A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, by Joel Mokyr

Victoria Bateman on why the Enlightenment took root in Europe and how it helped to spur economic expansion

October 6, 2016
Coins growing in soil (economic growth)
Source: iStock

We are living in an age of economic turmoil. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, also one in which a debate about the merits of the market has resurfaced, leading to a call for the reform of capitalism. Looking back at the past can provide much needed perspective, allowing us to identify the drivers of economic success, to judge the relative importance of the market and the state and, just as importantly, to identify what other factors are important.

In A Culture of Growth, Joel Mokyr, a Northwestern University academic and one of the world’s leading experts on economic growth, adds his voice to the mix by providing a new answer to the question of how the West grew rich.

It is a question that has been occupying great minds for decades. As Mokyr recognises, the fact that Europe was, until relatively recently, a backwater to human civilisation makes it all the more difficult to answer. Economists place great weight on the notion of technological change being at the centre of sustained economic growth, and yet it is clear that for millennia China and the Middle East were the leaders in this sphere. The ability of Europe not only to catch up but to push ahead is, to say the least, close to a miracle.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation revolves around the market. However, attempts to measure the level of development of markets in Europe and beyond have shown that markets have existed for much longer than has sustained economic growth, and in parts of the world well beyond Europe. Economic success clearly requires much more.

In his 2009 study, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850, Mokyr argued that the Enlightenment explained Europe’s take-off, providing a foundation for continued improvements in scientific understanding and directing that understanding to the practical purpose of improving the human lot. As a result, continued progress became both possible and desirable.

In his latest work, he digs deeper to identify the causes of the Enlightenment and to consider why an equivalent movement did not successfully take root elsewhere in the world. He argues that Europe possessed a unique combination of political fragmentation and a mobile transnational intellectual community that led to “a culture of growth”.

Political fragmentation meant that no one state could turn off the lights: where intellectuals met with resistance, religious or otherwise, they could seek sanctuary in other countries. The inevitable competition between states also worked to intellectuals’ benefit, as courts across Europe competed to host and fund the greatest thinkers of the age. This, of course, meant that reputation was crucial, which, Mokyr argues, led to a culture of “open science”, one in which ideas diffused rather than being kept secret, meaning that they could be pitted against one another and subjected to scientific scrutiny in order to arrive at “the truth”.

In pointing to growth-boosting factors that go beyond either the state or the market, Mokyr’s book is very welcome. It could also feed into discussions about the scientific community post-Brexit. By reviving the focus on culture it will, however, prove controversial, particularly among economists. And, speaking from the point of view of gender, it would have been helpful if by incorporating culture into an explanation of economic growth, cross-country differences in the position of women in society had not been so glaringly absent from this study.

Victoria Bateman is fellow and director of studies in economics, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and author of Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe (2012).

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy
By Joel Mokyr
Princeton University Press, 400pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691168883 and 9781400882915 (e-book)
Published 8 November 2016

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