2016-10-04 Nature Review of Joel Mokyr: "A Culture of Growth"
Article type: Book review
Reviewer: J. Bradford DeLong firstname.lastname@example.org
- Princeton University Press
- 8 November 2016
- $35.00 (£24.95)
- Publicist: Julia Hall [Julia_Hall@press.princeton.edu]
- Word count: 1315
- Amazon.co.uk: 978-0691168883
- Amazon.com: 978-0691168883
- Amazon.co.jp: 978-0691168883
The long roots of growth
Brad DeLong examines a study placing the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution and its economic implications in fifteenth-century Europe.
What is modern economic growth? Going by the best available measure (it might be more honest to say "guess"), average human material living standards and economic productivity levels today are some 20 times what they were in the agricultural era, from ca. 6000 BCE to 1500 CE. Now, two centuries into the Industrial Revolution, the efficiency with which humanity uses technology and organization to transform resources into useful commodities is currently growing at perhaps 100 times the rate common back in the Agrarian Age. It is about 2% a year now. It was about 2% a century then.
Some believe that rate will slow. But very few see it coming to any sort of rapid end, barring thermonuclear war or an equivalent catastrophe. The slowing will come about as the low-hanging fruit is picked and as resource scarcities bite, but resource exhaustion followed by crash as in the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth or Jay Forester's World Dynamics is only a likely event in systems in which scarce and exhausted resources are not rationed by high prices.
But how did era of modern economic growth begin? What set the stage for industrial expansion and unleashed the virtuous spirals that have drove driven that growth? There is a school of thought that sees the causal origins of modern economic growth in Europe as the emergence, from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries, of an elite dominant group focused on applying the cumulative increase of knowledge to human betterment. This school has plausible arguments, but is far from being a rough consensus, a majority opinion or even a plurality. Now one of its leaders, the economic historian Joel Mokyr, has written A Culture of Growth — his most successful brief thus far.
The axis around which Mokyr's argument turns is the "Republic of Letters": the "market for ideas" that spanned the European continent from the great era of exploration to the end of the Enlightenment. In it, intellectuals competed for reputation and patronage. Reputation was gained by creating and disseminating ideas, valued for their empirical validity. Most patronage followed a beneficiary's reputation, rather than their prowess at flattery. The political fragmentation of Europe created boltholes for those whose views offended rulers. Indeed, to offend one ruler was often to gain the patronage of his potentially hostile neighbors. And the leakage of books and ideas back across borders meant that individual rulers could not suppress thought even within their realms. This created an ideological unity that spanned the subcontinent among intellectuals of the 'republic'.
In Mokyr's view, Desiderius Erasmus started the project of what he called "The Republic of Letters". Francis Bacon followed, and focused on the value of empirical testing via replicable experiment—the superiority of "experimental philosophy" over other modes of argument and knowledge generation. His utopian New Atlantis provided a model that those who wanted to become members of The Republic of Letters then strove to live up to. That was the first key to unlock the first door to what would become the road to modern economic growth. Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton's focus on quantification and on mathematics as a tool for analyzing the quantified was the second key. But more important than any one individual—even Newton—was that perhaps 10,000 well-educated people throughoutEurope thought of themselves as participants in this common search for useful knowledge. And knowledge flowed back and forth between them; the tens of thousands of "trained engineers, capable mechanics, and dextrous craftsmen"; the (rather few) entrepreneur-industrialist-inventors like Josiah Wedgewood and Matthew Boulton; and the (rather more) entrepreneurs and industrialists who had little abstract interest in science or in innovation, but who found that "the dynamics of competition in a market economy are such that… the [dynamic] few drag along the [inertial] many…"
As Mokyr shows, no other civilization had ever developed a set of institutional practices—academies, status rewards to priority of discovery, publications, disputes resolved by appeals to experiment, patronage bestowed on those who had advaneced "useful knowledge"—adopted by an intellectual cadre that was so effective at generating incentives to create, discuss, modify, test, disseminate and use ideas. In terms of numbers or ferocity in knowledge acquisition, European intellectuals had not outstripped their counterparts in China, India or the Arabic world before 1500. Rather the reverse, as English words like"algebra" and "algorithm" show. Yet by 1800 Europe was far ahead in the amount of valid scientific or applicable technological knowledge that had been generated over those three key centuries.
Not all economic historians agree with this analysis. Robert Allen's extremely impressive The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective places the origins of the Industrial Revolution in the British Midlands in in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In his view, the only road that could have generated modern economic growth is required the high imperialism-driven wages, the cheap coal next to an ample canal network, a strong demand for coal due to deforestation, the open trading network that allowed for a near-infinite expansion of textile exports, and sufficient protection of mercantile and industrial property as well: circumstances that had never been seen together before Britain in the eighteenth century, and might well have never been seen ever had that particular chance been missed. I find myself, these days at least, more of an Allenite than a Mokyrist.
There are still other well-argued and possibly-right views: Michael Kremer holds that the roots of economic growth lie in the drift of the long run of history, as growing populations intent on improving productive efficiency added to the stock of accumulated knowledge behind technological innovation, adaptation and deployment. Avner Grief, Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James Robinson are the most eloquent current advocates of the Douglass North position that it was the emergence in Britain over 1500-1800 of institutions that made increasing productivity via economic cooperation and exchange more attractive than extracting wealth at the point of a spear or by means of a writ, and that was the key to setting in motion a virtuous circle of growth. Or it might have been luck. Or it might have been some combination of factors that do not correspond neatly to the way that historians and social scientists, with their sub-discipline-focused orientations, have used to conceptualize the issues.
Is Mokyr's argument correct? I tend to think the balance of the probabilities favours Allen's explanation. Yet I do not think there will be consensus on this issue. And I would not be greatly surprised if I were wrong, and Mokyr's brief — for it is a brief, and not a balanced presentation of the live possibilities — turned out to be the analysis that was most broadly correct.
Mokyr concludes, however, with a broadside. He accuses most of us concerned with the causal factors of the Industrial Revolution take of taking a too-narrow view of what it actually consisted of. In his view, the mechanisms through which early European intellectuals affected technological progress are deeper and more complex than simply "how much science was needed to build a spinning jenny". Industrialisation heralded in waves of science too; they grew in tandem. Ultimately, without the impetus of science, economic growth would have fizzled out after 1815. A Culture of Growthis certainly making me rethink.
Brad DeLong is an economic historian at the University of California, Berkeley.