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Growth in a Traditional Society: The French Countryside, 1450-1815. (Reviews).

Growth in a Traditional Society: The French Countryside, 1450-1815. By Philip T. Hoffman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. xiv + 361 pp. $19.95).

The invention of economics, 'queen of the social sciences', is usually credited to an eighteenth-century Scotsman. As an academic discipline it has barely been around for a century. And it only started having a serious influence on western government policy after the First World War. Economics is the child of our times.

So it is not surprising that many historians are wary of applying its mathematics and theoretical models to earlier ages. Since its birth, however, there have always been those who have claimed that the logic of economics is universal; that economics was less an invention than the discovery of how human beings, in their material environment, have behaved over the centuries. Peter T. Hoffman is one of these universalists. "It is certainly possible to apply economics to traditional societies," he proclaims without reserve.

If a prize were offered for poetry told in numbers it should go to Peter Hoffman. His management of statistics and his inventiveness in assessing French rural behavior in the early modem era are fascinating. He calculates seventeenth-century crop yields, for instance, by drawing regressions on a Norman seigneurial grain levy. He gauges the effect of Paris's population growth on agricultural innovation through the decline, over two centuries, in standard deviations of local growth rates in the Paris Basin--for growth rates should "close in on one another, as weaker tenant farmers were replaced by dissatisfied landlords." All the while, Hoffman assures us that his main text is "accessible to those who have no quantitative training and no knowledge of economics". By and large, this is true. For those who insist on taking the dip, Hoffman has nonetheless preserved over sixty pages of appendices made up of graphs, algebraic formulas, and regressions with dependent and dummy variables--and the probe of the t-statis tic.

The whole book is built around a single formula for estimating growth, 'Total Factor Productivity'. TFP was invented in the early 1990s by the cliometricians Donald McCloskey and Robert Allen. Applied to 22 different localities in France, and three regions in England and Germany, "it paints," Hoffman tells us, "the clearest picture ever available of the potential for growth in the Old Regime countryside." With his series established, he attempts to identify regions and periods which witnessed growth, and also determine "what caused their good fortune and what spared them from stagnation."

Is it all mathematical fantasy? There are moments when the reader may quiver a little, as when Hoffman decides to base his estimates of factor and product shares in the whole of the Paris Basin--the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries inclusive--on a rare account book discovered on a farm 150 kilometers north of Paris for the year 1765. Now, TFP is based on a ratio of land, labor and capital prices to their costs, weighted by these estimated shares; so one could expect a miscalculation here to be serious. But actually it is not: Hoffman's statistical tests are most convincing.

Behind the numbers lies the $64,000 question, economic growth. It is, admits Hoffman, a "perplexing mystery", indeed the "great enigma of history". Despite--and in many ways because of--all the literature on the subject we have succeeded in creating enormous barriers to our understanding. Hoffman lays the main responsibility on historians who, as I mentioned, are so wary of economics. Particularly guilty are the historians of France, who have developed a kind of 'consensus' that divides the country's past into two periods, traditional and modern. In the first of these--extending to the Enlightenment and beyond--it is usually argued that there was no growth, that the rural economy stagnated: one recognizes immediately the famous vision of a societe immobile, so castigated by American Marxists. But the Marxists themselves, contends Hoffman, have been drawn into the consensus by splitting French history into their own traditional and modern periods, 'feudal' and 'capitalist'. Our confusion over economic growth, thinks Hoffman, begins with this artificial periodization. A self-imposed divide between past and present, traditional and modern, has cut historians off from economic realities.

Hoffman blames the attitude not on Marx--or, at least, so one must suppose by his absence from this book--but Max Weber and, more notably, the economic historian Karl Polanyi. Weber held that the rational calculation of economics was a peculiarity of the modern age and was impossible without modern markets. Polanyi emphasized the insignificance of markets in traditional society, the absence of individualistic profit maximization and the operation of a more community-minded reciprocity devoted to subsistence rather than gain.

Weber "misunderstood the evolution of the West," Hoffman curtly remarks. And Polanyi's portrait of early modern society is "hard to reconcile with actual peasant farming practices at the time."

Hoffman supplies a lot of data to support such statements, data that do prove the relevance of economics, at least in the case of early modern France. Markets for rented land, rural labor and credit for farmers were quite obviously widespread. To suppose that in these conditions individual decision-making--in pursuit of personal gain--was not a dominant motive not only strains credulity but, as Hoffman puts it, insults the intelligence of peasants. It also leads one to seriously underestimate the dynamism of traditional society: Hoffman is fierce with those who have characterized the period 1450-1800 as centuries of stagnation.

But, on stagnation, he has to contend with his own statistics. Anyone flipping through Hoffman's pages of TFP graphs will notice how flat they are; they even show a tendency to dip to the right. Hoffman himself admits that the farms around Amiens were in a prolonged state of 'torpor', that Lorraine was in stagnation', that in the bocages country of the Nantais and Poitou "the trend is grim", that the results for the Beziers properties "are bleak indeed." The Paris Basin--where Hoffman has undertaken a most extraordinary analysis of 39 leases from the cathedral of Notre Dame dating back to the mid-fifteenth century--shows the greatest rate of increase. But even here there are some troubling dips. "The French," notes Hoffman ingenuously, "could not sustain their productivity advances." 'Ceilings' and 'limits' creep into his vocabulary, though he systematically refuses to admit that Malthus could have anything to say on the matter. By the time he has reached his last two chapters Hoffman finds himself, like mos t rural historians before him, explaining stagnation. Even here, however, his comments are always original and revealing. Hoffman, for example, is one of the first historians to provide unshakeable evidence of the systematic way in which war, civil and international, obstructed agricultural growth.

On the relevance of markets and individual decision-making Hoffman is on solid ground. In the first place, he confirms a fact already well-known but not fully digested by the proponents of old harmonious communities: traditional French rural society was terribly violent. The brutality of peasant manners is poignantly demonstrated in Hoffman's discussion of the rural credit market. Creditors would demand payment from those in their debt by 'God's death and blood'; family feuds broke out when reputations over debts were tarnished. These were more than mere anthropological issues, more than matters of honor and status in a community's 'moral code'; they had a hard economic determinant that followed local webs of credit, negotiated between individuals on a face-to-face basis. Ironically, it was expanding markets and the development of intermediaries in the exchange of credit, not the village 'community', which fostered cooperation and greater social harmony.

In fact, one could argue from Hoffman's data that markets encouraged a certain collectivism; the less developed they were, the more rural society was brutal and individualistic. It wasn't, for instance, the poor who benefited most from the rights to common lands, but commercial enterprises trading at distances with herds of sheep and cattle. With land prices soaring, access to the commons was a premium for such enterprises: in the great battle over the commons during the French Revolution, it was--Hoffman shows in several instances--rich traders in livestock who defended the commons, and the poorer tenants who enclosed. In the end, it was the small tenants who won. And that was the beginning of real growth.

Extrapolating still further one might even suggest that it is our modern, 'capitalist' world that has provided the best example so far of peace, harmony and a sense of community: perhaps one day the idea will be put forward that modern, liberal 'capitalism' represents the first genuine case of human collectivism in history.

Hoffman's statistical methods are as brilliant as they are imaginative. His ideas are radical. His book brings a breath of fresh air to a subject that has been for too long dominated by dogma about tradition and modernity. He honors peasants of the past by giving them reason and individuality. He honors generations of rural historians by the depth of his research and reading.
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Author:Dallas, Gregor
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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