Dec 07 BAKS conference report #4: James B. Lewis

Dr James B. Lewis – University Lecturer in Korean History, Oxford University
Korean expansion and decline from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century: a view suggested by Adam Smith

Abstract: The first price runs for Korean rice help us develop a Smithian physiocratic model to explain the low, stable prices of the eighteenth century and the rising, volatile prices of the nineteenth. Ownership rights provided incentives, and productivity after 1600 exceeded subsistence to achieve rural commercialization. Infrastructure investment from the late seventeenth century promoted development and prosperity, but declining investment, dysfunctional institutions, bad weather, and a population crash pushed the economy towards subsistence in the nineteenth. Decline saw rice monoculture, inflation, and price volatility even before imperialism’s impact. Parallels with China suggest an “East Asian” pre-modern agricultural model.

Notes (the usual caveats about my amateur efforts apply)

  • JL’s talk fleshed out some interesting price data. Relative prices of rice and finished cloth suggested, during the good times, agricultural surplus being invested in other local industry. Price spikes were correlated with particular external events.
  • Price graphs were provided in copper (Korea’s local currency) and silver (the currency which Western economists can relate to).
  • Decline in the late nineteenth century can be attributed to a number of inter-related factors — population fall in the 1820s (cholera, civil unrest); degradation in land productivity (floods, decline in government investment in irrigation infrastructure); declining grain reserves; lack of government tax relief following floods.

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