Enlightenment and economics

Posted by Tory Historian Saturday, July 31, 2010 ,

Tory Historian's attention was called to a review in the Wall Street Journal of a book that will be borrowed from London Library at the first possible opportunity: Joel Mokyr's The Enlightened Economy. The reviewer, Trevor Butterworth who is the editor of STATS.org and a columnist for Forbes.com, thinks this is the tome that should be read by all those who are interested in financial and economic matters.

The theme of the books is a question: why, of all European countries, many as advanced if not more so, it was Britain that had the Industrial Revolution?

Here is a paragraph from the review that points towards some of the answers:

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.
Rent seeking remains a constant problem, perhaps a greater one in the Britain of the twenty-first century than that of the eighteenth.


  1. Within the Austrian School of Economics (and no doubt among classical liberals, too), the question centres around the question of mercantilism and protection versus the free economy.

    I also recommend, as introductory reading, ‘A Myth Shattered: Mises, Hayek, and the Industrial Revolution’ by Tom Woods, Jr and ‘Facts about the “Industrial Revolution”’ by Ludwig von Mises, one essay among several in the edited volume The Industrial Revolution and Free Trade.

    I ask Tory Historian (as a kindred Tory spirit): does this economic reality cause him/her to criticise some aspects of Toryism’s legacy, as it was the Tories who were (in addition to later Whig oligarchs) most closely identified with protectionism? This is a conundrum that has occupied my thoughts for some time.

  2. It is, indeed, a conundrum, Mr MacLean and one that appears from time to time on this blog. The Tories were, in the first place, supporters of protectionism though not a few of them benefited from the more enlightened economic attitude that brought about the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions. On the other hand, both Whigs and Tories had very similar attitudes to the question of rent-seeking.

    Much of the problem can be seen in a new book about Sir Robert Peel and his reputation, both during his life and afterwards, that Tory Historian is reading at the moment and will be writing about soon.

  3. Thanks; Peel is a good example, given his advocacy for Free Trade after his previous support for the Corn Laws, Disraeli’s rebellion against his leader to uphold Protection, then Dizzy’s own subsequent repudiation.

    When I began reading the Austrians, this Tory had most of his cherished beliefs challenged, ideals such as benevolent interventionist monarchy and faith in the State’s ability to do good. Though these tenets remain, it has been necessary to reformulate them to take these criticisms into consideration. A similar process ensued when examining neo-liberal economics.

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