Innovation as the Modern Differentiator
In another (sadly) subscription-only National Review article, James Bennett reviews a book by Deirdre McCloskey in which innovation takes center stage in the explanation of the modern West:
Her thesis is that, in the decades prior to England’s rapid takeoff into the Industrial Revolution, there was a revolution in attitudes, which she prefers to characterize as a revolution in rhetoric, using the term in its broader, classical sense: the language of discourse, and the attitudes it embodies. This change in rhetoric, she argues, shifted the prevailing culture from one of aristocratic values based on honor and status to one of bourgeois values based on thrift, prudence, trust, etc. This brought dignity to the town-dwelling merchant class and fostered innovation in business practice. In fact, she argues that the term capitalism is inappropriate to the current system, as all economic systems fundamentally are built on capital, but only the system that arose in England and spread throughout the West (and, subsequently, elsewhere) was founded on innovation. She considers calling the system innovism; recognizing, however, that such a tag is unlikely to catch on, she settles for calling it innovation.
There is much to like in this. I have long dislike Marx’s coinage and the many wrong ideas that are packed into it. I have tended to use the term market economy, in preference, but as McCloskey rightly points out, market economies with many of the mechanisms we consider definitive have also been presented since ancient times. A system that expects, encourages, and takes advantage of innovation is the genuinely new thing of our times, and it may make sense to adopt that term for our system.
The notion of innovation is the core of the broad range of principles that facilitate it (secure family structures, freedom, belief in larger truths, free markets, and so on) is certainly attractive as the defining factor for modernity. It does, however, elide the question of whether the core is necessarily the cause. It would probably be most accurate to conclude that modernity developed over millennia, with mutually reinforcing causes that evolved over the generations.