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How We Got into This Mess, from Economic Principals

August 6, 2019

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton, 2016), by Joel Mokyr, of Northwestern University, is one of those obviously important books that nevertheless hasn’t received the reception it deserves, owing, perhaps, to its daunting erudition; more likely, to readers who thought they already knew the story of how the West grew rich.

For instance, for well over a year, the book has sat on an office shelf at eye level across the desk here at EP’s world headquarters, along with three other books by Mokyr, and three closely-related volumes by Deirdre McCloskey (who has a new book coming out), as well as a set of careful notes made by a friend, waiting for a week in which I had nothing else to do except tackle them. The New York Times didn’t review A Culture of Growth when it appeared; neither did The Wall Street Journal nor The New York Review of Books. Burnishing the brand of British exceptionalism, the Financial Times, The Economist, and The Times Literary Supplement all did give it their attention.

Last month a review essay appeared, prepared by Enrico Spolaore, of Tufts University, for the Journal of Economic Literature, that locates Mokyr where he belongs. He is in the vanguard of a movement among economists broadening the concerns of their discipline to include the influence of what we commonly call culture. (Spolare’s review elicited this Free Exchange column in The Economist last week.)

Examples of this deeper curiosity abound: in The Republic of Beliefs: A New Approach to Law and Economics (Princeton, 2018), by Kaushik Basu; in A Crisis of Beliefs: Investor Psychology and Financial Fragility (Princeton, 2019), by Niccola Gennaioli and Andrei Shleifer; in David Kreps’s Nemmers lecture, Some Dimensions of Behavior with Which Economics Should Contend, at Northwestern University. Spolaore and his research partner Romain Wacziarg are themselves major contributors to the literature: In Fertility and Modernity, they construct a dataset of 275 European languages and dialects in order to compare what they call “linguistic distances” amongEuropean regions with changes in fertility rates. Not surprisingly, they find that social norms diffuse along cultural lines.

For a long time it has been apparent that something important happened in Europe after 1500 that did not happen elsewhere. The recognition goes back at least to Max Weber’s 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More recent debate began after Australian economist Eric Jones’s 1981 book, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia. Then came Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, in 1997, and David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Nations are So Rich and Others So Poor, in 1998. Now Mokyr, and his cross-town Chicago counterpart McCloskey, have zeroed in on fundament cultural values, especially in Bourgeois Equality Howe Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, the third volume of her monumental trilogy. The wheelhorse chapters in Mokyr’s book are devoted to two carefully defined and described “cultural entrepreneurs,” Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, followed by accounts of the cultural diffusion and evolution of their ideas.

To my mind, the greatest value of A Culture of Growth may turn out to be as a goad to reflecting on what more will be required to transform enthusiasm for growth to a culture of sustainability. At least that is the sense in which I am finally reading it now. But that’s s topic for another day. | 52 Berkeley Street, Somerville, MA 02143