Review of Allen’s Institutional Revolution
| Peter Klein |
Institutions in Allen’s view minimize transaction costs, where transaction costs include the costs associated with opportunistic behavior. Transaction costs precluded “first-best” institutions from developing in the pre-industrial world. Instead, apparently inefficient institutions such as tax farming, the sale of offices, and the aristocratic dominance of politics persisted for centuries. Allen argues that these apparently inefficient institutions were, in fact, efficient given the existing configuration of transaction costs. This insight, which builds on the ideas of Yoram Barzel, provides a powerful hypothesis for studying institutional change. Allen places particular emphasis on the importance of measurement. In the high variance pre-modern world, measurement was costly or impossible and consequently bureaucrats, soldiers, sailors, and policemen could not be paid on the basis of observable inputs. Alternative institutions had to emerge to deter opportunism and reward effort. These institutions were often elaborate, and sometimes strange; they involved making the bureaucrats, soldiers, or tax collectors residual claimants of some sort. The story of how these institutions disappeared and were replaced by modern institutions is The Institutional Revolution.
The institutional revolution Allen proposes is linked to the industrial revolution because technological change drove institutional change by reducing measurement costs. Standardization reduced variance. This reduction in variance lessened the possibilities for opportunistic behavior and enabled institutions based around the idea of rewarding individuals for their marginal contribution to emerge.