Economic Development, Political Institutions and Geo-Politics

In the last few days, Brad Delong and Andrew Smith have both written informative posts on an interesting question. Namely, the relationship between political institutions and early modern economic development. I am hoping to start a major research project that deals with these questions, and have a few thoughts on their posts.

One thing that strikes me in large-scale histories of industrialization is that they are often state-based and that geopolitical prominence influences which states are included in the discussion. For instance, Smith discusses 16th century Spain, while his 19th century focus is Britain, France, Germany, United States and Japan. In essence, his post looks at economic development amongst the Great Powers. While there is some research on industrialization in smaller or more peaceful nations, Smith’s description resembles the ways in which Anglophone historians teach the subject. Historians also seem more interested in economic development of regions that become the core of major nation-states than in those that did not. This makes me wonder, whether the historical narrative is primarily concerned with the Industrial Revolution in terms of how it impacted geopolitics, empires and wars. Put differently, would we teach undergraduates about Rhineland industrialization if Germany had not unified and gone to war with France in 1870 and 1914?

Economic history still has merit if it were to become less concerned with the geopolitical importance of large states. Changing living conditions, economic organization and environmental relationships matter as much if they occurred in smaller states as the cores of large empires. Including smaller states in economic analysis would allow historians to better explore the relationship between political institutions and economic development. A better understanding of living standards and economic development between such regions might also inform current political debates. One example, is the debates over Scottish independence and whether Scots are better off living in a smaller or larger state.

As an eighteenth-century historian, Liège is a particularly interesting example of the relationship between representative political institutions and industrialization. Prior to its 1789 revolution, Liège was an independent state governed by a prince-bishop. Its Estates General was quite powerful, and it may have had the most representative political institutions in all of Europe. I do not know of any political histories of 18th century Liège, so it is both an area worthy of study and difficult to offer more detail on its politics. Meanwhile, Liège was one of the most industrialized regions in the world with its coal, nails, woollen textile and arms manufacturing. It is an open historical question whether Liègeois industrialization was an equal first-mover to the English or the earliest of the second-wave nations. For that reason, it is well worthy of historical study and would help answer the question Smith raises of whether representative political institutions contributed to or resulted from industrial development.

These are a few thoughts that arose from Delong and Smith’s thought-provoking pieces. If readers have any suggestions on how to better study the relationship between political institutions and economic development, I would be interested in hearing them.

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