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LIVING STANDARDS, CHAPTER 3 IN A FAREWELL TO ALMS

LIVING STANDARDS, CHAPTER 3 IN A FAREWELL TO ALMS - 3...

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45 3 Malthusian Era Living Standards (Tierra del Fuego, 1832) These poor wretches were stunted in their growth.…. If a seal is killed, or the floating carcass of a pu- trid whale is discovered, it is a feast; and such miserable food is as- sisted by a few tasteless berries and fungi (Darwin, 1839, ---). (Tahitian, 1769) These happy people may almost be said to be exempt from the curse of our forefather; scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweat of their brow when their cheifest sustenance Bread fruit is procurd with no more trouble than that of climbing a tree and pulling it down (Banks, 1962, 341). The logic of the Malthusian economy is clear. There should be no systematic gain in living standards on average across societies between earliest man and the world of 1800 on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. Disease, war, infanticide and customs regulating marriage and sex could elevate material living standards. But on balance the happy circumstances that made for Tahiti in 1769, or the unhappy ones that made for Tierra del Fuego in 1832, were no more likely in 1800 as in 100,000 BC. In this chapter I consider the empirical evidence for this first crucial contention of the Malthusian model of society. Were material living standards truly no better on average in 1800 AD than in 10,000 BC or even 100,000 BC? Real Wages before 1800 Since the poorest half of any society typically lives on their wage alone, without any property income, measures of real wages
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46 provide a good index of living standards in any society. However comprehensive measures of wages are available for only a few societies before 1800, and only in a few rare cases can we get good measures as early as 1200. Pre-industrial England, however, has a uniquely well docu- mented wage and price history. The relative stability of English institutions after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and the early development of markets, allowed a large number of documents with wages and prices to survive. Using these we can estimate of nominal wages, the prices of consumption goods, and thus real wages, for England back to 1209. To set the context here, 1209 was in the reign of the famously “bad” King John, just six years before he was forced by the barons to codify their rights in the Magna Carta of 1215. Figure 3.1 shows the real day wage of building laborers and farm workers in England by decade from 1200 to 1809 as an index with 1800-9, at the end of the Malthusian Era, set at 100 for farm workers. The real wage is just a measure of how many units of a standard basket of goods these laborers could buy with one day’s earnings through these 60 decades. 30 The composition of that basket of goods is shown in table 3.1. It was determined by expenditure studies done for farm workers and others in the 1790s, a decade in which the poverty of farm workers had become an issue of some concern because in part of the growing burden of the Poor Laws.
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