It is often alleged that late Victorian businessmen in Britain displayed little of the vigor of their fathers in competition with the new industrial powers of the late nineteenth century, Germany and the United States. This allegation has been the foundation for a great many interpretations of the end of British domination over the world's economic life and of the economic difficulties that Britain has faced subsequently.
The British iron and steel industry is taken traditionally as the prime example of entrepreneurial decline. Mr. McCloskey shows, however, that businessmen in the industry performed on most counts as well as their German and American counterparts. The lack of evidence of entrepreneurial failure in the industry casts serious doubt on the importance of the entrepreneurial factor in Britain's relative decline. It suggests, indeed, that the supposed failure was a mere reflex of Britain's early attainment of economic maturity and the contemporaneous drive to maturity of Germany and the United States.
McCloskey uses relatively uncomplicated economic tools to establish these points. The central tool is the measurement of total factor productivity in the iron and steel industry in Britain and abroad. It is supplemented by analyses of supply and demand (to remove the influence of slowly growing demand at home from the record of the British industry): of the profitability of adopting the basic open hearth process of steelmaking (to show that the slowness of Britain to adopt it-which has been the keystone of the case for entrepreneurial failure-was economically rational); and of the competitiveness of the industry's markets (to validate use of these simple tools).
The book is based on a thorough study of the trade newspapers of the industry, its scientific journals, its statistical annuals, and the many reports of the British government and contemporary observers on its activities. It combines, therefore, the virtues of the "old" and the 'new" economic history. And although the book is historical, its conclusions are relevant to any study of economic growth past or present, in particular to the study of the role of entrepreneurship.
This book, a revision of Mr. McCloskey's Ph.D. dissertation, was awarded the David A. Wells Prize for l970-7l. The author is Associate Professor of Economics, The University of Chicago.