Being a long time historical materialist of some flavor or another, I am by orientation hostile to arguments like Mokyr's that it was ideas and culture that ultimately mattered. I find myself very suspicious of arguments that give a unique value to cultures, especially when they are my own. I tend to appeal instead to principles of representativeness—that I should not assume that I or anything of mine is special without very good reason—of non-cherrypicking—do not accentuate the positive while neglecting the negative—and of visibility—that of requiring concrete causal mechanisms, rather than waving one's hands, saying "it was in the air" and "there are lots of other ways it matters besides those that have been mentioned here".
That does not mean that I am right.
Mokyr ends his 2016 A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy http://amzn.to/2c9TJ2y with a broadside against people like me. He denounces us as:
tak[ing] 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...
Mokyr's is also an "eye of the needle" theory—that if we had not had the Western European Enlightenment, we would still be back in the Bad Old Days, under the harrow of Thomas Robert Malthus, with the bulk of the world's population living on 2 dollars a day, with global population growth averaging 10-20% per century eating up the power of technology and organization to raise living standards, with a world population of 1.2 billion or so of whom 70% would be near-subsistence farmers.
It is certainly possible that Mokyr is right. It is also possible that both Mokyr and Allen are right—that their were two needles, and two eyes to be threaded in the late second millennium: a "supply of inventive ideas" eye-of-the-needle threaded by the Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters, and a "demand for inventive ideas" eye-of-the-needle threaded by wages, coal, and steam. But that doubles our current improbability. And, as I said above, I tend toward a heuristic of representativeness—that we should not presume we are special without very good evidence. And so amplifying the unlikelihood of our current selves does not appeal to me. I tend more towards "two heads are better than one" theories—that once we had language, agriculture and then writing and printing eventually were nearly inevitable, and then increasing returns would set in and would eventually overwhelm Malthus given our biology.
- What is modern economic growth?
- Is it separate from the Industrial Revolution?
- Why doesn't Mokyr have more adherents to his point of view?
- Why does he have the adherents he does?
- How interested was European elite culture in what we would call "science"?
- How interested were Europe's middle classes in what we would call products of "technology"?
- How interested were Europe's governments in what we would call products of "technology"?
- What was the "Republic of Letters"?
- What did people know by 1800 that they had not known in 1400?
- How much difference, economically, could that extra knowledge have made?
- How much of that extra knowledge about how to make things could have been due to the Republic of Letters?
- How much of the extra knowledge about how to go about making things better could have been due to the Republic of Letters?
- How much of a gap was there between the Enlightenment Era Republic of Letters and previous—Chinese, Indian, Islamic, Roman, Greek—high literary cultures?
Cf: DeLong J. Bradford DeLong (2017): FIRST DRAFT: Review for "Nature" of "A Culture of Growth", by Joel Mokyr: FINAL DRAFT here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v538/n7626/full/538456a.html
Joel Mokyr's (2016) A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 9780691167773: http://amzn.to/2c9TJ2y), 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:
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;
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.
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;
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;
pure luck of some other form;
a combination of more than one of the above factors; or
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.
Mokyr does not go here:
- Large cultural region
- Decentralized political power
- Phil Hoffman goes here ==> militarization and military technological progress...
Mokyr does go:
- Large cultural region
- Decentralized political power
- Ideas largely free from political/religious sanction
- "Republic of Letters" "Invisible College" "Economy of prestige and priority" that fuels enormous amounts of high-class and high-caliber intellectual work in a broad range of theoretical and applied natural science and sciency disciplines...
Formation of the Republic of Letters:
- Machiavelli auditioning for a job...
- Lutherans and Calvinists...
- Thomas Mores and others living out Book of the Courtier...
- von Wallenstein horoscope by Kepler... https://www.sciencesource.com/archive/Von-Wallenstein-Horoscope-by-Kepler--1608-SS2400810.html
- Francis Bacon to Newton...
- Truth filter... -- community that applies a truth filter (and a usefulness filter) in a way that other communities do not...
Eye-of-the-needle: We need really cheap coal near water at a time of advanced mechanical clockmaking when wages are far above standard Malthusian levels because James II Stuart turned Catholic, was exiled, was supported by Louis XIV, so the ex-monastery owning British landlords of Downton Abbey were willing to tax themselves to fund a navy that conquered the seas and channeled all of the surplus from plantation slavery plus into Bristol and London; plus we need Republic of Letters...
But why does Mokyr see the Allen story not as complementary with his, but as largely wrong?
Tinkering gives you diminishing returns growth: cf.: printing, caravel, triple-cropping rice, French weavers
Do you need the ivory tower for general purpose technologies? Anything for which demand is highly price elastic? Jacquard loom as textile innovation where demand is not so elastic?
Ancient world more urbanized than northwest Europe up to 1680 or so... -- why Mokyr comes out thinking that the ancient world's Republic of Letters was lacking...
Strongest point of Mokyr's: Republic of Letters essential for MEG, even if not essential for CR or IR or "watchmaking"...
The Newton bubble—lots of people want to be like Newton was, and they do a huge amount of good work...
Newton focused RoL on "practical" things—Bacon too—
I should go back and reread David Landes's Revolution in Time: why in a medieval or early modern city with church bells would you spend money on a watch, anyway? What symbolic community did it place you in? Buying a watch then like buying a Tesla today?
Did people want watches because Newton was cool?
Luigi Pascale: Steam and marine chronometers...
Moses Finley... <== save for Temin week?
Why not Islam?
"Closing of the Gates" of interpretation, but also of "research" into natural sciences and associated technologies and so forth...
Read Eric Chaney: Religion and the Rise and Fall of Muslim Science
Wait for Eric Chaney: Scientific Revolution: Measuring the Intellectual Rise of the Western World
"The Incoherence of the Philosophers"
Why Not Japan?
Japan is just too small...
Larger and fragmented; Japan becomes unfragmented Tokugawa Ieyasu