Symposium: Can economics explain cultural change?

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Spring 2020, Vol 32. Issue 1

Book Symposium: A Culture of Growth (2018, Princeton)

Jan de Vries
Ehrman Professor Emeritus

For many decades economic historians focused on honing their technical skills as economists in order to address fairly small historical questions. Recently, several leading figures have turned to big questions, those hitherto thought beyond the reach of economics.  None is bigger than the question Joel Mokyr poses A Culture of Growth: the culture underlying the emergence of modern science that is, in turn, the fundamental cause of  the technological change driving modern economic growth.

In making this move, Mokyr does not abandon his discipline for another – one that claims to understand culture. Rather, he seeks to endogenize culture within the terms of economics. Economics is about human choice, and he argues that it is a specific “choice-based cultural evolution” that led to the emergence of the modern world.  Now, we usually say that economics is about choice under conditions of scarcity. Thus, in Mokyr’s application, he needs to show how cultural choice was constrained in the past – somewhere, sometime – to yield an enduring, science-friendly culture. 

The cultural evolution of interest to Mokyr occurs among an elite population, a small group, that adopted a new attitude toward nature and developed an interest in harnessing nature to human material needs. But it quickly becomes clear that this achievement was not enough.  It needed to be linked to institutions that could diffuse more broadly the new knowledge about nature, and to adopt a method, a spirit of skepticism, to continually test and revise that knowledge. That is, it needed this elite group to form a culture, and to interact with each other on an ongoing basis.   It found what it needed in open science, practiced in a sufficiently diverse yet firmly connected community, a republic of letters. 

Mokyr’s cultural change was highly contingent; it needed the convergence of several factors beyond culture, per se, in order to take root.  His historical claim is that cultural evolution in these directions had not yet proceeded far in 1500, but that human choices brought it to a sufficient maturity by about 1700.   Once in place, an “Industrial Enlightenment” would convey the fruits of this cultural evolution to material life, by drawing on an ever-expanding epistemic base: the fund of propositional knowledge –applied science — available to entrepreneurs.  This was essential to establish modern economic growth, the product of the Industrial Revolution.

Mokyr has ‘demystified’ cultural change as a phenomenon, but can he account for the specific change that concerns him?  That is, has he succeeded in endogenizing it? That is a question the reader must decide. But there is a second, related issue that will be important to that decision.  This concerns Mokyr’s motive in delving into the realm of culture in the first place: Did the ‘epistemic base’ really stand as a hard barrier to economic growth during the Industrial Revolution? That is, even if he is convincing about the origins of cultural change, was that achievement really critical to the Industrial Revolution?

It is undeniable that the world we now inhabit could not exist without a massive expansion of the epistemic base extant in 1500. But that is not the same thing as the claim that modern economic growth could not have begun without the prior expansion of that base.

I believe we should think of this development as an  “emergent property”, or, in historians’ terms, as a product of contingency – what Annales School historians liked to call conjuncture.  In places, Mokyr seems to agree. After a discussion of the relative importance of science and artisanal skill, he concludes “It is the confluence of artisanal ingenuity and scientific method and discovery that is the essence of the Industrial Enlightenment.”  (p. 274)

It is a mistake, I think, for Mokyr to join the long list of economic historians who have invoked a hard barrier as the obstacle to the Industrial Revolution, whether that was land (Malthus), capital (Marx and most classical and neoclassical economists), or energy supplies (Wrigley).  Now we have an “epistemic barrier” blocking the pathway.

But it is now clear, in a way that was not yet evident a generation ago, that the miracle of the Industrial Revolution resides not so much in its initial acceleration (which now seems less dramatic than it once did) but in its very long continuation. Economic growth was substantial before the era of the Industrial Revolution, and, indeed, science-based innovations were not major contributors to sustained growth until after that era.  That is, it is possible that long-term growth – based on labour intensification, expanding consumer demand, higher skills, improved access to information, fuller utilization of available knowledge and resources – channelled human ingenuity toward the enrichment of the fund of propositional knowledge. Culture co-evolved with a growing economy.