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11.21 Growth in History: In Search of a Unified Theory

Before considering the ‘ideal conditions’ for economic growth we will briefly

survey the new and exciting literature that attempts to provide a unified

account of the ‘Great Escape’ of leading world economies from ‘Malthusian

stagnation’ to a regime of ‘modern economic growth’. Prominent here has

been the research of scholars such as Daron Acemoglu, Gregory Clark, Richard

Easterlin, Oded Galor, Martin Goodfriend, Gary Hansen, Simon Johnson,

Charles Jones, Eric Jones, Michael Kremer, David Landes, Robert Lucas,

Angus Maddison, John McDermott, Omer Moav, Joel Mokyr, Douglass North,

Stephen Parente, Kenneth Pomeranz, Edward Prescott, James Robinson and

David Weil. The main puzzles to explain are these:

1. Why did no country or region of the world, before the eighteenth century

(the Malthusian era), experience lasting intensive growth, that is, sustained

increases in per capita GDP?

2. What led to the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and was this ‘Revolution’ inevitable?

3. What caused the ‘Great Divergence’ in living standards across the world

that has taken place during the last 250 years?

It is difficult to imagine that there are any bigger or more difficult questions

for economists to answer! At the moment, scholars working on providing

answers to these questions are at the frontiers of growth theory and empirics.

Increasingly, in order to provide plausible answers to such questions, growth

theorists have begun to appreciate the value of economic history and the

previous research carried out by economic historians. Indeed, there has recently

emerged a growing synergy between growth theory, economic history

and development economics that has been long overdue. While the Solow

and Romer models may provide convincing explanations of the modern experience

of economic growth in developed economies, they do not account for

the major growth transition that occurred with the onset of the Industrial

Revolution. What is needed is a unified theory that can account for the major

features of the Malthusian era as well as the modern growth regime as

documented in Table 11.1. Currently there are several plausible accounts or

‘stories’ of the evolution of world living standards.

The natural selection, evolution story

Galor and Moav (2001, 2002) highlight the interplay between Darwinian and

Malthusian forces. The struggle for survival during the epoch of Malthusian

stagnation gradually leads to an evolutionary improvement in the quality of

human capital, which in turn stimulates an increase in the rate of technological

progress. This eventually creates the conditions conducive to a ‘take-off’

of sustained economic growth. Galor and Weil (1999, 2000) carry this story

forward and explain how an endogenous transition takes place with an economy

moving from a ‘Malthusian Regime’ to a ‘Post-Mathusian Regime’ before

finally entering the ‘Modern Growth Regime’. The first two regimes are

separated by an acceleration of technological progress while the latter two

are separated by the demographic transition which is driven by utility-maximizing

fertility behaviour (see Lee, 2003).