Economics historian Joel Mokyr says it was culture that made the West rich

Historians in the News
tags: economic history, economics, Joel Mokyr

Why did the West grow rich in the 18th century after thousands of years of nearly zero economic growth? Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, contends that it was the culture in Western Europe that sparked the Great Enrichment.

Joel Mokyr is the author of the recent book, “A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy.” He joins me on the podcast to discuss his argument, what the lessons of economic history can teach us about the future of innovation, and whether the techno-optimists or -pessimists are right about the future.

To listen to our entire discussion, download it from Ricochet or subscribe on iTunes. You can check out the complete version of our conversation here.

What do you mean by culture and what happened back in the 1600s and 1700s that ignited the Industrial Revolution?

What I mean by culture is — basically beliefs. And specifically, what I have in mind here is, what people believe about their natural environment and the role of humans in the universe. And what you see happening, more and more, between say, roughly speaking, Columbus and the death of Isaac Newton in 1727, is that within Europe, we see a culture among the literate elite. And that is not just clergyman and philosophers, but it includes engineers, it includes chemists, it includes astronomers, it includes mathematicians, it includes doctors — people who had an education. And these people basically come to the conclusion that the role of studying nature and doing what we would today call research in science in technology is to improve the human condition, is to find applications. Now, this sounds totally commonplace, perhaps even banal, to somebody in the 21st century. But in 1500 it was not at all obvious that you studied nature in order to improve the human lot, because, a) People knew so little that there was very little that they could do to improve the human lot. ...

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