I Too Was Once a Materialist

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Deirdre McCloskey summarizes the argument of her forthcoming book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. She argues that while the modern world rode an economic tide, the tide did not have economic causes. Changes in thinking and, yes, in rhetoric did the real work. Neither thrift, nor greed, nor the Protestant ethos are at the heart of this transformation, which brought material prosperity to whole classes that had never before known it. A variety of possible causes must be dismissed, she argues, from foreign trade, to legal institutions, to coal. The dignity and liberty of the bourgeoisie are the keys to economic transformation.


  • Gregory Clark argues that cultural or intellectual developments, like the rise of the bourgeois virtues, ultimately can’t explain the modern world. Not only were such virtues around long before the Industrial Revolution, but they have come and gone throughout many different societies over thousands of years. Why, then, did the Industrial Revolution only happen so recently, and only once? Worse, if we accept that cultural changes brought modern prosperity, we face the prospect that future changes in intellectual fashion may rob us of prosperity as easily as it was bestowed. This he finds both unfortunate and, thankfully, unlikely.

  • Matt Ridley makes two connected points: First, surges in creativity and innovation are far from unique. They can be observed throughout history, and they are usually connected to increases in trade and specialization. In this sense, Britain during the eighteenth century was not exceptional.

    Second, however, Britain was exceptional in another respect — it had large reserves of coal, and it began putting them to use. Cheap energy helped ensure that the boom in innovation didn’t die out. Entrepreneurs won out against plunderers in part because they had this resource at their disposal, and because they could make the case for the benefits of innovation so easily. It was only after the switch to a coal-driven economy that wages finally began to rise for the typical British worker. They continue to do so today thanks to coal and to other sources of cheap energy that have since been discovered and exploited.

  • Jonathan Feinstein suggests that the revolution in human creativity is still underway, and that we have not yet fully recognized what it means to be creative. The science of creativity, he argues, is key here, as the creative process is very different from what most people imagine it to be.