Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World

Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World

by Deirdre N. McCloskey

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The big economic story of our times is not the Great Recession. It is how China and India began to embrace neoliberal ideas of economics and attributed a sense of dignity and liberty to the bourgeoisie they had denied for so long. The result was an explosion in economic growth and proof that economic change depends less on foreign trade, investment, or material

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The big economic story of our times is not the Great Recession. It is how China and India began to embrace neoliberal ideas of economics and attributed a sense of dignity and liberty to the bourgeoisie they had denied for so long. The result was an explosion in economic growth and proof that economic change depends less on foreign trade, investment, or material causes, and a whole lot more on ideas and what people believe.

Or so says Deirdre N. McCloskey in Bourgeois Dignity, a fiercely contrarian history that wages a similar argument about economics in the West. Here she turns her attention to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe to reconsider the birth of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. According to McCloskey, our modern world was not the product of new markets and innovations, but rather the result of shifting opinions about them. During this time, talk of private property, commerce, and even the bourgeoisie itself radically altered, becoming far more approving and flying in the face of prejudices several millennia old. The wealth of nations, then, didn’t grow so dramatically because of economic factors: it grew because rhetoric about markets and free enterprise finally became enthusiastic and encouraging of their inherent dignity.

An utterly fascinating sequel to her critically acclaimed book The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity is a feast of intellectual riches from one of our most spirited and ambitious historians—a work that will forever change our understanding of how the power of persuasion shapes our economic lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“The startling perspective McCloskey brings to the history of economics qualifies her as the Max Weber of our times. This is a wonderfully entertaining and stimulating antidote for the reigning view of Homo Economicus.”

Richard Epstein
“Over a wide range of nations and times, McCloskey advances the arresting thesis that humble ideas, especially those pertaining to the role of a bourgeois dignity, supply the spark that jumpstarts the rest of the process. Readers will be impressed with the breadth of her knowledge, the clarity of her thought, and the sophistication of this finely wrought book.”
Alan Ryan
“Deirdre McCloskey has embarked on a heroic enterprise, the wholesale reconsideration of the modern capitalist economy. The author’s lightness of touch is deeply admirable: competing hypotheses from the Protestant Ethic to technological determinism are rounded up and dispatched in a wonderfully invigorating fashion, and not the least of the many virtues of Bourgeois Dignity is the demonstration that serious argument can also be fun.”

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Bourgeois Dignity



Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-55665-9

Chapter One


Two centuries ago the world's economy stood at the present level of Bangladesh. In those good old days of 1800, furthermore, the average young person in Norway or Japan would have had on past form less rational hope than a young Bangladeshi nowadays of seeing in her lifetime the end of her nation's poverty—or at least the beginning of the end. In 1800 the average human consumed and expected her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to go on consuming a mere $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two. The figure is expressed in modern-day, American prices, corrected for the cost of living. It is appalling.

By contrast, if you live nowadays in a thoroughly bourgeois country such as Japan or France you probably spend about $100 a day. One hundred dollars as against three: such is the magnitude of modern economic growth. The only people much better off than $3 or so up to 1800 were lords or bishops or some few of the merchants. It had been this way for all of history, and for that matter all of prehistory. With her $3 a day the average denizen of the earth got a few pound of potatoes, a little milk, an occasional scrap of meat. A wool shawl. A year or two of elementary education, if lucky and if she lived in a society with literacy. She had a 50–50 chance at birth of dying before she was thirty years old. Perhaps she was a cheerful sort, and was "happy" with illiteracy, disease, superstition, periodic starvation, and lack of prospects. After all, she had her family and faith and community, which interfered with every choice she made. But at any rate she was desperately poor, and narrowly limited in human scope.

Two centuries later the world supports more than six-and-half times more souls. Yet contrary to a pessimistic "Malthusian" belief that population growth would be the big problem, the average person nowadays earns and consumes almost ten times more goods and services than in 1800. Despite the disturbing pauses during the three dozen or so recessions that have roiled the world's economy since 1800, nearly every trough of a business cycle has been followed in a few years by a new all-time peak in the welfare of the poor of the earth, and the cases of very long recoveries were those from the two world wars, now distant. Starvation worldwide is therefore at an all-time low, and falling. Literacy and life expectancy are at all-time highs, and rising. Liberty is spreading. Slavery is retreating, as is a patriarchy enslaving of women.

In the now much richer countries, such as Norway, the average person earns fully forty-five times more than in 1800, a startling $137 a day, or $120 a day for the average person in the United States, or $90 in Japan. The environment—the concern of a well-to-do and educated bourgeoisie—is in such rich places improving. Even the merely improving places, like China, which is still very poor at $13 a day but much better off than in 1978, have started to care about the future of the earth. Economic history has looked like an ice-hockey stick lying on the ground. It had a long, long horizontal handle at $3 a day extending through the two-hundred-thousand-year history of Homo sapiens to 1800, with little bumps upward on the handle in ancient Rome and the early medieval Arab world and high medieval Europe, with regressions to $3 afterward—then a wholly unexpected blade, leaping up in the last two out of the two thousand centuries, to $30 a day and in many places well beyond.

True, some whole countries, and many people even in rapidly growing places like China or especially India, remain terribly poor. Out of the 6.7 billion people on the planet the terribly poor constitute a "bottom billion," thankfully shrinking, but for the present suffering the appalling $3 a day that had been the human lot since the African savannah. Some hundreds of millions live on a bare dollar, sleeping on mats on the streets of Mumbai. Some 27 million are literal slaves, such as the Dinkas in Sudan. And many girls and women worldwide, as in much of Afghanistan, are held in slavish ignorance. Yet the share of the terribly poor and the terribly unfree in world population is now falling faster than at any time in history. World population has in fact been decelerating since the 1970s, and in a few generations will actually start falling. Look around you at modern family sizes.

In fifty years, if things go as they have since 1800, the terribly poor will have become adequately nourished. Slaves and women will be largely free. The environment will be improving. And the ordinary person worldwide will have become bourgeois. In 1800 there were good reasons to be pessimistic—though many people in that bright dawn were in fact optimists. Nowadays, although an age of widely circulating tales of impending catastrophe, there are many more reasons to be optimistic about our future.

In a good deal of the world the optimistic outcome has already happened. Marxists have long been vexed by the complacently bourgeois character of the American working class. The economic historian Werner Sombart asked in 1906, "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" and answered that "all socialist utopias come to grief on roast beef and apple pie." It turned out that the prosperous Americans were merely showing the way for the British and the French and the Japanese. We seem to be on track to merge not into a universal class of the proletariat but into a nearly universal class of the innovative bourgeoisie. (I use the French word bourgeoisie in its wide sense, as the hiring or owning or professional or educated class [bourgeois, without the -ie on the end, "boor-zhwa," is the adjective, and is also the male person of the class, singular and plural], usually in towns, the "middle class." I do not use it in its frequent Marxist sense as la haute bourgeoisie, the class of captains of industry alone.) Your physical therapist, now earning $35 an hour, or $280 a day, working for AthletiCo, who went to university and then to graduate work and now to continuing education, does not regard himself as a wage slave. He works four days a week, and his wife, also a physical therapist, three. He and she can at any moment become a little company in private practice. The relations of production no longer tell much about the mentality or the prospects of hired labor. You work for a wage. Do you feel immiserized? Reflect, oh dear bourgeois-by-education reader, on the real and demeaning poverty of your own ancestors in 1800, and offer thanks to the Bourgeois Era and to the Age of Innovation.

In 2007 the economist Paul Collier observed that for decades "the development challenge has [been thought of as] a rich world of one billion people facing a poor world of five billion people.... By 2015, however, it will be apparent that this way of conceptualizing development has become outdated. Most of the [formerly poor] five billion, about 80 percent [or four billion], live in counties that are indeed developing, often at amazing speed." Collier is right, and the sums in 2015 will be more like six billion rich or richifying people facing a bottom billion of persistently poor. Witness richifying China and India nowadays—places still poor by the standard of Hong Kong or Belgium, but growing in real income per head at amazing, unprecedented speeds, twice or three times faster than other countries—7 to 10 percent per year. Their growth rates are faster than the rates at which the United States or Japan ever grew, and imply a quadrupling of human scope every twenty or fourteen years, in a short generation. In two such generations their real incomes per head will have risen by a factor of sixteen, to the $48 a day the United States enjoyed in the 1940s. The fact provides some scientific ideas about what to do for the bottom billion or so.

Yet Collier also says that "since 1980 world poverty has been falling for the first time in history." That last is mistaken (though perhaps he means the absolute numbers of poor people instead of their share, in which case maybe he is right). As a share of all the world's population the world's poverty has been falling not for two decades but for two centuries. A higher and higher share have become since 1800 those $30- or $48- or $137- or $280-a-day folk, in the top four to six billion. Witness again Norway and Japan, once abysmally poor. The history provides some scientific ideas about how we got here and where we are going.

The last two centuries worldwide favored the ordinary person, especially a person who lived in a bourgeois country. Consider a third cousin once removed of mine, thirty-five-year old Eva Stuland, in Dimelsvik on the Hardanger Fjord of western Norway. In 1800 our mutual ancestors had been $3-poor. Compare Bangladesh. Yet by now, ten generations further on, the honest, educated, and oil-blessed Norwegians have the second-highest average income in the world. Expressed in American prices of 2006 it is fully $50,000 a year for every man, woman, and child, that $137 a day. (Tiny Luxembourg ranks first out of 209 countries at $60,000 a head; closed-citizenship Kuwait ranks third at $48,000; and the big U.S.A. lumbers along at merely fourth, $44,000—nonetheless a stunning increase over the U.S.A. in 1900 or 1950, and most stunningly for the American poor.) Fru Stuland consumes with her $137 a day a good deal of Belgian chocolate and a summer home in the mountains and a nice little Audi (her husband Olaf has the BMW). Her daily earnings are of course much higher than $137—compare the AthletiCo therapist—because the average consumption per Norwegian includes allotments for Eva's young children and for her parents and her grandmother on pensions. She and the rest of the Norwegians work fewer hours per year than the citizens of other rich countries, and many fewer hours than the workaholics in Japan or the U.S.A. At birth Eva could have expected to live to age eighty-five. Her own two children will probably live even longer, and certainly will be even better off financially than she is, unless they decide on careers in fine arts or charitable works—in which case the satisfactions from such sacred careers amount to income. Norway contributes more per capita to international governmental charities than any other country. Eva supports nonviolent and democratic institutions. She graduated from the University of Bergen, studying mathematics. She works as an actuary in an insurance company, getting six weeks of paid vacation a year in Sicily or Florida. Her husband (who is by no means her lord and master) worked as a diver on the oil rigs for a few years, but now is deskbound at Statoil's regional office. As a girl at school Eva read many of the works of Ibsen in Norwegian, and a couple even of Shakespeare in simplified English. She's been pleased to attend performances of both at the National Theatre in Oslo over the mountains. Her home resonates with recordings of the music of Edvard Grieg, who in fact was a not-so-distant relative on her mother's side.

Why did it happen? How did average income in the world move from $3 to $30 a day? How did the Norwegians move from being poor and sick and marginally free and largely ignorant to being rich and healthy and entirely free and largely educated?

The main point of this book is that the hockey-blade leaps, such as Norway's from $3 to $137 per head, with its cultural and political accompaniments, did not happen mainly because of the usual economics. That is, they did not happen because of European trade or Dutch investments or British imperialism or the exploitation of sailors on Norwegian ships. Economics did matter in shaping the pattern. It usually does. Exactly who benefited and exactly what was produced, and exactly when and where, was indeed a matter of economics—a matter of incomes and property and incentives and relative prices. If a historian doesn't grasp the economics he will not understand the pattern of modern history. The pattern was shaped by the trade in cotton and the investments in seaports, by the supply of steam engines and the demand for elementary education, by the cost of wrought iron and the benefit of railways, by the plantation exploitation of slaves and the market participation of women. Economics of a material sort can surely explain why Americans burned wood and charcoal many decades longer than did the forest-poor and coal-rich people of inner northwestern Europe. It can explain why education was a bad investment for a British parlor maid in 1840, or why the United States rather than Egypt supplied most of the raw cotton to Manchester, England, or to Manchester, New Hampshire, or why indeed the cotton growers of the present-day African Sahel are damaged by protection for American cotton. Economics can explain why a comparative advantage in making cloth out of cotton shifted from India to England and then back to India.

Economics, though, can't explain the rise in the whole world's (absolute) advantage from $3 to $30 a day, not to speak of $137 a day. That is the main scientific point of the book. Economics can't explain the blade of the hockey stick. It can't explain the onset or the continuation, in the magnitude as against the details of the pattern, of the uniquely modern—the widespread coming of automobiles, elections, computers, tolerance, antibiotics, frozen pizza, central heating, and higher education for the masses, such as for you and me and Eva. If an economist doesn't grasp the history she will not understand this most important of modern historical events. An economics of a bourgeois or Marxist sort does not account for the unprecedented size and egalitarian spread of the benefits from growth, only the details of its pattern. Material, economic forces, I claim, were not the original and sustaining causes of the modern rise, 1800 to the present. Economics does most usefully explain how the rising tide expressed itself in microgeographical detail, channeled into this or that inlet, mixing with the river just so far upstream, lapping the dock to such-and-such a height. But the tide itself had other causes.

* * *

What then? I argue here, and in complementary ways in the two volumes to follow, that innovation (not investment or exploitation) caused the Industrial Revolution. Many historians and economists would agree, so there's not much that is surprising in that part of the argument. But I also argue—as fewer historians and very few economists would—that talk and ethics and ideas caused the innovation. Ethical (and unethical) talk runs the world. One-quarter of national income is earned from sweet talk in markets and management. Perhaps economics and its many good friends should acknowledge the fact. When they don't they get into trouble, as when they inspire banks to ignore professional talk and fiduciary ethics, and to rely exclusively on silent and monetary incentives such as executive compensation. The economists and their eager students choose Prudence Only, to the exclusion of the other virtues that characterize humans—justice and temperance and love and courage and hope and faith—and the corresponding sins of omission or commission. The theorists of prudence forbid ethical language, even in the word-drenched scene of banking. Such a reduction to Prudence Only works reasonably well in some parts of the economy. You'll do well to choose Prudence Only, and silent incentives, when trying to understand covered interest arbitrage in the foreign exchange markets. But it doesn't explain the most surprising development of all.


Excerpted from Bourgeois Dignity by DEIRDRE N. MCCLOSKEY Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Deirdre N. McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Among her many books are The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce; Crossing: A Memoir; The Secret Sins of Economics; and If You’re So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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