Design and Evolution in Institutional Development: the Insignificance of the English Bill of Rights

Peter Murrell (University of Maryland)

Abstract: A fundamental question in economic development is how societies first acquire a successful set of institutions. To examine this question, the paper focuses on a paradigmatic example, England in the years surrounding the Glorious Revolution of 1688. North and Weingast (1989) view the constitutional changes following 1688 as an explicit attempt to design a new polity, having the effect of radically altering the functioning of the English political and economic system. In contrast, Hayek (1960) views the late 17th century changes as simply summarizing what was already in existence, a product of experience accumulated through trial and error and selective survival of productive institutions, ideas, and habits. This paper argues that the rise of England fits Hayek's evolutionary perspective. This conclusion rests on three composite pieces of evidence. First, a search for structural breaks in myriad data sets reveals that socioeconomic change was under way well before 1688. Second, an examination of the historical context and institutional content of each clause of the critical laws shows either that the clauses were already a part of effective law by 1688 or that they did not survive as viable constitutional measures. Third, an analysis of institutional and administrative innovations shows that many key developments affecting government finance were a product of the era before 1688.

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