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The Enlightened Economy

David Greasley looks at a new interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution and the origins of modern growth

Published: April 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm
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Reviewed by: David Greasley
Author: Joel Mokyr
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £30


The lead car on the Occident Express. That’s how Joel Mokyr portrays Britain during the Industrial Revolution. 

Western economies pulled away decisively from low incomes and Asia during that period. Opulence resulted, though even in Britain the bigger gains came after 1850. The wider-world implications were enormous, spanning beyond the British Isles as industrialisation and its accompanying technology spread through Europe, North America and in more recent times, Asia.

Mokyr places intellectual ideas centre stage in his interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution and the origins of modern economic growth. As a judicious scholar he allows other forces, including mineral abundance and colonial expansion, to play supporting roles, but star billing goes to the Enlightenment and the wide acceptance of new beliefs.

To persuade that intellectual rather than material forces explain the Industrial Revolution, Mokyr utilises deep knowledge of technological and industrial history, often narrated at the level of the individual inventor, thinker, factory-owner or craftsman. 

He constructs a view of the period where ideas led rather than followed sustained economic growth. At times Britain’s industrialisation appears tangential to the wider sweeps of history surrounding European Enlightenment and scientific advance.

Thus particular British advantages of geography, geology, relative peace and less-extractive politics gave her industries an earlier start, but the deeper intellectual forces were pan-European.

At the time of the English-Scots union the British state was wedded to mercantilist principles, which justified and made possible rent-seeking by those with influence. For Mokyr the Industrial Enlightenment changed the rules of the economic game. Eventually the new thinking meant ideas and knowledge underpinned wealth creation rather than its redistribution, as the Mercantilist Age gave way to Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment provided the fertile ground of a society where opportunities to innovate and succeed in business became key to personal and national success.

In Britain the Industrial Enlightenment had social depth and encompassed thinkers, inventors, factory masters and artisans. The impact of the famous names from Adam Smith to James Watt was enormous, but beneath the giants were a larger contingent of enlightened people that spread the culture and values of useful knowledge.

Possibly the social depth of enlightened thinking and her pragmatic exploitation of useful knowledge distinguished Britain more than Mokyr admits. The utility of new thinking was easier to see once the material advantages of Britain’s Industrial Revolution became palpable.

This book can be read as a textbook history of Industrial Revolution Britain. Indeed its depth of scholarship and literary brilliance provides admirably for that purpose.

The technological story and the origins of British leadership are writ large in the earlier chapters, but full discussion of overseas trade, agriculture, factories, firms, transport and finance latterly appear. An interesting tension arises from a narrative which provides a genuinely comprehensive economic history of Britain’s Industrial Revolution but also has the particular purpose of persuading that past scholars missed the vital ingredient: the role of ideas.

The causes of the Industrial Revolution in Britain were multi-layered, and rested, Mokyr says, on a remarkable confluence of circumstances which included enlightened ideas. Chiefly the even-handed discussion reflects honest scholarship, and there are no signs of hesitation when the possibility that enlightenment ideas grew from the Industrial Revolution is dismissed.

Yet the concluding sections are occasionally tentative, and ideas become one of many causes of the Industrial Revolution, even if an enlightened age was necessary for industrialism and opulence.

Mokyr narrates brilliantly a rich story of modern economic growth where the Industrial Revolution arose from foundations laid by Europe-wide enlightened ideas. Whether or not Britain’s exceptional circumstances, including the pragmatic style of enlightened thinking that emerged in Scotland, set her further apart than Mokyr admits remains a puzzle.

There were signs in England that the Malthusian age had passed before the Age of Enlightenment. Thus a growing and increasingly urban population, where cheap coal fuel dominated, wages were above subsistence and various Atlantic trades flourished, also provide a backcloth for Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

Moreover on the far side of the Revolution divide, rising incomes were accompanied by a demographic transition. Enlightened parents had more children during the revolution, but fewer and better educated children thereafter. Was the shift to higher human capital formation driven by ideas or by material forces which provided different incentives?

Mokyr has made a deeply impressive contribution. He claims to have spotted a blindingly obvious lacuna, yet one missed by generations of Industrial Revolution scholars: the Enlightenment. That may be an oxymoron, and the debates will surely continue.


David Greasley is professor of economic history, University of Edinburgh


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