A Culture Of Growth


A Culture Of Growth –
The Origins of the Modern Economy
By Joel Mokyr
Princeton University Press – £24.95

The Industrial Revolution is primarily responsible for much to today’s unprecedented prosperity in the West – Discuss…

An interesting hypothesis or utter hog-wash of the first degree?

Should either persuasion pique your curiosity, then A Culture Of Growth – The Origins of the Modern Economy is definitely a book you should read, wherein, celebrated economic historian, Joel Mokyr, argues in favour of the former in a most substantive and altogether astute manner. Primarily, that a culture of growth, specific to early modern Europe and the European Enlightenment was responsible for having laid the foundations for the scientific advances and pioneering inventions that would eventually instigate explosive technological and economic development.

By weaving together economics, a history of science and technology, as well as varying models of cultural evolution, Mokyr demonstrates that culture (the beliefs, values, and preferences in society most capable of changing behaviour) has been a fundamental deciding factor in social transformation(s).

Indeed, by combining ideas woven from an economic, cultural template, these 342 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Preface, References, Index) provide for an abundance of reasoning as to why the foundations of our modern economy were fundamentally brought to bear a mere two centuries between Columbus and Newton.

That’s not to say A Culture Of Growth comes across as a dour and academic read, but rather, a story that really does need to be told (rather than studied).

In the Preface, Mokyr writes: ”Economic history and intellectual history are two dynamic and active disciplines that barely interest, which is a shame. Except for the crude materialist hypothesis which explains changes in what people believed and knew by arguing for the supremacy of economic structures, not much has been done to show that much of what happened in the economies of the world in the past three centuries was a function of what people believed.
In the two centuries between Columbus and Newton, European elite culture underwent radical intellectual change. In what follows, I analyse this change, using material from intellectual history and the history of science and technology to achieve an explanation of a question primarily by economists: how do we explain the ”modern economy”?”

Hmm, good question and one which warrants or could at least, trigger much discussion.

In five parts: ‘Evolution, Culture and Economic History,’ ‘Cultural Entrepreneurs and Economic Change, 1500-1700,’ ‘Innovation, Competition and Pluralism in Europe 1500-1700,’ ‘Prelude to the Enlightenment’ and ‘Cultural Change in the East and West,’ these 17 chapters plus an Epilogue (entitled Useful Knowledge and Economic Growth) have been written in an altogether approachable and easy going manner. A quality I have to confess to finding somewhat surprising, especially considering the subject at hand.

There again, Joel Mokyr, who is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University (not to mention Sackler Professor at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics at the University of Tel Aviv), has already written widely on the subject (The Enlightened Economy and The Gifts of Athena), so he’s absolutely no novice when it comes to writing: ”Many […] intellectuals moved from country to country in search of learning, and teaching positions, escaping religious intolerance and at times creditors, jealous husbands, and other sources of distraction, but they also travelled to find and newest and best knowledge to sell their own ideas in larger markets than their place of birth […]. Above all, travelling was a safeguard against oppression and intellectual persecution, and the common knowledge that moving elsewhere was an option for heterodox scholars helped cultivate the rise of tolerance in Europe.

It is telling for the way the Republic of Letters worked that Hobbes wrote Leviathan in Paris and Locke his Letter on Toleration in Amsterdam. The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius fled The Netherlands and took refuge in Paris. Descartes, who lived for much of his life in the Netherlands, left the country when Prince Maurice took the side of hard-line Calvinists in 1619” (‘Fragmentation, Competition and Cultural Change’).

A fine, invigorating read, one I’d most strongly recommend for anyone remotely interested in the actual origins of the (modern, European) economy.

David Marx


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