Reading: Lant Pritchett (1997): Divergence, Bigtime

Reading: Patrick O'Brien: European Economic Development: The Contribution of the Periphery

Patrick O'Brien (1982): European Economic Development: The Contribution of the Periphery: "Throughout the early modern era connexions between economies (even within states) remained weak, tenuous, and liable to interruption...

...Except for a restricted range of examples, growth, stagnation, and decay everywhere in Western Europe can be explained mainly by reference to endogeneous forces. The "world economy", such as it was, hardly impinged. If these speculations are correct, then for the economic growth of the core, the periphery was peripheral...

O'Brien's piece is a critique of a large strand of 1970s literature about how exploitation not of internal western European populations but of people outside of Western Europe--Amerindians, mestizo and other inhabitants of the Americas, Asians, and Africans--was the driving force behind the accumulation of capital and the growth of Western Europe from 1500 well into the post-1750 Industrial Revolution era. O'Brien's point is that this argument was always innumerate: trans-oceanic trade flows were simply too small to matter in any simplistic way in which more resources flowing to the elite produce significantly faster economic development. I think his case is air-tight. If you want to draw significant causal links between trans-oceanic exploration, trade, conquest, and exploitation on the one hand and Western European growth after 1500 on the other, you need to tell a much more sophisticated and less simplistic story.

Five questions:

  1. What happens when O'Brien tries to put quantitative and statistical flesh on the bones of the "trans-oceanic trade and exploitation" thesis?
  2. An enormous amount of wealth was generated via exploitation and the transfer of goods from where they were cheap to where they were very expensive. If this wealth did not show up in super-profits for merchants and plantation owners, who did benefit from and consume it?
  3. Does the fact that trans-oceanic trade and exploitation was not a big deal for Europe mean that it was a small deal for the Americas? For Africa? For South Asia? For East Asia?
  4. Which of the points made by the "development of underdevelopment" school does O'Brien concede, and agree with enthusiastically (or not so enthusiastically)?
  5. In what sense is it adequate to claim that the world order today was in any sense "baked in the cake" by 1750--that 1450-1750 is in some sense a crucial period for subsequent development trajectories?

Patrick O'Brien (1982): [European Economic Development: The Contribution of the Periphery][], Economic History Review NS 35:1 (Feb), pp. 1-18