Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth: A review in the African context (1)

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica

In A Culture of Growth: The origins of the modern economy, Joel Mokyr, a professor of economics and history at Northwestern University in America, argues modern economic growth or “the Great Enrichment” or “the Great Divergence” emanated from a deliberate and revolutionary change in European beliefs, values and preferences. A radical change in culture. That change, “the European Enlightenment” or “The Enlightenment”, was incidentally propelled by just a few people. European elites decided to change the ways they saw the world. The result? Unprecedented prosperity that endures to this day. To make progress, a culture must encourage openness, progressivism, pluralism and competition.

Attitude & Aptitude
In the African context, especially as we continue to flounder economically, a key lesson is that the change that would alter the course of our history for the better and engender wealth creation would only be brought about when our elites decide to change their ways. But how can they do that in the current technological age with the West already so far ahead? To answer this question, it would certainly help to know how “in the two centuries between Columbus and Newton, European elite culture underwent radical intellectual change” that led to “the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of useful knowledge as the main engine of economic [growth].”

My rebuttal against the European triumphalism tag that is often pinned on those who argue culture underpins the West’s economic success is that of change. There was a marked change in European culture. In other words, an elite looked at its ways and made a decision to change them with the view to achieving sustainable prosperity. In other words, they gave up their growth-inhibiting inherited values and created new ones. That is a human and universal phenonemon unrelated to race or heritage. And it is a change that any group of human beings can decide to make.

Evidence of the universality of this change can be seen in the similar success of other countries or regions of the world who decided to adopt similar principles with varied results. Today, we all know the earth is round-shaped. There was a time when those who thought so were publicly executed for defying dogma. How many more “the earth is flat” fallacious beliefs underpin our actions and approaches to life? Finding out the earth is round instead of flat is not what matters most. What does, is the deliberate questioning of beliefs and dogma with the singular purpose of discovering the truth. That deliberate and systematic curiosity is essentially what the Enlightenment was all about.

“Religious beliefs and metaphysical attitudes condition a society’s willingness to investigate the secrets of nature [and] alter its physical environment irreversibly”. Put in the African context, our religious beliefs and metaphysical attitudes weigh a great deal on our ability to innovate for economic success. When the Europeans decided to challenge these beliefs, they discovered truths that led to the development of the steam engine, aeroplane, and many more innovations that make us masters of our world today. Unsurprisingly, those who refused to be similarly irreverent are also some of the poorest today. After all, technological innovation, which underpins economic prosperity, is “a consequence of human willingness to investigate, manipulate, and exploit natural phenomena and regularities”. To a great extent, the openness of the West to new and foreign ideas, irrespective of its source, underpins its continued technological leadership.

“Vested interests of incumbents protecting the rents generated by status quo techniques and fear of the unknown and novel create strong incentives to resist innovation.” “What changed history was that in Europe, over the long term, the innovators defeated conservatism. This did not happen anywhere else.” Why? “Political fragmentation, coupled with an intellectual and cultural unity, an integrated market for ideas, allowed Europe to benefit from the obvious economies of scale associated with intellectual activity.”

Irreverence is key to progress
“The most direct link from culture and beliefs to technology runs through religion.” We, Africans, are a very religious people. We are also a very poor people. No one is suggesting we give up religion or tradition. But we must be ready to question our beliefs. And do not seek those answers from the clergy or elders in whose interest it is to jealously guard the advantages or “rents” religion or tradition offers them. Question everything. Question our traditions. Question our culture. Find your own answers. As a guide, you should ask whether a cultural or religious value or norm is backward-looking or forward-looking. The latter is the one that engenders progress and creates longlasting prosperity.

Be unconventional
How do you change a culture? Mokyr proceeds to answer this question by quoting George Bernard Shaw’s Maxim 124 in his “Maxims for Revolutionists”: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonble one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” You need unreasonable men and women to change a culture towards progress. Thus, it is no coincidence that it is the unreasonable and irreverent that create new wealth.

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