When and how did the concept of economic growth emerge?


Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
Growth is currently the primary economic concern; in the age of subsistence agriculture, the concern
of the rulers and the ruled was relative political stability and filled stomachs; subsistence agriculture
might build a small elite; it never spread education and culture to the mass.
Most civilizations were based on subsistence agriculture before Industrial Revolution or a little earlier,
industrial or large scale agriculture.
Industrial agriculture was rendered possible with "the machine" (I am borrowing Lewis Munford's term);
later, it also led to Industrial Revolution.
Economic growth realized many of the ancients' dreams, especially education and relatively high standard
of living for the mass.
Confucius himself dreamed of mass education and relatively economic parity; even it is imperfect today, it
is substantially better than what our ancestors have done.
Deng Xiaoping said of "development is the only hard truth".
When and how was economic growth achieved?
Why did subsistence agriculture mean relative stagnation?
How did the world differ from CE 1000, 1500, and 2000?


Ad Honorem
Oct 2016
When someone traded a sea shell for a service or other goods and then kept a record of it .

.... and we wondered what all those hand prints in the caves where for

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Forum Staff
Aug 2016
Until the arrival of modern birth control, population has always pushed against the upper limits of food supply. Population rose until starvation kept it from rising any further. People confronting starvation therefore feel pressure to produce more food. Sometimes they are successful, other times not. When your friends and family are going to starve unless you produce more food, you're probably going to try and produce more food.

When we introduce trade, money, accumulated wealth, etc, then we also get incentives to produce more. People like being wealthy. It provides the illusion of security. This probably did not exist as early as the hunter-gatherer stage. In societies that are small enough for everyone to know each other's names, there is little desire to be wealthier than one's friends and family. Greed became a major factor in human behavior when societies became big enough so that most people in that society were strangers.

Shortly thereafter came the idea that to produce more wealth society needed more workers followed closely by the idea that if there are more workers then society must create more jobs for them to do so that one can no longer tell 'Which came first, the worker or the job?' Agricultural innovation increased food production which allowed population growth, which demanded more jobs.

Another factor driving economic growth was the government's appetite for more tax revenue.

The necessity for economic growth is therefore quite old.


Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
Expectations of growth took off when meaningful reinvestment became possible – i.e. when excess wealth wasn't primarily destined for some treasure-hoard, but could be directly plowed back into more economic activity.


Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Technically or pragmatically?

It's like to wonder how we were able to breath before of the discovery of oxygen ...

Technically the conception of economic growth is a measurement and it's not that old [Solow won a Nobel Prize with a math model about it in 1959], historically we can say that with the middle class and the conception of "surplus" our countries begun to think to the economical growth. The passage from physical richness [lands, persons, animals, precious metals ...] to just economical richness [money, business, trade ...] saw the idea of economical growth gain its first importance. I'd say early XVIII century, if we want to indicate a historical period.

On the other side, pragmatically, economic growth is an aspect of an expansive society and human societies have always been expansive. So that until the appearance of forms of barters, expansive primitive micro societies [tribes] saw something which we can describe as "economic growth". Even before of recording what was happening with some kind of writing system.


Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
"Investment" might be conceptually easier to discuss historically than the much more general "growth" with all its organic connotations?

Metal ores "grow" in the rock in the classical conceptions of geology after all.


Ad Honorem
Oct 2016
Not necessarily . Some cultures that had limited resources functioned not on ever expanding growth but ... wai for it, this is revolutionary ! .....

stability .

It is rare though.

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