Towering debts, rapidly rising taxes, constant and expensive wars, a debt burden surpassing 200% of GDP. What are the chances that a country with such characteristics would grow rapidly? Almost anyone would probably say ‘none’.
And yet, these are exactly the conditions under which the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain. Britain’s government debt went from 5% of GDP in 1700 to over 200% in 1820, it fought a war in one year out of three (most of them for little or no economic gain), and taxes increased rapidly but not enough to keep pace with the rise in spending.
Figure 1 shows how war drove up spending and led to massive debt accumulation – the shaded grey areas indicate wars, and they are responsible for almost all of the rise in debt. Over the same period, Britain moved a large part of its population out of agriculture and into industry and services – out of the countryside and into cities. Population grew rapidly, and industrial output surged (Crafts 1985). As a result, Britain became the first country to break free from the shackles of the Malthusian regime.
Until now, scholars mostly thought of the effect of government borrowing on growth as either neutral or negative. One prominent view held that investment in private industry would have been higher had Britain fought and borrowed less (Williamson 1984). Another argument is that private savings decisions undid the potentially negative effects of massive borrowing – because debt eventually has to be repaid, private agents anticipated rising taxes in the future and neutralised the effects of debt accumulation (Barro 1990).
As private financial intermediation was really weak and inefficient, govt debt helped:
The inefficiency of private intermediation is crucial for debt to play a beneficial role. By issuing bonds on a massive scale, the government effectively pioneered a way – unintentionally – to put money in the pockets of entrepreneurs in the new sectors.
How did it do that? Before the availability of government debt, Britain’s rich and mighty – the nobility – overwhelmingly invested in land and land improvements. Status was closely tied to land, but improving it was not a profitable enterprise. Many forms of investment yielded a return of 2% of less. No wonder that noblemen were disenchanted with landed investment: By the 1750s, the first nobles were switching massively out of land and into government debt. The Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel advised: “every landowner ought to have as much property (as his estate) in consols or other securities…” (Habbakuk 1994). Many nobles obliged, shifting into an asset with a superior risk-return profile. As Lord Monson put it: “What an infernal bore is landed property. No certain income can be reckoned upon. I hope your future wife will have consols. . . ” (Thompson 1963).
The shift from investing in liming, marling, draining, and enclosure into government debt liberated resources – labour that could no longer be profitably employed in the countryside had to look for employment elsewhere. Because so much of English agricultural labour was provided by wage labourers, the switch to government debt pushed workers off the land. Unsurprisingly, wages failed to keep pace with output; real wages, adjusted for urban disamenities, probably fell over the period 1750-1830. What made life miserable for the workers, as eloquently described by Engels amongst others, was a boon to the capitalists. Their profit rates continued to rise as capital received an ever-larger share of the pie – while the share of national income going to labour and land contracted. Higher profits spelled more investment in new industries, and Britain’s industrial growth accelerated.
By putting debt at the centre of our interpretation of the Industrial Revolution, we can provide a unified explanation for a number of features that have so far seemed puzzling. Growth was relatively slow, especially in the beginning (Crafts 1985) – but technological change was probably quite rapid (Temin 1997). Government borrowing slowed capital formation on impact – but structural change was rapid over the period as a whole. Rates of return were high in industry, but little capital chased these returns. Wages failed to keep up with productivity despite the rapid move out of the countryside and into the cities. By emphasising how government debt issuance ‘healed’ the negative consequences of financial frictions, we can jointly explain rapid structural change and slow growth; rapid technological change and poor wage growth; massive government borrowing and the first take-off into sustained growth.
Lessons for today:
How much of the situation in industrialising England has any relevance for the world as it is now? Is this a tale from a distant island and period of which we know little – to paraphrase Chamberlain – or does it hold lessons for the present? Financial frictions are still very prominent even in the most developed countries today; changing the profitability of revolutionary sectors should have first-order effects on the long-run rate of growth. The issuance of government debt may still crowd out investment that is, overall, inefficient.
These efficiency-enhancing effects of government debt may be all the more important in developing countries. There, the added benefits of debt that we did not discuss – such as providing a safe store of value, and a certain source of liquidity (Holmstrom and Tirole 1998) – may tilt the overall scoresheet even more in favour of government borrowing. None of this is to say that debts may not become excessive (Reinhart and Rogoff 2009) – but when we consider the dangers of debt, we should keep an eye on its potential benefits as well.
It all boils down to how you use debt. With most govts it is usually wasted and leads to further debt and then an eventual crisis.
Having said that, this aspect of ind revolution is fascinating..