Has The Retardation Theis Been Overthrown By

Recent, Mainly Cliometric Historians? Essay, Research Paper

The retardation thesis postulates that,

during the 18th and 19th centuries, France failed to take

advantage of the economic opportunities available to it.? Traditionally historians looked to the

English industrial revolution and compared its features, as well as the

preceding political, social and economic conditions, with those of France.? By looking at the differences historians

highlighted features in the French economy and social institutions that were

different to those of England.? These

factors were then converted into causal factors for the slower development of

the French economy.? The retardation

thesis is very much a comparative theory.?

The word retardation implies some form of norm or comparative rate of

growth.? The French economy was retarded

because it did not grow as quickly, or as dramatically as the British

economy.? In this essay I will briefly

outline some of the fundamental features of the retardation thesis, before

reviewing a selection of the revisionist literature that downplays and even

disputes the validity of the traditional arguments.The empirical evidence for the retardation

thesis is well documented.? Perhaps the

most important statistic is that of per capita national income and, according

to Crafts and others, France was considerably and consistently below England

from 1830 to 1910.? The comparative

structural make-up of the two countries has been used to explain the more

general, GNP, based differences.? One of

the fundamentals of the retardation thesis is that the French economy was

encumbered with an overly large and unproductive agricultural sector.? The comparative lack of agricultural labour

productivity in France meant that little surplus was generated.? As a consequence capital formation was

slowed and few rural workers left the countryside to work in urban and

industrial contexts.? The difference is

agricultural sectoral share and productivity with Britain was marked.? By 1840 the percentage of agricultural

income as a share of national income in Britain was the same as the percentage

of the workforce in agriculture.?? In

1870 53.7% of the French workforce still worked in agriculture, whilst

producing only 33.5% of income.? The

reasons for this agricultural backwardness are seemingly engrained in the

historiographical tradition; small inefficient farms, peasant immobility,

open-field systems, failure to innovate and a distinct lack of capitalist

farming.? The importance of agricultural

productivity forms the backbone of the retardation thesis.? Structural change is directly linked to

economic growth.? Where were the iron,

cotton and coal industries that powered English economic development? Other major differences in the two

economies have also been interpreted as causes for France?s supposed economic

stagnation.? Kemp argues that France?s

failure to adopt modern industrial forms of organization hampered economic

development.? Most visibly the sparsity

of factories in France has been used to signify backwardness.? Landes sees this failure as a result of the

inability of French entrepreneurs to adopt British industrial practices.? He argued that technology diffused too slowly.? Others have cited the mentality of French

society as a reason for the slower process of industrialization.? Historians like Kemp and Landes suggest that

the French bourgeoisie were more interested in bureaucratic status and land

holdings than the more risky and less prestigious paths of business and

entrepreneurship.? The social and

economic milieu of pre and post-revolutionary France retarded economic

development.? The comparative dearth of

inventions and innovations in France is also cited as a factor behind the

differing levels of growth.? Hargreaves,

Arkwright and Darby were English and it was their innovations that

revolutionized English industry.?

Scholars and students alike have seen the English industrial revolution

the normal path to modern economic development.? Historians have looked to at other economies to find reasons for

their comparative lack of development.?

The retardation thesis is based on the question ?Why was France second??

rather than the question ?Why was England first??.In recent years a strong revisionist

tendency amongst economic historians of the 18th and 19th

century has developed.? O?Brien?s and

Keyder?s work is just one example of this new revisionist literature.? They refute the principle of the retardation

theory by suggesting that labeling the French economy as retarded in

relation to the English economy is too narrow an assessment.? They suggest that the English path to

development was not necessarily the optimal path to development and that the

more gradual transformation of the French economy was more suited to the social

structures of the 19th century.?

O?Brien and Keyder agree that a quicker structural transformation from

agriculture to industry would have aided economic development by generating

surpluses and urban labour.? But the

more gradual transformation form agriculture to industry can only be seen as

retarded if it was in some way economically irrational.? O?Brien and Keyder quite rightly tell us

that the rate of structural transformation is not exogenous and cannot be

changed by fiat.? Traditionalists would

argue for cultural and institutional reasons behind this slow transformation,

whereas Grantham and O?Brien and Keyder also highlight natural resources,

location, climate and other geographical disadvantages that precluded a more

rapid transformation.? O?Brien and

Keyder refute the extent of the productivity gap.? Their analysis points to natural endowments (soil, relief, climate,

quantity of land per worker) as providing the majority of the gap in agricultural

productivity.? Conversely they see the

gap in yields per acre as very small with France producing yields of up to 75%

of those of Britain.? French farmers

were relatively quick to innovate and increase yields given the context in

which they operated. ?It was the context

of a differing system of tenure, the revolution, the small size of farms and

natural endowments that held French agriculture back.? Given this context it is worthy of praise that French

agriculturalists progressed as far as they did.? Whilst O?Brien and Keyder accept French

agricultural backwardness hampered economic development, Grantham states that

no cliometric evidence exists for agricultural having hampered industrial

development.? Indeed studies by Postal

et al. suggest that the real agricultural wage in France was often higher than

the industrial wage, thus making the retention of labour in rural areas

economically rational.? Grantham also

argues for a higher agricultural labour productivity that O?Brien and

Keyder.? The extra productivity is

accounted for by Grantham?s use of part time workers in his statistics.? Grantham, in his survey of cliometrics and

the French economy, disputes other traditional causes and symptoms of

retardation.? He uses evidence from

Mathias and O?Brien to show that the disruptive influence of the state was less

than traditionalists would believe.?

Indeed he provides us with statistics that show England?s rate of output

taxation to be double that of France?s, and that the average tariff in England

was higher than that of France.?

Grantham disputes, with empirical evidence, a variety of factors that

followers of the retardation thesis used as symptoms and causes of economic

stagnation in France.More controversially O?Brien and Keyder

argue for higher for a high industrial labour productivity than followers of

the retardation theory have suggested.?

The implication being that industry was far from retarded and that

labour productivity was growing at a comparable rate to that of Britain.? However there are certain controversies

about their use of statistics.?

Kindleberger believes the British sources of their statistics to be more

reliable than the patchwork of French sources, whilst Crafts highlights other

key problems.? He believes the

discounting of services places an unduly heavy bias toward French industry as

Britain was much stronger in this sector.?

He disputes the notion that measuring services would represent a double

counting phenomenon.? Crafts also

combines research from Carre, Dubois, Mainvaud, Markovitich, Feinstein and

Hoffman to show that O?Brien and Keyder?s labour input figures are too

low.? Thus we see O?Brien and Keyder

over estimating labour productivity in industry, as well as capital ? labour

ratios.? Crafts asks whether French

labour was really 42% more effective than the European norm or simply 42%

underreported.Other revisionists go further than O?Brien

and Keyder in promoting the virtues of the French economy.? Roehl uses an inverted Gerschenkronian model

to show that far from being retarded France was actually an early

industrialiser.? Gerschenkron produced a

series of features that characterized late developers.? Roehl inverted these features in an attempt

to show that France was in fact an early industrialiser.? Roehl sees the gradual growth of France, the

reliance on her own technology and capital, the lack of virulent

industrializing ideologies, the growth in agricultural productivity and the

lack of a noticeable growth spurt as evidence for this inverted theory.? Roehl also remarks that French

industrialization developed along proto-industrial lines in contrast to

Mantoux?s English definition of an industrial revolution which included large

and visible signs of growing iron, cotton and textile sectors.? Roehl?s Gerschenkronian interpretation is

not without its detractors.? Crafts

disputes Gerschenkron?s theory itself, and more worryingly for Roehl, Grantham,

an arch cliometrician, describes Gerschenkron?s theory as an ?impressionistic

generalization? which ?empirical contradiction has thoroughly

discredited?.? As Crafts put it, does

Roehl?s paper text Gerschenkron?s taxonomy in relation to France or the

taxonomy itself?? Crafts own work also

sheds new light on the retardation thesis.?

He questions the ability and advisability of describing French

retardation in terms of Britain?s primacy.?

How can one isolate and test potential causes of French retardation, or

differences with Britain?s primacy, when the experiment can only be run once?? Thus he dismisses the views of Kemp at al.

as unfounded.? He doubts that historians

can isolate a single factor or a variety of factors that led to England?s

primacy.? Without the chance to run

further empirical tests this approach is extremely unreliable.? Crafts uses the example of innovation to further

his point.? Crafts sees the process of

invention and innovation as stochastic.?

France may have had a more responsive social milieu and the economic

environment to innovation, but English inventors got lucky.? England may have been first, but this does

not mean that the factors that aided its development were necessarily more

pronounced than those in France.? As

Crafts himself says it could be the case that the country ?with lowest ex ante

likelihood of achieving ?decisive innovations? may be observed as the

winner!?.? Crafts concludes by stating

that many of the features of the English economy have not been proven to be

superior, although he tempers this by reaffirming his belief that, empirically

at least, England?s economy was generally superior to that of France throughout

the period.It would be wrong to state that the

revisionist interpretation of French economic development had overthrown all

parts of the retardation thesis.? Whilst

many now agree that gaps in productivity and income per capita were less than

first thought, there can is no doubt that France lagged behind England in terms

of income per capita and productivity.?

Crafts would argue that it is almost impossible to prove individual

facets of the retardation thesis due to the non-repeatable nature of the

industrial revolution ?experiment?.?

However there seems to be a consensus that the relatively gradual

structural transformation of France slowed the growth of industry in France.? But the word retardation is

inappropriate.? French farmers were not

inefficient and economically stagnant.?

The cliometricians are useful in providing micro evidence for their

economic rationality.? The word

retardation seems outdated.? A

comparison with the English industrial revolution is unfair.? The differing natural endowments, legal,

cultural and political heritages provided different opportunities in different

countries.? It would appear more

appropriate to judge an economies development, if doing so over a given period

of time, by considering its pre-existing features.? The retardation thesis necessarily examines the French economy in

terms of the successes of the English economy.?

As Crafts and others show the Britain was the first industrialiser, but

the English path was by no means standardized.?

The retardation thesis, by concentrating on the English path, is too

narrow a concept.? A true economic

historian would surely study the development of the French economy in a fashion

that concentrated more on French than English experiences.


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