The Great Divergence Continues
In 2000, Kenneth Pomeranz wrote a book arguing that without access to New World natural resources and fortuitously located coal, Europe might have been stuck on a path of development more similar to East Asia, thus greatly attenuating the the “Great Divergence” (this is just the book’s title; the famous phrase is never -not even once- used in the actual book) between (Pomeranz is clear that this is his focus here) the leading parts of Europe and the leading parts of East Asia (and, implicitly, that if the leading parts of East Asia had had these advantages, the divergence might have gone the other way -though the former idea is at least somewhat defensible, the latter is much less so). Though many of the points of the book are wrong -food supply in Europe was improving, not under threat, prior to the nineteenth century, and the leading regions of Asia were far behind the leading regions of Europe in non-agricultural productivity, literacy, book production, urbanization, and non-agricultural employment, thus making them more comparable to the lagging regions of Europe than the leading, the horrendous 清 institutional response to European imperialism indicates there was no way China could have successfully began the process of modern economic growth in the absence of European intervention even with the presence of both coal and colonies- there is a more important problem at the heart of the book. The problem with the idea of the “Great Divergence” (Pomeranz uses the phrases “Europe’s divergence from the rest of the Old World” and “East-West” divergence in the actual book), unless it is defined as continuing to today, is that it is not a coherent concept.
Traditionally in scholarship, the Divergence has been understood to be that between the leading parts of Europe (it was Pomeranz who most revived the idea of examining leading regions instead of continents and subcontinents) -Britain and the Netherlands- and the leading parts of China -the lower 長江 region- which peaked in 1961 (Pomeranz also included Japan, but interestingly not Korea, which is never once mentioned in the book, in his analysis of the leading regions of Asia). Yet, in the four decades after 1870, Japan, home to the largest city in the world in 1800, experienced slightly faster GDP per capita growth than Britain, home to the second largest city in the world in 1800, and experienced a massive and lasting jump relative to Britain during WWI. Though the Tokyo region was somewhat behind the lower 長江 region of China in the early nineteenth century in some respects (not all, and arguably not in the most important ones), it was clearly the leading part of Asia as of 1920. Thus, there was no divergence between the leading regions of Europe and Asia at all in the century between 1820 and 1920, or in the 120 years between 1820 and 1940. A divergence between regions that is so easily reversed and lasts for so little time can hardly be called “great” -nobody considers the Anglo-North Italian divergence during the nineteenth century “great”, and there was clearly no North Italo-Japanese divergence (and, indeed, this is the closest comparison between East Asia and the West, as northern Italy shared close similarities with Japan in its pre-Meiji/Italian unification conditions). There was, on the other hand, a divergence between the lagging parts of Europe (e.g., Russia, South Italy, Portugal) and the lagging parts of Asia (there were many) during that time. The economic rise of Europe during the 19th century was clearly not an exclusively British and Japanese phenomenon. Between 1814 and 1914, France, Belgium, Scandinavia, the Netherlands (!!!), the United States, and Germany actually experienced faster growth than Britain. Thus, what must be explained is not merely the rise of Britain, but the economic rise of Western Europe, Japan, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other places (e.g., Singapore, Argentina) as a whole. Once we look at the great difference between Japan and the leading parts of China in the leadup to the beginning of Japan’s rise, the Great Divergence between the leading parts of China and Britain between 1820 and 1936 ceases to remain mysterious.
But if Japan is included as part of the countries diverging away from the darker parts of the world, rather than as one of the darker parts of the world being diverged from by the likes of Britain, when does the Great Divergence end?
One conventional answer to this question might be the immediate postwar era, when Japan, Italy, Austria, and various other countries experienced rapid catch-up to the West. However, this was also precisely the time of the greatest divergence between these countries and the likes of Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and many other Asian countries. Likewise, the rise of South Korea and Taiwan during the 1960s and 1970s was just as much a divergence from Africa, India, the Philippines, China, and even Thailand as it was a convergence between these countries and the developed West. One might think the contemporaneous rises of India, Vietnam, and China marks the end of the Great Divergence -but is not China’s rise simply a great divergence from India, and is not India’s and Vietnam’s rise simply a great divergence between these countries and Pakistan?
The reader might accuse me of playing word games; pointing to the overall amount of global inequality, which seems to have peaked with the Chinese famine in 1961 and have declined steeply since 1990, as indicating whether the world is in a state of great divergence or convergence. But as the forces favoring global economic convergence become exhausted while the fertility gap between the poorest and middle income countries remains, even this decline in global inequality is, in the absence of mass immigration from the poorer nations to the richer ones, not likely to last. As the poorer nations continue to skyrocket in population, it is extremely likely that global inequality will rise between 2020 and 2120 rather than decline, even if the African countries experience some greater degree of convergence with the developed West than they already have. The highest total fertility rates in the world are in Niger and Somalia. The highest outside Sub-Saharan Africa are in Afghanistan. This is highly unlikely to change over the course of the 21st century. If the pattern was the different -if both the poorest and richest nations had the lowest population growth, while the middle income countries had the highest -the growing gap between the poorest and richest nations would be substantially less relevant. But this is by far the least likely possibility over the course of the next hundred years.
During the supposed reversal of the “great divergence” since about 1990, rather than all the peoples of the world hurtling towards the same destination, the situation has been the world sorting itself into a hierarchy on the basis (primarily) of human capital, institutions, and connections, with the peoples near the lowest levels of this hierarchy growing by far the fastest in number, even if sometimes having their poverty to a mild extent alleviated by technological diffusion.
If the “classic” Great Divergence (in the sense of the steeply rising global inequality between c. 1820 and 1961) is to be treated as real, it must be divided into four parts: the first relating to the rise of Britain and similar countries (e.g., the U.S.), the second relating to the early (by global standards) beginnings of modern economic growth in the rest of northwestern Europe, the third relating to the timing of the end of divergence in northern Italy, Japan, Portugal, and Greece, and the beginning of above-British growth in other countries (e.g., Scandinavia, Belgium, France, Russia), and the fourth relating to the rather late timing of convergence in areas with a lot of later potential, such as southern coastal China (which I believe can be attributed entirely to poor institutions and China’s chaotic writing system) -and pseudoerasmus even argues the last is overrated. The late rise of other regions (e.g., India, Africa, and the Middle East) is obviously overdetermined, as is the rapid postwar convergence of the various lagging regions with the developed parts of the West (this actually began in the 1930s in regions with the best prospects for convergence -Finland, the U.S. South, Northern Italy, the USSR, and Japan).
The future of the continuing Great Divergence will, as far as I can currently tell from extrapolating from present trends, be that the lagging regions with the best prospects for convergence begin their convergence with the West the soonest or, if they have already begun it (as is the case with much of Eastern Europe, Bangladesh, and Kenya), will continue it until they reach an (often unimpressive) equilibrium. Those regions having the worst prospects for takeoff (e.g., Haiti, northern Nigeria, and Niger) will undoubtedly experience the latest and, given their low prospects once they finish it, least impressive period of convergence -but they will likely experience continuing modern economic growth after that, though this is not certain. If the prospects in the regions with the worst prospects for takeoff are sufficiently bad, and technology and institutions advance a sufficiently small amount, the Great Divergence between the poorest and richest nations may continue forever, or at least until the limits to growth for the rich countries kick in. The Amero-Haitian divergence has been going on for a long time, and there’s no reason to believe it’ll stop very soon.