Book Review: The Lever of Riches
Posted: 9 Jamad-ul-awwal 1427, 5 June 2006
Title: The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress
Author: Joel Mokyr
Publisher: Oxford University Press
The Lever of Riches: Technology or Military Power?
In his book The Lever of Riches, Joel Mokyr argues that technological change and progress is the single defining feature of European civilization that allowed it to surpass other great civilizations of the world such as the Middle East, India, and China starting from the 16th century. Yet, in order to do so he minimizes the impact of neighboring civilizations, such as that of the Muslim world. In addition, he ignores the negative effects that European rise had on other countries of the world. In other words, he rejects the exploitation of other peoples as a source of the West's riches. Plunder and exploitation are neither noble nor everlasting. But technological creativity, and an unprecedented system for nurturing it, may be. Thus by ignoring these two critical aspects, Mokyr presents a distorted Euro-centric version of economic history, which not only presents the past as dominated by Europe, but also projects the future as Western dominated.
Mokyr divides his book into four parts. Part One is the introduction. Here Mokyr presents the different economic models that are used to explain economic growth and indicates that his book will discuss Schumpeterian growth (growth that occurs due to an increase in the stock of knowledge and the application of it towards improving economic welfare). Mokyr argues that technological progress is a complex, fragile process that depends on the social and economic environment of a region, always facing enemies that are afraid of or will potentially lose from new technologies.
Part Two is a historical survey of technology spanning the two millennia from classical civilization to the early 20th century. Mokyr generally restricts the discussion to agriculture, textiles, machines, mining, and energy utilization. He is quite detailed in the discussion of many inventions and innovations of the time, spending time on the intricacies and difficulties that new techniques or machines overcame and faced at the same time. The general picture that he presents indicates that classical civilization, despite its great public works (e.g. Roman roads, bridges, aqueducts), was not very technologically creative. Despite its potential, classical civilization did not produce inventions that affected the economy; rather they were limited to military or "clever gadgets that were admired for their own sake but rarely put to useful purposes" (21-22). In cases where there was real advancement, classical society seemed unwilling or unable to take it to its full potential. Thus, Mokyr concludes that ancient economy's growth must have been based on factors other than technological progress.
He considers the Middle Ages next. This is the period from 500 CE to 1500 CE. Following the fall of Rome, its legacy fell into disrepair and Europe generally stooped to a low point in its history. Illiteracy was widespread and warfare was the order of the day. Mokyr treats what follows as an enigma. What allowed medieval Europe, despite the stultifying conditions of its time, to break through a number of technological barriers that baffled earlier civilizations? Mokyr does not dwell on the question too long, preferring to delay it to the third part of his book, where he presents his analysis. Nevertheless, he indicates that European technology developed using the following sources: "classical antiquity, Islamic and Asian societies, and its own original creativity" (31). This will be important later. The major distinction of this time was that inventions went beyond military and recreational pursuits and began having a direct impact on improving the material comfort of the masses. There were marked advances in agriculture, textiles, chemistry, navigation, and metallurgy.
The next two periods, 1500-1750 and 1750-1914, are dominated by Europe and form the main focus of Mokyr's history. He devotes nearly a hundred pages to these two periods, describing the many inventions and innovations of this 400-year era. The details are tedious, but the general vein is that this was a period of torrential innovation, which resulted in the huge gap between Europe and the rest of the world. The picture portrayed is one of inventive genius combining with conducive political and social environments to produce an era of invention that left others far behind. Feverish invention accompanied a desire to extract the last bit of work possible from the new machines. There were advances in all spheres of science and technology. Mokyr's glorification of this era is best represented by his title for the chapter on the Industrial Revolution: "The Years of Miracles".
Part Three is the analysis aspect of Mokyr's work. Mokyr considers many different factors for attempting to understand technological progress. He rejects the supply and demand model for technology, indicating that technology could not be "hired" like labor, for example, but rather technological change occurred "mostly through ideas and suggestions occurring if not randomly, then certainly in a highly unpredictable fashion" (152). Yet, the process is not totally random, and there are factors that shape the activity of a society in pursuing advances in technology. These can be summed up as private and social costs that people face when adopting new technologies versus the private and social benefits accrued after their adoption and successful implementation. In addition to the costs and benefits equation, Mokyr says there is a "desire for stability" that "exists in every society, thought its intensity varies" (154). This can be a very powerful obstacle to technological change and depends on the positioning of "losers" to technological change within society.
Yet, the major problem with the costs and benefits equation is that there are too many unknowns. This is what makes technological progress so unpredictable. Mokyr considers many factors that could play a role in promoting or thwarting technological progress. Among the ones he considers are life expectancy and nutrition; willingness to bear risks and openness to new ideas; geography and natural resources; labor costs and population; the path dependent nature of technology; knowledge of science and its relation to technology; religion and values; institutions and property rights; politics and the state; and war. The discussion is detailed and Mokyr seems to maintain a somewhat neutral position for most of the factors. He presents arguments and counter-arguments, leaving it up to the reader to decide which factors matter and which don't. At the same time, he attempts to apply the concepts he develops here in analyzing the history he presented in Part Two. Again, he attempts to present both sides to his arguments. But one of the factors that stands out the most in explaining the differences between medieval and classical technology and the later differences between Europe and China pertains to ideology and mentalité.
Mokyr sums up his argument in his epilogue in Part Four: "What made the West successful was neither capitalism, nor science, nor an historical accident such as favorable geography. Instead, political and mental diversity, combined to create an ever-changing panorama of technologically creative societies" (302). Thus, Mokyr considers technology and technological creativity the unique characteristic that brought the West to the top.
The picture Mokyr portrays is one of inherent superiority of the West due to technology. He emphasizes the role of Europe at the cost of downplaying the role of rival civilizations and presents an image of general superiority of Western methods and characteristics, which allowed it to beat other civilizations in the race for economic superiority.
There are several problems with Mokyr's overall argument. First, he presents quite a distorted picture of the input from other civilizations, especially the neighboring Islamic civilization. Following the fall of Rome a "dark" period ensued in Europe where illiteracy became widespread and European civilization fell into disrepair. In dealing with the abrupt and "amazing" (31) rise of Europe from that bleak period into a more technologically advanced society, Mokyr simply ignores the role played by the neighboring Muslim civilization and especially by Islamic Spain. He does consider that "mental change had to occur first" in order for technological change to occur (202). But he attributes the cause quite incorrectly to Western Christianity. For one, he himself admits that "medieval Christianity, as it eventually evolved reinforced" (201) the tendencies that worked against technological progress. In addition, for the first several centuries, Western Christianity had its share of "mysticism, asceticism, rejection of material life and wealth, and outright condemnation of labor and all worldly activity" (201). Yet he accepts without cause the "importance of Western Christianity in the emergence of Western technology" (202).
A much better explanation of this mental change could be provided by the rise of Islam in the same period. Mokyr dates the re-emergence of technology in Europe to the eighth century, the same period when Islam arrived into Spain. This was also the main contact point between western society and Islam for several centuries.
Islamic society was greatly conducive to technological development. Mokyr considers that "in its original form Islam was as receptive to technological progress as Western Christianity, but … it started to become less so around the twelfth century" (206). This is quite a distortion. While Europe remained mired in superstition and subservient to the whims of the Church, Islam did away with the superstitions of the people and promoted an atmosphere where technological development served the common good. Bakar writes that the primary major factor that accounts for rise of Islamic science was "the role of religious consciousness as a motivating force for the quest of science and technology" (240). This stemmed from the concept of Unity of God (tawhid). Thus, he writes "the spirit of Muslim experimentation was inspired … by the certainty of God as the Absolute and source of all truths" (7). On the other hand, religious doubt and skepticism coincided with European scientific progress.
Muslim scholars pursued learning everywhere they found it. They improved upon what they learned from others, as well as generated new technologies and sciences that Europe remained indebted to for centuries. George Sarton speaks of "the Miracle of Arabic science, using the word miracle as a symbol of our inability to explain achievements which were almost incredible... unparalleled in the history of the world" (qtd in Zaimeche 4). Similarly Briffault says that science "owes a great deal more to the Arab culture, it owes its existence" (qtd in Zaimeche 4). Regarding the weight-driven clock, which Mokyr considers a crucial invention of the Middle Ages and attributes to late 13th century Europe, Al-Hassan and Hill say that it was "constructed by Muslims in Spain in the eleventh century, hence about 250 years before the weight-driven clock appeared in northern Europe" (33).
Mokyr claims, "assessing the technological achievements of the Islamic world is difficult. Not all Moslems (sic) were Arabs, and the so-called Islamic world contained at different times large numbers of Christians and Jews" (43). Yet, he has no hesitation in combining the technological achievements of Europe under the banner of the West. It is strange that he says this, given that even when different political entities appeared in the Muslim world, there was much more unity in the Muslim world than ever existed in Europe. Al-Hassan writes that Islam "united into one the civilizations of the vast expanse which lies between the borders of China and the Atlantic…[it] abolished the barriers which had isolated these countries from each other, so that the whole area now had one religion and one literary and scientific language" (8).
However, despite the advances in technology and science, eventually the Islamic world did decline. There were internal weaknesses, and the destruction by the Mongols and the loss of Spain were stinging blows. As all civilizations have their rise and fall, the Islamic civilization too started to decline by the late 15th century. This was the same time as Europe started to catch up. What happened next is the contentious part.
Mokyr claims that Western technology alone caused the subsequent "disequilibrium of epic proportions" (81) between Western and non-Western civilizations. But the emphasis on technology as a whole is misleading. For ascendancy required only a few crucial areas of initial superiority. Alam writes, "Western Europe's ascendancy began with its lead in two critical areas, gunnery and shipping, starting in the fifteenth century" (8). Once Europe was able to exploit its superiority and establish colonies all over the globe, starting with the Americas, it got access to huge resource bases, which it invested in further technological development as well as exploration and conquest. Alam writes that this "launched Atlantic Europe, through deepening cycles of cumulative causation, on the path of global ascendancy" (8-9). Many of the developments of the Industrial Revolution and beyond were quite expensive to develop and spread and required ample investing capability (for example, Watt depended on his partner Boulton for economic resources as Otto did on Langen). Whence these resources? Alam argues that "Europe's command of the high seas produced vast new resources of wealth through plunder, trade, shipping, banking, and overseas investments; and in turn the growth of shipping and commerce stimulated manufactures" (9). This wealth was also used to support the universities and academies and generate new technologies. Colonization of Muslim lands occurred quickly thereafter, greatly exacerbating the gap between Europe and its new colonies.
Mokyr considers that Western technology today is so entrenched that even if other societies start developing new technologies, they will be forced to copy Western methods: "the inventions that are being made today in research laboratories in the Far East are quintessentially Western in nature" (304). But is this the only viable model available? The technological progress of the Muslim world in the past was simply not of the Western type. Based on the fundamental precept that man has been granted a caretaker position with regards to the universe, it was one that pursued the common good of man. Contrary to the western model, which has divorced the spiritual from the physical and thus turned science and technology into "instruments of greed and exploitation", Islam called for a balance by fulfilling the physical needs of society while staying within the "ethical framework of the Shariah [Divine Law]" (Bakar 236). It was highly successful during the past and still has the potential of "again assuming world leadership" (239).
While Mokyr argues for Western superiority on the one hand and a theory of economic progress due to technological creativity on the other, he appears headed to a contradiction. Today, while many technologies may no longer exclusively exist in the hands of the West and many industries are developing goods in non-Western countries, the ascendancy of the West clearly remains. Clearly something other than simple technological superiority and creativity is involved. Military superiority is the missing factor from the equation. But Mokyr appears to discount this. He claims, "though it no longer sends gunboats to foreign ports, the West continues to prosper, thanks to its past technological creativity" (304). This is simply untrue, as is clearly evidenced by the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which were conducted clearly to pursue economic hegemony in the region. While Mokyr wrote this in 1990 (before these two invasions), he could not have forgotten the Western ventures in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, which too were economic wars.
Unfortunately, books like Mokyr's serve to reinforce an illusion of some inherent superiority of the West; that any nation that wishes to acquire economic progress must follow the Western mold. This is a dangerous myth, prone to the same divine complexes that brought down civilizations of the old. It is simply military domination that allows Western civilization to continue exploiting the planet at the cost of millions of oppressed people around the globe. But, like all other facets of life, it too is subject to rise and fall. Once the fall occurs, the myth of economic superiority due solely to technological creativity will be of little avail.
1. Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
2. Alam, M. Shahid. Is There an Islamic Problem? Essays on Islamicate Societies, the US and Israel. Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004.
3. Bakar, Osman. The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1990.
4. Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. and Hill, Donald R. Islamic Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
5. Zaimeche, Salah. "An Introduction to Muslim Science". 2002. Foundation for Science Technology and Civilization (FSTC). 09 May 2006. <http://www.muslimheritage.com/uploads/Intro'%20Muslim%20Science1.pdf>