Human beings in all times and places have faced similar economic problems: producing and consuming, buying and selling, working and employing. In some cases the solutions they arrived at were remarkably alike despite radically different contexts. From ancient times to the present, some producers have exploited bonded or semi-free labor to maximize their output. In other cases, however, solutions that were possible in some contexts were not possible in others. Officials in Ptolemaic Egypt and Song-dynasty China were able to solve the myriad property-rights and collective-action problems associated with building and maintaining local irrigation systems, whereas officials in France under the Old Regime often failed miserably.
Superimposed on these striking patterns is a long-run trend of unparalleled importance. Before the eighteenth century some areas of the world were richer and others poorer than most, but the differences occurred within a relatively narrow band. Since that time a small but growing number of countries has broken away from the pack and achieved stunning advances in productive capacity and in the standard of living of their populations. Why have only a few countries experienced what has variously been called the industrial revolution, the transition to modern economic growth, or more simply economic development? What is the relationship between economic development and political democratization? What has been the role of the state in class formation, trade and commerce, and natural resource extraction? How have the individual and collective experiences of labor shaped societies and polities? Has economic development changed society and culture—changed human behavior—in fundamental ways? These are big questions of vital importance to policy makers and all of us. Addressing them requires historical investigation of societies and economies in different times and places.