Testing the High-Wage Economy (HWE) Hypothesis

Over the last week or so, I have been heavily involved in a twitterminar (yes, I am coining that portemanteau term to designate academic discussions on twitter – proof that some good can come out of social media) between myself, Judy Stephenson , Ben Schneider , Benjamin Guilbert, Mark Koyama, Pseudoerasmus,  Anton Howes (whose main flaw is that he is from King’s College London while I am from the LSE – nothing rational here), Alan Fernihough and  Lyman Stone. The topic? How suitable is the “high-wage economy” (HWE) explanation of the British industrial revolution (BIR).

Twitter debates are hard to follow and there is a need for summaries given the format of twitter. As a result, I am attempting such a summary here which is laced with my own comments regarding my skepticism and possible resolution venues.

An honest account of HWE

First of all, it is necessary to offer a proper enunciation of HWE’s role in explaining the industrial revolution as advanced by its main proponent, Robert Allen.  This is a necessary step because there is a literature attempting to use high-wages as an efficiency wage argument. A good example is Morris Altman’s Economic Growth and the High-Wage Economy  (see here too) Altman summarizes his “key message” as the idea that “improving the material well-being of workers, even prior to immediate increases in productivity can be expected to have positive effects on productivity through its impact on economic efficiency and technological change”. He also made the same argument with my native home province of Quebec relative to Ontario during the late 19th century. This is basically a multiple equilibria story. And its not exactly what Allen advances. Allen’s argument is that wages were high in England relative to energy. This factors price ratio stimulated the development of technologies and industries that spearheaded the BIR. This is basically a context-specific argument and not a “conventional” efficiency wage approach as that of Allen. There are similarities, but they are also considerable differences. Secondly, the HWE hypothesis is basically a meta-argument about the Industrial Revolution. It would be unfair to caricature it as an “overarching” explanation. Rather, the version of HWE advanced by Robert Allen (see his book here) is one where there are many factors at play but there is one – HWE – which had the strongest effects. Moreover, while it does not explain all, it was dependent on other factors that contributed independently.  The most common view is that this is mixed with Joel Mokyr’s supply of inventions story (which is what Nick Crafts has done). In the graph below, the “realistically multi-causal” explanation is how I see HWE. In Allen’s explanation, it holds the place that cause #1 does. According to other economists, HWE holds spot #2 or spot #3 and Mokyr’s explanations holds spot #1.


In pure theoretical terms (as an axiomatic statement), the Allen model is defensible. It is a logically consistent construct. It has some questionnable assumptions, but it has no self-contradictions. Basically, any criticism of HWE must question the validity of the theory based on empirical evidence (see my argument with Graham Brownlow here) regarding the necessary conditions. This is the hallmark of Allen’s work: logical consistency. His work cannot be simply brushed aside – it is well argued and there is supportive evidence. The logical construction of his argument requires a deep discussion and any criticism that will convince must encompass many factors.

Why not France? Or How to Test HWE

As a doubter of Allen’s theory (I am willing to be convinced, hence my categorization as doubter), the best way to phrase my criticism is to ask the mirror of his question. Rather than asking “Why was the Industrial Revolution British”, I ask “Why Wasn’t it French”. This is what Allen does in his work when he asks explicitly “Why not France?” (p.203 of his book). The answer proposed is that English wages were high enough to justify the adoption of labor-saving technologies. In France, they were not. This led to differing rates of technological adoptions, an example of which is the spinning jenny.

This argument hinges on some key conditions :

  1. Wages were higher in England than in France
  2. Unit labor costs were higher in England than in France (productivity-adjusted wages) (a point made by Kelly, Mokyr and Ó Gráda)
  3. Market size factors are not sufficiently important to overshadow the effects of lower wages in France (R&D costs over market size mean a low fixed cost relative to potential market size)
  4. The work year is equal in France as in England
  5. The cost of energy in France relative to labor is higher than in England
  6. Output remained constant while hours fell – a contention at odds with the Industrious Revolution which the same as saying that marginal productivity moves inversely with working hours

If most of these empirical statements hold, then the argument of Allen holds. I am pretty convinced by the evidence advanced by Allen (and E.A. Wrigley also) regarding the low relative of energy in England. Thus, I am pretty convinced that condition #5 holds. Moreover, given the increases in transport productivity within England (here and here), the limited barriers to internal trade (here), I would not be surprised that it was relatively easy to supply energy on the British market prior to 1800 (at least relative to France).

Condition #3 is harder to assess in terms of important. Market size, in a Smithian world, is not only about population (see scale effects literature). Market size is a function of transaction costs between individuals, a large share of which are determined by institutional arrangements. France has a much larger population than England so there could have been scale effects, but France also had more barriers to internal trade that could have limited market size. I will return to this below.

Condition #1,2,4 are basically empirical statements. They are also the main points of tactical assault on Allen’s theory.  I think condition #1 is the easiest to tackle. I am currently writing a piece derived from my dissertation showing that – at least with regards to Strasbourg – wages in France presented in Allen (his 2001 article) are heavily underestimated (by somewhere between 12% and 40% using winter workers in agriculture and as much as 70% using the average for laborers in agriculture). The work of Judy Stephenson, Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf has also thrown the level and trend of British wages into doubts. Bringing French wages upwards and British wages downwards could damage the Allen story. However, this would not be a sufficient theory. Industrialization was generally concentrated geographically. If labor markets in one country are not sufficiently integrated and the industrializing area (lets say the “textile” area of Lancashire or the French Manchester of Mulhouse or the Caën region in Normandy) has uniquely different wages, then Allen’s theory can hold since what matters is the local wage rate relative to energy. Pseudoerasmus has made this point but I can’t find any mention of that very plausible defense in Allen’s work.

Condition #2 is the weakest point and given Robert Fogel’s work on net nutrition in France and England, I have no problem in assuming that French workers were less productive. However, the best evidence would be to extract piece rates in textile-producing regions of France and England. This would eliminate any issue with wages and measuring national productivity differences. Piece rates would perfectly capture productivity and thus the argument could be measured in a very straightforward manner.

Condition #4 is harder to assess and more research would be needed. However, it is the most crucial piece of evidence required to settle the issue once and for all. Pre-industrial labor markets are not exactly like those of modern days. Search costs were high which works in a manner described (with reservations) by Alan Manning in his work on monopsony but with much more frictions. In such a market, workers may be willing to trade in lower wage rates for longer work years. In fact, its like a job security argument. Would you prefer 313 days of work guaranteed at 1 shilling per day or a 10% chance of working 313 days for 1.5 shillings a day (I’ve skewed the hypothetical numbers to make my point)? Now, if there are differences in the structure of labor markets in France and England during the 18th and 19th centuries, there might be differences in the extent of that trade-off in both countries. Different average discount on wages would affect production methods. If French workers were prone to sacrifice more on wages for steady employment, it may render one production method more profitable than in England. Assessing the extent of the discount of annual to daily wages on both markets would identify this issue.

The remaining condition (condition #6) is, in my opinion, dead on arrival. Allen’s model, in the case of the spinning jenny, assumed that labor hours moved in an opposite direction as marginal productivity. This is in direct opposition to the well-established industrious revolution. This point has been made convincingly by Gragnolati, Moschella and Pugliese in the Journal of Economic History. 

In terms of research strategy, getting piece rates, proper wage estimates and proper labor supplied estimates for England and France would resolve most of the issue. Condition #3 could then be assessed as a plausibility residual.  Once we know about working hours, actual productivity and real wages differences, we can test how big the difference in market size has to be to deter adoption in France. If the difference seems implausible (given the empirical limitations of measuring effective market size in the 18th century in both markets), then we can assess the presence of this condition.

My counter-argument : social networks and diffusion

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that all of the evidence favors the skeptics, then what? It is all well and good to tear down the edifice but we are left with a gaping hole and everything starts again. It would be great to propose a new edifice as the old one is being questioned. This is where I am very much enclined towards the rarely discussed work of Leonard Dudley (Mothers of Innovation). Simply put, Dudley’s argument is that social networks allowed the diffusion of technologies within England that fostered economic growth. He has an analogy from physics which gets the point across nicely. Matter has three states : solid, gas, liquid. Solids are stable but resist to change. Gas, matter are much more random and change frequently by interacting with other gas, but any relation is ephemeral. Liquids permit change through interaction, but they are stable enough to allow interactions to persist for some time. Technological innovation is like a liquid. It can “mix” things together in a somewhat stable form.

This is where one of my argument takes life. In a small article for Economic Affairs, I argued (expanding on Dudley) that social networks allowed this mixing (I am also expanding that argument in a working paper with Adam Martin of Texas Tech University). However, I added a twist to that argument which I imported from the work of Israel Kirzner (one of the most cited books in economics, but not by cliometricians – more than 7000 citations on google scholar). Economic growth, in Kirzner’s mind,  is the result of entrepreneurs discovering errors and arbitrage possibilities. In a way, growth is a process of discovering correcting errors. An analogy to make this point is that entrepreneurs look for profits where the light is while also trying to move the light to see where it is dark. What Kirzner dubs as “alertness” is in fact nothing else than repeated and frequent interactions. The more your interact with others, the easier it becomes for ideas to have sex. Thus, what matters is how easy it is for social networks to appear and generate cheap information and interactions for members without the problem of free riders. This is where the work of Anton Howes becomes very valuable. Howes, in his PhD thesis supervised by Adam Martin who is my co-author on the aforementioned project (summary here), showed that most innovators went in frequent with one another and they inspired themselves from each other. This is alertness ignited!

If properly harnessed, the combination of the works of Howes and Dudley (and also James Dowey who was a PhD student at the LSE with me and whose work is *Trump voice* Amazing) can stand as a substitute to Allen’s HWE if invalidated.


If I came across as bashing on Allen in this post, then you have misread me. I admire Allen for the clarity of his reasoning and his expositions (given that I am working on a funded project to recalculate tax-based measures in the US used by Piketty to account for tax avoidance, I can appreciate the clarity in which Allen expresses himself). I also admire him for wanting to “Go big or go home” (which you can see in all his other work, especially on enclosures). My point is that I am willing to be convinced of HWE, but I find that the evidence leans towards rejecting it. But that is very limited and flawed evidence and asserting this clearly is hard (as some of the flaws can go his way). Nitpicking Allen’s HWE is a necessary step for clearly determining the cause of BIR. It is not sufficient as a logically consistent substitute must be presented to the research community. In any case, there is my long summary of the twitteminar (officially trademarked now!)

P.S. Inspired by Peter Bent’s INET research webinar on institutional responses to financial crises, I am trying to organize a similar (low-cost) venue for presenting research papers on HWE assessment. More news on this later.

Malthusian pressures (as outcome of rent-seeking)

Nearly a week ago, I intervened in a debate between Anton Howes of King’s College London whose work I have been secretly following  (I say “secretly” because as an alumnus of the London School of Economics, I am not allowed to show respect for someone of King’s College) and Pseudoerasmus (whose identity is unknown but whose posts are always very erudite and of high quality – let’s hope I did not just write that about an alumnus of King’s College). Both bloggers are heavily involved in my first field of interest – economic history.

The debate concerned the “Smithian” counter-effect to “Malthusian pressures”. The latter concept refers to the idea that, absent technological innovation,  population growth will lead to declining per capita as a result of marginally declining returns. The former refers to the advantages of larger populations: economies of scale, more scope for specialization and market integration thanks to density. Now, let me state outright that I think people misunderstand Malthusian pressures and the Smithian counter-effect.

My point of is that both the “Smithian counter-effect” and “Malthusian pressures” are merely symptoms of rent-seeking or coordination failures. In the presence of strong rent-seeking by actors seeking to reduce competition, the Smithian counter-effect wavers and Malthus has the upper hand. Either through de-specialization, thinner of markets, shifting to labor-intensive technologies, market disintegration and lower economies of scale, rent-seeking diminishes the A in a classical Cobb-Douglas function of Total Factor Productivity (Y=AKL). This insight is derived from my reading of the article by Lewis Davis in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization which contends that “scale effects” (another name for a slight variant of the “Smithian counter-effect) are determined by transaction costs which are in turn determined by institutions. If institutions tend to favor rent-seeking, they will increase the likelihood of coordination failure. It is only then that coordination failures will lead to “Malthusian pressures” with little “Smithian counter-effect”. Institutions whose rules discourage rent-seeking will allow markets to better coordinate resource use so as to maximize the strength of the “Smithian counter-effect” while minimizing the dismal Malthusian pressures.

In essence, I don’t see the issue as one of demography, but as one of institutions, public choice and governance. I am not alone in seeing it this way (Julian Simon, Jane Jacobs and Ester Boserup have documented this well before I did). Why the divergence?

This is because many individuals misunderstand what “Malthusian pressures” are. In an article I published in the Journal of Population Research, me and Vadim Kufenko summarize the Malthusian model as a “general equilibrium model”. In the long run, there is an equilibrium level of population with a given technological setting. In short-run, however, population responds to variation in real wages. Higher real wages from a “temporary” positive real shock will lead to more babies. However, once the shock fades, population will adapt through two checks: the preventive check and the positive check. The preventive check refers to households delaying family formation. This may be expressed through later marriage ages, planned sexual activities, contraception, longer stays in the parental household and greater spacing between births. The positive check refers to the impact of mortality increasing to force the population back to equilibrium level. These checks return to the long-term equilibrium. Hence, when people think of “Malthusian pressures”, they think of population growth continuing unchecked with scarce ressources. But the “Malthusian model” is basically a general equilibrium model of population under fixed technology. In that model, there are no pressures since the equilibrium rates of births and deaths are constant (at equilibrium).

However, with my viewpoint, the equilibrium levels move frequently as a result of institutional regimes. They determine the level of deaths and births. “Poor” institutions will lead to more frequent coordination failures which may cause, for a time, population to be above equilibrium – forcing an adjustment. “Poor” institutions would also lead to an inability to respond to a change in constraints (i.e. the immediate environment) by being rigid or stuck with path-depedency problems which would also imply the need for an adjustment.  “Good” institutions will allow “the Smithian counter-effect” to intervene through arbitrage across markets to smooth the effect of local shocks, a greater scope for specialization etc.

My best case for illustration is a working paper I have with Vadim Kufenko (University of Hohenheim) and Alex Arsenault Morin (HEC Montréal) where we argue that population pressures as exhibited by the very high levels of infant mortality rates in mid-19th century Quebec were the result of institutional regimes. The system of land tenure for the vast majority of the population of Quebec was “seigneurial” and implied numerous regressive transfers and monopoly rights for landlords. This system was also associated with numerous restrictions on mobility which limited the ability of peasants to defect and move. However, a minority of the population (but a growing one) lived under a different institution which did not impose such restrictions, duties and monopolies. In these areas, infant mortality was considerably lower. We find that, adjusting for land quality and other factors, infant mortality was lower in these areas for most age groups. Hence, we argued that what was long considered as “Malthusian pressures” were in fact “institutional pressures”.

Hence, when I hear people saying that there are problems linked to “growing population”, I hear “because institutions make this a problem” (i.e. rent seeking).