Liberalism made us brave, bold—and rich, argues Deirdre McCloskeyby Deirdre McCloskey / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy by Joel Mokyr (Princeton University Press, £24.95)
Joel Mokyr—“moh-keer”—is a Nobel-worthy economic scientist, right down to his wingtip shoes. But he is at the same time a brilliant historical scientist. Economics and history have very different intellectual values. Mokyr combines them to give us here an intellectual history of “the origins of the modern economy” back to the times of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon and before.
At Northwestern University in the United States, Mokyr is an honour-draped professor in both the department of economics and the department of history, and teaches also at the University of Tel Aviv. If you didn’t know much about how modern economics operates as a field you would imagine that such combined skills were routine.
Surely? After all, the data for understanding the economy are historical, and come in words as much as in numbers. We don’t have future or theoretical or stylised or imagined or convenient facts. We have instead the irritating facts, all of them historical, mainly about what dead people said and thought. So of course an economic scientist, like an astronomical scientist looking at stars many light years away or an evolutionary scientist looking at beasts many millions of years ago, would be serious about understanding our ancestral economies many decades or centuries away—yes?
No: Mokyr is rare in his field. Someone who takes the same approach is his colleague at Northwestern, Robert Gordon, who also published a big book of historical economics this year (The Rise and Fall of American Growth, reviewed in February’s Prospect by Lawrence Summers). Mokyr and Gordon sparred recently in the Wall Street Journal about whether we are doomed or blessed.
A Culture of Growth is a brilliant book. You should buy it, and even read it. It’s long, but consistently interesting, even witty. It sustains interest right down to page 337, the very last, unlike, say, Thomas Piketty’s 2013 Capital, which by page 20 of 577 becomes stunningly boring. Another difference between the two is that Piketty’s book is mistaken and Mokyr’s is correct.