Informality: problem or solution?

By | December 3, 2014

Presentation at the World Bank PSD Forum 2006, Washington DC, April 4-6

Bureaucratic form and informality
Most people attending this Forum live substantially inside what we may call the formal economy. This is a world of salaries or fees paid on time, regular mortgage payments, clean credit ratings, fear of the tax authorities, regular meals, moderate use of stimulants, good health cover, pension contributions, school fees, driving the car to the commuter station, summer holidays by the sea. Of course households suffer economic crises from time to time and some people feel permanently vulnerable. But what makes this lifestyle ‘formal’ is the regularity of its order, a predictable rhythm and sense of control that we often take for granted. I only discovered how much of this had become natural to me when I went to live in a West African city slum forty years ago.

I would ask questions that just didn’t make sense to my informants, for example concerning household budgets. How much do you spend on food a week? Households were in any case often unbounded and transient. Assuming that someone had a regular wage (which many didn’t), it was pitifully small; the wage-earner might live it up for a day or two and then was broke, relying on credit and help from family and friends or not eating at all. A married man might use his wage to buy a sack of rice and pay the rent, knowing that he would have to hustle outside work until the next paycheck. In the street economy people were moving everything from marijuana to refrigerators in deals marked more by flux than stable income. After completing a doctorate, I went to work in a development studies institute. There I saw my main task as trying to get this ethnographic experience across to development economists. My use of the conceptual pair formal/informal came out of those conversations.
The idea of an ‘informal economy’ is entailed by the institutional effort to organize society along formal lines. ‘Form’ is the rule, an idea of what ought to be universal in social life; and for most of the twentieth century the dominant forms have been those of bureaucracy, particularly of national bureaucracy, since society has become identified to a large extent with nation-states. This identity may now be weakening in the face of the neo-liberal world economy and a digital revolution in communications (Hart 2001). Any initiatives addressing informal practices from the perspective of public bureaucracy need to be put in this historical context. As I understand it, one issue we are asked to consider here concerns unfair competition between firms that accept the constraints and benefits of public regulation and those that don’t. The latter don’t pay taxes, settle disputes their own way, feel free to ignore health and safety measures and so on. Surely it should be government policy to formalize more informal operations. In answer to this question, I would first point out that it is possible to exaggerate the gap between the two sides.
Formal and informal organizations appear to be separate entities because of the use of the term ‘sector’. This gives the impression that the two are located in different places, like agriculture and manufacturing, whereas both the bureaucracy and its antithesis contain the formal/informal dialectic within themselves as well as between them. There is a widespread perception that the formal/informal split is the product of a class war between the bureaucracy and the people. It was not supposed to be like this. Modern bureaucracy was invented as part of a democratic political project to give citizens equal access to what was theirs as a right (Weber 1978). It still has the ability to co-ordinate public services on a scale that is beyond the reach of individuals and most groups. So it is disheartening that bureaucracy (‘the power of public office’) should normally be seen now as the negation of democracy (‘the power of the people’) rather than as its natural ally.
Forms are necessarily abstract and a lot of social life is left out as a result. This can lead to an attempt to reduce the gap by creating new abstractions that incorporate the informal practices of people into the formal model. Naming these practices as an ‘informal sector’ is one such devise. They appear to be informal because their social forms are largely invisible to the bureaucratic gaze. Mobilizing the informal economy will require a pluralistic approach based on at least acknowledgement of those forms. Equally, the formal sphere of society is not just abstract, but consists also of the people who staff bureaucracies and their informal practices.

A very short history of the informal economy
In Peddlers and Princes (1963), Clifford Geertz addressed the contrasting face of Indonesian entrepreneurship. He identified two economic ideal-types in a Javanese town. The majority were occupied in a street economy that he labeled ‘bazaar-type’. Opposed to this was the ‘firm-type’ economy consisting largely of western corporations who benefited from the protection of state law. These had form in Weber’s (1981) sense of ‘rational enterprise’ based on calculation and the avoidance of risk. National bureaucracy lent these firms a measure of protection from competition, thereby allowing the systematic accumulation of capital. The ‘bazaar’ on the other hand was individualistic and competitive, so that accumulation was well-nigh impossible. Geertz considered what it would take for a group of Reform Moslem entrepreneurs to join the modern ‘firm’ economy. They were rational and calculating enough; but they were denied the institutional protection of state bureaucracy which was largely the preserve of the existing corporations.
Here and in his later work on the Moroccan suq (Geertz, Geertz and Rosen 1979), Geertz pointed out the irony of an economics that takes the bazaar as its model for studying the decisions of individuals in competitive markets, while treating as anomalous the monopolies preferred by capitalist firms and state bureaucracy. Even more curious, the modern discipline made this discovery in the late 19th century, just when a bureaucratic revolution was transforming mass production and consumption along corporate lines. This was when the more powerful states awarded new privileges to capitalist corporations and society took its centralized form as national bureaucracy (cf. Hart 2005). Perhaps because he was poking fun at the economists, Geertz’ analytical vocabulary was not taken up by them.
The antithesis of the state-made modern economy had not yet found its academic name. This came about through a paper I presented at a Sussex conference on ‘Urban unemployment in Africa’ in 1971. My main message (Hart 1973) was that Accra’s poor were not ‘unemployed’. They worked, often casually, for erratic and generally low returns; but they were definitely working. What distinguished these self-employed earnings from wage employment was the degree of rationalization of working conditions. Following Weber (1981), I argued that the ability to stabilize economic activity within a bureaucratic form made returns more calculable and regular for the workers as well as their bosses. That stability was in turn guaranteed by the state’s laws, which only extended so far into the depths of Ghana’s economy. The ‘formal sector’ consisted of regulated economic activities and the ‘informal sector’ of all those, both legal and illegal, lying beyond the scope of regulation. I did not identify the informal economy with a place, a class, a type of business or even whole persons. Everyone in Accra, but especially the inhabitants of slums like Nima where I lived, tried to combine the two sources of income. Informal opportunities ranged from market gardening and brewing through every kind of trade to gambling, theft and political corruption. My analysis had its roots in what people generate out of the circumstances of their everyday lives. The laws and offices of state bureaucracy only made their search for self-preservation and improvement more difficult.
I hoped to interest economists by presenting my ethnography in a language they were familiar with (I call it ‘economese’, how to sound like an economist without any formal training). The idea of an ‘informal sector’ was quickly taken up as a concept by some of them, so quickly indeed that a report by the International Labor Office (ILO 1972) applying the concept to Kenya came out before my own article had been published. The ILO report suggested that self-employed or ‘informal’ incomes might reduce the gap between those with and without jobs and so could contribute to a more equitable income distribution. Following the ‘growth or bust’ policies of the 1960s, they advocated ‘growth with redistribution’, that is, helping the poor out of the proceeds of economic expansion. This reflected a shift in World Bank policy announced by its president, Robert McNamara, in Nairobi a year later. By now the Bretton Woods institutions were worried about potential social explosions; and they felt that more attention should be paid to peasants and the urban poor. A vogue for promoting the ‘informal sector’ as a device for employment creation fitted in with this shift.
Most economists saw it in quantitative terms as a sector of small-scale, low-productivity, low-income activities without benefit of advanced machines; whereas I stressed the reliability of income streams, the presence or absence of bureaucratic form. When the bureaucracy tried to promote the informal sector – by providing credit, government buildings or new technologies, for example – it killed off the informality of the enterprises concerned and not coincidentally exposed participants to taxation. The association of the idea with the sprawling slums of Third World cities was strong; but the ‘commanding heights’ of the informal economy lay at the centers of political power itself, in the corrupt fortunes of public office-holders who often owned the taxis or the rented accommodation operated by the small fry. The Marxists argued that the argument put a positive gloss on exploitation, whereas they believed that the poor subsidized capital accumulation with their cheap goods and services (Bromley and Gery 1979).
That was the 1970s. The following decade saw another major shift in world economy following the lead of Reagan and Thatcher. Now the state was no longer seen as the great provider; rather ‘the market’, freed of as many encumbrances as possible, was the only engine of growth. This coincided with the imposition of ‘structural adjustment’ policies whose main effect, if not explicit aim, was to open up developing economies to the free flow of western capital. This involved dismantling the protectionism that had hitherto allowed states to operate semi-independently in a Keynesian fashion. The result was the collapse of state expenditure, privatization of public services and a shift in provision towards foreign NGOs thought to be more efficient than corrupt government officials. The informal economy took on a new lease of life as a zone of free commerce, competitive because unregulated. In the absence of public resources, responsibility was thrown onto the invisible self-help schemes of the people themselves. The World Bank played its part in all this, but the chief instigator was the IMF. By now, the rhetoric and reality of development had been effectively abandoned. The Third World suffered the largest income drain in its history, in the form of repayment of debts incurred during the wild banking boom of the 1970s (George 1990).
Two decades and a whole lot of globalization later, the problem is different. There is now substantial inward investment and foreign businesses are feeling the lack of an effective regulatory environment. To some extent this means boosting national bureaucracy, which is rather contrary when the legitimacy of states was deliberately undermined in the first place so that money could get in and out freely. Now the call is out for regulation and standardization. This is partly to secure a measure of economic order within particular countries, but transnational corporations and the international agencies also have a need for standardization between countries, so that they don’t have to adapt procedures to local circumstances every time. The ubiquity of this problem is reflected in my having been approached to take part in three separate standardization exercises recently. One was organized by the ILO and had to do with modifying labour law in the light of informal practices; another concerned norms for international trade in organic foods (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements); and a third, which hasn’t yet got off the ground, was the initiative of a Brazilian NGO to grade rural municipalities worldwide as potential recipients of aid from the multilateral donors. Clearly we have reached a stage where national and local institutions are themselves becoming globalized.

Combining the formal and informal sectors
‘Form’ is an idea whose origin lies in the mind. Form is the rule, the invariant in the variable. It is predictable and easily recognized. For example, how do we go about compiling a birdwatcher’s guide? It would not do to illustrate each species with a photograph of a particular bird. It might be looking the wrong way or be missing a leg… So instead we offer a caricature showing the distinctive beak, the wing markings and so on. That is why idealist philosophers from Plato onwards thought the general idea of something was more real than the thing itself. Words are forms, of course. In his Science of Logic, Hegel shows the error of taking the idea for reality (James 1980). We all know the word ‘house’ and I might think there is nothing more to owning one than saying ‘my house’. But before long the roof will leak, the paint will peel and I will be forced to acknowledge that my house is a material thing, a process that requires my attention. The ‘formal sector’ is likewise an idea, a collection of people, things and activities that share an idea; but we should not mistake the idea for the reality that it partially identifies.
What makes something ‘formal’ is its conformity with such an idea or rule. Thus formal dress in some societies means that the men will come dressed like penguins, but the women are free to wear something extravagant that suits them personally – they come as variegated butterflies. The men are supposed to look the same and so they adopt a ‘uniform’ that cancels out their individuality. Formality endows a class of people with universal qualities, with being the same and equal. What makes dress ‘informal’ is therefore the absence of such a shared code. But informality is relative to the eye of the beholder. Any observer of an informally dressed crowd will notice that the clothing styles are not random. We might ask what these informal forms are and how to account for them. The world’s ruling elite can be identified as ‘the men in suits’, because they choose to wear a style invented in the 1920s as an informal alternative to formal evening dress.
There is a hierarchy of forms and this hierarchy is not fixed for ever. The twentieth century saw a general experiment in impersonal society whose forms were anchored in national bureaucracy, in centralized states and laws carrying the threat of punishment. The dominant economic forms were also bureaucratic and closely linked to the state as the source of universal law. Conventionally these were divided according to principles of ownership into ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors. This uneasy alliance of governments and corporations is now sometimes classified as ‘the formal sector’. What they share, at least on the surface, is conformity to the rule of law at the national and increasingly international levels. How then might non-conformist economic activities, ‘the informal economy’, relate to this formal order? They may be related in any of four ways: as division, as content, as negation and as residue. The first two imply a positive relationship of interdependence, the third is antagonistic and the last relatively autonomous.
The moral economy of capitalist societies is based on an attempt to keep separate impersonal and personal spheres of social life (Hart 2005). The establishment of a formal public sphere entailed another based on domestic privacy (Elias 1982). Even if one side came first historically, the other was subsequently built up to constitute with the first complementary halves of a single whole. Most people, traditionally men more than women, divide themselves every day between production and consumption, paid and unpaid work, submission to impersonal rules in the office and the free play of personality at home. Money is the means whereby the two sides are brought together, so that their interaction is an endless process of separation and integration that I call ‘division’. The division of the sexes into male and female (vive la différence!) is the master metaphor for this dialectic of complementary unity. In Hegel’s terms (James 1980), any blurring or confusion of the paired categories is a phase of ‘negative dialectic’, preliminary to the formation of a new idea. Identifying informal practices, even criminal behavior, within the bureaucracy constitutes such a blurring: but to deny this would be to cling to a utopian ideal.
For any rule to be translated into human action, something else must be brought into play, such as personal judgment. So informality is built into bureaucratic forms as unspecified ‘content’. This is no trivial matter. Workable solutions to problems of administration invariably contain processes that are invisible to the formal order. For example, when workers cannot or will not go on strike, they sometimes ‘work-to-rule’ (Scott 1998). This consists of following their job descriptions to the letter (the formal abstraction of what they actually do) without any of the informal practices that actually make these abstractions function. Everything grinds to a halt as a result. Or take a chain of commodities from their production by a transnational corporation to their final consumption in a Third World city. At several points invisible actors appear filling the gaps that the bureaucracy cannot handle directly, from the factories to the docks to the supermarkets and street traders who supply the cigarettes to smokers. Informal processes are indispensable to the trade, as variable content to the universal form.
Of course, some of these activities may break the law, through a breach of health and safety regulations, tax evasion, smuggling, the use of child labor, selling without a license etc. The third way that informal activities relate to formal organization is thus as its ‘negation’. Rule-breaking takes place both within bureaucracy and outside it; and so the informal is often illegal. It is hard to draw a line between smiling women with babies who sell oranges on the street and the gangsters who exact tribute from them. When the rule of law is weak or absent, the forms that emerge in its place, at all levels of society, are often criminal in character. The informalization of the world economy is to a large extent criminal and this includes white collar crime. A good part of the problem lies in the inadequacy of national regulation at this level. And it has to be said that the western governments have not exactly been upholding the rule of law themselves of late. One has only to think of John Perkins’ book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2004) to realize that large organizations also break the rules. Modern society rests on protecting the public image of bureaucratic processes from a reality that mixes formal order with corruption and criminality in unacceptable ways.
The fourth category is not so obviously related to the formal order as the rest. Some ‘informal’ activities exist parallel to it, as ‘residue’. They are just separate from the bureaucracy. It would be stretching the logic of the formal/informal pair to include peasant economy, traditional institutions and much else besides within the rubric of the ‘informal’. Yet the social forms endemic to these often shape informal economic practices. What is at stake here is whether society is presumptively just one thing – one state with its rule of law – or is able to tolerate a measure of legal pluralism, leaving some institutions to their own devices. The ubiquitous term ‘community’ addresses this problem.
Communities exist to the extent that their members understand each other for practical purposes; and so they operate through culture (meanings held in common). They do so by means of implicit rules (customs) rather than state-made laws. They usually regulate their members informally, relying on the sanction of exclusion rather than punishment. Social anthropology in its prime focused on the study of small-scale societies ruled by custom, people who exchanged meanings specific to themselves (Evans-Pritchard 1951). European empires, faced with a shortage of resources, turned to ‘indirect rule’ as a way of incorporating subject peoples into their systems of government on a semi-autonomous basis. This legal pluralism delegated supervision of indigenous customary forms to appointed chiefs and headmen, reserving the key levers of power to the colonial regime (Asad 1973). Any serious attempt to link the formal and the informal today requires a similar openness to plurality of form.

What is to be done?
In The Other Path (1989), Hernando De Soto argued that Peru was a mercantilist state whose over-regulated and impenetrable national bureaucracy served the economic interests of a narrow clique and excluded the vast majority from effective participation in development. The latter were an entrepreneurial peasantry flocking in ever-larger numbers to the main cities. They were forced to operate informally, that is outside the law, in sectors such as housing, trade and transport. Peru’s tradition was inherited from the Spanish empire period and the term ‘mercantilism’ has been used to describe European political economy from the 16th to 18th centuries. In was succeeded, principally on the initiative of Britain, by a free-trade regime more conducive to industrial capitalism. Peru’s development in the 20th century was parallel to the West’s earlier. Massive migration to the towns led in both cases to legal exclusion of the poor by mercantilist bureaucracy; but in the West the ‘informals’ won in the end by cheapening production, making the regulations irrelevant and from time to time erupting in violence. Peru was thus headed for a revolution along French or Russian lines unless the national bureaucracy simplified, decentralized and deregulated itself.
In The Mystery of Capital (2000), De Soto portrays Peru and other poor countries as being trapped in a world economy dominated by the first industrial nations. Red tape is mainly an effect of a global regime that forces marginal states to adopt inappropriate institutional practices. The result is the same: migrants pile up in the cities and are forced to work outside the law. De Soto claims that there is no shortage of wealth in the non-western world. What is missing is a property regime that would enable the masses to realize their wealth as investment capital. The banking sector is dominated by foreign firms and it runs along lines now standard in the rich countries. Informal property rights cannot be converted into collateral for loans. This is particularly unfair since countries like the USA, which dominates this global financial bureaucracy and the institutions that supervise world trade and investment, made the transition to modern capitalism by giving flexible informal practices and decentralized violence full rein in their own development. It follows that similar flexibility has to be shown today if the poor urban masses are to have a chance of joining global development on less unequal terms. The alternative is more recruits to terrorist networks and large social explosions before long. I would substantially agree with this analysis.
So where does the call to formalize the informal economy come from? Whose interests does it serve? To recapitulate Geertz, it is the bazaar whose competitive individualism most embodies the spirit of the market, not bureaucracy. And economics in its official guise serves mainly to confuse us on this point. I have just written a short book (Hart 2005) about the main conflict of our time – ‘intellectual property rights’ versus ‘piracy’ — which identifies similar forces lined up against each other. If the Bretton Woods institutions see their role as shoring up a new international bureaucratic order suitable for private sector development, can this be presented as an extension of legitimate rule on a global scale? I should make it clear that I am generally in favour of bureaucracy and the rule of law as, in principle, means towards greater democracy and emancipation from poverty. I don’t want to live in a world run by gangsters, whatever labels they trade under. So there is some point to asking how the formal and informal aspects of economic organization might be more effectively coordinated.
The ‘informal economy’ has had a brilliant success over more than three decades. It lends the appearance of conceptual unity to whatever goes on outside the bureaucracy. Now, perhaps fearing its own isolation in a ‘planet of slums’ (Davis 2004), the bureaucracy is offering partnership to the ‘informals’. The formal-informal dialectic is intrinsic to both the bureaucracy and the informal economy, as well as between them. We need to know how formal bureaucracy works in practice and, even more important, what social forms have emerged to organize the informal economy. If I once sought to translate my own ethnographic experience into ‘economese’, it is now time to reverse the process and examine the institutional particulars sustaining whatever takes place beyond the law.
The historians of comparative jurisprudence (Maine 1906, Maitland 1957) emphasized the concrete particularity of the customary legal institutions they studied in medieval England or Victorian India. For all their imperialist vision, they refused to sacrifice detail for the sake of generalization. Modern ethnographers have likewise documented in immense detail the kinship institutions and religious practices of local groups in Africa and the Pacific. This is no longer fashionable: anthropologists today are funded to study ethnicity, gender, AIDS and, of course, the informal economy. In my own research I focused on specific individuals and was obliged to study the contractual forms of their enterprises, their kinship ties and family organization, their friendship networks and voluntary associations, their religious affiliations, their relationship to criminal gangs and corrupt officials, their patronage systems and political ties (Hart 1988). Only later did I join the rush to generalize about the population explosion of Third World cities. The issue of criminal organization inside and outside the formal bureaucracy cannot be wished away. Formalizing the informal economy requires us to confront the cultural specificity of economic activities that cross the great divide.
To sum up, using the fourfold categorization I developed above. Division: Any attempt to divide an economy into complementary halves requires a massive cultural effort of both separation and integration. This idea of interdependent, but separate halves of a social whole is a powerful undercurrent in development discourse and should be subjected to revision. Content: The idea of informality as the unspecified content of abstract forms favours leaving more to people’s imagination and accepting the legitimacy of most informal practices. Negation: When the informal is illegal, the obvious response is to crack down on rule-breakers; but such moves are often merely cosmetic — the biggest offenders escape and the law is made to appear an ass. The number of legal offences could often profitably be reduced. Residue: Finally, governments might adopt a genuinely hands-off approach towards semi-autonomous communities within their jurisdiction. If all of these modes of formal/informal linkage were considered, there might be some prospect of bureaucracy and the people entering a new partnership for development.
What is striking in all this is the international agencies’ short-sightedness and lack of institutional memory. The World Bank in particular, over the last half-century or so, has pursued contradictory strategies, often within a decade of each other. I have been involved with the concept of the informal economy now for forty years, if you count the research I did in Ghana on which the term is based. I have come to see the issue as a long struggle to redefine the relationship between bureaucracy and the people in the context of the evolution of market economy. Seen in the light of the whole period since 1945, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that international and national institutions have lost considerable legitimacy in the current decade.
A lot depends on whose perspective you take on these issues. I started off as a young ethnographer four decades ago asking how little people survived in the cracks of the state-made economy; but the informal economy has flourished since as a result of market liberalization. To some extent, bureaucratic institutions need to be more flexible in their treatment of informal practices, so that more people can take shelter under the rule of law. Informality is a problem, for sure, but it must surely be part of any long-term solution.

Postscript: on real and artificial persons

Corporations and living people differ in the purpose for which they were created, in the strength which they possess and in the restraints under which they act. Man is the handiwork of God and was placed about earth to carry out a Divine purpose; the corporation is the handiwork of man and created to carry out a money-making policy. There is comparatively little difference in the strength of men; a corporation may be one hundred, one thousand or even one million times stronger than the average man. Man acts under the restraints of conscience, and is influenced also by a belief in a future life. A corporation has no soul and cares nothing for the hereafter…
(William Jennings Bryan)

General Forms have their vitality in Particulars, and every Particular is a Man.
(William Blake)

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