How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined Since AD 500

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* Book: The invisible hand?: How market economies have emerged and declined since AD 500. by Bas van Bavel. Oxford University Press, 2016

URL = https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-invisible-hand-9780199608133?

Review

Branko Milanovic:

"The recently published “The invisible hand?: How market economies have emerged and declined since AD 500” (Oxford University Press, 2016, 330 pages) by Bas van Bavel has, like all important books, a relatively simple core theory which Van Bavel, a well-known economic historian teaching at the University of Utrecht, illustrates on five historical examples: Iraq between 500 and 1100, Central and Northern Italy 1000-1500, the Low Countries 1100-1800, England 1800-1900, and the United States 1800-today. (The first three cases are discussed in detailed separate chapters, each running to 50-60 pages, while the last two, to which Western Europe may be appended, are discussed in a single chapter called “Epilogue”).

Van Bavel’s key idea is as follows. In societies where non-market constraints are dominant (say, in feudal societies), liberating factor markets is a truly revolutionary change. Ability of peasants to own some land or to lease it, of workers to work for wages rather than to be subjected to various types of corvées, or of the merchants to borrow at a more or less competitive market rather than to depend on usurious rates, is liberating at an individual level (gives person much greater freedom), secures property, and unleashes the forces of economic growth. The pace of activity quickens, growth accelerates (true, historically, from close to zero to some small number like 1% per year) and even inequality, economic and above all social, decreases. This is the period so well recognized and analyzed by Adam Smith. Van Bavel, in a nod to Braudel, shows that very similar “essors” have existed in the pre-medieval Iraq (then the most developed part of the world), medieval Central and Northern Italy (Florence, Venice, Milan, Genoa..) and on the cusp between the late medieval Europe and early modern period in the Low Countries.

But the process, Bavel argues, contains the seeds of its destruction. Gradually factor markets cover more and more of the population: Bavel is excellent in providing numerical estimates on, for example, the percentage of wage-earners in Lombardy in the 14th century or showing that in Low Countries wage labor was, because of guilds, less prevalent in urban than in rural areas. One factor market, though, that of capital and finance, gradually begins to dominate. Private and public debt become most attractive investments, big fortunes are made in finance, and those who originally asked for the level playing field and removal of feudal-like constraints, now use their wealth to conquer the political power and impose a serrata, thus making the rules destined to keep them forever on the top. What started as an exercise in political and economic freedom begins to look like an exercise in cementing the acquired power, politically and economically. The economic essor is gone, the economy begins to stagnate and, as happened to Iraq, Northern Italy and Low Countries, is overtaken by the competitors.*

As this short sketch shows, Bavel’s theory has many links, or can be juxtaposed, to several contemporary views of economic history. Bavel is dismissive of a unilinear view that regards the ever widening role of factor markets, including the financial, as leading to ever higher incomes and greater political freedom. His view, although not fully cyclical (on which I will say a bit more at the very end of the review) is “endogenously curvilinear”: things which were good originally, when they hypertrophy, become a hindrance to further growth. It is thus a story of the rise and fall where, like in Greek tragedies, the very same factors that brought the protagonists grandeur, eventually hurl them into the abyss." (http://glineq.blogspot.com.es/2017/04/a-theory-of-rise-and-fall-of-economic.html)