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Arguments Favoring Convergence

Arguments Favoring Convergence

Several arguments suggest that low-income countries might have an advantage in achieving greater worker productivity and economic growth in the future.

A first argument is based on diminishing marginal returns. Even though deepening human and physical capital will tend to increase GDP per capita, the law of diminishing returns suggests that as an economy continues to increase its human and physical capital, the marginal gains to economic growth will diminish. For example, raising the average education level of the population by two years from a tenth-grade level to a high school diploma (while holding all other inputs constant) would produce a certain increase in output. An additional two-year increase, so that the average person had a two-year university degree, would increase output further, but the marginal gain would be smaller. Yet another additional two-year increase in the level of education, so that the average person would have a four-year-university bachelor’s degree, would increase output still further, but the marginal increase would again be smaller. A similar lesson holds for physical capital. If the quantity of physical capital available to the average worker increases, by, say, $5,000 to $10,000 (again, while holding all other inputs constant), it will increase the level of output. An additional increase from $10,000 to $15,000 will increase output further, but the marginal increase will be smaller.

Low-income countries like China and India tend to have lower levels of human capital and physical capital, so an investment in capital deepening should have a larger marginal effect in these countries than in high-income countries, where levels of human and physical capital are already relatively high. Diminishing returns implies that low-income economies could converge to the levels achieved by the high-income countries.

A second argument is that low-income countries may find it easier to improve their technologies than high-income countries. High-income countries must continually invent new technologies, whereas low-income countries can often find ways of applying technology that has already been invented and is well understood. The economist Alexander Gerschenkron (1904–1978) gave this phenomenon a memorable name: “the advantages of backwardness.” Of course, he did not literally mean that it is an advantage to have a lower standard of living. He was pointing out that a country that is behind has some extra potential for catching up.

Finally, optimists argue that many countries have observed the experience of those that have grown more quickly and have learned from it. Moreover, once the people of a country begin to enjoy the benefits of a higher standard of living, they may be more likely to build and support the market-friendly institutions that will help provide this standard of living.

Note: View this video to learn about economic growth across the world.

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