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FIRST DRAFT: Review for "Nature" of "A Culture of Growth", by Joel Mokyr

School of Athens


Joel Mokyr's (2016) A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 9780691167773:, published in October 2016, is the latest and most successful extended brief by Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr for his point of view on the causal origins of modern economic growth.

What is modern economic growth?

As best as we can conceptualize and measure (or perhaps it would be more honest to say: "guess"), average human material living standards and economic productivity levels today are some twenty times what they were in the agricultural-age span from ca. 6000 BCE to 1500 CE. The efficiency with which we collectively use technology and organization to transform human and nonhuman resources into useful commodities is currently growing at a rate of about 2%/year, perhaps 100 times the rate common during the agricultural age. Some do believe that the 2%/year global pace of modern economic growth will slow in the future. But very few indeed see it coming to any sort of rapid end--barring, of course, thermonuclear war or equivalent catastrophe.

Joel Mokyr is one of the leaders of the school of thought that sees the causal origins of modern economic growth in the emergence in Europe from 1500-1750 of a highbrow elite dominant culture of intellectuals favorable to and focused on the cumulative increase of knowledge and its application to projects of human betterment. This school has plausible arguments. But do note that it is far from being a rough consensus, a majority opinion, or even a plurality.

What are the other schools? They see the causal origins of first the industrial revolution in the British midlands and then of modern economic growth in:

  1. an emergent scale effect on the pace of technological invention, innovation, adaptation, and deployment from a post-Neolithic Revolution slow accumulation of knowledge that supported growing--albeit poor--populations thinking about problems of improving productive efficiency;

  2. the emergence in Britain over 1500-1750 of "developmental" as opposed to the more typical agrarian-age "extractive" institutions--an emergence that then set in motion a virtuous circle of growth.

  3. the emergence in Britain over 1500-1750 of institutions that were "extractive plus investing", as opposed to more typical agrarian-age institutions less successful at extracting resources from the bulk of the population via oppression and then devoted not to positive-sum investment in the future but to zero- or negative-sum contests;

  4. the sheer luck of having very large supplies of near-surface coal on navigable waterways in Britain just when the luck of geography, religious, and political history had generated high enough real wages to make the development of first-generation steam engines profitable;

  5. pure luck of some other form;

  6. a combination of more than one of the above factors; or

  7. a set of related factors that do not map neatly onto the conceptual categories in which human thought about the causes of the industrial revolution and modern economic growth has moved.

Does it matter? Mokyr would say that any Republic of Letters--Invisible College--Marketplace of Ideas--that thinks that an important question to ask is highly unlikely to have been compatible with the origins or with the continued maintenance for long of modern economic growth.

Is Mokyr's argument correct? I tend to think the balance of the probabilities favors (4) myself. But I do not think that there will ever be a near-consensus on the issue. And I would not be surprised if Mokyr's brief--for it is a brief, and not a balanced presentation of live possibilities--were broadly correct.

The central axis around which Mokyr's argument turns is the emergence from 1450-1750 of the so-called "Republic of Letters": a single elite-level "market for ideas" spanning the European continent. Intellectuals competed for reputation and patronage. Reputation was gained by creating and disseminating ideas (rather than knowing and keeping secrets). Ideas were valued by their testable correspondence with reality. Patronage (mostly) followed reputation, rather than (typically) being gained by flattering the powerful. The political fragmentation of Europe meant that individual rulers could not suppress thought. The ideological unity of the Republic of Letters meant that the community of intellectuals had a full sub-continent wide scale.

No other civilization had ever developed a set of institutional practices followed by its intellectual cadre that was so effective at generating incentives to create, discuss, modify, test, disseminate, and use ideas. The European Republic of Letters had not before 1800 outstripped either of its Chinese, Indian, or Islamic world counterparts in terms of the number of its members or the ferocity with which they sought "knowledge". Yet there was no comparison between them in the amount of valid scientific or applicable technological knowledge that had been generated in the roughly three centuries that this divergence had had to build.

Mokyr's chain of argument concludes with a broadside against those who have been rejecting his school of thought by demanding clear, obvious, strong linkages between the writings of the thinkers of the Republic of Letters of the Age of Enlightenment and actual on-the-ground new installed technologies. He says that we:

take a very narrow view of what the Industrial Revolution was about, [for] the mechanisms by which the Republic of Letters affected technological progress are deeper and more complex than “how much science was needed to build a spinning jenny”. Science plays an ever-growing role in the subsequent history of industrialization.... Without the Republic of Letters and the changing agenda of science... [any wave of European growth] would have been short-lived and fizzled out after 1815 or so...

A Culture of Growth is certainly making me rethink.

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