Joel Mokyr

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Joel Mokyr

Joel Mokyr (born 26 July 1946) is a Netherlands-born American-Israeli economic historian. He is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics at the University of Tel Aviv.


  • Before the Industrial Revolution all techniques in use were supported by very narrow epistemic bases. That is to say, the people who invented them did not have much of a clue as to why and how they worked. The pre-1750 world produced, and produced well. It made many path-breaking inventions. But it was a world of engineering without mechanics, iron-making without metallurgy, farming without soil science, mining without geology, water-power without hydraulics, dye-making without organic chemistry, and medical practice without microbiology and immunology. The main point to keep in mind here is that such a lack of an epistemic base does not necessarily preclude the development of new techniques through trial and error and simple serendipity. But it makes the subsequent wave of micro-inventions that adapt and improve the technique and create the sustained productivity growth much slower and more costly. If one knows why some device works, it becomes easier to manipulate and debug it, to adapt to new uses and changing circumstances. Above all, one knows what will not work and thus reduce the costs of research and experimentation.
  • As Hooykaas (1972, p. 101) argued, the pervasiveness of religion meant that for any idea to become socially acceptable, it made a huge difference whether it was resisted, tolerated, or sponsored by prevalent religious beliefs.
    • Joel Mokyr (2016), A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. p. 133
  • Hooykaas (1972, p. 100) writes that especially commercial and industrial cities were intellectually dynamic, far more so than sleepy university towns. These cities also tended to be more tolerant of different religions and multilingual. Modern research has found that especially cities involved in Atlantic trade were institutionally dynamic.
    • Joel Mokyr (2016), A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. p. 174

The lever of riches: Technological creativity and economic progress, 1992[edit]

Joel Mokyr, The lever of riches: Technological creativity and economic progress. Oxford University Press, 1992.

  • In discussing the distinction between minor inventions, whose cumulative impact is decisive in productivity growth, and major technological breakthroughs, it may be useful to draw an analogy between the history of technology and the modem theory of evolution ( ... ) Some biologists distinguish between micromutations, which are small changes in an existing species and which gradually alter its features, and macromutations, which creates new species. The distinction between the two could provide a useful analogy for our purposes. I define micro inventions as the small, incremental steps that improve, adapt an extremeline existing techniques already in use, reducing costs, improving form and function, increasing durability, and reducing energy and raw material requirements. Macroinventions, on the other hand, are those inventions in which a radical new idea, without clear precedent, emerges more or less ab nihilo. In terms of sheer numbers, micro inventions are far more frequent and account for most gains in productivity. Macroinventions, however, are equally crucial in technological history.
    • p. 12-13 as cited in: Pol, Eduardo, and Peter Carroll. "Innovation heterogeneity and schumpeterian growth models." (2004): 1.
  • The distinction between micro- and macroinventions is useful because, as historians of technology emphasize, the word first is hazardous in this literature. . Many technological breakthroughs had a history that began before the event generally regarded as “the invention,” and almost all macroinventions required subsequent improvements to make them operational. Yet in a large number of cases, one or two identifiable events were crucial. Without such breakthroughs technological progress would eventually fizzle out.
    • p. 14
  • The physical and social environment is important in determining the actions of individuals, although it is not solely responsible for the outcome.
    • p. 155
  • Economists have traditionally been leery at mentalités as a factor in long-term economic development. In the budding literature on the economic rise of the West, such factors have been ignored or curtly dismissed. In the past, economists’ hostility to religious factors stems from the incompleteness of such theories. Attitudes were a matter of degree, not of absolutes.
    • p. 171
  • If England led the rest of the world in the Industrial Revolution, it was despite, not because of her formal education system.
    • p. 240
  • The distinction between micro- and macro inventions matters because they appeared to be governed by different laws. Microinventions generally result from an intentional search for improvements, and are understandable -if not predictable- by economic forces. They are guided, at least to some extent, by the laws of supply and demand and by the intensity of search and the resources committed to them, and thus by signals emitted by the price mechanism. Furthermore, in so far as micro inventions are the by-products of experience through learning by doing or learning by using they are correlated with output or investment. Macroinventions are more difficult to understand, and seem to be governed by individual genius and luck as much as by economic forces. Often they are based on some fortunate event, in which an inventor stumbles on one thing while looking for another, arrives at the right conclusion for the wrong reason, or brings to bear a seemingly unrelated body of knowledge that just happen to hold the clue to the right solution. The timing of these inventions is consequently often hard to explain. Much of the economic literature dealing with the generation of technological progress through market mechanisms and incentive devices thus explain only part of the story. This does not mean that we have to give up the attempt to try to understand macroinventions. We must, however, look for explanations largely outside the trusted and familiar market mechanisms relied upon by economists.
    • p. 295; as cited by Pol, Eduardo, and Peter Carroll.
  • What made the West successful was neither capitalism, nor science, nor an historical accident such as a favourable geography. Instead, political and mental diversity combined to create an ever changing panorama of technologically creative societies.
    • p 302
  • Technological systems, like all cultural systems, must have some built-in stability.
    • p. 327

The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution, 1700–1850. 2010[edit]

Joel Mokyr (2010). The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution, 1700–1850. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

  • By ignoring and evading rather than altogether abolishing obsolete rules and regulations, eighteenth century Britain moved slowly toward a free market society.
    • p. 397

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