Can a Smithian Framework Be Used to Analyse the Importance of the Atlantic Economy to the 18th Century British Lead over France?

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Can a Smithian framework be used to analyse the importance of the Atlantic economy to the 18th century British lead over France?

Whilst few historians would seek to denigrate the potency of Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ in continuing to provoke debate, there are many, no doubt, who would question the validity of applying a Smithian framework to account for the impact of the Atlantic economy in establishing British industrial and commercial predominance over France. If we adopt a manifestly reductionist definition of what constitutes a Smithian framework; an expansion of the market allowing for greater trade, a crucial precondition of the division of labour, it becomes not only possible to ‘contextualize those hegemonic models of Smithian growth in which the French failed to embrace competitive factor and commodity markets’[1], as O’Brien has, but also allows for a total rejection of the role of the Atlantic economy in accounting for 18th century British predominance, something O’Brien, Allen[2], North and Weingest[3] have done. Smith, himself, states that although European markets greatly expanded it inevitably results in ‘the shopkeepers and other traders of England [attempting] to secure to themselves the monopoly of [the colony’s] custom’[4] thus ‘[hindering] the capital of that country’[5]. Naturally, with such a definition of what constitutes a Smithian framework it would appear that Atlantic trade actually serves to imperil economic development rather than bolster it. Yet, if a more nuanced definition of what constitutes a Smithian framework is used, which not only takes into account the role of the state in establishing conditions conducive to growth but also the internal theoretical tension inherent in the book itself surrounding the deleterious effects of monopolies versus the likelihood of any nation ensuring their destruction, then it is not only possible to repudiate O’Brien’s contention but it also becomes possible to strengthen the contention of Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson[6].

Yet, O’Brien’s contention, that French industrial growth was inhibited by ‘geographical constraints’, a view which fails to ascribe the role of the Atlantic economy and appears to undermine the validity of Smith’s ideas, is certainly a compelling one. The French climate was, after all, uncongenial to the cultivation of arable crops, an issue made all the more severe by the acidity of the French soil. Agricultural productivity was thus naturally constrained by unfavorable climatic conditions, labour could not, as a result, be released from the land. Any explanation of France’s failure to industrialize predicated on a lack of extra-European trade precluding the division of labour is totally subordinate to the basic issue of the French climate, so unconducive to industrial expansion. It was for this reason, no doubt, that the agricultural productivity of the French trailed the British until 1911 (between 1520 and 1910 labour productivity multiplied 4.7 times in Britain compared to 2.4 in France)[7]. Indeed the revolutionary agrarian settlement doubtless served to further impede growth. Partiable inheritance, coupled with the direct transference of land to the peasantry (13,000 acres where redistributed to 30,000 peasants[8]) served to ensure holdings remained small, requiring greater labour to increase output thus precluding rural-urban migration rates key to industrialization. Evidently, French growth was not, primarily, impinged by an inability to trade with the Atlantic. Expansion of foreign markets would be of no use to French industrialists whose ventures were fundamentally constrained by a fatal concatenation of poor climatic conditions and an unfavourable land settlement denying them of essential labour. British industrial or commercial predominance was thus not secured in the shipping lanes of the Atlantic but in the acidic fields of France.

O’Brien’s view does not, however, preclude the...
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