The Industrial Revolution is the great event of world history. Before this, from the Stone Age to 1800, there was no gain in average living conditions. Now incomes rise steadily.
It is attributed to political stability and free markets in 18th-century England. But this is the convenient fantasy of modern economists. Medieval England was much more pro-market than even Thatcherite England—the average government tax rate then was less than 1 per cent—yet achieved no growth.
Instead, the Industrial Revolution is more plausibly linked to a Darwinian process of “survival of the richest” that operated from at least 1250. Capitalist attitudes and economic growth triumphed in England because those with such attitudes came to predominate in the population by biological means. The modern English are the descendants of the upper classes of the preindustrial world, those who prospered economically. The poor disappeared. This process was most likely cultural, but we cannot exclude the possibility that the English may even be genetically capitalist.
To see how these processes operated consider the following. The average Briton in 1788, when the first edition of The Times appeared, ate only as many calories a day as hunter-gatherers (2,300). The diet was more monotonous. Life expectancy was only slightly above that of hunter-gatherers (38 years). Height is a good guide to nutrition and health: men in England averaged 5ft 6in (1.68m), the same as males in the Stone Age. And while foragers satisfy their material wants with small amounts of work, the modest comforts of the English in 1800 were purchased only through a life of unrelenting drudgery. Men then worked 60 hours a week. Male hunter-gatherers typically got by on the 35-hour week.
Since you have doubtless watched TV adaptations of Jane Austen novels, this claim will be puzzling. But the abundance enjoyed by Austen’s upper classes in 1800 was more than counterbalanced by the stinted life of the mass of people. The vast majority would have been better off if they had transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.
The English were rich in 1788 compared with most countries. The Japanese, for example, had an even more limited diet. They could afford only rice, little meat or alcohol and were consequently shorter: 5ft 3in on average for males. What trapped preindustrial societies at a subsistence wage was was that the slow technological advance that created better living conditions simply resulted in population growth, declining land space per person and a return to subsistence.
The comparative wealth of England in the years before 1800 was not the result of superiorities in legal, political or economic systems. The English were just lucky to be a filthy people who squatted happily above their own faeces, stored in basement cesspits, in cities such as London. Samuel Pepys noted in the ten years of his diaries the one bath that his wife took. He himself never indulged in such frivolity. But the Japanese had a highly developed sense of cleanliness. They bathed daily, and disposed of human waste carefully. Consequently Japan’s population grew until there was a miserable level of material comforts.
If the English in 1800 lived no better than in the Stone Age, why did they have economic growth unlike earlier societies? In any preindustrial society the average man only had two surviving children. But Englishmen who were economically successful, all the way from the Middle Ages to 1800, left four or five surviving children at their deaths. In contrast, landless labourers left fewer than two children. Economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success. The poorest individuals in preindustrial England had so few surviving children their families were dying out.
Preindustrial England was thus a world of constant downward mobility. Given the static nature of the preindustrial economy, the superabundant children of the rich had to, on average, move down the social hierarchy to find work. Craftsmen’s sons became labourers, merchants’ sons petty traders, large landowners’ sons smallholders. Attributes that ensured later economic dynamism—the middle-class values of patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education—were thus spread throughout the population for generations by biological means.
The population’s adoption of more middle-class preferences changed other things. From 1200 to 1800 interest rates fell, murder rates declined, work hours increased, the taste for violence declined, and numeracy and literacy spread to even the lower reaches of society. By 1800, though the incentives were no better than before, producers seized opportunities to innovate.
But why did this process advance faster in England than elsewhere? One advantage of England was how dull most English history is—there are plenty of villages where nothing of significance happened between 1200 and 1800. The reproductive success of the rich was not disrupted by invasions, social upheavals and catastrophes. The second advantage just seems to be an accident of English demographics. In both preindustrial Japan and China the rich had more children than the poor, but in a more modest way. Thus there was not the same cascade of children from the educated classes down the social scale. The samurai in Japan in the Tokugawa era (1603-1868), for example, were former warriors given ample hereditary revenues through positions in the state bureaucracy. Despite their wealth they produced on average little more than one son per father. Their children were thus mainly accommodated within the bureaucracy.
What does this mean for the modern world? Societies that went straight from the hunter-gatherer state to the modern economy may have historically rooted, cultural disadvantages in competing in a capitalist world. This may explain the difficulty groups such as Australian Aborigines have had in successfully incorporating into the capitalist economy. It could even explain why industrialists in sub-Saharan economies such as Zambia are importing Chinese workers into mines and factories, despite having to pay them more than local labour.
Finally, one puzzle of modern affluent societies is that while we have an abundance of goods, we have a poverty of leisure compared with hunter-gatherers. Indeed, the higher income a person has, the less leisure he has. Our poverty of leisure has been blamed on advertisers producing endless wants. But the true source of our compulsion to work, even when all conceivable material needs are met, may lie in our ancestors’ passage through a preindustrial world that rewarded a compulsion to work and accumulate with reproductive success. We may be prisoners of a history that makes us unable to enjoy the fruits of our modern economic success.