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7.1: The Relatively Recent Arrival of Economic Growth

Let’s begin with a brief overview of the spectacular patterns of economic growth around the world in the last two centuries, commonly referred to as the period of modern economic growth. (Later in the chapter we will discuss lower rates of economic growth and some key ingredients for economic progress.) Rapid and sustained economic growth is a relatively recent experience for the human race. Before the last two centuries, although rulers, nobles, and conquerors could afford some extravagances and although economies rose above the subsistence level, the average person’s standard of living had not changed much for centuries.

Progressive, powerful economic and institutional changes started to have a significant effect in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to the Dutch economic historian Jan Luiten van Zanden, slavery-based societies, favorable demographics, global trading routes, and standardized trading institutions that spread with different empires set the stage for the Industrial Revolution to succeed. The Industrial Revolution refers to the widespread use of power-driven machinery and the economic and social changes that resulted in the first half of the 1800s. Ingenious machines—the steam engine, the power loom, and the steam locomotive—performed tasks that otherwise would have taken vast numbers of workers to do. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, and soon spread to the United States, Germany, and other countries.

The jobs for ordinary people working with these machines were often dirty and dangerous by modern standards, but the alternative jobs of that time in peasant agriculture and small-village industry were often dirty and dangerous, too. The new jobs of the Industrial Revolution typically offered higher pay and a chance for social mobility. A self-reinforcing cycle began: New inventions and investments generated profits, the profits provided funds for new investment and inventions, and the investments and inventions provided opportunities for further profits. Slowly, a group of national economies in Europe and North America emerged from centuries of sluggishness into a period of rapid modern growth. During the last two centuries, the average rate of growth of GDP per capita in the leading industrialized countries has averaged about 2% per year. What were times like before then? Read the following Clear It Up feature for the answer.

Note: What Were Economic Conditions Like Before 1870?

Angus Maddison, a quantitative economic historian, led the most systematic inquiry into national incomes before 1870. His methods recently have been refined and used to compile GDP per capita estimates from year 1 C.E. to 1348. Table 1 is an important counterpoint to most of the narrative in this chapter. It shows that nations can decline as well as rise. The declines in income are explained by a wide array of forces, such as epidemics, natural and weather-related disasters, the inability to govern large empires, and the remarkably slow pace of technological and institutional progress. Institutions are the traditions, laws, and so on by which people in a community agree to behave and govern themselves. Such institutions include marriage, religion, education, and laws of governance. Institutional progress is the development and codification of these institutions to reinforce social order, and thus, economic growth.

One example of such an institution is the Magna Carta (Great Charter), which the English nobles forced King John to sign in 1215. The Magna Carta codified the principles of due process, whereby a free man could not be penalized unless his peers had made a lawful judgment against him. This concept was later adopted by the United States in its own constitution. This social order may have contributed to England’s GDP per capita in 1348, which was second to that of northern Italy.

In the study of economic growth, a country’s institutional framework plays a critical role. Table 1 also shows relative global equality for almost 1,300 years. After this, we begin to see significant divergence in income (not shown in table).

Year Northern Italy Spain England Holland Byzantium Iraq Egypt Japan
1 $800 $600 $600 $600 $700 $700 $700 -
730 - - - - - $920 $730 $402
1000 - - - - $600 $820 $600 -
1150 - - - - $580 $680 $660 $520
1280 - - - - - - $670 $527
1300 $1,588 $864 $892 - - - $610 -
1348 $1,486 $907 $919 - - - - -

Table 1: GDP Per Capita Estimates in Current International Dollars from AD 1 to 1348(Source: Bolt and van Zanden. “The First Update of the Maddison Project. Re-Estimating Growth Before 1820.” 2013)

Another fascinating and underreported fact is the high levels of income, compared to others at that time, attained by the Islamic Empire Abbasid Caliphate—which was founded in present-day Iraq in 730 C.E. At its height, the empire spanned large regions of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain until its gradual decline over 200 years.

The Industrial Revolution led to increasing inequality among nations. Some economies took off, whereas others, like many of those in Africa or Asia, remained close to a subsistence standard of living. General calculations show that the 17 countries of the world with the most-developed economies had, on average, 2.4 times the GDP per capita of the world’s poorest economies in 1870. By 1960, the most developed economies had 4.2 times the GDP per capita of the poorest economies.

However, by the middle of the twentieth century, some countries had shown that catching up was possible. Japan’s economic growth took off in the 1960s and 1970s, with a growth rate of real GDP per capita averaging 11% per year during those decades. Certain countries in Latin America experienced a boom in economic growth in the 1960s as well. In Brazil, for example, GDP per capita expanded by an average annual rate of 11.1% from 1968 to 1973. In the 1970s, some East Asian economies, including South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan, saw rapid growth. In these countries, growth rates of 11% to 12% per year in GDP per capita were not uncommon. More recently, China, with its population of 1.3 billion people, grew at a per capita rate 9% per year from 1984 into the 2000s. India, with a population of 1.1 billion, has shown promising signs of economic growth, with growth in GDP per capita of about 4% per year during the 1990s and climbing toward 7% to 8% per year in the 2000s.


Visit this website to read about the Asian Development Bank.

These waves of catch-up economic growth have not reached all shores. In certain African countries like Niger, Tanzania, and Sudan, for example, GDP per capita at the start of the 2000s was still less than $300, not much higher than it was in the nineteenth century and for centuries before that. In the context of the overall situation of low-income people around the world, the good economic news from China (population: 1.3 billion) and India (population: 1.1 billion) is, nonetheless, astounding and heartening.

Economic growth in the last two centuries has made a striking change in the human condition. Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California, wrote in 2000:

By many measures, a revolution in the human condition is sweeping the world. Most people today are better fed, clothed, and housed than their predecessors two centuries ago. They are healthier, live longer, and are better educated. Women’s lives are less centered on reproduction and political democracy has gained a foothold. Although Western Europe and its offshoots have been the leaders of this advance, most of the less developed nations have joined in during the 20th century, with the newly emerging nations of sub-Saharan Africa the latest to participate. Although the picture is not one of universal progress, it is the greatest advance in the human condition of the world’s population ever achieved in such a brief span of time.

Rule of Law and Economic Growth

Economic growth depends on many factors. Key among those factors is adherence to the rule of law and protection of property rights and contractual rights by a country’s government so that markets can work effectively and efficiently. Laws must be clear, public, fair, enforced, and equally applicable to all members of society. Property rights, as you might recall from Environmental Protection and Negative Externalities are the rights of individuals and firms to own property and use it as they see fit. If you have $100, you have the right to use that money, whether you spend it, lend it, or keep it in a jar. It is your property. The definition of property includes physical property as well as the right to your training and experience, especially since your training is what determines your livelihood. The use of this property includes the right to enter into contracts with other parties with your property. Individuals or firms must own the property to enter into a contract.

Contractual rights, then, are based on property rights and they allow individuals to enter into agreements with others regarding the use of their property providing recourse through the legal system in the event of noncompliance. One example is the employment agreement: a skilled surgeon operates on an ill person and expects to get paid. Failure to pay would constitute a theft of property by the patient; that property being the services provided by the surgeon. In a society with strong property rights and contractual rights, the terms of the patient–surgeon contract will be fulfilled, because the surgeon would have recourse through the court system to extract payment from that individual. Without a legal system that enforces contracts, people would not be likely to enter into contracts for current or future services because of the risk of non-payment. This would make it difficult to transact business and would slow economic growth.

The World Bank considers a country’s legal system effective if it upholds property rights and contractual rights. The World Bank has developed a ranking system for countries’ legal systems based on effective protection of property rights and rule-based governance using a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 being the lowest and 6 the highest rating. In 2013, the world average ranking was 2.9. The three countries with the lowest ranking of 1.5 were Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Zimbabwe; their GDP per capita was $679, $333, and $1,007 respectively. Afghanistan is cited by the World Bank as having a low standard of living, weak government structure, and lack of adherence to the rule of law, which has stymied its economic growth. The landlocked Central African Republic has poor economic resources as well as political instability and is a source of children used in human trafficking. Zimbabwe has had declining growth since 1998. Land redistribution and price controls have disrupted the economy, and corruption and violence have dominated the political process. Although global economic growth has increased, those countries lacking a clear system of property rights and an independent court system free from corruption have lagged far behind.

Key Concepts and Summary

Since the early nineteenth century, there has been a spectacular process of long-run economic growth during which the world’s leading economies—mostly those in Western Europe and North America—expanded GDP per capita at an average rate of about 2% per year. In the last half-century, countries like Japan, South Korea, and China have shown the potential to catch up. The extensive process of economic growth, often referred to as modern economic growth, was facilitated by the Industrial Revolution, which increased worker productivity and trade, as well as the development of governance and market institutions.


Bolt, Jutta, and Jan Luiten van Zanden. “The Maddison Project: The First Update of the Maddison Project Re-Estimating Growth Before 1820 (Maddison-Project Working Paper WP-4).” University of Groningen: Groningen Growth and Development Centre. Last modified January 2013.

Central Intelligence Agency. “The World Factbook: Country Comparison GDP (Purchasing Power Parity).”

DeLong, Brad. “Lighting the Rocket of Growth and Lightening the Toil of Work: Another Outtake from My ‘Slouching Towards Utopia’ MS....” This is Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality (blog). September 3, 2013.

Easterlin, Richard A. “The Worldwide Standard of Living since 1800.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives. no. 1 (2000): 7–26.

Maddison, Angus. Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

British Library. “Treasures in Full: Magna Carta.”

Rothbard, Murray N. Ludwig von Mises Institute. “Property Rights and the Theory of Contracts.” The Ethics of Liberty. Last modified June 22, 2007.

Salois, Matthew J., J. Richard Tiffin, and Kelvin George Balcombe. IDEAS: Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Impact of Income on Calorie and Nutrient Intakes: A Cross-Country Analysis.” Presention at the annual meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, Pittsburg, PA, July 24–26, 2011.

van Zanden, Jan Luiten. The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000–1800 (Global Economic History Series). Boston: Brill, 2009.

The World Bank. “CPIA Property Rights and Rule-based Governance Rating (1=low to 6=high).”

Rex A. Hudson, ed. Brazil: A Country Study. “Spectacular Growth, 1968–73.” Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1997.


contractual rights
the rights of individuals to enter into agreements with others regarding the use of their property providing recourse through the legal system in the event of noncompliance
Industrial Revolution
the widespread use of power-driven machinery and the economic and social changes that occurred in the first half of the 1800s
modern economic growth
the period of rapid economic growth from 1870 onward
rule of law
the process of enacting laws that protect individual and entity rights to use their property as they see fit. Laws must be clear, public, fair, and enforced, and applicable to all members of society