Sep 17, 2023·edited Sep 17, 2023Liked by Étienne Fortier-Dubois

Lack of demand seems the most likely difference overall. Song China had a lot of people, but nearly all of them were desperately poor. Those who were not poor demanded highly individualized products, such as richly and uniquely embroidered clothing. Such products are not amenable to industrial production.

In Song China, I claim, there was minimal demand for mass production, the demand that sustained the industrial revolution in England, for small goods such as iron edges for tools, or nails, cutlery, beads, combs, or hand-mirrors; let alone purchased clothing, iron pots, books, glass windows, or more substantial furniture such as beds, tables and chairs.

This is testable in principle, by looking at large numbers of femur lengths of people from both areas in the relevant eras. Femur length tells you height and therefore adequacy of nutrition (and other attributes of the bone also tell you about nutrition and/or disease, and therefore living conditions). Adequate nutrition implies ability to reallocate spending to other things. Inadeqate nutrition implies the absence of demand for anything besides food.

Besides poverty, the European Marriage Pattern is another difference. In northwestern Europe after the middle ages, newlyweds formed their own household upon marriage; everywhere else, the bride typically joined an already existing household headed by the groom's parents (and maybe also containing sibling couples). New households are the drivers of demand: if they can afford it, they'll buy lots of stuff, new if they can.

I claim that the EMP, something expressed throughout the population, is a more important cultural difference than anything elites wrote about such as Confucianism.

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Both of these seem valid — I'm pretty sure I read elsewhere that the lack of a large middle class was indeed a contributing factor. *Why* the economic expansion didn't create a large middle class is a question of its own, though, which I think the "high-level equilibrium trap" is trying to explain, fairly convincingly.

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Dierdre McCloskey would have a lot to say about that, probably.

I confess I've only read the first half of the first volume of her "Bourgeois" trilogy so I don't know exactly what she'd say. (But I do know she'd waste a lot of your time showing off how well-read she is: an interesting case of an intelligent person--you have to be, to be an Ivy-league professor--being procedurally stupid, not being considerate of her readers' time constraints.)

I imagine that she'd say something like the following. In northwestern Europe, in contrast to everywhere else, making a living by trading came to be seen as not dishonorable, eventually respectable and dignified. She'd talk about holding equality as a value but I think without going into the genesis of that.

My view of that genesis very much in brief: fundamental equality ("all souls are placed in the same scales at Judgement") born of hyper-religiosity in the late Middle Ages, leads to the idea of equality before the law, which allows for the concept of social mobility to exist; another Reformation practical belief, that it was every Christian's duty to read the Bible, leads to spreading literacy and eventually to actual social mobility: people moving up social scales based on ability rather than birth or marriage.

Those two drivers are true of northwestern Europe in general, so I don't have a good answer for "why Britain specifically?" at this point. Somehow the idea took hold that selling things that others need is an OK thing to do. The famous jibe usually attributed to Napoleon ("a nation of shopkeepers") shows that Britain was unusual in that respect.

This is all very much airy-fairy culture conjecture rather than solid practical culture like the European Marriage Pattern and its effect on household formation, and nutritional status, though.

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Maybe you should collaborate on the book 😇

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They did industrialize.


1. The America's were much farther a way.

2. China's internal complexities made control a legitimate way of dealing with problems.

Thus Europe did not overtake the Chinese until 1750.

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Sep 21, 2023Liked by Étienne Fortier-Dubois

A fascinating post! So glad to have stumbled across your substack. This kind of stuff is right up my street. I am quite tempted by the idea of the absence of a belief in progress but most progress often happens by accident, not by deliberate design (I’m thinking of Louis Pasteur), so perhaps it was also partly just down to luck that no one had a mistake that led to thought to innovate on some of the existing processes? Who knows for sure, but it’s such an interesting question to think about!

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Thank you! Certainly 'luck' has played a role, but I like seeing luck as something that can be controlled to an extent. It seems that it was 'easier' for Europe to be lucky, maybe because it was divided and therefore fostering competition, than unified China.

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Fascinating. There’s a book in this for sure...

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