Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Economics at Northwestern University. He also is a professor of history and co-directs the university’s Center for Economic History. Mokyr conducts research on the economic history of Europe, specializing in the period from 1750 to 1914, or what has been coined The Great Enrichment. We sat down with Mokyr to discuss the economic and intellectual roots of human progress.
How has what humans believe about progress changed? Why is what we believe important?
For most of history, in Greece, Rome, China, India — basically everywhere — very few people thought society and material life could improve in a definable way. Some people thought there were cycles, but they invariably believed that what went up also went back down. You start seeing the idea that things can improve over the long haul in early modern Europe, around the 16th or 17th century. The concept comes into its own during the Enlightenment, but even then there are some who are more committed to it than others. There is resistance. It took a couple of centuries for the idea to really take hold.
Because people viewed progress as outside their control, for hundreds of generations life did not materially improve. Believing that it’s possible for things to get better encourages people to try new things. Every dimension of human life has changed since the Industrial Revolution.
What are the most important factors that contributed to the Great Enrichment?
There are many, but I’ll mention a few. The first factor is incentives. You have to create a world in which people want to innovate and work hard. You do that by rewarding people, either financially or through fame, recognition, and honors. Preferably both.
You also need a society that’s open to innovation; one that encourages people to go where others haven’t gone. Innovation is risky. Out of 100 ideas, 99 are wrong or don’t work. You need people who are willing to be wrong, and you need a society where people aren’t threatened if they go against the ruling orthodoxy. One of the most important things in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries was that scholars were willing to challenge Aristotle and other classical philosophers whose ideas were, at that time, regarded as gospel. Intellectual ancestor worship, the idea that previous generations were smarter and knew more, impedes progress. The oldest is not necessarily the best.
You focus on the economic history of Europe from 1750 through 1914. What’s unique about this place and period?
As I said, you don’t want people with controversial ideas to be threatened. What you want is for others to debate and discuss why ideas might be incorrect. During and after the Enlightenment, you had people coming up with all kinds of new ideas — most of them strange by our standards — but they could discuss them and try them out. Speaking up at this time could still be somewhat risky, but in Europe the leading minds could move from country to country, which made it harder to persecute “heretics.” There was no single autocratic ruler like in China. In fact, who knows what history would have looked like if Napoleon had won at Waterloo?
Europe was lucky because of its political geography. In a competitive system where people could move around ideas flourished. Governments began to realize that they’d lose their best minds to their neighbors if they persecuted them — that if you put people who think outside the box in jail, you’ll eventually slow down or extinguish progress. We saw the counter to this example in the Soviet Union in the 20th century. There was potential: it was the first country to put a rocket into space. Yet in the end the regime failed because it limited human freedom. Saying something the government thought was subversive was dangerous.
You’ve said that, even today, the idea that humans drive progress is somewhat controversial. There are scholars and leaders who suggest growth necessarily has to taper off at some point. What do you think?
You get these statements asserting that humans have reached satiation. We have SUVs and video games, so what else could we possibly want? That’s mistaken. In fact, the needs of the world to create more resources, find more solutions, are probably greater today than they were even 15 or 20 years ago. We’re facing major crises like climate change. Growth produces resources, and we will need resources to tackle these challenges because we will need to adapt our infrastructure to the changes in our physical environment, which will be hugely expensive.
Given that thought, how do you feel about the potential for future progress? Are you hopeful? Why or why not?
There is good news and there’s bad news. First, the good. The driver of economic progress over the last 250 years has been increasing knowledge. There’s no sign whatsoever that our capacity to learn new things is slowing down. From material science to messenger RNA, all over the world people are making discoveries. They’re even finding new methods of doing research. Human knowledge is expanding just as fast today as it ever has, and I see no evidence that there’s an upper limit to it. We’re also able to share knowledge instantaneously.
The bad news is that progress also depends on institutions. Good institutions will keep us from going backward, but good institutions can fall to bad ones. That happened in Germany in the 1930s and in China with Mao. Bad politics and bad institutions can produce some growth, but they confine the benefits of growth to a small segment of people. Bad governments also use the resources to oppress the population, or misallocate resources. They invade other countries or spend their resources to surveil their own people. There have been great ideas in many places throughout history, but the Great Enrichment was possible in part because the Enlightenment thinkers realized they also needed good institutions. Especially now, it’s not obvious to me that institutions are getting better. We don’t see democracy winning out in the world.
Are there any other periods and places you feel are particularly important in understanding human progress?
Yes, China between the 10th and the 12th centuries and, if pressed, I even would say the Roman Empire. In both, there was a lot of innovation, and strong commitments to agriculture, science, mathematics, medicine, and industry. But they got off the rails. Because of this there are things that China could do in 1100 AD — build sophisticated clocks and seaworthy ships, for example — that it could not do in the 17th century.
There no single reason they failed. There are at least 30 different explanations for why the Roman Empire fell, from Christianity to lead poisoning to the fact that they were imprisoned in the box of ancient Aristotelian thinking, but the point is progress is not preordained. You need people who are producing knowledge — who are trying to understand how things works — you need good institutions, and you need people who believe they can do better, that they can change things. That’s absolutely critical.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This interview is part of an ongoing series that discusses the principles that unlock human potential. Find links to the entire series here.