For most of human history, poverty and stagnation were the norm. In 1800, according to an estimate by the economist Deirdre McCloskey, the real income per capita of the average person on the planet was roughly equal to that of people in present-day Afghanistan. Sustained economic growth and technological dynamism, meanwhile, were quite unusual. Yet beginning with Great Britain in the late eighteenth century, parts of the world—primarily but not exclusively in the West—came to see growth as the default condition. Today the word as a whole is some ten times, and the United States some fifty times, richer than the world’s average in 1800. How such growth emerged, and why it emerged when and where it did, is one of the core questions of economic history. In his new book, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, the eminent economic historian Joel Mokyr sets out to answer it.
Modern growth, as it is normally defined by economists, involves a substantial increase of real income per capita sustained over a long period of time—that is, average people’s incomes not only get better but also continue to do so. (In preindustrial times, periodic increases tended to be wiped out in the long run by population increases, famines, plagues, or war.) Most scholars agree that growth of this sort was unknown before the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain around 1800, which led to a virtuous cycle of increasingly more and better products, services, and technologies. Internationally, this led to what historians have called “the Great Divergence,” in which the West economically and technologically pulled away from the rest of the world during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century.
Why the Great Divergence happened is one of the great questions of world history. Some scholars, such as Jared Diamond in his bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, have attributed different developmental paths to various geographic endowments. But although geography may be helpful in explaining static differences
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