Reading Genesis, an Economist Sees a Tale of Technological and Social Progress

March 12, 2019 | Tyler Cowen
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Upon rereading the book of Genesis, Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, found “embedded” in its narratives a story of “technology-led economic growth, similar to what you might find in the work of Adam Smith.” This growth begins after Adam learns to till the soil, and takes off from there:

Most of all, in the Genesis story, the population of the Middle East keeps growing. I’ve known readers who roll their eyes at the lists of names, and the numerous recitations of who begat whom, but that’s the Bible’s way of telling us that progress is under way. Neither land nor food supplies prove to be the binding constraints for population growth, unlike the much later canonically classical economic models of Malthus and Ricardo. . . .

In the book of Genesis, the underlying model of economics is a pretty optimistic one, and that is another way in which Western history draws upon its Judeo-Christian roots.

That said, Genesis is by no means entirely positive about the impact of technology. . . . The story of the Tower of Babel is the clearest instance of the possible dangers of technology, [although] it is striking how much potential productive efficacy is ascribed to mankind. People with a single language are building a tower with a top reaching up to the heavens, and “now nothing they plot to do will elude them.” God then scatters the humans and takes away their common language, to limit their productive capacity. There is a hint that people are seeking to become the rivals of God, who needs to keep their ambitions in check.

If we transplant this tale into a modern setting, you might think that God is skeptical of globalization, world government, a universal language, and unhindered communication.

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