The Great Divergence and the Marketplace of Ideas: Joel Mokyr’s “Culture of Growth”

The Economist has recently published a review of Joel Mokyr‘s new book, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy – a new contribution to the debate over “the great divergence” between the European and Asian economies, and how Europe’s wealth and power began to overshadow India’s and China’s by the nineteenth century. Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, focuses on the role of ideas in bolstering European productivity in the early modern period – a consequence of the opening up of its marketplace of ideas from one regulated by religious dogma to one that fostered innovation. Why did such a free market take hold in Europe, rather than Asia? Geography, Mokyr claims, played a role: the continent’s fragmentation into a number of states allowed thinkers to sell their ideas elsewhere when their home countries made them feel unwelcome.

The magazine gently criticizes Mokyr for omitting the historiographical context for his arguments; his is not, it argues, “for someone looking for a general introduction to the great divergence,” and makes no attempt to strengthen its argument by taking on competing theories – such as, presumably, Kenneth Pomeranz’s seminal Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000), which focused not on the role of ideas, but material factors (for example, the ease of extracting coal, and the development of colonial trade) to answer the question of why an industrial economy rose first in Britain rather than China. “Those familiar with the historiography will have their own grumbles,” the review acknowledges, but finds its own greatest frustration in how “untestable” Mokyr’s vague contentions about the “greatness” of European intellectual figures’ contribution to the world of ideas is – how exactly these figures set the stage for economic superiority.

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