Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe

My full review of Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth is forthcoming in the Independent Review. Unfortunately, it won’t be out until the Winter 2017 issue is released so here is a preview. Specifically, I want to discuss one of the main themes of the book and my review: the role of political decentralization in the onset of economic growth in western Europe.

This argument goes back to Montesquieu and David Hume. It is discussed in detail in my paper “Unified China; Divided Europe’’ (forthcoming in the International Economic Review and available here). But though many writers have argued that fragmentation was key to Europe’s eventual rise, these arguments are often underspecified, fail to explain the relevant mechanisms, or do not discuss counter-examples. Mokyr, however, has an original take on the argument which is worth emphasizing and considering in detail.

Mokyr focuses on how the competitive nature of the European state system provided dynamic incentives for economic growth and development. This argument is different from the classic one, according to which political competition led to fiscal competition, lower taxes, and better protection of property rights (see here). That argument rests on a faulty analogy between competition in the marketplace and competition between states.  The main problem it encounters is that while firms can only attract customers by offering lower prices (lower taxes) or better products (better public goods), states can compete with violence. Far from being competitive, low tax states like the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth were crushed in the high-pressure competitive environment that characterized early modern Europe. The notion that competition produced low taxes is also falsified by the well-established finding that taxes were much higher in early modern Europe than elsewhere in the world.

It is also not the case that political fragmentation is always and everywhere good for economic development. India was fragmented for much of its history. Medieval Ireland was fragmented into countless chiefdom prior to the English conquest. Perhaps we can distinguish between low-intensity but fragmented state systems which tended not to generate competitive pressure such as medieval Ireland or South-East Asia and high-intensity fragmented state systems such as early modern Europe or warring states China. But even then it is not clear that a highly competitive and fragmented state system will be good for growth. In general, political fragmentation raised barriers to trade and impeded market integration. Moreover a competitive state system means more conflict or more resources spent deterring conflict. For this reason political fragmentation tends to result in wasteful military spending. It can be easily shown, for instance, that a much higher proportion of the population spent their lives in the economically wasteful activity of soldiering in fragmented medieval and early modern Europe than did in either the Roman empire or imperial China (see Ko, Koyama, Sng, 2018).

Innovation and Decentralization

What then is Mokyr’s basis for claiming that political fragmentation was crucial for the onset of modern growth? Essentially, for Mokyr the upside of Europe’s political divisions was dynamic. It was the conjunction of political fragmentation with a thriving trans-European intellectual culture that was crucial for the eventual transition to modern growth. The political divisions of Europe meant that innovative and heretical thinkers had an avenue of escape from oppressive political authorities. This escape valve prevented the ideas and innovations of the Renaissance and Reformation from being crushed after the Counter-Reformation became ascendant in southern Europe after 1600. Giordano Bruno was burned in Rome. But in general heretical and subversive thinkers could escape the Inquisition by judiciously moving across borders.

Political fragmentation enabled thinkers from Descartes and Bayle to Voltaire and Rousseau to flee France. It also allowed Hobbes to escape to Paris during the English Civil War and Locke to wait out the anger of Charles II in the Netherlands. Also important was the fact that the political divisions of Europe also meant that no writer or scientist was dependent on the favor of a single, all powerful monarch. A host of different patrons were available and willing to compete to attract the best talents. Christina of Sweden sponsored Descartes. Charles II hired Hobbes as a mathematics teacher for a while. Leibniz was the adornment of the House of Hanover.

The other important point that Mokyr’s stresses is Europe’s cultural unity and interconnectedness. As I conclude in my review, Mokyr’s argument is that

“the cultural unity of Europe meant that the inventors, innovators, and tinkers in England and the Dutch Republic could build on the advances of the European-wide Scientific Revolution. Europe’s interconnectivity due to the Republic of Letters helped to give rise to a continent-wide Enlightenment Culture. In the British Isles, this met a response from apprentice trained and skilled craftsmen able to tinker with and improve existing technologies.  In contrast, political fragmentation in the medieval Middle East or pre-modern India does not seem to have promoted innovation, whereas the political unity of Qing China produced an elite culture that was conservative and that stifled free thinking”.

It is this greater network connectivity that needs particular emphasize and should be the focus of future research into the intellectual origins of growth in western Europe. At present we can only speculate on its origins. The printing press certainly deserves mention as it was the key innovation that helped the diffusion of ideas. Mokyr also points to the postal system as a crucial institutional development that enabled rapid communication across political boundaries. Other factors include the development of a nascent European identity and what Chris Wickham calls, in his recent book on medieval Europe, “the late medieval public sphere” (Wickham, 2016). These developments were important but understudied complements to the fragmented nature of the European state system so frequently highlighted in the literature.


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