Why did France lag England (and much much more)..

This is a fascinating interview of Prof John Nye. It is done by Tyler Cowen (who else).

Is John Nye the finest polymath in the George Mason economics department?

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studied physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

He is quite a Polymath..

France vs England:

COWEN: Let’s start with a few questions about France and French economic history. It’s commonly believed that from the 17th through 19th centuries, French per capita income was about 70 percent that of Great Britain. Why was France poorer, if indeed you accept those numbers?

NYE: I think it’s complicated, but the simple story is France was more agricultural. England urbanized much more quickly. France covered a much larger area with a larger population and a much more diverse population than Britain did.

But mostly I’d say the answer has to do with France having lower agricultural productivity and being more heavily rural than England was.

COWEN: And why did it take longer for France to urbanize?

NYE: This is a bigger issue. I think it has a lot to do with their arrangement of their property rights and the difficulties of transferring, of moving people from the land to the cities.

COWEN: Was the backwardness of French agriculture a reason why, to this day, France, in some ways, has better food than Great Britain?

NYE: I’m not sure about that. There’s a lot of discussion about this, but certainly I’d say the regional nature of the agriculture contributed to a lot of what we think of as good food, but it’s not just that.

I’m not going to get into it since that’s really one of these big, long, drawn-out debates in economic history that isn’t fully . . . Basically, nobody quite agrees on some of these issues of why France was behind England, and how much was it behind, if at all.

COWEN: So if the French, during these centuries, are poorer, why are relatively so few of them moving to the New World compared, for instance, to Germans, or British for that matter?

NYE: One of the issues is why aren’t they moving at all to the city in the sense that . . . One way to think about it is that French industrial production is much closer in productivity to English industrial production, that is per capita, whereas French agricultural production, well through the 19th century, is below that of England per capita, or Britain per capita.

Yet there’s a much slower transformation of French agriculture to industry. Some of that may have to do with various cuts of land taxes and regulations that encouraged people to stay on the land and discouraged investment in the cities, but it’s very unclear. It is exactly one of those big puzzles in French economic history that people are still worrying about. It’s not unlike the problem of structural backwardness in a lot of poorer countries today.

Superb bit…

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