Joel Mokyr, a professor of economics and history, tries to answer the question of why, starting around 1500 CE, “In a time of great powers and empires, just one region of the world experienced extraordinary economic growth”. He looks at various factors that might have contributed and points to two major features. One is that the area we now call Europe was fragmented into many different political entities that competed with each other.
Europe’s political fragmentation spurred productive competition. It meant that European rulers found themselves competing for the best and most productive intellectuals and artisans. The economic historian Eric L Jones called this ‘the States system’. The costs of European political division into multiple competing states were substantial: they included almost incessant warfare, protectionism, and other coordination failures. Many scholars now believe, however, that in the long run the benefits of competing states might have been larger than the costs. In particular, the existence of multiple competing states encouraged scientific and technological innovation.
But Mokyr says that while there was political fragmentation, there was also mobility across borders that created a larger market for goods and thus helped the growth of technology and also enabled the rapid spread of ideas.
Political fragmentation existed alongside a remarkable intellectual and cultural unity. Europe offered a more or less integrated market for ideas, a continent-wide network of learned men and women, in which new ideas were distributed and circulated.
In early modern Europe, national boundaries mattered little in the thin but lively and mobile community of intellectuals in Europe. Despite slow and uncomfortable travel, many of Europe’s leading intellectuals moved back and forth between states.
If Europe’s intellectuals moved with unprecedented frequency and ease, their ideas travelled even faster. Through the printing press and the much-improved postal system, written knowledge circulated rapidly.
In this regard, then, Europe’s intellectual community enjoyed the best of two worlds, both the advantages of an integrated transnational academic community and a com¬petitive states system. This system produced many of the cultural components that led to the Great Enrichment: a belief in social and economic progress, a growing regard for scientific and intellectual innovation, and a commitment to a Baconian, ie a methodical and empirically grounded, research programme of knowledge in the service of economic growth.
I found this article interesting but was also astonished that there is not a single mention of colonialism as contributing to the growth of wealth of Europe. Surely the conquest and plundering of much of the world by the European powers was a major factor in Europe becoming wealthy? The beginning of the period of colonialism dates back as far as the 15th century and the British, French, and Belgians looted the natural resources and labor of their colonies for centuries until they started getting expelled in the mid-20th century.
So to ignore the influence of colonialism in an article that explicitly seeks to explain how Europe became wealthy seems a little strange. It would be like trying to explain the growth of the economy in the US without mentioning slavery.