Ana Swanson at the Washington Post's WonkBlog has a great interview with Joel Mokyr: Why the Industrial Revolution didn't happen in China.
Some of the answer echoes the (now old) Rosenberg & Birdzell argument in How the West Grew Rich: competition among several states in Europe was progressive, while China was big enough to seek stability instead.
Mokyr first reminds us of the importance of the industrial revolution - pre-industrial revolution lives were not that nice.
It is a question that needs to be asked if we want to know how we became what we are. The 19th and 20th centuries are in many ways the most transformative centuries in all of human history. Until about 1800, the vast bulk of people on this planet were poor. And when I say poor, I mean they were on the brink of physical starvation for most of their lives.Competition in Europe was key:
Life expectancy in 1750 was around 38 at most, and much lower in some places. The notion that today we would live 80 years, and spend much of those in leisure, is totally unexpected. The lower middle class in Western and Asian industrialized societies today has a higher living standard than the pope and the emperors of a few centuries back, in every dimension. That is the result of one thing: Our ability to understand the forces of nature and harness them for our economic needs.
If we understood how that happened, we would understand human history. For thousands of years, the material conditions that people lived in changed very little. Then all of a sudden, in 1800, it just zooms up.
That came out of Western Europe and its offshoot in North America after 1800. If it hadn’t been for that, you and I would be looking at a life expectancy of maybe 40, and I probably I wouldn’t be sipping cappuccino from a fancy machine and talking to you on my smartphone. Look at what we have achieved in every dimension. Technology hasn’t just increased our income, it’s changed every aspect of daily life.
The question is, was all this inevitable? My answer is, absolutely no.
China and Europe are different in many ways, but one is that after the Mongol conquest in the 12th century, China remains a unified empire run by a single Mandarin bureaucracy. There is nothing that competes with or threatens China. China does get invaded by Manchu tribes in 1644, but they don’t change the structure of the state. They learned to speak Chinese, dress like Chinese and eat like Chinese.And so was the revolution away from pure science:
In Europe, no one ever succeeds in unifying it, and you have continuous competition. The French are worried about the English, the English are worried about the Spanish, the Spanish are worried about the Turks. That keeps everybody on their toes, which is something economists immediately recognize as the competitive model. To have progress, you want a system that is competitive, not one that is dominated by a single power.
I think that is the major difference. It isn’t just that China doesn’t have an Industrial Revolution, it doesn’t have a Galileo or a Newton or a Descartes, people who announced that everything people did before them was wrong. That’s hard to do in any society, but it was easier to do in Europe than China. The reason precisely is because Europe was fragmented, and so when somebody says something very novel and radical, if the government decides they are a heretic and threatens to prosecute them, they pack their suitcase and go across the border.
Between Columbus’s voyage to America in 1492 and the death of Isaac Newton in 1727, the agenda of research in Europe changes. For much of human history, people studied science and natural phenomena, not to make us materially better off, but just to satisfy curiosity. The ancient Greeks made fantastic scientific progress, but there are few instances in which they use it for anything. In fact, Aristotle says science shouldn’t be used, because work is something for the lower classes. Learned people didn’t work, and working people didn’t learn.But the scientific revolution was important:
Before the Industrial Revolution, learned people in Europe changed the agenda. They say, “Look, we should study nature, but we should do so to improve our material welfare.” To people today, this sounds totally obvious. But it wasn’t in the year 1600. By the 18th century, this has become the consensus. That's what I call the Industrial Enlightenment.
I believe the fundamental reason is China’s position as a single empire, and also its bureaucracy, which is a unique and peculiar animal. On the one hand, it is very progressive, because it is a meritocracy. In Europe, the people who were in power were the sons and nephews of other people in power. But in China there’s an examination, and the people who did the best rose in the Mandarin civil service. So you’d think, “Wow, that’s very progressive.” Except if you look at what they were studying for these exams, they were simply regurgitating the classics. It was the perfect tool to keep reproducing from the same mold generation after generation.I love Mokyr's Gifts of Athena. Let us raise the status of the economic historians who think about institutions.
In Europe, something different happens. People study classical knowledge, Ptolemy and Hippocrates and Archimedes, and they begin to say, “Most of this stuff is wrong.” You couldn’t do that in China. If you said “This stuff is wrong,” you failed your exam. But in Europe, the ability to challenge received wisdom is irrepressible.
In the 17th century, Europeans build microscopes, telescopes and barometers that allow them to study nature in a way the classics never could. And they become rather cocky. There’s a French philosopher in the late 16th century, Pierre de La Ramée, who writes a book with the title “Everything Aristotle Has Said Is Wrong.” That’s chutzpah. A century earlier, he would have been strung up.