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Boom and bust in C19 settler societies

May 10, 2010

Belich, J. 2010 Exploding Wests: boom and bust in nineteenth-century settler societies. In J. Diamond and J.A. Robinson (eds.) Natural Experiments of History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

This chapter is another example of ‘natural experiment’ amenable to historical reconstruction and comparison. In this case, how Anglos and others settled various frontiers.

Study of British ‘West’ neglected, i.e. white dominions of Canada, Oz, NZ, S. Africa. By 1920 had 24 million people, mostly British and Irish, p. 53

Other examples of ‘Wests’ from 1870s  incl. Manchuria, Uruguay, Southern Brazil, and esp. Argentina and Siberia.

Three-phase cycle of boom, bust and ‘export rescue’, p. 55

Booms in these ‘progress industries’ had key elements: (a) creating instant infrastructures, (b) forestry industry, (c) farming and farm-making. Other elements incl. supply of money, immigrants and goods; extractive industries (hunting, whaling), gold and other mineral rushes, …

Why did Anglophone settlement lead the pack? Tentative explanations:

1. growth-prone set of institutions in Britain: common law (protected property rights, debt recovery, eventually patent law), representative gov, non-conformist Protentantism (savings ethic, more cellular and reproducible than Catholicism or Anglicanism), English settlements prone to ‘cloning’ into new autonomous polities.

2. staples thesis: dubious idea that post-1815  rational settlers and investors flooded Anglo-Wests to supply staples. But settler economies ‘built on layers of fiscal corpses, resembling coral insects more than rational actors’, p. 70. Better explanation is the explosive mix of Industrial Revolution and vast resource frontiers. Russia and Spanish America had vast frontiers too, but Industrial Revolution came late to the mainlands.

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