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Rage against the machines: labor-Saving technology and unrest in England, 1830-32


Caprettini, Bruno; Voth, Hans-Joachim (2017). Rage against the machines: labor-Saving technology and unrest in England, 1830-32. CEPR Discussion Papers 11800, Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Abstract

Can the adoption of labor-saving technology lead to social instability and unrest? We examine a canonical historical case, the so-called ‘Captain Swing’ riots in 1830s Britain. Variously attributed to the adverse consequences of weather shocks, the shortcomings of the Poor Law, or the after-effects of enclosure, we emphasize the importance of a new technology – the threshing machine. Invented in the 1780s, it spread during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Using farm advertisements from newspapers published in 66 English and Welsh towns, we compile a new measure of the technology’s diffusion. Parishes with ads for threshing machines had much higher riot probabilities in 1830 – and the relationship was even stronger for machine-breaking attacks. Threshing machines were mainly useful in wheat-growing areas. To establish a causal role for labor-saving technology, we instrument technology adoption with the FAO measure of soil suitability for wheat, and show that this in turn predicts unrest.

Abstract

Can the adoption of labor-saving technology lead to social instability and unrest? We examine a canonical historical case, the so-called ‘Captain Swing’ riots in 1830s Britain. Variously attributed to the adverse consequences of weather shocks, the shortcomings of the Poor Law, or the after-effects of enclosure, we emphasize the importance of a new technology – the threshing machine. Invented in the 1780s, it spread during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Using farm advertisements from newspapers published in 66 English and Welsh towns, we compile a new measure of the technology’s diffusion. Parishes with ads for threshing machines had much higher riot probabilities in 1830 – and the relationship was even stronger for machine-breaking attacks. Threshing machines were mainly useful in wheat-growing areas. To establish a causal role for labor-saving technology, we instrument technology adoption with the FAO measure of soil suitability for wheat, and show that this in turn predicts unrest.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Working Paper
Communities & Collections:03 Faculty of Economics > Department of Economics
Dewey Decimal Classification:330 Economics
JEL Classification:P16, J21, J43, N33
Uncontrolled Keywords:Labor-saving technology, social instability, riots, welfare support, agricultural technology, factor prices and technological change
Language:English
Date:January 2017
Deposited On:09 Feb 2018 09:59
Last Modified:31 Jul 2018 04:14
Series Name:CEPR Discussion Papers
Number of Pages:50
ISSN:0265-8003
OA Status:Green
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2905046

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