The test of an intelligent critic is that he gets one’s arguments straight, putting them in ways that one wishes one had been clever enough to devise. My old friend Greg Clark passes the test at three A’s in A-levels. He’s exactly right, for example, about our shared dismay at the boyish charms of incentives à la Freakonomics. In Bourgeois Dignity I have some vexed discussion of how “institutions” have come in some circles to mean “economic incentives.” When I read Steve Levitt or Doug North I’m reminded of Mae West’s response: “I approve of the institution of marriage. But I’m not ready for an institution.”
“Incentives explain very little of the huge gaps in wealth cross the world.” Yes. Put it down as a settled scientific finding. “In case after case we find, deep in the 10,000 years of economic stagnation, fully incentivized market societies.” Yes again. So Greg and I and Mokyr and Goldstone want economic historians, and especially economists, to stop claiming that rationality is new, or that activating it explains the modern world, or that an economic growth in the bourgeois countries over the past two centuries of 2000% (conservatively measured) can be explained by routine responses to routine incentives that any bright second-year student of economics could draw a nice diagram of.
But Greg claims that Mokyr and I have “no account for why the Industrial Revolution waited so long.” Oh, yes we do. We say that social ideas changed in a thoroughly liberal direction for the first and only time in history during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first in Holland, then in England and Pennsylvania, and then Massachusetts, Scotland, and the world. They changed for reasons that were sometimes material (London was unusually big and strong when the bumbling Stuarts came to the throne) and sometimes non-material (Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, and Smith lived and wrote as they did) and sometimes both (Protestant presses vied with Catholic ones for new readers). Bourgeois Dignity has a chapter on Greg’s worry/criticism that liberalism might fade. But we all agree—Ridley, Clark, Mokyr, and I—that the cat of liberty is hard or impossible to put back in the hierarchical bag once the accidental liberals around the North Sea let it out, and especially once it resulted in the 2000% percent or more increase in human scope. For which praise God.
Greg is not comfortable thinking about our full human culture and commences sneering at it as codpieces and platform shoes. I recognize the feeling. I too was once a materialist and scorned ideas, even while busily propounding them. I’m not an anti-materialist by disposition. I’m a disappointed materialist. Greg wants Mokyr and me to have a Deep Explanation for the liberal revolutions. He favors very long-run evolution, even genetics. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The old way of saying it, which Greg has got beyond, is that We English are after all anciently special, and just naturally suited to ruling the world. It doesn’t seem so, not in the actual historical science done in the past decade. Many students of the matter, such as Jack Goldstone or Kenneth Pomeranz, and Mokyr and I, have concluded that in, say, 1492, or 1649, or even in many ways in 1707, no sensible person would have bet on England to have made the modern world. It was an accident, a happy accident of bourgeois dignity and liberty, a new thing under the sun.