Adam Smith argued that the an increasing division of labour was a driver of technological improvement, increases in output and reductions in the prices of goods and services. But was Smith right?
According to a paper recently accepted by the Quarterly Journal of Economics the answer is yes.
The paper Adam Smith, Watch Prices, and the Industrial Revolution is by Morgan Kelly and Cormac Ó Gráda. They set out to evaluate Smith's claim that watch prices - watches were one of the first mass produced consumer goods and were Smith's prime example of technological progress - may have fallen by up to 95 per cent over the century preceding Smith.
The paper's abstract reads:
Although largely absent from modern accounts of the Industrial Revolution, watches were the first mass produced consumer durable, and were Adam Smith’s pre-eminent example of technological progress. In fact, Smith makes the notable claim that watch prices may have fallen by up to 95 per cent over the preceding century; a claim that this paper attempts to evaluate. We look at changes in the reported value of over 3,200 stolen watches from criminal trials in the Old Bailey in London from 1685 to 1810. Before allowing for quality improvements, we find that the real price of watches in nearly all categories falls steadily by 1.3 per cent per year, equivalent to a fall of 75 per cent over a century, showing that sustained innovation in the production of a highly complex artefact had already appeared in one important sector of the British economy by the early eighteenth century.The authors also note that,
If we assume modest rises in the quality in silver watches, so that a watch at the 75th percentile in the 1710s was equivalent to one of median quality in the 1770s, we find an annual fall in real prices of 2 per cent or 87 per cent over a century, not far from what Adam Smith suggests.One wonders how Smith obtained his estimate. He didn't have right fancy econometrics to help him.