Ancient Technology and the Wealth of Nations
By Arnold Kling
The finding of this paper is a simple one: centuries-old technological history still matters today. The most surprising part of the finding is just how old the history can be and still matter. Our most robust finding is that technology in 1500 AD matters for development outcomes today, itself remarkably old when we consider that most history discussions of developing countries start with European contact and colonization. Even more surprising is that technology in 1000 BC and 0 AD has a significant effect in many specifications.
This finding is at least suggestive that technology is a strong candidate for being a principal determinant of development; this paper increased our prior weights on technology vis-à-vis competing explanations such as institutions and factor accumulation (not to go to the extreme that those latter things don’t matter)…
What does seem inescapable from this finding (if it is taken at face value despite the caveats) is that development is a very long run process. The tendency of policymakers and international institutions to overemphasize the instruments under their control may have contributed to an excessive weight being placed on the behavior of modern-day governments and development strategies as a determinant of development outcomes.
Pointer from Tyler Cowen, who perhaps can me sort out its relationship to the findings he so breathlessly cited in my preceding post. What they have in common, I believe is that both the labor-quality and the technology-adoption-history view of development imply that it is difficult for outsiders to shape economic development using instruments like aid, capital, or even legal institutions.