August 09, 2007

Samurai and the Industrial Revolution

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, ascribes the causes of the Industrial Revolution that occurred first in England around 1800, permitting the population to permanently escape the "Malthusian trap," to not just demographic changes in the human population, but evolutionary changes as well, brought about via the equivalent of "trickle-down" genetics:

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor . . . That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations . . . As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society . . . the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them.

This is not the most politically correct of theories, but neither are the forces of evolution ("red in tooth and claw"). What caught my attention were Clark's ruminations about why "Industrial Revolution did not occur first in the much larger populations of China or Japan." His explanation in the cast of the latter is that the samurai "were surprisingly unfertile and so would have failed to generate the downward social mobility that spread production-oriented values in England."

I think Clark errs here by comparing the Japanese aristocracy directly to the European aristocracy. At least in the case of Japan, the real reasons are very straightforward. Once the population has achieved the necessary levels to sustain an Industrial Revolution, three other factors come into play:

1. Trade (in things and ideas)
2. Stable government
3. But not too stable

Japan and China didn't follow the same growth curve as England because, paradoxically, through long stretches of history, their governments were too stable, their bureaucrats too efficient and close-minded. By the end of the very unstable 16th century, Japan made not only the best steel and the best swords, but the best firearms in the world. It also had a significant Christian population.

In the name of #2, the Tokugawa Shogunate eliminated firearms (the last thing an authoritarian regime needs is a bunch of "great equalizers" floating around) and Christianity, and locked down the country, shutting off trade. But it governed competently enough that the 250 years that followed is remembered as a kind of "golden era." In other words, most people were happy with their lot, and those who weren't (such as the Shimabara Christians) were ruthlessly repressed.

But by the mid-19th century, the regime had become creaky and corrupt. Not surprisingly, the guns and money for the Meiji Restoration came from Satsuma Domain on the southern island of Kyushu, also home to Nagasaki, the only port left open to foreign (western) trade. Satsuma's distance from the capital, its access to foreign trade and ideas, and a healthy amount of smuggling made it one of the wealthiest--and rebellious--domains by the mid-19th century.

The Meiji Restoration itself proves the critical importance of stable--but not too stable--government. One reason for England's success was that its revolutions were never of the scorched-earth variety. Thanks to the military superiority of the Satsuma-backed forces--and the willingness of the Tokugawa Shogun to face reality and yield--the Boshin War was a quick and relatively bloodless contest that left the existing infrastructure intact. When the Meiji government opened up to the west, there was a foundation on which to build and grow.

Actually, Clark's analysis vis-à-vis the samurai holds up when factors other than fecundity are considered. The samurai comprised an unusually large (large for an aristocracy) 8-10 percent of the population, and strict sumptuary laws left lower-class samurai with no good economic options except to push down into the merchant, artisan, and farming classes. Wealthy merchants and artisans in turn reached up through adoption and marriage. With no wars to fight during the Tokugawa Era, many samurai turned to academics, resulting in a large, literate population.

When the feudal class system was abolished in 1873, the well-connected merchants and the educated and politically powerful middle-to-upper class samurai were ideally positioned to take advantage of the new order.

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# posted by Blogger Damien Sullivan
8/09/2007 10:19 PM   
I've seen claims that Japan's the country most likely to have had an Industrial Revolution if left to its own devices. Don't know any detailed reasoning going into that, though they obviously must have been pretty primed.