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Quotation of the Day…

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… is from page 21 of Daniel Boorstin’s 1965 volume, The Americans: The National Experience [2] (emphasis added):

Nearly every feature of the American system of manufacturing, from the elements of the new textile machinery to the concept of interchangeable parts, had actually been conceived earlier by Europeans.  But while a few Europeans could see the possibilities, their communities kept them powerless to give their ideas a fair trial.  Too many had a stake in the older ways.  Industrial progress in Europe required extraordinary courage to break the prevailing pattern; in America it required a willingness to try the obvious.  American genius was less for invention or discovery than for experiment.

As Julian Simon [3], Deirdre McCloskey [4]Joel Mokyr [5], and Robert Higgs [6] argue – each in his and her own way, each with his and her own unique emphasis – economic growth springs from ideas.  Economic growth is not mainly a physical phenomenon to be explained by the laws of physics in combination with physical or material conditions such as “resource endowments.”  Economic growth is a human – which is to say, an idea – phenomenon.  It is a phenomenon that, of course, must take the laws of physics into account.  Yet economic growth starts with, and gets its momentum from, human ideas as these arise within an institutional setting that encourages growth-promoting ideas.

Economic growth isn’t unique in this way.  So, too, must any human endeavor take the laws of physics into account.  Beethoven was bound by the laws of physics; he used them to record his thoughts on paper and to press the keys on an instrument whose hammers struck tightly stretched strings, each of whose vibrations sent forth sound waves of different frequencies.  Yet no one supposes that the Eroica symphony can be explained by the laws of physics.

Just as it would be extreme – and extremely naive – scientism to try to explain the creation of music as if music were chiefly and at root a physical phenomenon, it is extreme – and extremely naive – scientism to try to explain economic growth (or any other aspect of the economy) as if it were chiefly and at root a physical phenomenon.  And it follows that adequate knowledge about the economy cannot be gotten only by measuring and quantifying its physical manifestations.