This post continues the “Highlight” series, which has previously included posts by Ridolfi and Malinowski. It has been written by my colleague Philipp Roessner, who is a faculty member at the History faculty of the University of Manchester.
Thinking about growth?
For ages people have pondered about the origins and nature of the wealth of nations. Adam Smith was neither the first nor the most original thinker in this department (see [Hörnigk 1684] Rössner 2018, introduction pp. 1-120). Noble prizes have been awarded (e.g. Paul Romer in 2018) for developing sophisticated theoretical approaches to growth. Economists and historians have highlighted various possible reasons for why some countries grew rich whilst others didn’t, or did so only late (the famous divergence and convergence debates). The most common origins of prosperity suggested today are geography (e.g. Landes 1998, Jones 2003), education, market size and market integration, resource endowment, institutions (e.g. Acemoglu & Robinson 2012), or the role of the state (Reinert 2008; Vries 2015, Parthasarathi 2011).
The “hockey stick” metaphor for the abrupt shift in trend growth of per capita GDP in the West from pre-modern agrarian to industrial growth around 1750 has stuck. It continues to bemuse economists and historians alike. Between 1800 and 1970 growth in the west exploded. Previous centuries had seen modest expansion, if at all. Entire rainforests have been cleared for the paper used in the publications attempting to solve the puzzle.
No one however, has tackled the obvious solution. And that is economic mentality (Rössner 2016). In recent years, historians and economists have turned to it, but indirectly. Most of them chose to focus on (sometimes ill-defined) aspects of “culture.” Mokyr has, in two fascinating books, evoked the Enlightenment (2011) and a more long-lived European “culture of growth” (2017) as ultimate causes for the European “miracle” (Mokyr 2011; Mokyr 2017). Another challenging hypothesis explaining the Hockey Stick has been advanced by McCloskey and the evocation of bourgeois value, culture and dignity (McCloskey 2006, 2010, 2017). But history has shown us that bourgeois entrepreneurs most of the time did exactly the opposite of what such lofty moral claims about their “dignity” commanded. The commercial revolution of the Atlantic and Asian economy (1650s-1750s) brought us tobacco, sugar and other exotic products creating a European culture of consumers (Trentmann 2017). It set the scene for the industrial revolution. But it was built on the suffering, enslavement and exclusion of others. Who asked the Indian textile manufacturer for their consent to the process (who was expelled from the world market by means of the British protectionist mercantilist customs and tariff system, see Parthasarathi 2011), or the Afro-American slave working on the Caribbean sugar plantation, or the Black US-American slave working in the cotton fields that fed Manchester’s burgeoning cotton mills in the 1800s? Not so much dignity to be found in the “bourgeois” process of capital formation on the eve of the industrial revolution, right?
So, if neither bourgeois values nor hard data really explain the origins and causes of growth (they are good at describing, in metrics, what happened, an important yet often overlooked difference), then what does? We need to get intellectual history into the picture, that is our economic cosmology. We know how important “Big Stories” and myths are in structuring human reality (Midgley 2011). For instance, since David Ricardo we to believe in the virtues of free trade, albeit we have tantamount empirical evidence to the opposite. Yet the “free trade makes a free world and vice versa” myth is an important part of our daily routine and reality. Because if we give up on this important cultural value the world will fall to the Lord of The Rings, Sauron, Mordor, or – more concrete in our time – the Trumps of our time. In a similar way what I would like to call “economic cosmologies” are important markers structuring reality. We use them to navigate the unknown waters of the future. They may be the most powerful forces moving the economy and economic development.
But why has economic cosmology not been taken up in models of economic growth and development? This is, of course, impossible to answer. But just consider the possibilities of adding it into the picture. Call it the history of economic analysis (as Joseph Schumpeter, the famous Austrian-US economist did), the history of economic reasoning (Karl Pribram, another influential Austrian economist and historian of economic thought), or, as it is most commonly known today, the “history of economic thought”. There’s a handful of prime journals in the field, most notably History of Political Economy (known, quite aptly, by its acronym HOPE), or the History of Economic Thought. It is all there. But the intellectual history of modern economic growth happens in the backyard still. Neither historians nor economists really bother about it, even though some of the most influential economists of the twentieth century either studied history or happened to be historians – Robert Lucas and Joseph Schumpeter, to name but two.
To cut a long story short: Economic mentality, the way we think about economy, can manifestly change the way we do economy and economic growth. As soon as people believed in the possibility of economic growth, economic growth became a possibility. It began to happen. It really is that simple. The Ancient Greeks and medieval economists and theologians known as “Scholastics” did not bother about growth. Instead they developed increasingly sophisticated models of market exchange, business and price formation (in fact, they were comparatively relaxed about business, the taking of interest and the making of profit; no wonder, since many churchmen in the middle ages came from successful merchant families). Until the 1650s the dominant economic literature of the day, first the Scholastic treatises on money and markets, then the somewhat weird economics genre known as “household management” (Hausväterliteratur) never paid much attention to modelling growth. This is because people did not associate growth, or economic expansion more generally, with positive qualities. Other economic goals were held more important – being a successful estate manager, keeping your money together, saving your soul from Purgatory, or just being a decent businessman with decent profit, but not over the top. Growth – of your business, of your nation – was simply off the radar.
Then, around 1600 something changed. The reasons of it are still ill-understood. But the present author is working on it currently. Just consider two examples. After the disastrous Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the Holy Roman Empire (“Germany”) lay in shackles. Capital had been destroyed, as had human souls by the awful woes of the big war. In the wake of this war a handful of economists known as “Cameralists” began to develop comprehensive models of restructuring economy (Reinert & Rössner 2016). Their models built on improving productivity and efficiency, promoting domestic industry and value-added activities (most likely to be found in manufacturing: Brexiteers, listen up!). It was all about generating useful knowledge and added value. They also started modelling the open human-economic future. This was an important departure from a world where the only “real” future had been Armageddon, that is the pretext to the Second Coming of Christ. Cameralists such as Veit Seckendorff (who produced his main work Teutsche Fürsten-Stat in 1655, “The German Princely State”), or Johann Heinrich Justi (1717-1771), Germany’s most prolific economic writer in the Enlightenment, wrote extremely successful textbooks on economics and state administration which went through ten or more editions. Their books continued to be read long after their authors had died and would be translated into Russian, French and Italian, sometimes even English (Reinert et al. 2017). They did not always use the word “growth”, mainly because the contemporary German word for growth (“Wachsthum”) referred to plant growth. But they knew what economic growth was – per capita GDP growth as we would say today –, and how it could be achieved. And they developed increasingly sophisticated methods of achieving it.
Or in post-1648 Sweden, where thinkers around chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, Bengt Skytte, later on the famous biologist Carl Linnaeus/Linné developed models of infinite growth based on a cornucopia of knowledge expansion. As Wennerlind has shown, the Swedish Age of Greatness (1648-1721), when Sweden as the “Lion in the North” nearly turned the Baltic Sea into a Swedish inland lake, begot a wave of scientific discovery. Networks of natural and economic science flourished (Wennerlind 2016). The Swedish wave of economic discovery around 1648 rested upon the conviction that the human-economic future was plannable and manageable. If only the correct tools of natural science and natural discovery were chosen, this could be the road towards indefinite growth. Swedish thinkers, often connected related to pan-European science networks, such as the English Hartlib Circle in England or Sophopolis, an imagined European community of wisdom, unlocked the keys towards infinite growth. This programme was based on useful knowledge, natural discovery, promotion of education, scientific research and innovation, providing the foundations of the intellectual movement commonly known as Enlightenment.
This seems to me what Romer, in one of his famous articles (Romer 1998), has called increasing marginal returns on knowledge, something that is crucial for economic growth. It was there, in the heart of Europe and beyond, in the 1650s. Let me reiterate: The explanation of the “Hockey Stick” really is dead simple. After 1650, there was a switch in the European economic mind. Before that people did not think of growth as a virtue. They thought more of balance, conservation, just prices. They simply were not interested in growth. After 1650 more and more thinkers began to see growth as something desirable and feasible. So, it seems to me we should do more work on the history of economic thought when trying to explain the history as well as mechanics of growth.
Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (New York: Crown 2012)
Eric L. Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999)
Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006)
Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010)
Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017)
Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By, new ed. (London & New York: Routledge, 2011)
Joel Mokyr, Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017)
Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution 1700-1850, (London: Penguin, 2011)
Prasannan Parthasarathi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Erik S. Reinert, How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor (London: Constable, 2007)
Erik S. Reinert, Kenneth Carpenter, Fernanda A. Reinert, Sophus A. Reinert, “80 Economic Bestsellers before 1850: A Fresh Look at the History of Economic Thought”, Tallinn University of Technology Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics no. 74 (2017), http://hum.ttu.ee/wp/paper74.pdf
Erik S. Reinert and Philipp Robinson Rössner, “Cameralism and the German Tradition of Development Economics,” in: Erik S. Reinert/Jayati Ghosh/Rainer Kattel (eds.), Elgar Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development (Cheltenham/Northampton: Edward Elgar, 2016), pp. 63-86.
Paul M. Romer, “Increasing Returns and Long Run Growth”, Journal of Political Economy 94, No. 5 (1986), 1002-1037
Philipp Robinson Rössner, ‘Entangled Worlds or Cultural Bifurcation? Comments on the Intellectual Origins of the Great Divergence and Modern Economic Growth, c. 1500-2000 A.D.’, in: COMPARATIV | Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und vergleichende Gesellschaftsforschung 3/16 (2016)
Philipp Robinson Rössner (ed.), Philipp Wilhelm von Hörnigk’s Austria SUPREME (if It So Wishes)’. A Strategy for European Economic Supremacy (1684). transl. Keith Tribe
Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (London: Penguin, 2017)
Peer Vries, State, Economy and the Great Divergence. Great Britain and China 1650s-1850s (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Carl Wennerlind, “The Political Economy of Sweden’s Age of Greatness: Johan Risingh and the Hartlib Circle,” in Philipp Robinson Rössner (ed.), Economic Growth and the Origins of Modern Political Economy: Economic Reasons of State, 1500- 2000 (New York, NY; Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016), pp. 156-186