in the world, responsible for a whole slew of independent inventions that are incredibly important, then falls behind. The Chinese had wet field rice cultivation, dams for drainage, iron ploughs, fertilizer, and pest control. They invented blast furnaces for smelting iron a millennium-and-a-half ahead of Europe. They invented spinning wheels, cotton gins, used waterpower and water wheels. They independently invented the water clock, the compass, paper, porcelain, wheelbarrows, crossbows, and trebuchets.
Yet all of this basically disappears during the early modern period and China becomes strangely unreceptive to science and technology. Their early use of gunpowder and rocketry does not translate into later use of cannons. All of these technologies have to be imported from Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Mokyr is trying to discover what made China less inventive after the 13th and 14th centuries. He doesn’t settle on anything in particular but suggests that the overly large role of the Chinese state in promoting technological change made Chinese invention very vulnerable to withdrawal of that state support. So, whenever the state decided that technological change was too destabilizing for society, invention was more likely to cease than it was in, say, polycentric Europe, where a competitive state system ensured that inventors who were in a repressive society could flee to a more liberal one, and set up their trade there. It’s probably not a coincidence that two of the most liberal societies in Europe, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, were also particularly inventive. They both took on many, many refugees from other countries in Europe. Huguenots from France, for example, helped to set up textile industries and also the watchmaking industry in Britain.