- Ten Years After: Responses and Reconsiderations
First and foremost, I am grateful to the participants for their thoughtful comments and pleased that The Great Divergence is still considered worth discussing a decade after publication. I suspect that the reason why the book still attracts attention is also a reason why many readers are not fully satisfied with it: its topic remains the sort of important, enduring puzzle on which no author should expect to have the last word. Still, I think that it has moved discussion in productive directions, both by showing that some old answers were inadequate and by providing some ideas that have stood up well enough to merit inclusion in whatever new answers we are moving toward.
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I completely agree with Peter Coclanis’s observation that The Great Divergence does not provide an adequate resolution to the issues at hand, and with his further point that different perspectives on such a huge topic can prove useful, even when one seems profoundly distorted in light of the other. I am, however, a bit surprised that Coclanis picks out agricultural productivity as an area in which the empirical results of The Great Divergence have been questioned. There has been questioning, to be sure, but so far, at least, this seems to me to be one of the places where the best subsequent research has largely reinforced my hypotheses.1 Robert Allen, for instance, estimates agricultural labor productivity in the Yangzi Delta at 90% of English levels as late as 1820—a point well past the Delta’s best economic years, and several decades into the period in which modern industries and urban service jobs had begun to pull underemployed people out of the English countryside, presumably raising labor productivity among those who remained.2 Jan Luiten van Zanden and Li Bozhong have also looked at the early 19th century and estimate that agricultural labor productivity in the part of the Delta they studied was only slightly below that in the Netherlands; since Allen’s figures put the Netherlands’ productivity per worker almost exactly equal to England’s, these two studies are mutually reinforcing.3 Moreover, since nobody disputes that land productivity was much higher in the Yangzi Delta than anywhere in Europe—eight times as high as in the English midlands, by Allen’s estimate4—it is clear that total factor productivity in Delta agriculture compared quite well with that in European agriculture. Indeed, the only way out of such a conclusion would be if Delta agriculture were far more capital-intensive than either English or Dutch agriculture, which seems very unlikely. One of the most widely shared conclusions to come out of debates related to the great divergence concerns the idea that national differences in industrialization can be explained by differences in agricultural productivity, what Allen once called “agrarian fundamentalism.”5 Already a less popular view than it once was, but still quite influential in many circles, this perspective has been considerably weakened by adding East Asian societies to the set of comparators.
Coclanis also notes that nothing like the military-fiscal states that developed in much of early modern Europe existed in China: a point that Hoffman also makes, and that I suspect Wong and de Vries would agree with as well. Indeed, I also agree that this was an important difference. There is no question that large-scale military spending made all sorts of differences in Europe. It led in some cases to technological innovation and markets for mass production of certain items. It played a huge role in the creation of European capital markets, which in turn changed the relationship between wealth holders and the state in various polities, solidifying property rights in some cases but also often leading to tax farming and inefficient but fiscally useful monopolies. More immediately, though, war destroyed people and capital and diverted energies from other, probably more productive activities.
One way one might get around this is to argue that the encouragement given by...