The term economics is derived from the Greek words oikos (house) and nomia (law). In ancient Greece, it was used to describe the management of the household. Today, the word is used in a much broader sense and describes the complex interactions of economic systems, including the production and exchange of goods and services. Economic evolution through time represents the different transitions from a subsistence economy, where people tried to satisfy only their basic needs, to today’s highly industrialized and globalized economy. The evolution of economics as a social science attempts to describe the most influential persons, concepts, and theories in order to give some fundamental answers to the basic question: Why did it happen? Economic evolution, from prehistoric roots to the modern world, has been a multilinear process. However, complex developments may be broken down to several main milestones in human economic history. The starting point is the prehistoric developments that began the step-by-step economization of human life.
About 1.6 million years ago, the emergence of Homo erectus, a predecessor of the modern human, can be considered as the initial point for prehistoric economic development. Homo erectus was the first human who was able to use fire, which changed the life of prehistoric humans in a tremendous way: Apart from offering a better and a new method of hunting animals, fire also allowed for cooking meat. This then resulted in better nutrition because it made meat easier to chew and to digest. In addition to the use of fire, the creation of different tools made of stone and wood was an important characteristic of Homo erectus life. This reflected the ability to adapt to different needs and to the changing climate conditions of the Ice Age. Because they were foragers, their economic life consisted of hunting wild animals and gathering wild fruits and roots for only their own needs (subsistence economy). At this stage, there was no private property, and mobility was the key to consistently supplying the members of the community with food. It can be assumed that the foragers were already able to develop hunting strategies, which were realized in small groups of about 30 people. Tasks like observing, hunting, and carving could then be allocated among the different group members; this can be considered as an early form of the division of labor. Another advantage of organization in small groups was the possibility of hunting bigger animals to gain more meat with less effort. Hence, foragers already had to be efficient, productive, and innovative to survive.
The First Agricultural Revolution
From about 15,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE another economic transition took place: Specialized economic forms emerged in different geographic areas as a response to the various climate conditions marking the precondition for the development of early civilizations. Tools and weapons became more sophisticated, making hunting easier and more efficient, for example, with the use of bows and arrows, lances, or other longdistance weapons. Moreover, the foragers started cultivating plants or domesticating animals, and overproduction was stored. Hence, the economy changed slowly but consistently from subsistence to bartering and from a possessive to a productive economy. The improvements in food production led to higher population densities and to a change from nomadic to a more sedentary life. As a result, humans were no longer restricted solely to the locally given resources of nature but also created the environment themselves. Fostered by temperate climatic conditions about 8,000 years ago, fertile soil was created, and agriculture became the dominant economic form. Additionally, grazing land and water promoted the development of a high population density, which was the starting point of early civilizations. Food production was no longer driven by coincidence but by the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals. The advantages of having a meat supply are obvious. Besides meat, other products could be gained, like wool, skins, and bones. However, agriculture was a seasonal activity, and the increasing demand for food due to the growing population resulted in strategies to stabilize the food supply. This resulted in new types of storage, transportation, and the development of lasting agricultural techniques. Consequently, the exchange of goods (e.g., nutrition, tools, and raw materials) was no longer limited to the immediate vicinity; the first interregional trade routes can be determined by archaeological findings. One example is the Fire Stone Route between Bohemia and Bavaria, dated about 7,000 years ago with a distance of 250 kilometers. However, these trade connections were, for the time being, of small importance. The revolutionary steps were to take place in agriculture.
The invention of irrigation systems and the plow, about 6000-5000 BCE in Mesopotamia and Egypt, can be seen as the First Agricultural Revolution (sometimes still called the Neolithic Revolution, even though it had been neither neolithic nor a revolution in the view of many prehistorians). The farmers were now able to dig up the soil, and the use of axes enabled them to clear the fields of wild plants and brushwood, which increased the efficiency of agricultural production. New technologies of storage were invented, like grain bins or jars, that allowed the people to retain the surplus of a harvest for lean times or to trade it against other goods and services. Pottery also played an important role for storage, plates, mugs, cooking tools, and art. Pottery was produced as early as 8000 BCE, but the invention of a fast rotating potter’s wheel about 4000 BCE made pottery products one of the earliest mass products. Another innovation was animal domestication. Even though it is not quite clear how the domestication of animals began, the domestication of wolves to dogs, of wild to domestic goats and sheep, of aurochs to cows, and wild cats to domestic cats can be estimated to have occurred about 10,000 to 7000 BCE. A few millennia later, about 4000 BCE, horses and donkeys were domesticated. Not only were domesticated animals used for meat, wool, or milk supply, but they also played an important part in specialized tasks, such as plowing or transporting. As a result, agriculture and animal production became an important driver for the emergence of chiefdoms and the world’s first states. Building permanent houses instead of using temporary camps as in of earlier times, resulted in stronger social links among the villagers, enhancing the development of human social complexity. Reciprocity and kinship ties became more important in agricultural societies, as it was no longer possible to move away in cases of social disputes. Additionally, the reciprocal networks of a clan’s members helped them to survive in cases of crop failures or other emergencies, knowing that they would get assistance in turn if they would need it one day. The farming societies relied also on trade and exchange, as many commodities were not locally available.
Thus people who controlled the exchange networks were able to gain power and to become chiefs of the interconnected village societies. Whereas early forms of farming societies have been egalitarian without a social hierarchy, the new and more complex societies were under the control of the chief and his family, creating an elite. Inequality, with usually two or sometimes even three tiers of hierarchy, became common for these prestate societies. However, chiefdoms were a relatively unstable form of social organization, as leadership did not necessarily pass from one generation to another. Consequently, it was often a system of collapse and renewal. Chiefdom societies (e.g., Thy in Denmark/Northern Europe about 2300 BCE) emerged almost everywhere in the world, but none of them was able to gain control over more than a local or regional area. Thus state- organized societies must have had some institutional advantages, being economically superior to chiefdoms over time.
The Urban Revolution
Another technological breakthrough was the invention of metallurgy (e.g., copper, bronze, and iron) in approximately 4500 to 3000 BCE, making possible the invention of a wide range of new, improved tools, thus enhancing efficiency even further. New professions, such as craftsmen, arose, and the division of labor advanced. However, the new exotic raw materials were not accessible everywhere; this resulted in an intensification of long-distance trade. All this was the fruitful environment of what is sometimes called the Urban Revolution. The increasing complexity and the growing interactions would have required a certain form of organization to be efficient. This resulted in the formation of cities and, later, state- organized societies.
The first cities and state-organized societies came into existence between 4000 and 3000 BCE in Egypt and southern Mesopotamia, which is commonly referred to as the origin of civilization and was later the home of the Sumerians. Characteristic of civilized societies are literature, religion, and monumental structures (e.g., the pyramids). Being central in their respective regions, a city had the task of providing services to its citizens and to the surrounding area, being itself dependent on the food production of the rural area. Centralized institutions were necessary to organize the different needs, such as infrastructure or security. Whatever the complex factors that led to state- organized societies, they changed the way of life in a tremendous way. Development was not limited to new inventions such as complex irrigation systems, the wheel, or transportation by water, but led to institutional changes like state religion, taxation, and legislation. People such as priests, state executives, and soldiers could be taken out of the production process to serve society. Capital could be accumulated, which could then be spent for monumental architecture, for military purposes, or for the infrastructure. States therefore played an important role in the new economies. They purchased goods and services with tax revenues, employed people, and regulated commerce.
Additionally, pictography as a form of script was first used in Mesopotamia and was the basis for the cuneiform writing developed later by the Sumerians. Writing was another cornerstone in the economy, as it allowed formal record keeping and advances toward science and mathematics. Thus class societies evolved with some people forming the elite, accompanied by an increasing demand for luxury goods, which were often exchanged by long-distance trade (e.g., gemstones sourced by the Sumerians from the Indus Valley civilization). A famous ancient trade route was the European Amber Route, which led from Northern Europe to Italy. As important as these trade connections were for increasing wealth and enhancing economic growth, the instability in terms of the rise and fall of ancient states and cities resulted in unstable trade connections, both in domestic markets and in foreign trade.
Despite the remarkable progress made by these early civilizations, the subsequent era of classical antiquity, with its unique features, nevertheless represents a major shift toward civilization and has been most influential for the evolution of the Western world.
Economy of Classical Antiquity
The beginning of ancient Greek and Rome society, about 800 BCE up to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, marked the era of classical antiquity. Between 750 and 500 BCE the Greek states Sparta, Corinth, and Athens were on the rise, and democracy as a new form of state organization came into being. Even though democracy played only a rudimentary role in ancient Rome, the Roman Empire is known for establishing a code of law as the basis for a legal system and—when further developed—a constitutional state. Democracy and a trustworthy legal system are the foundations of modern civilization and economic growth, as they guarantee political, legal, and economic stability. Additionally, the first coin in ancient Europe was embossed about 650 BCE in Lydia (China had been using coin money since 2000 BCE). Earlier, noncoined forms of money of various kinds, like shell money, salt, or crops, were used to pay for goods and services. The advantages of exchanging goods for money instead of other goods include easy countability, less transportation, and suitability for storage. As a result, money facilitates transactions in the economy and is therefore a driver of economic development.
Philosophy evolved in ancient Greece, with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as its most famous exponents. Philosophers reflect human thinking and behavior with the aim to explain why the world and human beings exist. The theories of the ancient philosophers therefore built the basis for the worldview of the occident so that they developed even up to now. But, philosophy can also be seen as the earliest predecessor of economics as a social science. Aristotle, for example, gave economics its name (oikonomia). In his view, economics has the task to ensure the survival or subsistence of human beings. Thus it has only an assisting function for the well-being of a society. Besides expounding the importance of economics for a society as a whole, Aristotle also developed a monetary theory. Money, he recognized, can be used as a medium of exchange, as a measure of the value of a certain good, and as a measure for the intensity of wants and needs. According to his theory, money also has an intertemporal function, as it is possible to save it for future investments. It allows for the taking out of loans, which means that people can satisfy their needs now and pay for them later. Last but not least, Aristotle attributed a social function to money in the sense that without trade money, neither barter nor community is imaginable. Aristotle’s seminal work on justice is likewise notably for economics. He was one of the first to develop a comprehensive theory of justice. His concepts of distributive justice (in Latin, iusti- tia distributiva) and commutative justice (iustitia commutativa) continue to influence social thinking. He realized that economic growth and fair distribution are the cornerstones of social living, thus linking economics and morality.
In classical antiquity, highly differentiated empires emerged in Greece, Rome, and China and were associated with an intensified intercontinental long-distance trade. The Silk Road, for example, an 8,000-kilometer ancient trade route on land and sea between China and the Mediterranean, shows that various goods like spices, gold, gemstones, ivory, glass, porcelain, and—where the name comes from—silk were traded bidirectionally. Not only were goods exchanged but also aspects of culture, religion, and information. Silk was nevertheless the most demanded luxury good by the Roman elite. However, safety was a crucial issue in ancient times, as pirates held up the caravans. Despite harsh conditions concerning safety, climate, and geographic barriers, the Silk Road was an important achievement of the ancient world, especially in terms of economic growth for the connected states, and it can be seen as an early form of globalization.
Besides, the early Romans recognized the benefits resulting from a good infrastructure. The construction of roads helped link together the far-reaching provinces of the growing empire, which accelerated the flow of information and supplies and facilitated the relocation of troops.
From the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution
After the fall of the Roman Empire, political and economic instability were the dominant features of the early Middle Ages. Those people who lived in a city for a certain period lost their status as serfs and were released from doing compulsory labor. Searching for liberty, many people migrated into the cities, fleeing from their lords and seeking better working conditions in the 13th and 14th centuries. In return, cities had to organize their markets and ensure safety. However, the intensified creation of marketplaces, which brought together supply and demand for goods, had helped boost trade connections among the medieval cities. The right to hold markets (“market rights”) was usually restricted to cities with town status, that is, cities with certain privileges. Both market rights and privileges boosted the attraction of cities as working and living environments. Because of the growth of cities, the increasing demand for goods had to be satisfied. Thus certain occupation groups, like craftspersons and salespersons, syndicated into guilds. Guilds limited the access to their professions, as professionalism depended on the membership of the appropriate guildsman. As a consequence, guilds were able to restrict competition and keep prices high, which contradicts the economic concept of free markets. Accordingly, guilds succeeded in building power as they participated in municipal councils, which were responsible for trade legislation or regulation. In some areas the economic and political power of the guilds was used to create monopolies or even to take over the control of some cities. Famous examples are the Hanseatic League or the Fugger dynasty; both were able to dominate the commerce in northern Europe from the 13th to the 17th centuries. During that time, the city-states in northern Italy, like Venice, Florence, and Genoa, became the center of economic power in Europe. Their seaports were important trade connections between the Occident and the Orient, and to Africa, so that they could act as intermediary traders. Venice, for example, established a power monopoly with salt, which was a highly demanded good, as it was used for conserving meat and fish. While wealth and capital accumulation increased dramatically, the need for banks as an intermediary was also growing. Thus the foundations of a modern banking system with bookkeeping, cashless transactions, and new institutional structures were set in northern Italy in the late Middle Ages.
The era of transition from the Middle Ages to modern times is generally called the Renaissance, which took place between late 14th century and the 16th century, depending on the country. Art and education flourished as rich patrons supported artists like Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo Buonorroti. It was now feasible to draw more natural images and to paint more realistic copies of reality. Humanism became the leading idea of the Renaissance, driven by the thought that each human being is responsible for his or her own fate. Additionally, in 1450, the invention of movable-type book printing by Johannes Gutenberg is also considered one of the preconditions for the transition to modern times. It now became possible to print large numbers of books, thus driving the acceleration of knowledge transfer in Europe. Simultaneously, huge efforts were made to discover new land and resources by sea, driven by increasing imperialism. In 1492 the explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the New World (in fact, the Vikings landed on American ground around 1000 CE, and there is some evidence that 12,000 years ago Asiatic clans migrated over the Bering Strait and all the way to South America). However, all these events took place in the 15th and 16th centuries, which is sometimes called the Commercial Revolution.
Seeking economic expansion, European states tried to found colonies throughout the world and to link them together for international trade networks. Some historians argue that globalization, a concept used today to describe intensified international cross-links, can be attributed to developments in the 15th century. The discovery of the sea route to India by Portuguese explorers is another example of expanding international trade. Spices like pepper, cloves, and cinnamon, which were unavailable in Europe but of high value not only for flavoring food but also for medication or for conservation of food, were conveyed directly through the new sea route. From an economic point of view, the sea route broke the Venetian monopoly as an intermediary, which then resulted in lower prices. Demand and supply increased, enhancing economic growth. Lisbon and Antwerp were especially able to benefit from the new sea routes, establishing them as the new financial and commercial centers of Europe. Consequently, the first stock exchange was established in Antwerp in 1531. Later, Amsterdam became the new economic power and financial center until the Industrial Revolution.
Besides trade, important advances took place in the field of science around 1600, which is now referred to as the Scientific Revolution. The prevailing theories about physics and astronomy were revised, supported by inventions like the microscope and the telescope.
All of the previously mentioned developments were results of the so-called preindustrialized civilization, as they are based mainly on manual labor rather than the use of industrial techniques run by fossil fuels. The Second Agricultural Revolution prepared the ground for a drastic change in production techniques, which is known as the Industrial Revolution.
Second Agricultural Revolution
Not until centuries later did advances in agricultural techniques in Britain prepare the ground for the modern world. Taking place in the 18th century and also referred to as the British Agricultural Revolution, a series of developments resulted in an enormous increase in agricultural productivity. The selective breeding of livestock, enclosure (i.e., the conversion of common land to private ownership), and new farming systems such as crop rotation instead of the three-field system (e.g., wheat and barley in two, with the third fallow) and the cultivation of higher-yielding crops boosted the output of food. Furthermore, in 1840, the invention of mineral fertilizer by the German chemist Justus von Liebig also enhanced agricultural productivity. Thus the food surplus was now remarkably sustainable and able to keep pace with the expanding population, contradicting the influential views on population growth by the British economist Thomas Robert Malthus. In his “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798), Malthus developed the theory that population increases at a geometric rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.), whereas the food supply grows only via an arithmetic sequence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.). Hence, population growth, if uncontrolled, will unnecessarily lead to famine. However, Malthus failed to recognize the human ability for substantial technological advances, which took place as described earlier. As food output rose, fewer workers were needed for agricultural production, making them now available for industry.
Technological improvements in agriculture enhanced industrialization and vice versa. This transition from an agricultural to an industrial society is also known as the Industrial Revolution, which had its starting point in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Even though the complex factors that caused the Industrial Revolution are still a topic of debate, it can be assumed that changes in the social and political system were also helpful for the emergence of the industrial economy. The end of feuDalíism; colonial expansion; advances in medicine, accompanied by lower infant mortality and fewer epidemics; and local resources of coal, iron, and copper all resulted in excellent conditions for the development and expansion of the industrial sector. Thus Britain could be considered a relatively open society, allowing for the formation of a large middleclass society with the opportunity of social advancements. Entrepreneurship and the willingness to invest were high as capital accumulation rose. Additionally, a Protestant work ethic (or Puritan work ethic) influenced by Calvinism emphasized the necessity of an ascetic lifestyle. Economic success and the accumulation of wealth were seen as signs of personal salvation. The theoretical framework for the Protestant work ethic was later developed by the German sociologist and economist Max Weber (1864-1920). Liberalism became the dominant principle for the economic order, influenced by the seminal work of the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790). His influential treatise “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (1779) is commonly referred to as the rationale for capitalism and as a precursor to the academic discipline of economics, also called political economy. According to Smith, free trade and free markets will, in time, lead to the most efficient outcome in the sense that the right amount of various goods will be produced. There seems to be an “invisible hand” that brings together supply and demand, keeping prices low and therefore maximizing society’s welfare. The economic concept of capitalism requires the private ownership of resources (i.e., labor, capital, land), assuming that everybody strives for profit maximization. Then, the allocation and distribution of goods is accomplished efficiently only by the market itself. Smith was opposed to guilds and government interventions (e.g., tariffs), even though he believed the state must play an important role by setting the legal and political frameworks for free markets and by providing goods, like public education or an army.
The complex interactions of geographical, economic, political, and social structures provided a fruitful base for the British Industrial Revolution. Here, it started with the mechanization of textile industries, especially the processing of cotton. In 1733 the clock maker John Kay (1704-1780) invented the flying shuttle, which carried the weft yarn mechanically from one side to the other with more speed and higher accuracy than it was previously done by hand. Hence, the speed of weaving accelerated and worker productivity more than doubled. As a result, the production of yarn posed a bottleneck problem, as it could not keep pace with the accelerated speed of weaving. New spinning machines were therefore necessary to solve this problem. First, James Hargreaves with his hand-operated spinning jenny (1764) and later Richard Arkwright with his water frame (1771)—a water-powered spinning machine—revolutionized the fabrication of cotton yarn. But it was Samuel Crompton who achieved a breakthrough in industrial yarn production by inventing the spinning mule in 1774—a combination of the spinning jenny and the water frame. These inventions marked the beginning of industrial mass production. Instead of small spinning and weaving companies, multilevel factories emerged. The cotton industry became the crucial sector and set the pace for economic expansion. Additionally, the factory as a new working environment was established. Although the textile industry played an essential role in driving the economy, other inventions and developments were important: First, the discovery of bituminous coal led to improvements in iron making. Second, both growing demands for resources and increasing trade required the expansion of roads, canals, and, later, railway networks (the first steam locomotive began operation in 1804). Last but not least, technological improvements in the steam engine were also a major source of economic growth. In 1769, James Watt succeeded in stopping the enormous energy loss inherent in early types of steam engines, thus improving the effectiveness and power output of these machines. Initially employed in mining to pump out water, the Watt steam engine was then used in other industries such as mills, breweries, and all kinds of factories, as it was able to produce mechanical work to a virtually unlimited extent. It is worth noting that industrialization occurred worldwide—even though at different times and with variations in length and process—and represented a major shift in human history. The gradual replacement of human hands by fossil fuels changed not only the technological but also the social and cultural conditions. More and more people migrated into the cities to find jobs; this resulted in an excess supply of labor, forcing workers to accept low wages and poor working conditions. Thus women and even children had to work for starvation wages to support their families. Moreover, the high migration into the cities caused a housing shortage and fostered the formation of slums.
Driven by these social grievances, the German philosopher and political economist Karl Marx (1818-1883) developed the economic concept of communism. In his theory, capitalism leads to an exploitation of workers, as entrepreneurs are able to make profits by paying low wages to their workers. As a result, workers feel alienated. The divergence of interests between owners and workers would inevitably result in a revolution. In the long run, communism would become the new order, including a classless society and the public ownership of resources. Even though Marx’s ideas were controversial, debated, and commonly rejected, they initiated government intervention for the sake of improving the working conditions for the poor and, later, for bringing about social security legislation. However, the Industrial Revolution was the starting point for a sustainable period of enormous economic growth never seen before.
Today, historians prefer the term industrialization to describe the period of technological advancements lasting up to now, whereas the term industrial revolution generally refers to radical innovations within the process of industrialization leading to an accelerated growth in these industries. Hence, the control of electric power, groundbreaking advances in chemistry, and the invention of the automobile are also regarded as industrial revolutions.
Since 1911, these developments were also assisted by the efficiency movement. The American engineer Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915) started analyzing workflows with academic methods to enhance worker productivity and is therefore credited as the founder of scientific management (or Taylorism). He thought that any workflow should be split into its separate components. Then, according to the “one best way” principle, precise work instructions are needed to assist the workers with the most efficient way to perform their task. For this purpose, Taylor conducted several comprehensive time and motion studies to find the least number of motions for a given task—a technique that is often cited in management textbooks. A few years later, the American entrepreneur Henry Ford (1863-1947) brought these concepts to perfection by inventing the assembly line in 1913 and thereby setting a new standard for mass production, particularly for large-scale manufacturing processes. With the standardization of production processes, less- skilled workers were needed, and it was the management’s task to control and plan the working steps efficiently. Besides the advances in production technology and processes, two other inventions revolutionized not only the working environment but also the way of modern life: the digital computer and the Internet.
In contrast to analog technology, where signals can have infinite valences, digital technology can be used to transform analog signals into a binary combination of ones and zeros. Greater flexibility, lower cost, and the prevention of error propagation made digital technology superior and promoted the development of computers. The earliest digital computers can be dated back to the 1930s, but the most important developments were made in the 1970s, when the microprocessor and the personal computer were invented. Additionally, the invention of computer networking and the Internet, as well as digital broadcasting, also induced the Digital Revolution. The Digital Revolution marked the beginning of the Information Age and enhanced the emergence of new businesses and professions, such as software developers, computer technicians, and companies such as Google, eBay, and Amazon, whose business models rely on only the Internet. In contrast to the industry sector, the Internet-based and Internet-related businesses (the “dot-coms”) are often summarized with the term New Economy. The Internet hype in the late 1990s caused a high demand at the stock markets for these companies’ shares even though many of them had never made any profits. As a result, market capitalization of many New Economy firms far outreached their book value. However, the dot-com publicity peaked in 2000, at which time the speculative bubble at the stock markets burst, putting the whole world economy in trouble for years.
Today, the question remains: What might be the next revolution? Nanotechnology is a promising field as it allows the production and control of devices on a scale smaller than 1 micrometer. Further, new forms of generating energy, such as solar, wind, water, and biomass, could lead to an energy revolution. Colonization of space with interplanetary transportation is imaginable. This would probably require new social, political, and legislation structures and new innovations, resources, and professions for the space age environment. Even machines that accomplish all the work for us might be another revolutionary step in human economic future. Time will tell.
See also Aristotle; Ecology; Egypt, Ancient; Evolution, Cultural; Globalization; Global Warming; Harris, Marvin; Industrial Revolution; Malthus, Thomas; Marx, Karl; Rome, Ancient; White, Leslie A.
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