The role of elites in development (Danish Edition)

Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, often reminded Kenyan elites of their roles as living examples of material “development” to the peasantry. Contra Oginga Odinga — who wanted to empower the masses through land redistribution, Kenyatta believed that an elite-driven developmental agenda was the quickest way to end the scourges of poverty, illiteracy, and disease in Kenya (yes, he had very selfish reasons for holding this belief. But that is beside the point).

Turns out he was onto something.

This is from a paper by Jensen et al. on the dairy industry in Denmark:

We explore the role of elites for development and in particular for the spread of cooperative creameries in Denmark in the 1880s, which was a major factor behind that country’s rapid economic catch-up. We demonstrate empirically that the location of early proto-modern dairies, so-called hollænderier, introduced onto traditional landed estates as part of the Holstein System of agriculture by landowning elites from the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in the eighteenth century, can explain the location of cooperative creameries in 1890, more than a century later, after controlling for other relevant determinants. We interpret this as evidence that areas close to estates which adopted the Holstein System witnessed a gradual spread of modern ideas from the estates to the peasantry. Moreover, we identify a causal relationship by utilizing the nature of the spread of the Holstein System around Denmark, and the distance to the first estate to introduce it, Sofiendal. These results are supported by evidence from a wealth of contemporary sources and are robust to a variety of alternative specifications.

We thus demonstrate econometrically that the pattern of adoption of cooperative creameries in Denmark followed the introduction of proto-modern dairies by agricultural elites on estate farms. In the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, ruled by the King of Denmark in personal union until 1864 when they were lost to Prussia, an intensified crop rotation system with an important dairy component was developed on the large manorial estates known as Koppelwirtschaft in German, or kobbelbrug in Danish. It became the dominant field system in the Duchies in the 1700s, and included unprecedentedly large herds of milch cows and the invention of an innovative new centralized system of butter production, the hollænderi, with unparalleled standards of hygiene and equipment (Porskrog Rasmussen 2010a). These innovations – collectively known as the above mentioned ‘Holstein System’ when the crop-rotation was combined with the dairy unit – came relatively late to Denmark, but when they did they gradually transformed Danish agriculture.

Denmark’s current status as an ‘agricultural superpower’ , dominated by massive firms such as Arla (a dairy cooperative) and Danish Crown (a food, especially meat, processing firm previously also a cooperative until 2010), is usually traced back to the aforementioned developments in the 1880s. As we will discuss in more detail below, at this point a new technology, the steam-powered automatic cream separator made it possible to use milk which had been transported over long distances to be processed in a central production facility, and the voluntary associations of Danish peasants, the cooperatives, sprang up to take advantage of this possibility. Thus, modern Denmark emerged based on a democratic, cooperative countryside, providing something of a role model to other agricultural countries around the world.

The whole paper is worth reading, as it provides a rather interesting rebuttal (if I may call it that) to the core ideas about the long-run effects of inequalities in initial endowments in Engerman and Sokoloff (on Latin America) as well as Banerjee and Iyer (on India):

By contrast, we stress that agricultural elites may spread knowledge, which then subsequently aids development in the agricultural sector. In other words, our work suggests that agricultural elites may also be knowledge elites, who facilitate later development. Recent work by Squicciarini and Voigtländer (2016) demonstrates that knowledge elites played a significant role in the industrialization of France by e.g. running businesses themselves or exchanging knowledge with entrepreneurs. Our work emphasizes the importance of knowledge spill-overs and agricultural enlightenment (Mokyr 2009, ch. 9), and shares some similarities with Hornung’s (2014) work on high-skilled immigration of Huguenots into Prussia. He shows that this led to higher productivity in the textile sector and interprets this as evidence of an effect of diffusion of technology. We focus on agricultural elites and their impact on the part of the agricultural sector that led to an economy-wide take-off.

The key difference in Denmark, of course, was that the social conditions permitted easy diffusion of ideas and practices from the knowledge elites to the masses, despite the inequalities in initial endowments. The situation might be different, for ex when race, ethnicity, or caste gets in the way.

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