Is the west talking itself into decline?

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The industrial revolution was one of the most important events in human history. Over a handful of decades, technological breakthroughs kicked economic output off its centuries-long low plateau and sent populations, living standards and life expectancy soaring.

Yet for all its vital importance, there is still disagreement over why all this took off when and where it did.

One of the most compelling arguments comes from US economic historian Robert Allen, who argues that Britain’s successes in commerce in the 16th and 17th centuries pushed wages up and energy costs down, creating strong incentives to substitute energy and capital for labour and to mechanise manufacturing processes. Others place greater emphasis on the role of UK institutions, while some argue that innovative ideas emerged as a result of increasing interactions among growing and densifying populations.

Another interesting theory is that of economic historian Joel Mokyr, who argues in his 2016 book A Culture of Growth that it was broader cultural change that laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution. Prominent British thinkers including Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton championed a progress-oriented view of the world, centred on the idea that science and experimentation were key to increasing human wellbeing.

While persuasive, Mokyr’s theory has until recently been only that: a theory. But a fascinating paper published last month by a quartet of economists puts some evidence behind the argument. The researchers analysed the contents of 173,031 books printed in England between 1500 and 1900, tracking how the frequency of different terms changed over time, which they use as a proxy for the cultural themes of the day.

They found a marked increase in the use of terms related to progress and innovation starting in the early 17th century. This supports the idea that “a cultural evolution in the attitudes towards the potential of science accounts in some part for the British industrial revolution and its economic take-off”.

To explore whether this holds for other countries, I have adapted and extended their analysis to include Spain, which was economically competitive with Britain well into the 17th century, but then fell behind. Using data from millions of books digitised as part of the Google Ngram project, I have found that the upsurge in discussions of progress in British books occurs about two centuries before the same uptick in Spain, mirroring trends in the countries’ economic development.

Chart showing that British culture became progress-oriented around two centuries before the same shift in Spain, creating the conditions for much earlier industrialisation

And it’s not just that people talk more about progress when their country is moving forward. In both, culture evolved before growth accelerated.

The finding that language and culture can play important roles in triggering economic development has major implications for the west today.

Extending the same analysis to the present, a striking picture emerges: over the past 60 years the west has begun to shift away from the culture of progress, and towards one of caution, worry and risk-aversion, with economic growth slowing over the same period. The frequency of terms related to progress, improvement and the future has dropped by about 25 per cent since the 1960s, while those related to threats, risks and worries have become several times more common.

Chart showing that the west has shifted away from a culture of progress in recent decades, and towards one of caution, worry and risk-aversion

That simultaneous rise in language associated with caution could well be not a coincidence but an equal and opposite force acting against growth and progress.

Ruxandra Teslo, one of a growing community of progress-focused writers at the nexus of science, economics and policy, argues that the growing scepticism around technology and the rise in zero-sum thinking in modern society is one of the defining ideological challenges of our time.

Some may counter that a rebalancing of priorities from perpetual advancement to caution is a good thing, but this could be a catastrophic mistake. As well as economic growth, the drive for progress brought us modern medicine, significantly longer and healthier lives, plentiful food supplies, dramatic reductions in poverty, and ever more and ever cheaper renewable energy. The challenges facing the modern world will be solved by more focus on progress, not less.

The pre-industrial world was one of mass conflict, exploitation and suffering. If we are to avoid backsliding, advocates for innovation, growth and abundance must defeat the doomers.

[email protected], @jburnmurdoch



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