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Quotation of the Day…

… is from pages 214-215 of David Landes’s often brilliant but uneven 1998 volume, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations:

At the same time, the British were making major gains in land and water transport.  New turnpike roads and canals, intended primarily to serve industry and mining, opened the way to valuable resources, linked production to markets, facilitated the division of labor.  Other European countries were trying to do the same, but nowhere were these improvements so widespread and effective as in Britain.  For a simple reason: nowhere else were roads and canals typically the work of private enterprise, hence responsive to need (rather than to prestige and military concerns) and profitable to users.  This is why Arthur Young, agronomist and traveler, could marvel at some of the broad, well-drawn French roads but deplore the lodging and eating facilities.  The French crown had built a few admirable king’s highways, as much as to facilitate control as to promote trade, and Young found them empty.  British investors had built many more, for the best business reasons, and inns to feed and sleep the users.

These [British] roads (and canals) hastened growth and specialization.

At the time of the industrial revolution, the British state, in fact, did not build a great deal of ‘that’ – a fact that calls into question the notion that economic prosperity requires that infrastructure be built, or even financed, by government.  Also, the other fact highlighted here by Landes – the one about roads in France – shows that the mere building of infrastructure is not itself sufficient to spark economic growth, as well as that political-officials’ motives for building infrastructure are often (I would argue typically) much less aligned with the general welfare than are the motives of private investors who undertake to build roads and other pieces of infrastructure.


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