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A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Author(s):Mokyr, Joel
Reviewer(s):Diebolt, Claude

Published by EH.Net (November 2017)

Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. xiv + 403 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16888-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Claude Diebolt, Department of Economics, University of Strasbourg.

I enjoyed this new book by Joel Mokyr, which is praiseworthy for its elegance and erudition. It tells the story of economic growth with “culture” — a mushy word for most of us — as the invisible hand. However, I regret the lack of in-depth consideration of the German language literature. Significantly more attention could also have been given to economic cycles. Werner Sombart, for example (Der moderne Kapitalismus and Der Bourgeois. Zur Geistesgeschichte des modernen Wirtschaftsmenschen), was the first to come to mind while reading this fantastic book. It also reminds me of George Akerlof and Robert Schiller’s Animal Spirits, where confidence, fear, a propensity to gamble, and follow-the-leader effect stories are presented as central to explain the decision making process. The Bourgeois Trilogy by Deirdre McCloskey is another seminal work in that spirit: ideas, not capital or institutions enriched the world. A growth theorist would probably also see strong connections between Mokyr’s latest effort and the unified growth theory initiated by Oded Galor.

The book is about the roots of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Enrichment, and radical changes in values, beliefs, and preferences. It is not about a mass movement. It is a phenomenon related to an elite: philosophers and scientists of course, but also engineers, instrument makers, and even industrialists who spawned the process. In any case, it is a minority of the population. Mokyr’s ambition is to understand and to explain how these beliefs and values emerged — why some people developed new ideas and why these ideas replaced the ones in place.

According to Mokyr, we know pretty much what happened, how it happened and where it happened, but we still do not know why it happened. Why, after thousands of years of stagnation, have a number of countries and regions of the world experienced an unprecedented increase in both the scale and speed of their economic growth? Why Europe and not China? Why England? Is it the result of happenstance? The Black Death perhaps? What about the influence of religion (Max Weber and the Protestant ethic?), of major intellectual and scientific personalities who changed the game (Martin Luther, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin)? What role should be given to natural resource saturation, innovation (the compass, gunpowder, printing) and capital accumulation, trade networks, market institutions and organizations, ideas, violence (battles, dynastic arrangements, power struggles…), women, etc.? For Mokyr, the Gordian knot is a Culture of Growth — a “Useful knowledge,” scientific and technological knowledge, the meeting of motivations and incentives, of attitudes and aptitudes toward Nature and the ability to persuade others. These are the key elements of the puzzle.

“No theory-no history! Theory is the pre-requisite to any scientific writing of history,” wrote Werner Sombart (1929) in the Economic History Review. I urge you to carefully read Joel Mokyr’s evolutionary approach to culture in the spirit of Schumpeter’s theory on Unternehmergeist. It will give you a fresh insight into one of the most fascinating questions in our field: the origins of the Great Enrichment. It will invite everyone to visit economic history with an optimistic vision for the future of the World!

Claude Diebolt is CNRS Research Professor of Economics at the University of Strasbourg and editor of the journal Cliometrica.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII