Book Reviews, Economics

Top 25 Stimulating Economic History Books

Inspired by Vincent Geloso, here is a list of the 25 books in economic history published since 2000 which I have found most stimulating or provocative. Not the best, nor the most ‘correct’, nor the most balanced, but those things which influenced, stimulated, or provoked my own personal thinking via pseudoerasmus. The books with a description from Amazon below.

Economic History Books
Photo by jill111 (Pixabay)
Economic History Books

Economic History Books – Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective

Why did the industrial revolution take place in eighteenth-century Britain and not elsewhere in Europe or Asia? In this convincing new account Robert Allen argues that the British industrial revolution was a successful response to the global economy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He shows that in Britain wages were high and capital and energy cheap in comparison to other countries in Europe and Asia. As a result, the breakthrough technologies of the industrial revolution – the steam engine, the cotton mill, and the substitution of coal for wood in metal production – were uniquely profitable to invent and use in Britain. The high wage economy of pre-industrial Britain also fostered industrial development since more people could afford schooling and apprenticeships. It was only when British engineers made these new technologies more cost-effective during the nineteenth century that the industrial revolution would spread around the world.

Economic History Books – Clark, A Farewell to Alms

Why are some parts of the world so rich and others so poor? Why did the Industrial Revolution–and the unprecedented economic growth that came with it–occur in eighteenth-century England, and not at some other time, or in some other place? Why didn’t industrialization make the whole world rich–and why did it make large parts of the world even poorer? In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark tackles these profound questions and suggests a new and provocative way in which culture–not exploitation, geography, or resources–explains the wealth, and the poverty, of nations.

Countering the prevailing theory that the Industrial Revolution was sparked by the sudden development of stable political, legal, and economic institutions in seventeenth-century Europe, Clark shows that such institutions existed long before industrialization. He argues instead that these institutions gradually led to deep cultural changes by encouraging people to abandon hunter-gatherer instincts-violence, impatience, and economy of effort-and adopt economic habits-hard work, rationality, and education.

The problem, Clark says, is that only societies that have long histories of settlement and security seem to develop the cultural characteristics and effective workforces that enable economic growth. For the many societies that have not enjoyed long periods of stability, industrialization has not been a blessing. Clark also dissects the notion, championed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, that natural endowments such as geography account for differences in the wealth of nations.

A brilliant and sobering challenge to the idea that poor societies can be economically developed through outside intervention, A Farewell to Alms may change the way global economic history is understood.

Economic History Books – Clark, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility

How much of our fate is tied to the status of our parents and grandparents? How much does it influence our children? More than we wish to believe. While it has been argued that rigid class structures have eroded in favor of greater social equality, The Son Also Rises proves that movement on the social ladder has changed little over eight centuries. Using a novel technique–tracking family names over generations to measure social mobility across countries and periods–renowned economic historian Gregory Clark reveals that mobility rates are lower than conventionally estimated, do not vary across societies, and are resistant to social policies.

Clark examines and compares surnames in such diverse cases as modern Sweden and Qing Dynasty China. He demonstrates how fate is determined by ancestry and that almost all societies have similarly low social mobility rates. Challenging popular assumptions about mobility and revealing the deeply entrenched force of inherited advantage, The Son Also Rises is sure to prompt intense debate for years to come.

Economic History Books – De Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Culture and the Household Economy, 1650-present

In the long eighteenth century, new consumer aspirations combined with a new industrious behavior to fundamentally alter the material cultures of northwest Europe and North America. This “industrious revolution” is the context in which the economic acceleration associated with the Industrial Revolution took shape. This study explores the intellectual understanding of the new importance of consumer goods as well as the actual consumer behavior of households of all income levels. De Vries examines how the activation and evolution of consumer demand shaped the course of economic development, situating consumer behavior in the context of the household economy. He considers the changing consumption goals of households from the seventeenth century to the present and analyzes how household decisions have mediated between macro-level economic growth and actual human betterment. Ultimately, de Vries’ research reveals key strengths and weaknesses of existing consumer theory, suggesting revisions that add historical realism to economic abstractions.

Economic History Books – (added late) Engerman & Sokoloff, Economic Development in the Americas since 1500

This book brings together a number of previously published articles by Stanley L. Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. Its essays deal with differences in the rates of economic growth in Latin American and mainland North America, specifically the United States and Canada. It demonstrates how relative differences in growth over time are related to differences in the institutions that developed in different economies. This variation is driven by differences in major institutions – suffrage, education, tax policy, land and immigration policy, and banking and financial organizations. These factors, in turn, are all related to differences in endowments, climate, and natural resources. Providing a comprehensive treatment of its topic, the essays have been revised to reflect new developments and research.

Economic History Books – Federico, Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000

In the last two centuries, agriculture has been an outstanding, if somewhat neglected, success story. Agriculture has fed an ever-growing population with an increasing variety of products at falling prices, even as it has released a growing number of workers to the rest of the economy. This book, a comprehensive history of world agriculture during this period, explains how these feats were accomplished.

Feeding the World synthesizes two hundred years of agricultural development throughout the world, providing all essential data and extensive references to the literature. It covers, systematically, all the factors that have affected agricultural performance: environment, accumulation of inputs, technical progress, institutional change, commercialization, agricultural policies, and more. The last chapter discusses the contribution of agriculture to modern economic growth. The book is global in its reach and analysis, and represents a grand synthesis of an enormous topic.

Economic History Books – Findlay & O’Rourke, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium

International trade has shaped the modern world, yet until now no single book has been available for both economists and general readers that traces the history of the international economy from its earliest beginnings to the present day. Power and Plenty fills this gap, providing the first full account of world trade and development over the course of the last millennium.

Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke examine the successive waves of globalization and “deglobalization” that have occurred during the past thousand years, looking closely at the technological and political causes behind these long-term trends. They show how the expansion and contraction of the world economy has been directly tied to the two-way interplay of trade and geopolitics, and how war and peace have been critical determinants of international trade over the very long run. The story they tell is sweeping in scope, one that links the emergence of the Western economies with economic and political developments throughout Eurasia centuries ago. Drawing extensively upon empirical evidence and informing their systematic analysis with insights from contemporary economic theory, Findlay and O’Rourke demonstrate the close interrelationships of trade and warfare, the mutual interdependence of the world’s different regions, and the crucial role these factors have played in explaining modern economic growth.

Power and Plenty is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the origins of today’s international economy, the forces that continue to shape it, and the economic and political challenges confronting policymakers in the twenty-first century.

Economic History Books – Galor, Unified Growth Theory

For most of the vast span of human history, economic growth was all but nonexistent. Then, about two centuries ago, some nations began to emerge from this epoch of economic stagnation, experiencing sustained economic growth that led to significant increases in standards of living and profoundly altered the level and distribution of wealth, population, education, and health across the globe. The question ever since has been–why?

This is the first book to put forward a unified theory of economic growth that accounts for the entire growth process, from the dawn of civilization to today. Oded Galor, who founded the field of unified growth theory, identifies the historical and prehistorical forces behind the differential transition timing from stagnation to growth and the emergence of income disparity around the world. Galor shows how the interaction between technological progress and population ultimately raised the importance of education in coping with the rapidly changing technological environment, brought about significant reduction in fertility rates, and enabled some economies to devote greater resources toward a steady increase in per capita income, paving the way for sustained economic growth.

  • Presents a unified theory of economic growth from the dawn of civilization to today
  • Explains the worldwide disparities in living standards and population we see today
  • Provides a comprehensive overview of the three phases of the development process
  • Analyzes the Malthusian theory and its empirical support
  • Examines theories of demographic transition and their empirical significance
  • Explores the interaction between economic development and human evolution

Economic History Books – Gat, War in Human Civilization

Why do people go to war? Is it rooted in human nature or is it a late cultural invention? How does war relate to the other fundamental developments in the history of human civilization? And what of war today–is it a declining phenomenon or simply changing its shape?

In this sweeping study of war and civilization, Azar Gat sets out to find definitive answers to these questions in an attempt to unravel the riddle of war throughout human history, from the early hunter-gatherers right through to the unconventional terrorism of the twenty-first century. In the process, the book generates an astonishing wealth of original and fascinating insights on all major aspects of humankind’s remarkable journey through the ages, engaging a wide range of disciplines, from anthropology and evolutionary psychology to sociology and political science. Written with remarkable verve and clarity and wholly free from jargon, it will be of interest to anyone who has ever pondered the puzzle of war.

Economic History Books – Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade

It is widely believed that current disparities in economic, political, and social outcomes reflect distinct institutions. Institutions are invoked to explain why some countries are rich and others poor, some democratic and others dictatorial. But arguments of this sort gloss over the question of what institutions are, how they come about, and why they persist. This book seeks to overcome these problems, which have exercised economists, sociologists, political scientists, and a host of other researchers who use the social sciences to study history, law, and business administration.

Economic History Books – Kuran, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East

In the year 1000, the economy of the Middle East was at least as advanced as that of Europe. But by 1800, the region had fallen dramatically behind–in living standards, technology, and economic institutions. In short, the Middle East had failed to modernize economically as the West surged ahead. What caused this long divergence? And why does the Middle East remain drastically underdeveloped compared to the West? In The Long Divergence, one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic economic institutions and the economy of the Middle East provides a new answer to these long-debated questions.

Timur Kuran argues that what slowed the economic development of the Middle East was not colonialism or geography, still less Muslim attitudes or some incompatibility between Islam and capitalism. Rather, starting around the tenth century, Islamic legal institutions, which had benefitted the Middle Eastern economy in the early centuries of Islam, began to act as a drag on development by slowing or blocking the emergence of central features of modern economic life–including private capital accumulation, corporations, large-scale production, and impersonal exchange. By the nineteenth century, modern economic institutions began to be transplanted to the Middle East, but its economy has not caught up. And there is no quick fix today. Low trust, rampant corruption, and weak civil societies–all characteristic of the region’s economies today and all legacies of its economic history–will take generations to overcome.

The Long Divergence opens up a frank and honest debate on a crucial issue that even some of the most ardent secularists in the Muslim world have hesitated to discuss.

Economic History Books – Lee & Feng, One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000

This book presents evidence about historical and contemporary Chinese population behavior that overturns much of the received wisdom about the differences between China and the West first voiced by Malthus. Malthus described a China in which early and universal marriage ensured high fertility and therefore high mortality. He contrasted this with Western Europe, where marriage occurred late and was far from universal, resulting in lower fertility and higher demographic responsiveness to economic circumstances. The result in China was thought to be mass misery as part of the population teetered on the brink of a Malthusian precipice, whereas in the West conditions were less severe.

In reality, James Lee and Wang Feng argue, there has been effective regulation of population growth in China through a variety of practices that depressed marital fertility to levels far below European standards, and through the widespread practices of infanticide and abortion. Moreover, in China, population behavior has long been primarily a consequence of collective intervention. This collective culture underlies four distinctive features of the Chinese demographic pattern–high rates of female infanticide, low rates of male marriage, low rates of marital fertility, and high rates of adoption–that Lee and Wang trace from 1700 to today. These and other distinctive features of the Chinese demographic and social system, they argue, led to a different demographic transition in China from the one that took place in the West.

Economic History Books – Lieberman, Strange Parallels Volume 1, Strange Parallels Volume 2

In an ambitious effort to overcome the extreme fragmentation of early Southeast Asian historiography, this study connects Southeast Asia to world history. Victor Lieberman argues that over a thousand years, each of mainland Southeast Asia’s great lowland corridors experienced a pattern of accelerating integration punctuated by recurrent collapse. These trajectories were synchronized not only between corridors, but most curiously, between the mainland as a whole, much of Europe, and other sectors of Eurasia. Lieberman describes in detail the nature of mainland consolidation and dissects the mix of endogenous and external factors responsible.

Economic History Books – Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850

This book focuses on the importance of ideological and institutional factors in the rapid development of the British economy during the years between the Glorious Revolution and the Crystal Palace Exhibition. Joel Mokyr shows that we cannot understand the Industrial Revolution without recognizing the importance of the intellectual sea changes of Britain’s Age of Enlightenment.

In a vigorous discussion, Mokyr goes beyond the standard explanations that credit  geographical factors, the role of markets, politics, and society to show that the beginnings of modern economic growth in Britain depended a great deal on what key players knew and believed, and how those beliefs affected their economic behavior. He argues that Britain led the rest of Europe into the Industrial Revolution because it was there that the optimal intersection of ideas, culture, institutions, and technology existed to make rapid economic growth achievable. His wide-ranging evidence covers sectors of the British economy often neglected, such as the service industries.

Economic History Books – Mitterauer, Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of its Special Path

Part of McGraw-Hill’s Explorations in World History series, this brief and accessible volume explores one of the biggest questions of recent historical debate: how among all of Eurasia’s interconnected centers of power, it was Europe that came to dominate much of the world. Author Jack Goldstone presents the argument as it stands in light of up-to-date research so that readers can come to understand the technological and economic inequalities between Europe and the rest of the world came to be and decide for themselves where the driving forces behind this phenomenon are taking us.

Economic History Books – North, Wallis & Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History

All societies must deal with the possibility of violence, and they do so in different ways. This book integrates the problem of violence into a larger social science and historical framework, showing how economic and political behavior are closely linked. Most societies, which we call natural states, limit violence by political manipulation of the economy to create privileged interests. These privileges limit the use of violence by powerful individuals, but doing so hinders both economic and political development. In contrast, modern societies create open access to economic and political organizations, fostering political and economic competition. The book provides a framework for understanding the two types of social orders, why open access societies are both politically and economically more developed, and how some 25 countries have made the transition between the two types.

Economic History Books – O’Rourke & Williamson, Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy

Globalization is not a new phenomenon, nor is it irreversible. In Gobalization and History, Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson present a coherent picture of trade, migration, and international capital flows in the Atlantic economy in the century prior to 1914–the first great globalization boom, which anticipated the experience of the last fifty years.The authors estimate the extent of globalization and its impact on the participating countries, and discuss the political reactions that it provoked. The book’s originality lies in its application of the tools of open-economy economics to this critical historical period–differentiating it from most previous work, which has been based on closed-economy or single-sector models. The authors also keep a close eye on globalization debates of the 1990s, using history to inform the present and vice versa.The book brings together research conducted by the authors over the past decade–work that has profoundly influenced how economic history is now written and that has found audiences in economics and history, as well as in the popular press.

Economic History Books – Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

The Great Divergence brings new insight to one of the classic questions of history: Why did sustained industrial growth begin in Northwest Europe, despite surprising similarities between advanced areas of Europe and East Asia? As Ken Pomeranz shows, as recently as 1750, parallels between these two parts of the world were very high in life expectancy, consumption, product and factor markets, and the strategies of households. Perhaps most surprisingly, Pomeranz demonstrates that the Chinese and Japanese cores were no worse off ecologically than Western Europe. Core areas throughout the eighteenth-century Old World faced comparable local shortages of land-intensive products, shortages that were only partly resolved by trade.

Pomeranz argues that Europe’s nineteenth-century divergence from the Old World owes much to the fortunate location of coal, which substituted for timber. This made Europe’s failure to use its land intensively much less of a problem, while allowing growth in energy-intensive industries. Another crucial difference that he notes has to do with trade. Fortuitous global conjunctures made the Americas a greater source of needed primary products for Europe than any Asian periphery. This allowed Northwest Europe to grow dramatically in population, specialize further in manufactures, and remove labor from the land, using increased imports rather than maximizing yields. Together, coal and the New World allowed Europe to grow along resource-intensive, labor-saving paths.

Meanwhile, Asia hit a cul-de-sac. Although the East Asian hinterlands boomed after 1750, both in population and in manufacturing, this growth prevented these peripheral regions from exporting vital resources to the cloth-producing Yangzi Delta. As a result, growth in the core of East Asia’s economy essentially stopped, and what growth did exist was forced along labor-intensive, resource-saving paths–paths Europe could have been forced down, too, had it not been for favorable resource stocks from underground and overseas.

Economic History Books – Seabright, The Company of Strangers: The Natural History of Economic Life

The Company of Strangers shows us the remarkable strangeness, and fragility, of our everyday lives. This completely revised and updated edition includes a new chapter analyzing how the rise and fall of social trust explain the unsustainable boom in the global economy over the past decade and the financial crisis that succeeded it.

Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, history, psychology, and literature, Paul Seabright explores how our evolved ability of abstract reasoning has allowed institutions like money, markets, cities, and the banking system to provide the foundations of social trust that we need in our everyday lives. Even the simple acts of buying food and clothing depend on an astonishing web of interaction that spans the globe. How did humans develop the ability to trust total strangers with providing our most basic needs?

Economic History Books – Smil, Vaclav (several)

Vaclav Smil is currently a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He completed his graduate studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Carolinum University in Prague and at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of the Pennsylvania State University. His interdisciplinary research interests encompass a broad area of energy, environmental, food, population, economic, historical and public policy studies, and he had also applied these approaches to energy, food and environmental affairs of China.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy) and the first non-American to receive the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology. He has been an invited speaker in more than 250 conferences and workshops in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa, has lectured at many universities in North America, Europe and East Asia and has worked as a consultant for many US, EU and international institutions. His wife Eva is a physician and his son David is an organic synthetic chemist.

Economic History Books – Temin, The Roman Market Economy

The quality of life for ordinary Roman citizens at the height of the Roman Empire probably was better than that of any other large group of people living before the Industrial Revolution. The Roman Market Economy uses the tools of modern economics to show how trade, markets, and the Pax Romana were critical to ancient Rome’s prosperity.

Peter Temin, one of the world’s foremost economic historians, argues that markets dominated the Roman economy. He traces how the Pax Romana encouraged trade around the Mediterranean, and how Roman law promoted commerce and banking. Temin shows that a reasonably vibrant market for wheat extended throughout the empire, and suggests that the Antonine Plague may have been responsible for turning the stable prices of the early empire into the persistent inflation of the late. He vividly describes how various markets operated in Roman times, from commodities and slaves to the buying and selling of land. Applying modern methods for evaluating economic growth to data culled from historical sources, Temin argues that Roman Italy in the second century was as prosperous as the Dutch Republic in its golden age of the seventeenth century.

The Roman Market Economy reveals how economics can help us understand how the Roman Empire could have ruled seventy million people and endured for centuries.

Economic History Books – Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy

An extraordinary mythology has grown up around the Third Reich that hovers over political and moral debate even today. Adam Tooze’s controversial new book challenges the conventional economic interpretations of that period to explore how Hitler’s surprisingly prescient vision- ultimately hindered by Germany’s limited resources and his own racial ideology-was to create a German super-state to dominate Europe and compete with what he saw as America’s overwhelming power in a soon-to- be globalized world. The Wages of Destruction is a chilling work of originality and tremendous scholarship that is already setting off debate in Germany and will fundamentally change the way in which history views the Second World War.

Economic History Books – Turchin & Nefedov, Secular Cycles

Many historical processes exhibit recurrent patterns of change. Century-long periods of population expansion come before long periods of stagnation and decline; the dynamics of prices mirror population oscillations; and states go through strong expansionist phases followed by periods of state failure, endemic sociopolitical instability, and territorial loss. Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov explore the dynamics and causal connections between such demographic, economic, and political variables in agrarian societies and offer detailed explanations for these long-term oscillations–what the authors call secular cycles.

Secular Cycles elaborates and expands upon the demographic-structural theory first advanced by Jack Goldstone, which provides an explanation of long-term oscillations. This book tests that theory’s specific and quantitative predictions by tracing the dynamics of population numbers, prices and real wages, elite numbers and incomes, state finances, and sociopolitical instability. Turchin and Nefedov study societies in England, France, and Russia during the medieval and early modern periods, and look back at the Roman Republic and Empire. Incorporating theoretical and quantitative history, the authors examine a specific model of historical change and, more generally, investigate the utility of the dynamical systems approach in historical applications.

An indispensable and groundbreaking resource for a wide variety of social scientists, Secular Cycles will interest practitioners of economic history, historical sociology, complexity studies, and demography.

Economic History Books – Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization

Was the fall of Rome a great catastrophe that cast the West into darkness for centuries to come? Or, as scholars argue today, was there no crisis at all, but simply a peaceful blending of barbarians into Roman culture, an essentially positive transformation?

In The Fall of Rome, eminent historian Bryan Ward-Perkins argues that the “peaceful” theory of Rome’s “transformation” is badly in error. Indeed, he sees the fall of Rome as a time of horror and dislocation that destroyed a great civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Attacking contemporary theories with relish and making use of modern archaeological evidence, he looks at both the wider explanations for the disintegration of the Roman world and also the consequences for the lives of everyday Romans, who were caught in a world of marauding barbarians, and economic collapse. The book recaptures the drama and violence of the last days of the Roman world, and reminds us of the very real terrors of barbarian occupation. Equally important, Ward-Perkins contends that a key problem with the new way of looking at the end of the ancient world is that all difficulty and awkwardness is smoothed out into a steady and positive transformation of society. Nothing ever goes badly wrong in this vision of the past. The evidence shows otherwise.

Up-to-date and brilliantly written, combining a lively narrative with the latest research and thirty illustrations, this superb volume reclaims the drama, the violence, and the tragedy of the fall of Rome.

Economic History Books – Williamson, Trade and Poverty: How the Third World Fell Behind

Today’s wide economic gap between the postindustrial countries of the West and the poorer countries of the third world is not new. Fifty years ago, the world economic order — two hundred years in the making — was already characterized by a vast difference in per capita income between rich and poor countries and by the fact that poor countries exported commodities (agricultural or mineral products) while rich countries exported manufactured products. In Trade and Poverty, leading economic historian Jeffrey G. Williamson traces the great divergence between the third world and the West to this nexus of trade, commodity specialization, and poverty.

Analyzing the role of specialization, de-industrialization, and commodity price volatility with econometrics and case studies of India, Ottoman Turkey, and Mexico, Williamson demonstrates why the close correlation between trade and poverty emerged. Globalization and the great divergence were causally related, and thus the rise of globalization over the past two centuries helps account for the income gap between rich and poor countries today.

Some of these also appear on my bigger Economic History Books page, which is intended to be a list of survey & reference books for the economic history of particular regions or countries.

Article by pseudoerasmus