Sunday, April 01, 2007

Smith Took the Long View

Brad Delong quotes from one of his many academic papers (‘Hoisted from the Archives: Information Technology and the Future of Society: My CITRIS Kickoff Speech’) and points to an interesting observation:

“For perhaps 9000 years after the beginnings of agriculture the overwhelming proportion of human work lives were spent making things: growing crops, shearing sheep, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, throwing pots, cutting down trees, copying books, and so on, and so forth. Technology did improve enormously over those 9000 years: contrast the clothes-making technology at the disposal of Henry VIII of England with that of Rameses II of Egypt three thousand years before; contrast the triple-crop paddy-irrigated rice- and water-control-based agriculture of the Yangtze Delta in eighteenth-century China with the scratch-the-soil-with-a-hoe agriculture of two thousand years before. But as Thomas Robert Malthus first wrote in the 1790s, rising populations had put enough pressure on scarce natural resources to offset the benefits of better technology and keep living standards nearly constant for the people if not for the elite: American President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 A.D. certainly enjoyed a higher standard of living than Roman Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero in 63 B.C. But did Jefferson's slaves enjoy a higher standard of living than Cicero's? A large amount of archeological evidence has not yet found significant differences.”

The fact that technology improved yields greatly in food production raised gross output over millennia since the age of agriculture from about 9,000-11,000 years ago.

That is consistent with per capita food consumption being roughly the same when increases in population are taken into account.

That there were 'blips' in per capita living standards up and down is also consistent with roughly steady per capita consumption for long periods.

There were also changes in consumption per head with manufactures (from technology) adding to consumption over time periods longer than fresh food lasted. Clothing, shelter, artifacts (including weapons and stone buildings) were 'consumed' over longer time periods so that the 'possessions' of people in different time periods could show different inventories in different periods.

Hence, Adam Smith pointed to the artifacts of common labourers in Scotland having many more of such compared to 'Indian' or African 'princes' (North American) at the head of '10,000 naked savages' (Wealth of Nations).

Following the fall of Rome in the 5th century, per capita living standards dropped back to the pre-Roman levels, but with higher populations (except in plague decades).
With the post-15th-century Western European experience of both gross farming and 'rude' manufactures out put rising and growing populations a new unprecedented era began where both gross and per capita consumption rose and continued to rise.
Smith tracked the causes of these changes in Wealth Of Nations, 1776, (and earlier in his Lectures In Jurisprudence, 1762-3) and correctly spotted its scope and potential, whether Perfect Liberty was achieved or not - the progress towards opulence was inevitable as long as spendthrift governments, self-interested ‘vile rulers’, ‘merchants and manufacturers’, ‘idle landlords’ and gullible legislators did not reverse it (Book IV, Wealth Of Nations).

The trends Smith noted in progress towards opulence, technology, per capita living standards, growing output of the ‘necessaries, conveniences and amusements’ of life and population, have continued from the 18th century to the 21st century. There are no fewer problems today, of course, but the means to solve most of them are known.

[Read Brad Delong's post at:


Post a Comment

<< Home