“The Gifts of Athena,” J. Mokyr (2003)

“Accelerating growth since 1750 has affected the world more than all other social and political changes taken together (p. 297).” From the dawn of mankind to the mid-1800s, the range of real incomes between the poorest regions at their poorest times and the richest regions at their richest times was probably no more than a factor of three of four, and certainly any deviation from that range was supremely short-lived. We know this because the minimum real income is subsistence only, and the maximum can be estimated from consumption in certain wealthy areas (early Ming China, the height of Rome, Holland in the 1500s, Venice in its heyday, etc.). Following the Industrial Revolution, real incomes have risen in many areas to more than 100 times their pre-IR level. Such gains are not only in terms of income: many sub-Saharan countries today have literacy rates, infant mortality rates and life expectancies better than the most prosperous countries in the world as of 1850 (and even 1900!). Given such massive effects, knowing why the IR took place is perhaps the most important question a historian could answer; many simple explanations do not hold water (e.g., early rates of high literacy are not associated with early income growth).

Mokyr provides what seems to me the most cogent answer. Roughly, the IR is special not only because new techniques were invented – things were being invented continuously throughout history – but because the process of cumulative invention did not peter out. He suggests that there are two types of knowledge, prescriptive and propositional, which tell us how to do something and why that how works. The two types of knowledge feed back onto one another: seeing a machine work gives us reason to search for why, and knowing why a process operates lets us develop new techniques using that process. The Industrial Revolution exploded with greatest force when there was a process for doing scientific research, whose results were accepted as “true”, whose results were communicated to the broader politic, which were then transformed into products by tinkerers and other non-research inventors. Much of Mokyr’s book, especially chapters 2 and 3, provide low-level and heavily-cited evidence for such claims. You should read the whole thing, so the rest of this post is just notes on other arguments I found interesting.

1) Knowledge being “tight” and well-justified helps science become accepted, but such tightness is not necessary for progress. Consider sanitation in the 1800s: cleanliness helped reduce germ-borne illness, especially from the water supply, but the justification for cleanliness campaigns was by and large the now-discredited miasma theory (“sickness is in the air”).

2) Selection of “true” techniques may operate sometimes on firms, but certainly won’t operate on households. Households need to be persuaded that a given fact is true in order to change behavior. Cue Latour and Ziman on socially constructed facts. Beyond households, non-market selection of technology is also prevalent in many other areas since politics shapes market outcomes. For instance, in 2001, the Netherlands got 4% of power from nuclear, versus 56% in next-door Belgium.

3) Useful new technology is often resisted, and not for Mancur Olson style rent-seeking reasons. Law is often xenophobic (Ming and Qing-era China), corporate leaders can be conservative while having market power (Henry Ford did not like radial tires), etc.

4) Sometimes resistance is justified by uncertainty. Consider this amazing anecdote about the engineer Thomas Midgley, from General Motors. In 1921, Midgley invented tetraethyl lead for gasoline, which helped engine performance; of course, it also polluted terribly. In 1928, he invented CFCs, a miracle chemical which also turned out to be awful for the environment. After being stricken by polio, Midgley invented a series of pulleys to help himself get out of bed – well, you know how this ends: the poor guy ended up strangling himself with his own invention by accident!

5) “Caldwell’s Law” says that creative states are only super creative for a short time. This isn’t merely a result of rent-seeking taking over, though. Top-down invention systems like those in Song-era China can be very productive, while political fragmentation may halt invention due to wars and instability (Sweden after 1700, Netherlands after 1580). Rather, certain types of inventions may be more amenable to certain types of institutions, and if institutions are rigid over time, a given state can be super inventive in one era and less so in another. And institutions are not rigid arbitrarily: “Institutions are there for a reason; they were not imposed on poor countries by an evil spirit (p. 283).”

This is a book well worth reading.

http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=alOdfmgXaEoC (Google Books preview – grab the full text from your nearest library!)


One thought on ““The Gifts of Athena,” J. Mokyr (2003)

  1. cvg says:

    Economies of Desire: Fair Use …Rebecca Tushnet
    blogs at

    Intellectual property and Incentive Fallacy — Eric E. Johnson

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