©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Review of The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1859 by Joel Mokyr. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. 564 pp. + x. Index

by Deirdre McCloskey
Forthcoming, History Today. 655 words.
Filed under articles [drafted or planned].
Posted 23 January 2010.

Deirdre N. McCloskey teaches economics, history, and rhetoric at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her latest book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in October.

Joel Mokyr

Draw with a wide gesture of both hands the outline of a prize-winning pumpkin and you cover a lot of ground. A "pumpkin book" proposes a big theme covering a lot of history. Concerning the most important event in secular history---how the world went from $3 a day per head in 1800 to $30 now, with places like Britain reaching $110 a head---such books have recently proliferated, with more in press. Joel Mokyr, a leading economist and economic historian at Northwestern University outside Chicago, has written a pumpkin book on how Britain Did It Before 1850.

His book is lively and learned and above all true, a triumph of science meeting history. The Enlightened Economy replaces Landes' old The Unbound Prometheus on the historical side and Floud and Johnson, eds. new An Economic History of Britain on the economic side as the best introduction to the British Industrial Revolution, with many sidelights on the Continent and China. Mokyr combines the intellectual merits of an historian with those of an economist, melding an elegant style and attention to primary sources with interpretive verve and attention to analytical rigor. In places the book is even funny, which is not so common in economic history.

Mokyr is one of a small group of pumpkin fanciers who support a New Consensus on why northwestern Europe grew and why Britain led the way. Mokyr, Margaret Jacob, Jack Goldstone, Deirdre McCloskey, and few other admirable scholars think that material explanations---coal, empire, trade, exploitation, investment, legal change---don't work very well, or work at best as background conditions shared by China or the Ottoman Empire, say, or by earlier versions of Britain. For a long time in historical writing, 1890 to 1980, we were all historical materialists. But now in the New Consensus even some leading economists have returned to a balance between beliefs and interests: "Economic change in all periods depend," writes Mokyr in his opening sentence, "more than most economists think, on what people believe."

"The best definition of the Industrial Revolution is the set of events that placed technology in the position of the main engine of economic change." The New Consensus claims that the engine was the wave of gadgets (as an English schoolboy long ago described it) of steam and pottery and cotton cloth. What set the scene for two centuries of unmatched enrichment after 1800 were technological ideas and their social supports---what Mokyr calls the Industrial Enlightenment and Goldstone the Engineering Culture and I the Bourgeois Revaluation. An ideology approving of bourgeois innovation was crucial, and new. "It would be simply wrong," Mokyr writes, and would be a return to the materialist dogma of 1890-1980, "to believe that ideologies were simply a reflection of economic interests and that persuasion itself did not matter at all."

The book sets a stunningly high standard. One might doubt whether Mokyr's sweet toleration of empty-pumpkin "growth theory" or "institutional analysis" practiced nowadays in the Department of Economics is quite justified by his own much richer evidence. In the book there's a good deal of inconclusive "on the one hand, on the other," when the reader knows from the beginning that Mokyr actually believes that Europe-wide "the Industrial Revolution was the outgrowth of the social and intellectual foundations laid by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution." "The Enlightenment is the 600-pound gorilla in the room of modern economic growth that nobody has mentioned so far." Well, not quite "nobody": it was mentioned, as Mokyr himself shows, by all those optimistic bourgeois innovators and engineers who gathered in Europe, and especially in Britain. And one might also doubt whether "Britain's leadership by itself was. . . not essential." Had the Armada landed, and then the United Netherlands collapsed, it seems likely that Europe would have suffered from the innovative sclerosis that infected at the time the great empires further east.

But it's awfully good stuff. Buy and read.