Symposium: Elites, Cultural Bias, and Ideas as Drivers of Economic Advance: Comments on A Culture of Growth

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)

David Mitch
Professor of Economics,
Univ. of Maryland

Joel Mokyr has produced a masterful collection of 17 essays on the relationship between early modern European intellectual life and subsequent European economic growth.  The book’s spotlight on the early modern period is something of a departure from Mokyr’s usual focus on the British industrial revolution. Highlights include a formal discussion of cultural bias, essays on Bacon and Newton as cultural entrepreneurs, a discussion of the informal Republic of Letters in early modern Europe, and two comparative essays on Europe and China. 

The array of literatures historical and theoretical cited in the book is dazzling reaffirming Mokyr as master of the historical synthesis genre. However, the genre itself has limitations in establishing causation or magnitude of impact. Does the elaboration of examples reach a point where their further listing does little to promote a given argument? Have possible counterexamples been ruled out?   Extensive listing of examples briefly adumbrated can leave the reader to look elsewhere for fuller exposition. 

While each essay is self-contained, there are unifying themes across essays. The cultural bias framework outlined in chapter 5 is incisively employed in later chapters. As in other work, Mokyr argues that ideas are more important than material circumstances as drivers of economic advance.  He also emphasizes the importance of elites as the sources of the intellectual change which he thinks accounts for why Europe and in particular Britain lead the rest of the world in the onset of modern economic growth.  

Mokyr thus endeavors to rescue the long-standing view that the onset of modern economic growth can be attributed to scientific advance.  This perspective has frequently been challenged by those noting that key advances during the British industrial revolution made little use of scientific concepts being based instead on “useful knowledge.”  

Mokyr’s essays are eloquent narratives about the importance of propositional knowledge to the cultivation of economic growth.  However, as Mokyr acknowledges, propositional and prescriptive knowledge interact with each other and it is problematic to elicit their relative contribution.   This is especially the case given the long lags in play with developments in the 17th and and early 18th centuries only fully manifested in technological advance over a century later in the nineteenth century. 

These tensions surface in Mokyr’s 2018 Journal of Economic History  review of Gillian Cookson’s Age of Machinery. Cookson focuses on the contributions of Yorkshire machinery builders to the growth of the English textile industry.  While acknowledging that she may be right to dismiss the contribution of propositional knowledge for this case, he asserts that “the argument is surely not true in this strong form for the British Industrial Revolution as a whole” (pp. 1253-54).  Addressing this adequately is perhaps beyond the purview of Culture of Growth. This may reflect the more general difficulty of  establishing relevant counterfactuals and estimating magnitudes of impact for intellectual developments and the contributions of elites. 

The focus throughout the later essays on economic growth as suggested in the title is arguably anachronistic.  Economic growth was not a term used in early modern Europe. The term “progress” employed in Chapter 14 may be more appropriate here and the evolution of the term progress and how it segued into awareness of the possibility of growth warrants further consideration as would  allowance for views of the darker side of capitalism and the power relationships at stake.

In highlighting the importance of culture, Mokyr acknowledges the aspects of subjectivism this introduces. However, the implications of this subjectivism could be more fully embraced.  Mokyr’s advocacy of a choice based approach to culture is problematic because it begs the question of a rationalistic meta—approach to culture. One specific difficulty with embracing the subjectivity of  culture is that already noted of distinguishing propositional from prescriptive knowledge. In this regard the contributions and intellectual legacy of the idealist Immanuel Kant and his Copernican revolution in thinking about how the perspectives of the observer influences what is seen warrants extended treatment in a serious cultural approach to modern economic history. 

While I have dwelt on some  limitations of A Cultural of Growth I should also reiterate how much I learned from reading it and underscore the range of important issues the book opens up for exploration.