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The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850

Author(s):Mokyr, Joel
Reviewer(s):Harley, C. Knick

Published by EH.NET (December 2010)

Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. xii + 564 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-300-12455-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by C. Knick Harley, Department of Economics, University of Oxford.

In this big book Joel Mokyr provides a masterful summary of our current understanding of events from the Glorious Revolution to the Great Exhibition that led to the emergence of modern economic growth in Britain. The book advances the thesis that ?the Industrial Revolution … that placed technology in the position of the main engine of economic change? (p. 5) was driven by ?the changing set of beliefs we associate with the Enlightenment? (p. 478). Although there is little new primary research in the book, its broad summary of relevant topics and recent research (the references run to 43 pages) make it both an unrivaled introduction to this important historical topic and a masterful synthesis that experts will need to internalize.

The coverage of the literature, both in breadth and depth, is close to comprehensive. As one would expect from Mokyr?s recent work, there is extensive discussion of the social basis of knowledge, technology and the nature of inventors and the sources of their training and inspiration. There are admirable and balanced discussions of eighteenth-century British society. Issues of the nature of the political structure, its evolution and its impact on incentives to economic action are presented in a comprehensive and balanced manner. There are excellent chapters on gender and the family and civil society, as well as more expected chapters on agriculture, international trade, commerce and finance. The book does not use estimates of aggregate output and its composition as the center of its focus but these issues are well-discussed as part of a wider narrative. The development of industry and industrial technology receives rather less attention than one might have expected and the cotton textile industry does not take a point at the center of the focus. Nonetheless, the reader will have a good overview of the relevant developments in industrial technology.

Mokyr is happy to keep the Industrial Revolution as the focus of his narrative, although it is perhaps significant that the phrase does not appear in the title. Just what he means by the Industrial Revolution is at times somewhat unclear. Overall, the volume consciously takes the entirety of the years from 1700 to 1850 as its focus. Nonetheless, from time to time, the shorter Industrial Revolution (implicitly, say, 1770 to 1830) appears as pivotal in the transformation, although reasons why the impact of these years took time to materialize are stressed. Overall, however, the book emphasizes what distinguished the Industrial Revolution from other episodes of technological preciosity was not so much the accomplishments of a short period of technological effervescence but the emergence of a society in which knowledge and technological progress continued to improve. This was a social process that emerged over a long historical process.

But what of the idea of the Industrial Enlightenment? This idea serves as Mokyr?s organizing principal throughout the book (in the book?s twenty chapters, the word Enlightenment or Enlightened — with a capital letter — appears in five chapter titles, in the first sentence of an additional three and elsewhere in the first paragraph of another four) and is seen as a prime mover in social change that caused the Industrial Revolution at a fundamental level. Unfortunately, the meaning of Enlightenment in this context remains somewhat elusive. It is clearly intended to allude to the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment but Mokyr stresses he does not have in mind direct causation from the world of ideas that characterized the salons of the Enlightenment, although ideas did permeate. The Industrial Enlightenment in Mokyr?s usage means a society in which there predominated a frame of mind that believed in progress attained through useful knowledge gained by observation and experimentation — and incorporated into social and political ideas of rational reform. His book persuasively demonstrates that these ideas were central to economic change in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. The reader cannot, however, help wondering if causation from Enlightenment, as an intellectual stance, to economic change actually existed. The so-called Industrial Enlightenment seems almost to describe the nature of successful change at least as much as its cause. The world of ideas and the world of practical knowledge probably reinforced one another and both reflected some underlying characteristics of the society. Making the Enlightenment, however, so dominantly the central organizing theme of the discussion of economic change is not always persuasive and is intrusive at times.

The book is not fully persuasive in its argument that an Industrial Enlightenment that was particular to Britain should take pride of place in understanding the emergence of modern economic growth in the eighteenth century, but it makes a strong case for the view that an understanding of that change requires a long perspective and that the history of ideas and their place in society needs to be at the core of the story. Persistent change depended on continued technological advance which in turn depended on knowledge and the process by which it developed.

Overall this is an important book. It will provide students with an unexcelled overview of the state of the literature at the moment.? Specialists will admire its sweep of scholarship and find many insights to ponder.?

C. Knick Harley has written extensively about the Industrial Revolution and the nature of technical change.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century