9. The Pre-Modern Malthusian World - Readings

Required Readings:

James Scott is a political scientist and anthropologist who specializes in agrarian and non-State societies. This is one of several provocative books, but the main contribution of this particular book (and chapter) is to highlight the lack of state capacity and its implications. It will really give you a detailed description of how States require “legibility” to command and control resources, and just how illegible societies really are, particularly before the rise of powerful States. I also strongly recommend Slate Star Codex’s review of the book (see below) to give you the full picture in an accessible manner.

Second, Mancur Olson’s work is a very famous model that describes the different incentives of dominant groups that wield political power (i.e. the State) and how that affects economic development. Think about how Acemoglu and Robinson’s inclusive vs. extractive institutions fit into Olson’s model (which came first).

Overall, we will be considering economic history from the very beginning of human society up through the modern era. This was characterized by Malthusian population pressures, so we will explore this as well.

Silly as it is, I recommend watching Bill Wurtz’ amazing “history of the entire world i guess,” to give you some proper context of the broad stretches of history we’ll ultimately be covering.

Additionally, as Malthusian pre-modern economies are primarily subsistence agriculture, we should consider the impact that farming has had on humans. See Jared Diamond’s provocative argument for all the downsides of the Neolithic Revolution (the human transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled agriculture about 12,000 years ago). This also fits into Olson’s argument.

The last two are podcasts on the Simon-Ehrlich wager. The first (Planet Money) is a good description of what happened, the second (Economics Detective Radio) is a great interview with an economist working on what might have happened for the second proposed sequel to the bet (and gets into the differences Ehrlich and Simon had in worldviews).

Primary Sources

Questions to Read For: