Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

Towering debts, rapidly rising taxes, constant and expensive wars, a debt burden surpassing 200% of GDP. What are the chances that a country with such characteristics would grow rapidly? Almost anyone would probably say ‘none’.

And yet, these are exactly the conditions under which the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain. Britain’s government debt went from 5% of GDP in 1700 to over 200% in 1820, it fought a war in one year out of three … and taxes increased rapidly but not enough to keep pace with the rise in spending …

vothjuly15fig1

Until now, scholars mostly thought of the effect of government borrowing on growth as either neutral or negative…

In a recent paper, we argue that Britain’s borrowing binge was actually good for growth (Ventura and Voth 2015). To understand why massive debt accumulation may have accelerated the Industrial Revolution, we first consider what should have happened in an economy where entrepreneurs suddenly start to exploit a new technology with high returns. Typically, we would expect capital to chase these investment opportunities – anyone with money should have tried to put their savings into new cotton factories, iron foundries and ceramics manufacturers. Where they didn’t have the expertise to invest directly, banks and stock companies should have recycled funds to direct savings to where returns where highest.

This is not what happened. Financial intermediation was woefully inadequate – it failed to send the money where it should have gone …

By issuing bonds on a massive scale, the government effectively pioneered a way – unintentionally – to put money in the pockets of entrepreneurs in the new sectors …

The shift from investing in liming, marling, draining, and enclosure into government debt liberated resources – labour that could no longer be profitably employed in the countryside had to look for employment elsewhere. Because so much of English agricultural labour was provided by wage labourers, the switch to government debt pushed workers off the land. Unsurprisingly, wages failed to keep pace with output; real wages, adjusted for urban disamenities, probably fell over the period 1750-1830. What made life miserable for the workers, as eloquently described by Engels amongst others, was a boon to the capitalists. Their profit rates continued to rise as capital received an ever-larger share of the pie – while the share of national income going to labour and land contracted. Higher profits spelled more investment in new industries, and Britain’s industrial growth accelerated.

Advertisements