Adult Mortality and Investment: A New Explanation of the English Agricultural Productivity in the 18th Century

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Citation: Esteban Nicolini (2001) Adult Mortality and Investment: A New Explanation of the English Agricultural Productivity in the 18th Century.




England escaped the Malthusian trap, with living standards and population increasing at the same time, perhaps the first time in history. Widespread idea for cause is increased agricultural productivity, but cause, timing, and intensity of that increase are controversial. Evidence now suggest yields started to improve well before 1760. Yields doubled between 1600 and 1800, with gains concentrated between 1675 and 1740. Land enclosure a well known explanation, but the timing isn't right, having only gained momentum from 1750. From 1600s and first part of 1700s no technical change to cause increased yields. Other explanations include changing relative prices of grains and livestock and introduction of fodder crops, but magnitude not enough to account for increased productivity; and a claim that exogenous decline in interest rate led to longer-term investment in soil fertility.

Author claims:

  • 1700s mortality declined and adult life expectancy began to increase
  • therefore more incentive to save, improved soil, higher production, lower interest rates

Farmers could make a tradeoff between present and future yields by changing the share of land used for grain cultivation (which reduces soil nitrogen) or fallow, grassland, or livestock. Gains from increasing share devoted to grain cultivation turn negative after 16 years. Farmers could also invest in fertility through land preparation, drainage, liming, marling; data suggests they did through the 1700s.

Adult mortality rates decreased from end of 1600s due to changes in epidemiological environment. Longer lifespan linked to economic growth in life cycle hypothesis: savings motivated to smooth consumption throughout life.

Author simulation suggests adult life expectancy increase of 4 years between 1700 and 1800 has substantial impact matching empirical evidence: production per sown acre doubled, overall production increased by 25%, rates of return declined by 35%.