But the power of knowledge would not, by itself, have given Britain its formidable economic edge; the Continent, too, had an array of scientific genius as brilliant as any in Scotland and England. (Think only of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.) The reason for Britain’s exceptionalism, Mr. Mokyr says, lies in the increasing hostility to rent-seeking – the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealth – among the country’s most important intellectuals in the second half of the 18th century. Indeed, a host of liberal ideas, in the classic sense, took hold: the rejection of mercantilism’s closed markets, the weakening of guilds and the expansion of internal free trade, and robust physical and intellectual property rights all put Britain far ahead of France, where violent revolution was needed to disrupt the privileges of the old regime.
Such political upheaval in Europe, notes Mr. Mokyr, disrupted trade, fostered uncertainty, and may well have created all kinds of knock-on social disincentives for technological and scientific innovation and collaboration with business. Much as we might deplore too many of our brightest students going into law rather than chemistry or engineering, it is not unreasonable to think that many of France’s brightest thinkers were diverted by brute events into political rather than scientific activism (or chastened by poor Lavoisier’s beheading during the Revolution).
Thus Montesquieu may have advocated free trade as passionately as Adam Smith, but Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” – the canonical text of the Industrial Enlightenment – fell upon a society primed to judge and implement it as an operating system. Evangelical and liberal alike shared in the vision of “frugal” government, as Mr. Mokyr puts it. In the opening decades of the 19th century, Parliament took an ax to itself, pruning the books of what were now seen as harmfully restrictive laws.
I have my doubts about whether robust intellectual property rights did much to encourage the industrial revolution, but apart from that …
This books is now in the post to me, thanks to Amazon, that characteristic trading innovation of our own time.
I suppose reading books like this is, for a British libertarian, an experience somewhat like that of a religious believer contemplating the delights of the Garden of Eden. It may be a bit bogus, in the sense that like all earthly Edens this one was decidedly imperfect and probably felt just as discouraging to its contemporaries as life seems to a lot of us now, a lot of the time.
For who knows? Maybe the times we are living through now may be looked back upon by later generations as similarly Eden-like, either because we are now making huge intellectual (as well as more obvious economic – think Amazon) progress, but we can’t quite see it (maybe any decade now our Parliaments will take axes to themselves), or because times are about to get a lot worse.
I hope (although I promise nothing) to report back here about whether the book deserves the above praise.