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Rage Against the Machines: Labour-Saving Technology and Unrest in England, 1830-32

Bruno Caprettini and Hans-Joachim Voth

No 11800, CEPR Discussion Papers from C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers

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.

Keywords: Labor-saving technology; social instability; riots; welfare support; agricultural technology; factor prices and technological change. (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: J21 J43 N33 P16 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-gro, nep-his and nep-lma
Date: 2017-01
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