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Anton Howes on the Golden Age that never stopped

One of my favourite up-and-coming libertarian intellectuals is Anton Howes, who manages to combine being both a hugely effective libertarian activist and a very promising academic. He, along with a great gaggle of others, runs the very impressive Liberty League, and he is doing some very interesting historical research.

The particularly good Anton Howes news, from the point of view of the sort of people who read Samizdata, is that Anton Howes now has a blog, Capitalism’s Cradle. It reflects Anton’s research interests. He is studying the origins of the British Industrial Revolution by studying the biographies of several dozen of the key industrial innovators who set that Revolution in motion and who then kept it in motion. I first learned about this blog when Anton himself told me about it at the Adam Smith Institute Christmas Party last week. Anton is the rather solemn looking guy in the third row down, on the right, in this selection of photos that I took at that event.

Below is a quote from the very first posting on Capitalism’s Cradle, entitled Why Capitalism’s Cradle? I take this posting to be both an explanation of why the Capitalism’s Cradle blog is called that, and a question about why Capitalism’s Cradle did its stuff where it did and when it did. The question Anton is trying to answer is: What was it about the British Industrial Revolution that caused it to do better than various other “Golden Ages” that had preceded it in earlier times and in other places? Because it was indeed very special. It didn’t just happen, and then revert back to business as usual. This particular Golden Age never stopped. It spread, and it is still spreading. Why?

Innovation existed before the Industrial Revolution. Of course it did – you need look no further than the invention of agriculture, writing, bronze, crop rotations, horse collars, windmills, gunpowder, printing presses, paper, and bills of exchange to know that innovations have occurred throughout history before the IR.

The difference is that these were few and far between. Some of them, often grouped together, resulted in Golden Ages, or “Efflorescences” as Jack Goldstone likes to call them. The 1st Century early Roman Empire; the 8th Century Arab World; 12th Century Sung Dynasty China; the 15th Century northern Italian city-states; and 17th Century Dutch Republic are all good examples.

Britain could have been just like any of the other Golden Ages. It could have had Abraham Darby’s coke-smelted cast iron, Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine for pumping mines, John Kay’s flying shuttle to allow weaved cloth to be wider than the length of the weaver’s arm-span. Perhaps we would have had Lady Mary Wortley’s inoculation against smallpox, some canals much like the Romans’ or Medieval Chinese, and Jethro Tull’s seed drill.

But like every previous Golden Age, that would have been it – until the next Golden Age, wherever and whenever that would end up being.

But the British IR was different. It started off as a ‘mere’ Golden Age in the 18th Century, but the pace of innovation was maintained and then quickened. And it hasn’t stopped for the past 250 years or so. Despite the occasional downturn, we still expect at least 1-2% GDP growth. Anything less than that is considered stagnation.

That isn’t the answer to the question. It merely restates the question in somewhat greater detail. But I particularly like this elaboration, because I have heard Anton refer in passing to these Golden Ages, these efflorescences, in various talks that I have heard him deliver, but I didn’t make a note of what they all were. Now, I have this blog posting, and this blog in general, to enable me to chase up such notions, and also to help me ponder all the other notions that will be needed to get towards an answer to the question that Anton is posing.

I do not think I will be the only Samizdata reader who will also be a regular reader of Capitalism’s Cradle.

16 comments to Anton Howes on the Golden Age that never stopped

  • Nicholas (Natural Genius) Gray

    Lots of people have had a go at this, and some people are predicting a new Industrial Revolution with robots. It was probably a combination of things, and we stumbled on the right arrangement. I even saw a British program recently which looked at the history of inventions, and pointed out that Hero of Alexandria came close to making a steam engine, but they think he stopped there, because the Roman Empire, with slaves everywhere to do all the hard manual work, would have had no need for such a thing!

  • RogerC

    I’ve heard an argument to the contrary, that it was the availability of reasonably efficient heat engines at reasonable prices that rang the death knell for slavery in the C19th by destroying the economic motivation for the practice.

    If true, this points to a difference in thinking between the industrial revolution and previous “golden ages”.

  • Large-scale government intervention, maybe? Enclosures, monopolies, privileges, regulations, cronyism, “investment in infrastructure” etc, 😉

  • bloke in spain

    The Romans had the piston pump, which takes one a lot closer to a viable steam engine than Hero’s turbine. It’s making the leap from putting in energy to move fluids to putting in fluids to extract energy.
    And I wouldn’t be too convinced by the cheap slave argument. The Romans made a lot of innovations to reduce the requirement of labour. All that’s required is to reduce cost to below that of the cost of slave labour. Not a great hurdle because slave labour isn’t necessarily cheap. It isn’t even necessarily cheaper than employed labour.

  • bloke in spain

    By the way, the Romans did have some very sophisticated water-wheels. A good as the ones powered much of the early Industrial Revolution.

  • Paul Marks

    No Rocco (although yes you are kidding) – Parliamentary enclosures were about land use (not land ownership) and only covered the majority of land in one country anyway (I am sitting in it – Northamptonshire). The alternative form of farming (peasant plots) was not exactly a wonderful success in areas that continued with it – see Ireland. Or see the colony of Mass in what is now the United States – farming strips and “it takes a village” killed off most of the population before the survivors gave up collectivism, someone tell the silly people in Harvard).

    By the way the number of people working on the land in England and Wales peaked in the census of 1851 – people were not “driven off the land” by the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution.

    Infrastructure? Certainly not – 18th century roads and canals in England and Wales were private enterprise affairs (not true in Scotland and Ireland – but Ireland was not exactly known for an industrial revolution, “roads to nowhere” at the expense of the taxpayers were no more a success in Ireland they were in the Highlands of Scotland).

    “Monopolies” – actually (as you know) the industrial revolution was a time of intense competition.

    Still Brian asked a question.

    The short (and true) answer is “property rights”.

    In other “golden ages” the state could just come along and nick your stuff – not so true in the United Kingdom (especially in England and Wales).

    Innovative people (such as Josiah Wedgewood) could turn their ideas into productive large scale enterprises that lasted for centuries.

    And if an inventor turned out not to be a good manager – other private business people could pick up their ideas and succeed when the inventors had failed.

    Property rights Brian – Old (Old) Whig stuff. The secure possession and CIVIL use of one’s property.

    But then you knew that.

  • I particularly like this elaboration, because I have heard Anton refer in passing to these Golden Ages, these efflorescences, in various talks that I have heard him deliver, but I didn’t make a note of what they all were

    Talks such as this one perchance?

  • Jeff Evans

    Just my 2 cents:

    First, the Constitutional Monarchy, established after the 1688 revolution. The current monarchy exists by act of parliament. It is tantamount to a republic (although not a democracy until the 19th century).

    As a by-product, enforcible legal rights and contracts.

    The increasing economic power of the bourgeoisie.

    Finally, the principle that government officials and businesses should act honestly and fairly (even if this doesn’t always happen).

    Personally, I think the last point is probably the most important part of the “Protestant Ethic”.

  • Jeff Evans

    Of course, the classical argument when I was at university nearly 50 years ago was that many of the key players in the industrial revolution were non-conformist Christians and Unitarians who were barred from entering established universities and government office, so set up their own, more science-based, academies – a beneficial effect of discrimination.

    Also the Agricultural Revolution and the end of the Little Ice Age made available sufficient wealth from agriculture to allow for investment in new technology.

  • Tedd

    I think Rocco hit the nail on the head. During the industrial revolution, government did not begin to grow and expand “monopolies, privileges, regulations, cronyism, ‘investment in infrastructure'” and such until the revolution was well under way, beginning in the late 19th century (after a century of progress). So, for a time, technology outpaced government and there was tremendous growth. The momentum that was built lasted for about a century of government expansion, and continues apace in industries that are not yet heavily subjected to government control.

    However, I don’t know a lot about the relationship between progress and government during previous “Efflorescences.” I do know that the Dutch golden era was closely connected to a relaxing of government regulations, particularly concerning freedom of expression and freedom of travel. I’m looking forward to learning what Howes has to say about those eras.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I am no professional historian, of course, but i take a very different view, ie i think that the Industrial Revolution is overrated.
    Before screaming in outrage, let me clarify: i do not see the Italian city-republics and the Dutch Republic as “efflorescences” but as early leaders of the same progressive “Golden Age” whose leaders later became Britain and the US. As evidence for claim, look at Angus Maddison’s estimates of per capita GDP in Italy and the Netherlands over the last millennium: Italy became the richest country in the world by this measure, then was overtaken (initially by the Netherlands) but Italian GDP per capita did not decrease. The Netherlands did even better, remaining the richest country in the world well into the xix century, in spite of an industrial revolution happening elsewhere.

    My narrative is this: economic growth took off in Italy, probably because of the conflict between Popes and Emperors, which gave an opportunity for city-republics to keep their independence by triangulating.
    Then the discovery of America turned the geographical position of Italy from an advantage into a disadvantage (there were also the Italian Wars, of course) and the Netherlands took over.
    But the Netherlands lack coal and their natural defenses are not as good as the English Channel, not to mention that Britain can put together a much bigger army; so, as soon as Britain adopted a constitutional form of government that protects property rights (h/t Paul Marks, and others above) it was inevitable that leadership should be taken over by Britain; though, as i said, leadership in innovation did not translate into leadership in GDP/capita for another century or so.
    There is also another factor: Britain was big and rich enough, not only to retain its independence, but to impose the Pax Britannica on a large part of the world.

  • Snorri Godhi

    WRT the slavery debate: Britain was already slave-free by the time of the Industrial Rev. and the steam engine was not used to replace labor in the Carribean; i conclude that slavery and the Industrial Rev had no _direct_ impact on each other.

    The whole of Europe became largely slave-free in the “dark” ages, though, and it seems plausible that this helped kick-start the pattern of Western economic growth in Italy. If i am right to think of the Industrial Rev as part of this same pattern, then the disappearance of slavery in Europe could be one of the remote causes of the Industrial Rev.

  • veryretired

    Ideas have consequences. Human culture, human society, human existence is, by definition, fashioned by and channeled by the ideas underlying its foundation.

    For millennia, these underlying ideas were utterly irrational, focused on spirits from another world, or ghosts from this one.

    Everything and everyone belonged to the gods, capricious, hostile, amoral, and, on earth, all was held by the king, capricious, jealous, and amorally above all laws.

    Is it at all surprising, then, that the peasants from ancient times would have felt right at home behind the same oxen, plowing the same small fields, hoping to raise just enough to survive another year after the nobility had taken its cut, and the priests theirs, and the bandits theirs, just as peasants lived even into the past century.

    But, of course, the latter category of banditry subsumes the first two.

    In a long, painful, and violent process, the singular idea that the individual could speak to god for himself, and then, mirabile dictu, have thoughts and ideas independently of any authority, moved through the intellectual and cultural wellsprings of western culture.

    It was the dual, mutually reinforcing ideas that humans have rights, and that their minds can apprehend reality, that led to all we have now, and might achieve in the future.

    What Paul said above is totally correct, in that the right to one’s property is, in fact, the right to the products of one’s mind and effort, but the key corollary is that reality is based on observable, comprehensible facts which can be uncovered and interpreted by the human mind, and that those discoveries can be used to design useful tools to aid in human work.

    It is not difficult to understand, then, why such ideas of independence, rights, and experimental progress would threaten so much of the former pillars of human society—the nobility which believes it should rule by accident of birth, the clergy who believe they should have a powerful influence due to their claimed connection to another reality inhabited by powerful spirits, and many ordinary people, who believe it’s unfair to require them to learn constantly throughout their lives, to adapt constantly to innovations, and to be totally responsible for the totality of their lives.

    The heavy burden of responsibility is the weighty element that causes so many people to flee from liberty into the acceptance of repression in one form or another, as long as it promises to sustain them at some basic level.

    What is the great challenge of the new century?

    Help an entire interconnected world to understand that the road to progress requires the delicate balance of independence and responsibility, that the efforts of individuals to improve their lives are not a threat, and that the efforts of some to control their fellow citizens, and force them into paths they would not choose for themselves, is the true threat to everyone.

    There is the future, lying in the gutter where the failing collectivism of the past has discarded it. It belongs to the independent mind, and can only be implemented successfully under a system of social life based on the rights and liberties of every human being.

    Pick it up.

  • Tedd wrote: “I’m looking forward to learning what Howes has to say about those eras.”

    You may have to wait a while, Anton tells me that the negative cases will be the topic of his next round of research. He may, therefore, only give an outline of them in the short term.


  • Paul Marks

    Oh yes, sorry for misunderstanding, government does not start expanding, as a proportion of the economy, in this country till the 1870s – but it is not on the things that Rocco mentions.

    The expansion is basically help for the poor. At least the non rich.

    Education, financed by central and local government, and lots of services at the local level. On the grounds, whether true or not, that people needed X,Y,Z and could not afford X,Y,Z.

    In some places, such as Manchester, this started in the 1830s – but it was made compulsory everywhere after 1875.

    Municipal ownership was perfectly respectable and regulation, even national regulation of the railways, was perfectly respectable also.

    The main moral, and political, philosophy of the Victorian Age was utilitarianism – if a policy was for the “good of the people” that was it.

    Legal thinkers and so on taught that government could do anything that Parliament thought was for the good of the people.

    In the United States this type of thinking became know as “Pragmatism”, William James and co, no hard core principles – just “what is true is what works”.

    Someone who believes in all this need NOT be a big government person – they may come to the conclusion that small government, or no government, is better for the good of the people…

    But normally if everything is “up for grabs” it gets grabbed.

    Governments with no “dogmatic” limits on them, just “what is for the public good”, tend to grow and grow.

    And as no major government in the world faces such “dogmatic” limits (the American Tenth Amendment being dead letter) all governments tend to grown and grow.

    And will, most likely, continue to do so – till the system collapses.

    If they can expand they will expand – and they will always say it is for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

    Wiser utilitarians, such as Ludwig Von Mises (yes he was a utilitarian) would weep.