Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe

Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe

Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe

Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe

Synopsis

Why did Europe experience industrialisation and modern economic growth before China, India or Japan? This is one of the most fundamental questions in Economic History and one that has provoked intense debate. The main concern of this book is to determine when the gap in living standardsbetween the East and the West emerged. The established view, dating back to Adam Smith, is that the gap emerged long before the Industrial Revolution, perhaps thousands of years ago. While this view has been called into question - and many of the explanations for it greatly undermined - the issuedemands much more empirical research than has yet been undertaken. How did the standard of living in Europe and Asia compare in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? The present book proposes an answer by considering evidence of three sorts. The first is economic, focusing on income, foodproduction, wages, and prices. The second is demographic, comparing heights, life expectancy and other demographic indicators. The third combines the economic and demographic by investigating the demographic vulnerability to short-term economic stress. The contributions show the highly complex and diverse pattern of the standard of living in the pre-industrial period. The general picture emerging is not one of a great divergence between East and West, but instead one of considerable similarities. These similarities not only pertain to economicaspects of standard of living but also to demography and the sensitivity to economic fluctuations. In addition to these similarities, there were also pronounced regional differences within the East and within the West - regional differences that in many cases were larger than the average differencesbetween Europe and Asia. This clearly highlights the importance of analysing several dimensions of the standard of living, as well as the danger of neglecting regional, social, and household specific differences when assessing the level of well-being in the past.

Excerpt

Any evaluation of either the standard of living or subsistence security in eighteenth-century China will have many gaps. Even for China's richest and best documented region—the Yangzi Delta, with roughly 31,000,000 people (using a narrow definition) in the late eighteenth century—there is a great deal we do not know. Nonetheless, as I have argued in more detail elsewhere, what we do know suggests a rough comparability between China and Europe, and between the most advanced areas within each of those two large and varied regions. Most of the additional material that I introduce below tends to confirm this; it also helps us say with somewhat more precision what we still do not know, and where we may still find relatively large differences.

Also at issue, of course, is the relationship between 'standard of living' and subsistence security—a relationship that was becoming increasingly indirect in early modern Europe, as average real incomes rose while the distribution of income became more unequal. Indeed, the chapters by Hoffman et al. (Chapter 6 , this volume) and Allen (Chapter 5 , this volume) strongly suggest that both these trends were more pronounced than we realized, in part because rich and poor consumed different market baskets, whose relative prices underwent very significant shifts. When we add the cost of housing to the standard Phelps Brown price index—which is largely focused on the commodities purchased by the poor—trends in their real income become even more unfavourable in most of Europe's early modern cities. On the other hand, once we add some of the goods and services purchased by wealthier people (in ever-increasing amounts) during the early modern era, it becomes likely that for a significant minority of the population, the standard of living was improving considerably more rapidly than we had realized, raising the overall European average. My own Sino-European comparisons have been centred largely on the poor majority in both societies; and while there were groups of 'middling' and wealthy Chinese who also enjoyed rising fortunes in the eighteenth century, we are nowhere near being able to estimate their numbers. They may have

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.