Joel Mokyr

2015 Balzan Prize for Economic History

For his pioneering connection of economics and history with evolutionary and epistemological theory and the development of knowledge and technology; for permitting a new, comparative view of economic development and industrialization in particular in the West; for the variety of content, themes, and methods of his work, which ranges from the cliometrics of the New Economic History to the qualitative interpretation of ground-breaking texts, and avoids monocausal explanations.

Joel Mokyr was born in Leiden, the Netherlands. After studying in Jerusalem and Yale, he began teaching in 1974 at Northwestern University. He became Professor in 1980, then Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History in 1984. He has been Visiting Professor at the Universities of Stanford, Chicago, Harvard, Dublin (University College), Jerusalem (Hebrew University), Tel Aviv and Manchester. Since 2001 he has been Sackler Professorial Fellow at the University of Tel Aviv.
Mokyr’s early work was concerned with the relatively late industrialisation in the Low Countries and the famines in Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century. He soon distinguished himself as an exponent of the interdisciplinary New Economic History, which enriched economic theory through a quantitative-analytical approach to economic history (cliometrics). Above all, problems in industrialisation led him to investigate various theories about the British model, from which he developed a pioneering approach to international research. In his prizewinning, widely translated book The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (Oxford University Press, 1990), he used approaches from evolutionary and epistemological theory to formulate the importance of technological progress. Especially in pivotal macro-inventions, he identified the prerequisites for sustainable modern economic growth.

The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy
 (Princeton University Press, 2002) expands this interpretation through the juxtaposition of propositional and prescriptive knowledge as the premise for an economic theory that examines the production or obstruction of useful knowledge. The competitive Respublica Litteraria of modern Europe was fundamental in this sense. Consequently, in Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1750-1850 (Yale University Press 2009), Mokyr recognized the Enlightenment’s decisive role as a precursor of the Industrial Revolution, without neglecting British institutions like Parliament that managed to overcome structurally conservative opposition from broad sectors of the population and helped to establish a new ideological breakthrough, political economy, based upon the applicable knowledge of a well-educated population.

The quantitative and economic-historical aspects, interdisciplinary reach and all-encompassing syntheses of his fundamental work have ensured that Mokyr’s influence reaches far beyond the borders of academic research, with articles and public appearances, and interactions among policy-makers. His scholarly work has earned him many accolades, including the Heineken Prize for History (2006), membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, as elected foreign member, of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome. His outstanding publications, as well as his role as President of the Economic History Association, have enabled him firmly to establish an interdisciplinary economic history. With his contributions on an international level, Joel Mokyr has influenced both his own and future generations of researchers in an extraordinary way.

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