Understanding Economic Development

Understanding Economic Development

A Global Transition from Poverty to Prosperity?

Colin White

This fascinating book considers one of the most important problems in economics: the inception of modern economic development. There is at present no satisfactory explanation of the inception of modern economic development; an excessive focus on either pure theory or on unique histories limits the explanatory power. This book realises the need to integrate the two approaches, moving beyond the proximate causes of economic theory to review the role in an analytic narrative of significant ultimate causes – geography, risk environments, human capital, and institutions.

Chapter 11: Release from the Malthusian Trap

Colin White

Subjects: development studies, development economics, economics and finance, development economics


. . . the Industrial Revolution meant, above all, an escape from the Malthusian trap’. (Komlos: 19) A central element of the discontinuity which marked the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries was a release from the Malthusian trap. ‘The great span of human history – from the arrival of anatomically modern man to Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, and all the way to Jane Austen indeed – was lived in societies caught in the Malthusian trap’ (Clark 2003: 1). There are three main characteristics of that trap. First, technological change resulted in an increase in population, not an increase in the level of income per head. The view is put succinctly by Clark, ‘In the Malthusian economy that preceded 1800 all productivity growth is absorbed by population increases’ (Clark 2003: 5). Secondly, over time, income per head oscillated around a subsistence level, although not necessarily a starvation level. Thirdly, technologically superior countries had denser populations to match the higher yields of land or of material products in general. After release from the trap, productivity growth began to raise income levels, although initially population growth accelerated dramatically and the main achievement of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was to maintain incomes despite this increase. Clark believes that world economic history has three interconnected features which need to be explained: the long persistence of the Malthusian trap, the escape from that trap during the Industrial Revolution, and the consequent Great Divergence between developed and...

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