Source: Princeton University Press, 2016
During the late eighteenth century, innovations in Europe triggered the Industrial Revolution and the sustained economic progress that spread across the globe. While much has been made of the details of the Industrial Revolution, what remains a mystery is why it took place at all. Why did this revolution begin in the West and not elsewhere, and why did it continue, leading to today’s unprecedented prosperity? In this groundbreaking book, celebrated economic historian Joel Mokyr argues that a culture of growth specific to early modern Europe and the European Enlightenment laid the foundations for the scientific advances and pioneering inventions that would instigate explosive technological and economic development. Bringing together economics, the history of science and technology, and models of cultural evolution, Mokyr demonstrates that culture—the beliefs, values, and preferences in society that are capable of changing behavior—was a deciding factor in societal transformations.
Mokyr looks at the period 1500–1700 to show that a politically fragmented Europe fostered a competitive “market for ideas” and a willingness to investigate the secrets of nature. At the same time, a transnational community of brilliant thinkers known as the “Republic of Letters” freely circulated and distributed ideas and writings. This political fragmentation and the supportive intellectual environment explain how the Industrial Revolution happened in Europe but not China, despite similar levels of technology and intellectual activity. In Europe, heterodox and creative thinkers could find sanctuary in other countries and spread their thinking across borders. In contrast, China’s version of the Enlightenment remained controlled by the ruling elite.
Combining ideas from economics and cultural evolution, A Culture of Growth provides startling reasons for why the foundations of our modern economy were laid in the mere two centuries between Columbus and Newton.
Related Resource: Princeton University Press, 2016
My book examines culture: what did people believe, value, and how did they learn to understand natural phenomena and regularities they could harness to their material improvement.
Europe in this age enjoyed an unusual structure that allowed new and fresh ideas to flourish as never before. On the one hand, it was politically and religiously fragmented into units that fiercely competed with one another. This created a competitive market both for and among intellectuals that stimulated intellectual innovation.
It was a market for ideas that worked well and in it the Baconian Program was an idea that succeeded, in part because it was attractive to many actors, but also because it was marketed effectively by cultural entrepreneurs. At the same time, political fragmentation coexisted with a unified and transnational institution (known at the time as the Republic of Letters) that connected European intellectuals through networks of correspondence and publications and created a pan-European competitive market in which new ideas circulated all over the Continent. In this sense, early modern Europe had the “best of all possible worlds” in having all the advantages of diversity and fragmentation and yet have a unified intellectual community.
The book deals at length with the intellectual development of China. In many ways, China’s economy in 1500 was as advanced and sophisticated as Europe. But in China the kind of competitive pluralism and diversity that were the hallmark of Europe were absent, and even though we see attempts to introduce more progressive thinking in China, it never succeeded to overthrow the conservative vested interests that controlled the world of intellectuals, above all the Mandarine bureaucracy. Instead of explosive growth as in Europe, Chinese science and technology stagnated.
First and foremost, innovation requires the correct incentives. Intellectuals on the whole do not require vast riches, but they will struggle for some measure of economic security and the opportunity to do their research in an environment of intellectual freedom in which successful innovation is respected and rewarded.
Second, the freedom to innovate thrives in environments that are internationally competitive: just as much of innovation in earlier times emerged from the rivalry between England, France, Spain and the United Provinces, in the modern era the global competition between the United States, the EU, China, and so on will ensure continuous innovation. International competition and mobility ensure the intellectual freedom needed to propose new ideas.
Finally, global institutions that share and distribute knowledge, as well as coordinate and govern intellectual communities of scientists and innovators across national boundaries and cultural divides, are critical for continued technological progress.