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Joel Mokyr argues that the elite stood on the shoulders of craftsmen to bring us into the age of Enlightenment.

Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of economic history at Northwestern University. He has a PhD from Yale, he has taught and studied all over the world, and has supervised many dozens of doctoral students in pursuit of the past. He joins us today to talk about his latest book, A Culture of Growth, and the creeping revolution that enriched the world.

Further Readings/​References:


Anthony Comegna: Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz professor of economic history at Northwestern University. He has a PhD from Yale. He has taught and studied all over the world, and has supervised many dozens of doctoral students in pursuit of the past. He joins us today to talk about his latest book, a culture of growth and the creeping revolution that enriched the world. [00:00:30] Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.com. I’m Anthony Comegna. Can you explain to us, what exactly was the great enrichment?

Joel Mokyr: Yeah. The great enrichment basically reflects the fact that in our time, we are richer and living at a higher standard of living than anyone [00:01:00] who’s ever come before us, and that even the poor of today in many dimensions have a material quality of life that exceeds those of the very rich and the most powerful people who were living in Europe even at the time of the Renaissance. When I say Europe, the same would be true for China, for India, [00:01:30] even more, I suppose more poorer areas than that, like Russia, Africa, places like that. We are living at a living standard that is just unprecedented in human history, and it’s not just that we have more stuff, and that we’re eating better, but it shows up in all kind of unexpected dimensions. Not only that we live much longer. Life expectancy [00:02:00] has doubled essentially in the last 150 years. It used to be somewhere around 40, and now it is 80 in industrialized countries, but a lot of other things that people should be aware of.
We are taller than people used to be. All kind of other biological changes have occurred as the result of better nutrition, better environmental conditions. We are better able to warm ourselves in the winter, and cool ourselves [00:02:30] in the summer, and protect ourselves from all kind of nasty bugs in the water and in the air. There’s this vast improvement across a very, very broad front in the material standard of living that has taken place, essentially in the last 200 years. Until then, I would say, whatever changes were taking place were extremely slow, readily reversible, and that’s no longer [00:03:00] the case.

Anthony Comegna: If you quantify these changes, and put them on a graph, it looks like a hockey stick … Wealth just shoots up.

Joel Mokyr: It looks like a hockey stick.

Anthony Comegna: It just shoots up in the 19th century, especially …

Joel Mokyr: There’s very little change for most of history, and then all of a sudden, it just jumps up. The hockey stick analogy, of course, comes from climate change, and from the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is of course a byproduct of industrialization as well. The good [00:03:30] stuff and the bad stuff come together. The hockey stick can be taken as both an indication of our success and of the hazards that that success entails.

Anthony Comegna: Why did this enrichment, this steep, sharp climb upward in wealth, why did it happen where and when it did?

Joel Mokyr: That’s the $64,000 questions, and libraries have been written about this, and I couldn’t possibly start to summarize it. In a way, [00:04:00] we probably have more explanations than we know what to do with. People have pointed to all kind of differences, starting off with religion, and ending up as having to do with relative fact of prices, like high wages inspired technological changes, and on, and on, and on. Probably be useful to separate this into two [00:04:30] questions. First, one, why did it happen in Europe, and not anywhere else? The second is, why does it happen, say, in the late 18th century, in the period we call the Industrial Revolution, and not, say, at the time of Charlemagne or Julius Caesar, or something like that? I think that … Pleading these two questions separately is probably wise. Otherwise, it gets too … You’re biting [00:05:00] off more than you can chew, and so the question why Europe itself is already a vast issue, because the fact of the matter is that if you looked at the world in, say, 1500 … Suppose you were alive in 1500, and somebody told you, “Well, you know, in half a millennium, some part of the world is gonna get extremely rich and industrialized, and some part of the world is gonna be trying desperately to catch up.”
My money would be that people would say, “Well, obviously it’s gonna be China [00:05:30] that will be leading the world, and Europe that’s catching up.” That’s not what happened, of course, and so there was something about Europe that made it look very different from the rest of the world, because it’s not just China that did not experience what Europe experienced. It was India. It was Africa. It was Eastern Europe, and so on, and so be least if you want. There’s something about Europe, and what that [00:06:00] exactly is, of course, has to be the subject of a great deal of dispute among scholars. I tend to be very skeptical of the view that some people have put forward, that points to religion, and basically says, “Well, you know, Judeo‐​Christianity had in it the roots of economic success.” I find it sort of hard to believe for a variety of reasons I don’t want to get into right now, but I think that there is something [00:06:30] to this view, and since they point to the fact that what people really believed, and the sort of mentality and culture, if you want, is actually of greater importance than economists have typically assumed.
In the last 15 years, I think economics has rediscovered culture, and is trying to see how they can fit it into the overall scheme of things, but I don’t think it’s religion, per se. Nothing about [00:07:00] Christianity as such, even as we extract it from the fact that Christianity, of course, contains a great deal of variation within itself, not only that you get a big split between Protestantism and Catholicism, more or less at the beginning of the period to which things start to happen, at the end of the Middle Ages, but also that within Catholicism and within Protestantism, there’s a fair amount of variation, some of which are more friendly to economic growth and technological progress [00:07:30] than others. Where I think we should be looking is at the critical fact that Europe is politically, highly fragmented, which creates a competitive environment in which these sort of nation states, or sometimes much smaller areas like independent city‐​states, are continued to be competing with one another for political advantage and military advantage.
At the same time, Europe has [00:08:00] an intellectual unity that makes it possible for intellectuals to produce for a large market. They get in some sense the best of all possible worlds, and that’s the situation that you see nowhere occurring. In China, we do have of course a great deal of intellectual unity, because the country shares the written language, and shares a Mandarin culture, but there is no competition between [00:08:30] China and other states that were threatening it in the way it was in Europe, and I think that makes a very large difference. In other parts of the world, you get a great deal of fragmentation, but no intellectual unity, like in India and in Africa. Europe in that sense is the best of all possible worlds, and this is something that, by the way, if you read the Enlightenment writers, and I cite some of them in my book, Kant, and Gibbons, and David Hume. They all make this point. They all say, ” [00:09:00] Oh, one of the reasons that Europe is so advanced,” and the 18th century term they use is polite, which they use in a different way than we do.
What they mean by polite is of progressive, if you want. Said the reason why this is so is because nations are competing with each other, and nobody wants to fall behind. They pointed to things that we all learn in high school, for instance, how nations that felt that they were in some way behind, Russia [00:09:30] is the prime example, making deliberate effort to catch up with the others. Even if the competition between, say, England and France, which dominates political history in the 18th and 19th century, spurs both of these societies to put a lot of effort in economic and technological progress. They were doing, if you want, the right thing for the wrong reasons, but the net result, and maybe the unintended consequences of is [00:10:00] economic progress, and that I think is what sets Europe apart. The question of timing is much more difficult, but I think my argument, that what you needed to overcome in Europe is sort of meant, what I think of as a medieval mentality, in which people basically view history as a set of cycles [00:10:30] in which things go up, and things go down.
This is an ancient view that you see strongly incorporated in classical civilization. The most famous example that, of course, is in the book of Ecclesiastes, in which there’s sort of sense that generation cometh and generation goeth, and there’s nothing new under the sun. Sometimes things go up. Sometimes [00:11:00] things go down, and this was still a widely‐​held belief in medieval and even in early modern Europe, but what you see happening, and that for me, this is the essence of the Enlightenment, is a belief in progress, and that history really is not a set of ups and downs, but it is a trend. What people start realizing in the 17th and 18th centuries, that the reason this is so is [00:11:30] because knowledge is cumulative. In the 17th century, people like Pascal and Newton and Galileo would without necessarily dissing the ancient scientists that they were all reading and quoting, above all, of course, Aristotle. They basically made the point that we know what Aristotle knew, because we can read Aristotle, but [00:12:00] not the reverse, right?
We know more because we have learned things since Aristotle, and we’re learning more and more every day, and these things are piling up on top of one another. I think that insight, that gave Europe a confidence in the possibility of progress, that for me is the core of the Enlightenment. That said, I should add immediately that the possibility of progress is [00:12:30] not enough. You also have to believe in the desirability of progress. A lot of people who say, “Oh, yeah, well, progress is possible. We don’t want any of that, because industrialization is bad. There’s alienation, commiseration, blah, blah, blah, blah.” There’s a whole plan of thought that really goes in that direction, and what you see happening in the 18th century, which some exceptions like Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau, people think not only that progress is possible, but that [00:13:00] it’s desirable, that it will raise mankind to a new living standard. I don’t think that they could imagine how big that increase would be, but they all felt it was possible.
There’s different variations on that, but if you read somebody like Condorcet, or Telugu, in France, or even for that matter Adam Smith, in England, they all believe … Scotland, I should say. They [00:13:30] all believe that progress was possible and desirable, and without that belief, I think the whole thing would have essentially run out of steam.

Anthony Comegna: Central to that narrative of knowledge makers accumulating knowledge over time, in your telling of it, at least, is the search for power over nature, and that we can improve the human condition by exercising greater and greater power over nature. I suppose my question [00:14:00] for you is, you say this group of scientists, and tinkerers, and specialists is always very, very small, a couple thousand at the most, and that they are teasing out masses of new information, useful knowledge that can be put to human betterment. I suppose my question is, useful for whom, exactly, and is this the sort of thing that we should be skeptical [00:14:30] of and weary about, because elites, like Bacon, for example, sometimes want specifically to use their power nature to extend to power over other human beings as well.

Joel Mokyr: That is to some extent what people are trying to do. The power over nature always involves, to a large extent, interpersonal games in which I’m going to try to use whatever power I have over nature to jockey into a better position. [00:15:00] That said, I think, it’s very important to realize that what you see happening is that as people acquire more power, more and more of that is used for the creation rather than the redistribution of wealth. You may want to achieve power over other people to redistribute wealth, and to gain a better bargaining position in society, but in fact what people [00:15:30] end up doing is creating a great deal of power over nature, that is used primarily as a game against one’s environment. How can I pump water out of coal mines? A very mundane, practical question, but that is a problem that they were trying to solve. Of course, the steam engine turned out to be the answer to that, and then the steam engine found all kinds of ugly uses. Motivations may in fact have been to [00:16:00] some extent gaining power over other people.
Military considerations were clearly a driving force, but that’s, in the end, turns out to be largely incidental. What has really mattered more than anything else that we have been able to harness the forces of nature to our needs, and solve all kind of problems that basically just improve people’s [00:16:30] lives. For me, one of the most radical inventions of the Industrial Revolution had actually nothing to do with the cotton industry, the iron industry, and coal mining, and steam power. It’s actually the vaccination process against small pox, which happens in 1796, smack in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, but it’s … It has nothing to do with gaining power over other people. It has everything to do with [00:17:00] solving a problem that kept people incredibly busy in the 18th century. Small pox was a great fear, and for good reason. It’s a terrible, terrible disease, and it got worse in the 18th century. People were, doctors were struggling all over Europe, not just in England, to find a solution to that, and bang. The guy figured it out.
That for me is much more significant [00:17:30] than the kind of technology that gives you power over other people. That said, that said, it is absolutely true that once your peers were able to create this useful knowledge that they used it to take control of other parts of the world, sometimes more success, sometimes less success. Essentially the age of imperialism is a byproduct of these technological revolutions, and everybody who studied imperialism glanced [00:18:00] it right away. The reason Europeans were able to take over, essentially redistribute Africa, and large chunks of Asia as well for that matter, was because they had a superior technology, but those things, they tend to be temporary, even though they may have lasted many decades, because your peers couldn’t keep the technology for themselves. They couldn’t stop the … First, the Japanese, and then the Chinese, and eventually everybody else from acquiring these technologies, and says, “Well, if you guys using this technology to dominate us, we [00:18:30] can get ahold of that technology, and use it to defend ourselves.”
In some sense, we’re still living with the set of final outcomes of that, because the whole sort of debate about nuclear proliferation can be seen in that light. I’m not going to get into that, but you see what I’m saying. This, the domination of other people is in some sense a byproduct, and what’s true for international relations [00:19:00] is equally true for what’s happening within a country. It’s true that for at least a little while, and there’s some good reason to believe that what Karl Marx was talking about was not a bad description of what was going on. You have capitalist, who own the means of production, and they’re using those, create a huge amount of profit, at, as Marx and Engles believed, at the expense of workers. We could debate that, but that’s what they inherently believed. This [00:19:30] is obviously not going to last, and eventually the fruits of technological progress filtered down to very wide layers of the population, so that certainly now in Europe, the classical problem of poverty as it existed still in the 18th century has essentially disappeared.
I always am really struck when I travel to Europe. The United States is a somewhat different story, but when you go to Europe, you actually have to [00:20:00] work very hard to find poor people. I spent, I think I’ve been through almost every major town in Europe. In the West, you go to places like Stockholm, and Zurich, and Amsterdam, you see people who are rich and people who are less rich, but really poor people, people who are starving, who are wearing rags, who are living in house, it’s gone. It’s no longer there. The New Testament says the poor will always be with you. They’re [00:20:30] not. They’re gone, and good riddance, I would say. This is an absolutely unbelievable achievement that people don’t fully recognize. This is a vast success. That said, on a global level, unfortunately, of course, poverty is still a problem, but everything points to the fact, in the last 15 or 20 years, the number of people who by any definition should be seen as poor [00:21:00] is coming down, and it’s coming down rapidly.
If we have famines, if we have starvation, it’s typically the result of stupidity and bad policies, not of the fact that we cannot provide for these people, if we had the political means and will to do so.

Anthony Comegna: I want to pick up on a theme that you mentioned earlier, and that is that ideological change, intellectual change, scientific advancement is basically a trans‐​political phenomenon. It’s not [00:21:30] something that’s limited to some arbitrarily established geographic boundary, and it’s not necessarily something that can be contained either, no matter how much some governments at some times may want to. Ideas, as you mentioned in the section on cultural evolution, ideas kind of travel as an infectious agent from society to society. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the republic of letters that stretched [00:22:00] across many different countries across Europe throughout the Enlightenment, and tell us exactly what was this phenomenon? What sort of people were a part of it, and was it an institution that people recognized in any sense, or was it far more fluid?

Joel Mokyr: Economics has in the last few decades rediscovered this idea of institutions, mostly thanks to the work of my late friend and [00:22:30] Nobel Prize winner Douglas North, but many others have played a role in it. When I was a graduate student in the 1970s, institutions were something that sociology stopped budgeting. We in economics, we don’t deal with institutions, but that’s changed. We now are very interested in institutions, and then of course we have all kind of minor issues, like what exactly do we mean by institutions, whether they come from, what do they do? Doug and other people have been writing about this at great lengths, [00:23:00] and that literature has tended to focus largely, if not exclusively, on the state, on national institution. If you read, for instance, the book by Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail, which has a huge amount of publicity, they basically see institution as something that’s happening on a national level. It has to do with governance. It has to do with adjudication. It has to do with conflict resolution.
It’s all happening at the national [00:23:30] level, so some countries have good institutions, and some countries have bad institutions, and the ones with good institutions get rich, and the ones with bad institutions don’t. What you’re pointing to in your question is that some institutions were actually trans‐​national. They did not respect national boundaries, and the Republic of Letters and its heirs today, which is essentially the world scientific of community, if you want, are part of that. They are institutions in the sense that North talked [00:24:00] about. They have rules, and people are aware of the fact that they are members of it, and they by and large play by the rules. If you don’t play by the rules, you’re likely to be in some way penalized if you get caught, and so on, and the Republic of Letters, as far as I can see, is on the first example, not quite the first. I could come up with others, but one of the first examples of a trans‐​national institution, [00:24:30] and it was recognized as such at the time.
What it really is, and I think in our age, we can really understand this better than in any other age, because we actually have similar things going on today. It’s a set of communication links between individuals who are exchanging information, so in some sense, it’s very much like the internet, only of course much slower. What it was based [00:25:00] on essentially was based on two things, correspondence, people exchanged letters through an ever‐​better postal system, and publications, which is the printing press. Both of these things experienced a great deal of improvement. Of course, the printing press only appears in the middle of the 15th century, and postal service getting better in the 16th century. It allows people to communicate, and so who are the people who are communicating? You have obviously people talking about [00:25:30] religion, philosophy, metaphysics, occult, all kind of things that we don’t think of being particularly important to modern economic growth, but among those people, there is a group. They will call themselves natural philosophers. We would call them scientists.
They wouldn’t call themselves scientists. That’s a much more recent term, but this is what they did, and so when somebody like a Galileo, or a Newton, or a [inaudible 00:25:56], just to point to the superstars, there are hundreds, hundreds of these [00:26:00] people, when they think that they have a new idea, they don’t keep it to themselves, nor do they keep it within the city which they’re living. This is placed in the public realm. This is either published in a book, as of course Galileo and Newton did, but even before that, they correspond, and they said, “Oh, I have this idea. What do you think of it?” People go back and forth, and that creates a community. I would say [00:26:30] maybe a few tens of thousands of people at its peak, but what happens is that somebody has a new idea, say, William Harvey about the circulation of blood, to just give you one famous example. That is being discussed. It was idea is proposed somewhere in England. Within a few years, people are talking about it in Krakow, in Madrid, in Paris, in Vienna, in Copenhagen.
When these ideas [00:27:00] spread out, and people go back and forth, and that created a scientific community that plays an incredibly important role in the generation of useful knowledge. You asked me useful to whom? My answer would be who knows? What I mean by useful knowledge is knowledge that is potentially useful in the generation of technology, so that would include of course advances in physics, in chemistry, [00:27:30] in botany, in mathematics, in astronomy, in all kind of areas which are potentially useful. When I say potentially useful, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be useful tomorrow, or maybe ever, but I think they are different from, say, insights in religion, in other areas of metaphysics. Medicine would be another case in which useful knowledge is growing very rapidly, and so those ideas circulate [00:28:00] within Europe, and what that of course means is that when I have an idea, most of the ideas that people have are bad. Most ideas that I have are terrible.
It’s sometimes hard to judge, so I write a letter, or a paper. I send it around, and other people read it, and they say, “Oh, my god. This is complete nonsense,” and they tell me I am nonsense, this back and forth, and out of that argument arises something [00:28:30] that will eventually become workable. That I think is the kind of community that emerges, and I tracked it in my book a little bit, and it’s quite clear that we can actually … Its history is fairly well‐​known. The embryonic forms are there already at the time of Martin Luther, say, the beginning of the 16th century. It really comes to its full flourishing in the late 17th century, in the age [00:29:00] of Isaac Newton, and by that time, Europe really has a scientific community of sorts. How many people were there in this? I said a few, tens of thousands. To be in it, you had to be at the very least, by definition, almost literate, which is a relatively small proportion of Europeans, certainly much less than half, but more than literature, you had to be highly educated.
You had to be, for most of this [00:29:30] period, at least bilingual in the sense that you had to be able to read and write in your vernacular as well as in Latin. This is clearly an elite phenomenon. It is not necessarily of people of high birth, nor necessarily of people of great means. It’s an intellectual elite. It’s an elite of people who are educated, who are intelligent, who are open‐​minded, and who are considering themselves part of this [00:30:00] joint effort of making the world a better place by better understanding the forces of nature. That is something that you don’t see anywhere else in the world. It isn’t there in, say, 1450, and by 1700, not only is it there, but everybody knows that it’s there. In fact, there is, by that time, there is actually a Frenchman called Pierre [Bile 00:30:28] who actually publishes a newsletter, [00:30:30] which is called news from the Republic of Letters.
They talk of themselves as if they are citizens of this republic. It doesn’t really exist. It’s a virtual concept, but it’s a sense of identity that these people have acquired, which is only sort of semi … They’re only semi‐​conscious of it, but clearly this is there, and it makes a vast difference to the outcome, as I [00:31:00] think I tried to stress in that book.

Anthony Comegna: Was there anything like an Enlightenment from below, from people who were not very highly educated, but who made a contribution to the growing numbers of scientists nonetheless?

Joel Mokyr: The majority of people living in Europe at the time … This is some possible exception of England and the Netherlands, are still farmers. I think it [00:31:30] better to call them peasants, and if they would spend their lives working on the land, and they were typically uneducated, most would be illiterate, and they can’t expect from them to contribute anything. Once you go beyond that majority, there is a large group of people, maybe more than, certainly larger than the intellectuals, whom I have referred [00:32:00] to as tweakers and tinkerers. These are essentially mechanics, engineers, technicians, highly skilled artisans who may not be necessarily be intellectuals. They’re probably, most of them would be literate, but not, certainly not intellectuals. These aren’t the people who go to universities, and these maybe not even members of the Republic of Letters, but they were people who were, as they called in England, good with their hands, dexterous, skilled craftsmen.
It’s not enough to have [00:32:30] good ideas, and say, “Oh, you know, my god, we could build this and that,” and without having the people who can carry these ideas out. To give you one very well‐​known example, think of Leonardo. Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius, and certainly one would think of him as a member of a Republic of Letters, or in the very early stages of it, and he wrote all … He created all these fantastic ideas that we know from his sketches. None of the things that he ever dreamed about could [00:33:00] be built at the time, because the workmanship and the materials just weren’t there. 200 years later, you have people like James Watt coming up with an idea, and again, what’s it? Oh, well, we could be a steam engine that will be much more efficient, would be useful, so blah, blah, blah. He needed somebody to build this for him, to drill the cylinders in which the actual compression took place, and lo and behold they were there in England. [00:33:30] Those skilled artisans play a very important role, and without them, I think nothing would have happened.
I wouldn’t call these people enlightened. That’s not what the Enlightenment was all about, but they are an, I would say an indispensable complement to the intellectuals of the Republic of Letters. What we really think of is Europe has had, [00:34:00] was lucky twice. It was lucky because it had a Republic of Letters, in which men like Galileo, and [inaudible 00:34:07], and so on, so forth could be active, and exchange idea, but it’s also lucky because it had a class of artisans who had been well trained. I use the word trained, not educated, and that’s quite different. These may not have gone, people who may not have gone to school. Some of them did, some of them didn’t, but they were people [00:34:30] who could actually build the models that the intellectuals dreamed up, and then scale them up, and turn them into something that was economically significant. That’s very important. It was out those people … We’re still not talking about the masses. We’re talking maybe, talk perhaps [00:35:00] 5%, I’d have to guess, 5% of the working class, but these people were clearly critical.
It’s harder to pinpoint that. We know the sort of really exceptional members of that class. What many of these people will remain anonymous, because they didn’t leave much of a record, but we know they’re there.

Anthony Comegna: Mokyr argues that an elite upper tail stood [00:35:30] on the shoulders of dexterous craftsmen, but nonetheless, those relative few had to drag along the many. On the whole, the places history has dragged us may be pleasing, at least from our part of view, but as Mokyr also argues, part of history’s value is that it suggests alternative paths to progress not taken. Discovering those submerged stories is what History from Below and Liberty Chronicles is all about. [00:36:00] Liberty Chronicles is a project of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.