[ExI] BOOK: Joel Mokyr "The Enlightened Economy"

BillK pharos at gmail.com
Fri Sep 10 19:23:56 UTC 2010

Book Review:

A former editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic
History, Mr. Mokyr sets out to answer what, on the face of it, is an
old question: Why did Britain have an industrial revolution first? Why
not France or the Netherlands, given their economic power in the 17th
century and, at the time, the increasingly free market in ideas
between Paris, Amsterdam, Edinburgh and London?

Mr. Mokyr's answer—articulated in densely packed but gratifyingly
lucid prose—is that in Britain ideas interacted vigorously with
business interests in "a positive feedback loop that created the
greatest sea change in economic history since the advent of culture."

Reduced to a thumbnail sketch, liberty and natural philosophy—a
catch-all term for the study of "useful" knowledge— begat prosperity,
which begat more liberty and useful knowledge, which in turn spread
through Europe and the Americas.

An article by Joel Mokyr explains his ideas:

Enlightened and Enriched
Yet the idea of material progress through the expansion of useful
knowledge—what historians today call the Baconian program—slowly took
root. The Royal Society, founded in London in 1660, was explicitly
based on Bacon’s ideas. Its purpose, it claimed, was “to improve the
knowledge of naturall things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures,
Mechanick practises, Engines, and Inventions by Experiments.” But the
movement experienced a veritable spurt during the eighteenth century,
when private organizations were established throughout Britain to
build bridges between those who knew things and those who made things.
One example was the oddly named Lunar Society of Birmingham, in which
leading scientists met regularly with famed entrepreneurs, including
the greatest engineer of his age, James Watt, and his partner Matthew
Boulton. Another was the Manchester Literary and Philosophical
Society, whose members included many of the most prominent businessmen
in Britain’s rapidly growing cotton industry.

I find this description of the Industrial Revolution as a type of
feedback loop between scientists and engineers very convincing.

There is an article in today's New York Times which references this book

and points to a similar feedback loop which built up the US industrial wealth.
And suggests that the current US economic problems are in part due to
the best brains moving to non-productive areas of the economy rather
than industry.


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