Symposium: Getting It Almost Exactly Right; Mokyr’s Glittering Culture of Capitalism

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)

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
Emerita, Economics and History,
Univ. of Illinois at Chicago

Joel wrote a characteristically brilliant, witty, learned, persuasive, humane, penetrating book. It is economics, for its steady attention to the most recent insights of economic theory; it is history, for its astonishing essayistic scholarship bringing the histories of science, technology, and social thought together for the benefit of each; and it is economic history, for its breaking of paths through the materialist jungle that our dear, dear colleagues have let grow up around the Industrial Revolution and its amazing follow-on, the Great Enrichment.

The range of scholarship in the book is astonishing, but is not mere ornament.  Joel takes seriously the job of making an argument, which always requires comparison and test.  For example, his brilliant chapters late in the book on China make the point that we need to understand China in order to understand the peculiarity of northwestern Europe.

Joel and I hold in common anti-materialist hypotheses concerning how we became rich, stressing ideas as against coal, savings, imperialism, slavery, capital accumulation, legal rules, and the other materialisms beloved of economists from Smith through Marx down to “growth theorists” nowadays.  All of the ideational arguments make more sense in explaining the strangest secular event in history—the increase of average real income per head by fully 3,000 percent, 1800 to the present—than the scores of materialist arguments which historians and economists devised.

Ideas mattered, immensely. I am therefore anxious that Joel gets the ideational arguments exactly right. I wish therefore that he had attended to:

(1.)  The shakiness of the claim that “institutions” were central.

Yes, yes, the Royal Society.  But Joel correctly notes that it atrophied in the 18th century.  So much for conservative institutions like the French Academy, killing Progress in detail.  Joel knows this, and for example shows persuasively in Chapter 11 that the institution of universities was usually a drag.  But he wants to situate the book within the neo-institutionalist movement in modern economics, which has become orthodoxy at the World Bank: Add institutions and stir.  Yet his theme is in fact that ideas, ethics, rhetoric, language, enthusiasms, ideologies mattered most. To call these “institutions” is to make Douglass North’s mechanical version of the theory (“the rules of the game”) into a tautology.  All human action gets called “institutions.” Action causes action. Duh. Joel would be well advised to look into John Searle and others such as Tomasello, Tallis, Martin Buber on institutions, They give a humanistic perspective on “institutions”—which is what Joel is doing, whether or not he quite realizes he is.

(2.)  The de-emphasis of the Great Enrichment.

Goldstone among others has emphasized that industrial revolutions are somewhat common.  It is the astonishing follow-on, the Great Enrichment of the 19th century, and then its Science-driven consequence in the 20th, that amaze.  Joel is reaching back, admirably, into the early modern world in Europe to see the roots, but he does tend to smoosh the time periods together, especially when he is claiming that Science made us rich in the 19th century.  No one of sense would deny that now Science is crucial to our future prosperity. But when exactly it became the chief pusher of the economy is very much in doubt. Not, certainly, as early as 1800 or 1850. Not plausible even much in 1900.  Yet certainly by 1950. Most trade-tested betterments before 1900 had little or nothing to do with High Science.  

(3.)  The emphasis on Science to the exclusion of commercially tested betterment.

Joel needs to take on what he and I would recognize as the “Pete Boettke point,” namely, that “usefulness” is only to be measured by what people are willing to pay in a market.  The market for ideas on which Joel spends so many illuminating and persuasive pages does not automatically value its products commercially. But only if they are commercially viable do innovations contribute to explaining modern economic growth. The Republic of Letters did not lead in “the long term” to economic effects unless there was also a Bourgeois Revaluation. I entirely agree with him about the long term (very long term) effect of even High Science.  I agree, too, that the honoring of curiosity and intellectual originality spilled over into economically relevant areas, some even pretty early. But it would have been seed cast on stony ground if the Bourgeois Revaluation and the Bourgeois Deal had not happened at about the same time. 

(4.) The exclusive emphasis on the Republic of Letters and on Science and their alleged sufficiency.

I quite understand that it is our scientific duty to find the largest causes we can, and to firmly set aside trivial ones.  But I don’t agree that incentives suffice, or that Science did a lot for the economy (until very late). But the main point is that Joel is giving his BaconScienceRiches link exclusive billing, when it’s pretty obvious that political and social changes leading to liberty and dignity for ordinary people were also at play, and had large effects on the economy much earlier than Science. Early on—I mean before 1900 or so—the shift of egalitarian ideology matters much, much more than science for economic development. 

But I do not want any of this to detract from my Main Conclusion: it is a sensationally good book, a major work of science and scholarship.