Monday, December 5, 2011

Douglas W. Allen's "The Institutional Revolution"

Douglas W. Allen is the Burnaby Mountain Professor of Economics at Simon Fraser University in Canada. He is the author of numerous books, including The Nature of the Farm: Contracts, Risk, and Organization in Agriculture.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Institutional Revolution: Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World, and reported the following:
Travel back in time 150 years to Victorian England or the United States, and you’ll have no problem understanding the institutions of the day. Transportation and health would have been somewhat poorer, but you would recognize the institutional apparatus as modern. The same could not be said if you travelled back 250 or 350 years. You would have no clue of the institutional context most were operating under.

Prior to the turn of the 19th century there was a strong class structure and a vast gulf between them. Certain people dueled to the point of death over the slightest social blunders. There were no police, but townsmen volunteered as watchmen. Cities had walls and gates with their keepers. Roads were private, and wannabe soldiers paid good money to be an officer. Punishments were severe, monitoring was limited, and rewards often high. There were servants more than laborers. Most public services were up for sale. And on and on.

The Institutional Revolution explains why the Western world transformed institutionally between 1780-1850. The basic answer lies in measurement. Prior to 1800 it was either impossible or meaningless to measure many basic things like time or distance. As a result, the modern concept of meeting at a certain time and place, had little meaning in many situations. This problem lead to institutions to manage affairs under these conditions. When these measurement problems were solved, the modern world emerged.

Page 99 is at the end of the chapter on dueling. Dueling was used as a method of testing whether or not marginal aristocrats could be trusted. This explanation of dueling explains why it arose, why it fell away, and why it had so many strange rules. Page 99 is explaining why dueling was more lethal in the United States compared to Europe.
Learn more about The Institutional Revolution at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue