Introduction: Nature of Economic History
EXCEPT IN THOSE RARE COUNTERPARTS of the Garden of Eden, found principally in the realm of imagination, human beings have always faced the stern reality of limited resources with which to satisfy their seemingly endless needs and wants. Economic history tells the story of the ways by which men have attempted to overcome these limitations imposed by nature, and describes the uses made of the products of their efforts. Discovery of new resources and development of more effective methods of utilizing those already known have made possible an existence well above a subsistence level for a considerable part of the human race; moreover, this improvement has challenged man's ingenuity to extend these benefits to a larger proportion of mankind. But the record of economic history is often less roseate: exhaustion or waste of resources and failure to discover ways of relieving scarcity have reduced or kept incomes below comfort levels for great masses of people and have brought on the tragedies of malnutrition, starvation, and associated evils.
Interest in economic history naturally centers upon the factors that make for change. What are the dynamic elements in economic development? What are the conditioning circumstances that encourage or inhibit change? What forces lead to particular forms of economic institutions? Answers to questions of this type are the principal concern of the economic historian.
In its entirety the process whereby economic institutions emerge is complex, but fortunately the main outlines are reasonably clear. Some capacity to devise different ways of doing things is apparently widespread among members of the human race. If, for any reason, there is dissatisfaction with methods currently in use, new devices will be sought, although the extent to which such attempts will succeed depends in turn upon the conditioning influences of physiographic and social factors. Innovations may die "aborning" if the social environment into which they are ushered is apathetic or openly hostile to disturbance. Contrariwise, they will be given encouragement if current philosophies accept or welcome change--if institutions are flexible and adaptable. Moreover, the capacity for innovation itself will be influenced by the degree to which educational institutions have made general scientific knowledge available. Nor should it be overlooked that physical environment may present an opportunity for the expression of man's ingenuity or may severely limit his attempts in this direction.