Knowledge Elites, Inequality, and Economic Growth
| Peter Klein |
An interesting paper from Mara P. Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer examines the role of “knowledge elites” — individuals at the upper tail of the human capital distribution* — in French economic growth around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Key passage:
To measure the historical presence of knowledge elites, we use city-level subscriptions to the famous Encyclopédie in mid-18th century France. We show that subscriber density is a strong predictor of city growth after 1750, but not before the onset of French industrialization. Alternative measures of development confirm this pattern: soldier height and industrial activity are strongly associated with subscriber density after, but not before, 1750. Literacy, on the other hand, does not predict growth. Finally, by joining data on British patents with a large French firm survey from 1837, we provide evidence for the mechanism: upper tail knowledge raised the productivity in innovative industrial technology.
In other words, growth is driven by the knowledge (and, presumably, skills, preferences, and beliefs) of the elites, not the population at large.
Squicciarini and Voigtländer don’t deal directly with the distribution of income and wealth (they do show that regions with higher Encyclopédie subscriber density had higher per-capita incomes), presumably those individuals in the upper tail of the knowledge distribution were also one-percenters in income or wealth. This brings to mind one of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s arguments about inequality, namely that it spurs technological innovation:
[I]t is a commonplace that things which are now provided inexpensively to the many, say spices or the newspaper, were originally luxuries which could be offered only because some few were willing and able to buy them at high prices. It is difficult to say what the economic development of the West would have been . . . if the productive effort had been aimed at providing more of the things needed by all, to the exclusion of a greater variety of things desired by minorities [i.e., elites]. . . . History shows us that each successive enlargement of the opportunities to consume was linked with unequal distribution of the means to consume.
I suspect Squicciarini and Voigtländer’s knowledge elites were largely the same as de Jouvenel’s “minorities” (in a robustness check for reverse causation, Squicciarini and Voightländer use membership in scientific societies as a proxy for knowledge elites, and these scientific societies were the primary producers and consumers of scientific instruments, for example). What would Monsieur Piketty say about this, I wonder?