Using parish records, researchers examine fundamental changes in society following the French Revolution
For millennia, much of the world seemed locked in a Malthusian trap: Whenever new technologies arose, they would deliver increased wealth and, with it, soaring populations. Eventually, the number of people would exceed an economy’s ability to support them, per capita income would decline back to the level of subsistence and individual well-being would stagnate.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that European countries begin to escape this trap, thanks to a steep drop in family sizes — what demographers call “the fertility transition.” With persistently lower fertility rates, societies could translate technological progress into rising per capita incomes rather than soaring populations, paving the way to modernity. Most economists attribute the fertility transition to the Industrial Revolution, which led to widespread literacy and made larger families less economically beneficial.
In a pair of working papers, researchers consider an alternative to this standard view. Using fertility data from across Europe, along with detailed records from a single French village, they suggest that it was a change in cultural values — not in production techniques — that brought about the shift to smaller families, beginning in France. Following this hypothesis, the French Revolution, not the Industrial Revolution, deserves credit for the fertility transition.
The papers “tell the story of how the French became rich by pursuing a model that’s very different from the way the English became rich,” UCLA Anderson’s Romain Wacziarg said in an interview.
The change from Malthusian to post-Malthusian economies, most economists agree, is the key transition in modern history. As society after society shifted from farming to industry to services, their wealth grew, lifespans lengthened and living standards improved. Focusing on the fertility transition, Wacziarg and his co-authors explain how France took a path to development that’s different from the one taken by Great Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began, and by other industrializing countries of the 19th century. In France, the fertility transition came first, the rise in literacy came second and industrialization came last. In Great Britain, this pattern occurred in the exact reverse order.