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Domestic Reshufflings, Such as Transport and Coal, Do Not Explain the Modern World


  • McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen


Transportation improvements cannot have caused anything close to the factor of 16 in British economic growth. By Harberger’s (and Fogel’s) Law, an industry that is 10% of national product, improving by 50 percent on the 50% of non-natural routes, results in a mere one-time increase of product of 2.5% (= .1 x .5 x .5), when the thing to be explained is an increase of 1500%. Nor is transport rescued by “dynamic” effects, which are undermined by (1.) the small size of the static gain to start them off and (2.) the instable economic models necessary to make them nonlinear dynamic. The same holds for many other suggested causes of the modern world: enclosure, for example, or the division of labor or the Kuznets-Williamson Hypothesis of reallocation from agriculture to industry, country to town. Wider geographical arguments, such as Diamond’s or Sachs’, turn out to be ill-timed to explain what we wish to explain. And “resources,” such as oil or gold, have both the Harberger Problem and the timing problem. Not even coal---the favorite of Wrigley, Pomeranz, Allen, and Harris---can survive the criticism that it was transportable and substitutable. The factor-bias arguments of Allen have the old problem of the Habbakuk Hypothesis, namely, that all factors are scarce. Even if we add up all the static and quasi-dynamic effects of resources, they do not explain Britain’s lead, or Japan’s or Hong Kong’s catching up.

Suggested Citation

  • McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen, 2009. "Domestic Reshufflings, Such as Transport and Coal, Do Not Explain the Modern World," MPRA Paper 18925, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  • Handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:18925

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Paul A. David, 1969. "Transport Innovation and Economic Growth: Professor Fogel on and off the Rails," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 22(3), pages 506-525, December.
    2. Fremdling, Rainer, 2000. "Transfer patterns of British technology to the Continent: The case of the iron industry," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 4(02), pages 195-222, August.
    3. Williamson, Jeffrey G, 1987. "Did English Factor Markets Fail during the Industrial Revolution?," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 39(4), pages 641-678, December.
    4. Fogel, Robert William, 1979. "Notes on the Social Saving Controversy," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 39(01), pages 1-54, March.
    5. McCloskey, Donald N., 1972. "The Enclosure of Open Fields: Preface to a Study of Its Impact on the Efficiency of English Agriculture in the Eighteenth Century," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 32(01), pages 15-35, March.
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    More about this item


    British economic growth; transportation; coal; growth hypotheses; industrial revolution;

    JEL classification:

    • B10 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - General
    • N01 - Economic History - - General - - - Development of the Discipline: Historiographical; Sources and Methods


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