Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Origins of Sustained Growth

Did the scientific revolution, the British or French enlightenment, or the introduction of new forms of proto-capitalism create the conditions for sustained development? Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, published in 2000 by Princeton University Press, argues that none of these theses are supported by anything other than blind speculation. The evidence for all of them is weak, contradictory, and tentative. This book juxtaposes regions from various places throughout the world demonstrating these theses' flaws. While a confluence of technologies coupled with new forms of economic behavior became available to Europeans, New World resources, stolen from native Americans, abolished the land constraints experienced in Europe.

Pomeranz equates development in Western Europe with various areas of East Asia. Using this framework he investigates themes commonly argued regarding what made Europe unique in its early growth. He illustrates that cultures all over the world experimented with systems of proto-capitalism, had access to similar technologies, and used and demanded luxury items. Various theorists argue that these sets of features caused the divergence in economic and social prosperity experienced in the West. A gross misrepresentation develops at this loci: that if ‘western’ patterns of economic engagement and scientific progress preceded it’s take off then the west’s philosophical thinking was more ‘advanced.” Pomeranz exhaustively shows that these features did not arise uniquely in Europe and that something else must have paved the way towards the initial jump to sustained growth. Chapter by chapter he demolishes these theories which claim an account of the divergence in prosperity experienced at the onset of modernity. Access to New World land and resources are the only clear differences that careful investigation reveal.

Additional resources and land in the New World gave its newcomers the ability to develop more rapidly and ultimately culminated in the Industrial Revolution in his assessment. The New World took pressure off of the land in Europe facilitating a rise in economic growth. Pomeranz attributes some development to newly acquired New World food stuffs like the potato and guano, both of which allowed Western European farmers to grow more calories with the same amount of land at home, further easing pressure. This coupled with the ability of Europeans to move to the New World, relieving Europe of excess population eased the press of consumption. Thus, for Pomeranz, Europe’s position in accessing colossal new land and resources, at great cost to its inhabitants, differentiated it from other segments of the world.

No comments: