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In the last hundred years the British initiators of the Industrial Revolution have fallen behind one after another of their imitators. As a consequence, the issue of “modernization” has moved to the head of the political agenda in a nation that was for the nineteenth century world the very model of “modernity.” Much of this change in world position was inevitable — yet not all of it. Why, historians have recently been asking, did Britain between 1870 and 1900 lose the economic dynamism that had been her hallmark? Why, further, did the British fail to recover this lost dynamism in the twentieth century?
The British experience ought to be of particular interest to Americans today, for recently we have become aware of the costs as well as the benefits of economic growth. Our faith in material progress is dimming. At the same time, our former economic dynamism seems now in question. Indeed, we may be repeating the experience of Britain.
To understand the change in British economic behavior, we must look at more than solely economic history. As Max Weber argued as far back as 1904, economic activity takes place in a wider social context. Attitudes and values play a vital role in shaping economic behavior. Development economists have discovered in the last two decades that economic change is not produced solely by economic means — by introducing technology and capital alone. To some degree at least, societies “choose” their economic futures by the values they hold. Because of this, intellectual and social history may tell us much about the difficulties of continuing modernization in twentieth century Britain.