‘Life Under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900?’

In the 1950s, the UN noted that poverty was widespread around the globe; worse in countries with high population growth. Did this large gap in living standards emerge in the course of the nineteenth century, when Western Europe and the United States became industrialized, or can it be traced further back in time as initially argued by Adam Smith and Robert Malthus, later by David Landes and many others?
The Eurasia Project on Population and Family History find no support for the view of the classical economists and their followers. We find no evidence that living standards in the populations in China and Japan were systematically lower than in the Italy, Belgium or Sweden. We find no evidence of the East being trapped in a ‘high-pressure equilibrium.’ Instead low fertility within marriage compensated for early and universal marriage in the East, so that overall fertility levels were comparable with the Europe locations we study, and even lower in northeast Japan. Likewise, we find no evidence that the population pressure in the West was relieved by high marriage age and high celibacy rates. Instead, mortality in the West was as sensitive to food price fluctuations as in the East. And as Adam Smith noted, relief systems were better developed in the East than in the West. Where Smith went astray, however, was in his assumption that these relief systems simply encouraged higher fertility and eventually led to greater population pressure. While there was substantial evidence of a role for stronger family and kin obligations in the East, as many observers have noted, our results suggest that these kin networks were anything but egalitarian in their allocation of resources. While it was the workers in the West that suffered in bad years, it was lower ranked members of the household that suffered in the East.
Taken together, we find no evidence that the living standard in the populations in the East was lower than in the West prior to industrialization. Thus the large gap that the UN observed in the early 1950s is likely an outcome of the earlier industrialization of the West. And as the East has become industrialized, the gap narrowed.
While we are hardly the first to challenge the received wisdom about differences in economic development in East and West before industrialization, we do so by application of a fundamentally different set of data and methods from those used before. We use register type longitudinal individual level data, combined with economic data for the various locations. We measure the standard of living by the ability to withstand instant economic pressure taking a dynamic approach. The data and the approach enable us to highlight differences within populations, going beyond comparisons of aggregated measures between populations. As such, we believe our work represents a fundamentally new understanding about differences between East and West.