Symposium: Four Questions To Mokyr’s A Cultural 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)

Steve Pincus
Thomas Donnelly Professor of History
Univ. of Chicago

Joel Mokyr’s Culture of Growth is a remarkable achievement.  Mokyr has produced a cultural account of the origins of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Divergence, or the Great Enrichment based on deep reading in the economics literature, the literature in the history of science, and the cultural history of the early modern period.  His argument, laid out in 350 densely argued pages, is at once simple and complex.  

Nevertheless I was left with a few questions.   

First, was the Republic of Letters a sufficiently robust institution to disseminate useful knowledge?  The evidence points in two directions. Mokyr cites a good deal of material to demonstrate robust discussions and a range of applications.  But I am always struck as I comb through archives in Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands how much effort and money was spent spying on industrial processes, on accounting procedures, and methods of commercial organization.  Even more money was spent on enticing individual adepts to leave one country and arrive in another. So transnational competition is very important, yes.  

But I wonder how important was the republic of letters. To translate this into the terms of a lively debate in European intellectual history, perhaps jealousy of trade was more important than doux commerce.  Perhaps the cultural changes that Mokyr traces would be insufficient without accounting for a very different logic that led to economic production.

Second, I wonder about selection bias. Mokyr’s story is a story about scientists and indeed often a discussion of findings in the literature of the history of science.    But why should we believe that the key cultural entrepreneurs were two Englishmen described as natural philosophers: Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton? I have no doubt they were important in brokering new ideas.  But Thomas Jefferson, quoted by Mokyr (on p. 69) lists three not two great emblematic men of the enlightenment: Bacon, Newton and John Locke.  

I puzzled why Locke is not mentioned.  Mokyr claims of Locke that “for the change in the cultural menu of choices regarding useful knowledge .. we must look elsewhere.” (p. 68)   Locke is often discussed by Matthew Boulton and seems to have been often referred to by many inventors of the 18th century. Indeed in a recent book tracing the emergence of ideas that were vital to the Great Enrichment, Sophus Reinert highlights the importance of a Lockean disciple, and the dissemination of his ideas throughout Europe.  In fact, as president of the Board of Trade from 1696 Locke did all he could to promote the implementation of useful knowledge in productive economic enterprises throughout the Empire. The Irish linen industry in particular was essentially founded by Locke. Marx obviously called attention to the importance of William Petty in mathematizing science and practical knowledge. Jake Soll has highlighted the ideas and methods of Colbert in the same enterprise.  

The point is not necessarily that Mokyr is wrong, but that there is no principle of selection enunciated. One could pile up quotes from the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries about each of these cultural entrepreneurs and many more to the same effect that Mokyr has done for Bacon and Newton.  The question is what are the interpretative implications of selecting those entrepreneurs? Or perhaps those entrepreneurs described in the way that Mokyr does.

Third, I was puzzled by the role of the state in Mokyr’s account.  “Once the possibility and desirability of economic progress had been accepted” in the late 17th century, Mokyr says, “a concrete agenda of policy measures and institutional change had to be formulated, elaborated, proposed, and implemented for long term progress to take place.” This was only implemented “in some European nations in the late eighteenth century and then more widely in the nineteenth.”  (p. 20). Later Mokyr summarily dismisses Robert Wuthnow’s claims for the importance of the state in supporting and/or impeding cultural innovation. (p. 180).  

And yet, there is overwhelming evidence that the state played a key role both in promoting cultural interchange and in promoting the implementation of useful knowledge from the late 17th century – a full century before Mokyr claims that it happened.  It is surely significant that Mokyr’s two emblematic cultural entrepreneurs were state actors. Bacon, as Mokyr, tells us was Lord Chancellor. Isaac Newton took up arms to overthrow James II, sat as MP in the revolutionary Parliament that remade the English state, promoted the financial revolution and initiated the great era of British economic legislation discussed by Jo Innes, Julian Hoppit, Patrick O’Brien and others.  Newton, as head of the Mint, used monetary policy to encourage economic innovation and promoted a mechanized mint as a model for manufacturing innovation.  

Others have shown – in an article recently published in the Annales — that the first industrial nation, Britain, spent about 15% more of its annual revenue on economic development from 1689-1790 than did its European rivals and it did so because from the late 17th century it was committed to a developmental economic policy.  Colbert, while spending a smaller percentage of the French treasury on economic issues, did much to promote the progress of the French economy long before the late eighteenth century.  

Many have pointed out the importance of the French bureau de commerce in helping to lead France out of the long recession of the 17th century.  Cardinal Fleury, the French leading minister in the aftermath of the Mississippi scheme, was committed to the developmental state. These findings are all the results of recent scholarship that has not made its way into Mokyr’s extensive bibliography.  

Mokyr highlights the importance of the postal system in facilitating the Republic of Letters, calling attention to Francisco di Tasso’s early sixteenth century innovations in Italy, Germany and Austrian lands.  But the massive explosion of the postal service – a growth of more than two orders of magnitude – in terms of quantity of letters circulated and in terms of postage sold – was a state enterprise of the late 17th century.  There is no question, then, that European states in general, and the British state in particular, were both committed to promoting the culture of progress and to implementing developmental economic projects from the late 17th century.  Perhaps the state played a rather larger role in the Great Enrichment than Mokyr lets on.     

Fourth, one is struck by the absence of a discussion of empire in Mokyr’s account.  When he discusses explanation for the Great Divergence (pp. 288-289) Mokyr makes no mention of Pomeranz’s famous “ghost acreage” hypothesis.  More to the point he does not discuss the point that Pomeranz and a number of others have made, that Empire played a decisively important dynamic consumer base for European manufactures in the period between 1680 and 1780. In a world in which increasingly closed markets made it difficult to reach European consumers, the rapidly growing markets of both Spanish America (for French manufactured goods) and British America for British ones made all the difference.  Indeed it could be argued that only the doubling of the size British colonial markets every twenty years created the demand necessary to spur the industrial revolution.  

It is true of course that Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth as well as Jan de Vries’s Industrious Revolution – cultural changes – were necessary for this demand to grow.  But structural changes – the acquisition of colonies and their demographic dynamism were necessary as well.  These cultural and structural factors were highlighted by 18th century commentators like the Abbé Raynal, Adam Anderson, Malachy Postlethwayt, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin as well as Marx in the 19th century.  Both of these factors were artifacts of the British state. And, of course, the existence of these vast overseas markets set the European Empires apart from China in the critical period under investigation.  

These points, of course, need to be read as mere quibbles.  Mokyr’s series of books have made it impossible for any of us to discuss the Great Divergence, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Enrichment without taking account of cultural factors.  That is a tremendous achievement.