First came Gregory Clark’s blockbuster, A Farewell to Alms, which offered a novel theory why the Industrial Revolution happened in England. (Short answer: superior breeding, in the words of the Cato Institute’s Jason Kuznicki.) Then came Clark’s fellow economic historian, Joel Mokyr, with his own magisterial history of the Industrial Revolution, The Enlightened Economy. Trevor Butterworth reviews it for the Wall Street Journal today here. This stuff is hot hot hot!
For good reason. The Industrial Revolution may be the singular event in the history of our species – or any species for that matter. Until 200 years ago, you either struggled to get enough to survive or worried about getting killed for it if you succeeded. Now, thanks to the material abundance produced by the Industrial Revolution, humans are free to think on loftier things. (You know, Eat, Pray, Love.) How it happened is one of the most important riddles the social sciences can solve.
Oddly, although Butterworth knows enough to generalize about how economics think (“marrying economics to intellectual history has little appeal for many economists,” says Butterworth), he does not even mention Clark’s celebrated book. You would think that, after Clark, every history of the Industrial Revolution must either support, qualify or reject his thesis. (Razib Khan noted the tension or possible complementarity of Mokyr and Clark before either book had even been published.) Yet Butterworth still blithely endorses Mokyr’s view that the Industrial Revolution was caused by (i) ideology (i.e., Enlightenment values) and (ii) institutions (i.e., free-trade and property rights), both of which explanations Clark rejects as either epiphenomenal (ideology is a product of material factors) or contrary to fact (superior institutions do not cause prosperity). How could Butterworth not acknowledge the most famous alternative to Mokyr’s views?
Possibly Butterworth is somehow simply unaware of Clark, though that seems unlikely. Subconsciously or not, Butterworth may instead have decided simply to ignore him. For, having praised Mokyr, Butterworth goes on to draw a conventional lesson:
[The Enlightened Economy]’s perceptive examination of the birth of economic prosperity holds many arresting insights for our fraught economic times, where freedom is increasingly associated with government regulation and politicians appear all too-willing to accommodate new varieties of rent seeking.
In other words, argues Butterworth, prosperity depends on having the correct (free-market) institutions. No, it does not. On the contrary, if you believe Gregory Clark, prosperity depends on having the right people. Butterworth comes from the school of libertarian globo-optimists, who believe that all you need to do to relieve the suffering of mankind is to spread our superior market institutions. Liberty is for everyone! I’m all for liberty. Alas, if we spread it around the globe, or invite others to come here to enjoy it, we will not necessarily be doing ourselves (or, in the long run, them) any favors.