David Brooks had a peculiar column today where he argued that America is declining in part because of a shift in values. He starts by mentioning Mokyr's new book, "The Enlightened Economy," which is arguing that a crucial cultural shift was behind British development (I mention this solely because Mokyr is on my short list of next books to buy, if anyone has read both this book and The Lever of Riches, perhaps Gifts of Athena as well, could you let me know if they're all worth buying or is there enough repetition that only buying one is a better choice?). He then goes on to argue that we need to look not just at material factors but also shifts in ideas and values. I agree with this as far as it goes.
What I disagree with is that the shift in a nation's fortunes happens internally. None of the histories, whether economic or on other topics, I've read has tried to argue that Britain decline was due to a shift in its internal values (Brooks mentions Barnett, who I haven't read). This goes against most everything that I have read. Historical, social, and economic change are explained by the intersection of ideas and values and material factors (though any theory will deal with one piece at a time, any decent writer, with the exception of Marxists anyway, will admit that they are examining only a piece in detail and that others are necessary to explain the whole).
The important thing is that you have the right ideas and values, with the right material factors, at the right point in time. America took over from Britain not because the British changed who they were, everything I've read about Britain makes me think they were essentially the same, but because America had both superior material factors as well as ideas and values that allowed them to take the next step Britain couldn't. We broke into mass production partially through having a different way of organizing the corporation and firm, we early on developed corporate structures that could handle tasks like building an transcontinental railroad and were able to apply these lessons to large scale manufacturing such as ship building and autos. British firms, with the exception of trading companies, remained rather smaller. They didn't make the same change in ideas and values and social structures that we did.
So the essential piece isn't that there is some inherently "right" mix of ideas and values that is under threat. It's that you can change the ideas and values that animate your society to match the conditions you are currently living in. If you have the ideas and values of the wrong time period, you decline. If you have the right ones, and the other contributing factors, you rise.
[To plug for my favorite magazine, the Economist Free Exchange blog has a good post up on the decline of manufacturing as a percent of GDP in the US, which is what Brooks is lamenting the loss of, and why we shouldn't be worried about it.]