Why? Most economists—from Adam Smith and Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty—say the Great Enrichment since 1800 came from accumulated capital. McCloskey disagrees, fiercely. “Our riches,” she argues, “were made not by piling brick on brick, bank balance on bank balance, but by piling idea on idea.” Capital was necessary, but so was the presence of oxygen. It was ideas, not matter, that drove “trade-tested betterment.” Nor were institutions the drivers. The World Bank orthodoxy of “add institutions and stir” doesn’t work, and didn’t. McCloskey builds a powerful case for the initiating role of ideas—ideas for electric motors and free elections, of course, but more deeply the bizarre and liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for ordinary folk. Liberalism arose from theological and political revolutions in northwest Europe, yielding a unique respect for betterment and its practitioners, and upending ancient hierarchies. Commoners were encouraged to have a go, and the bourgeoisie took up the Bourgeois Deal, and we were all enriched.
Few economists or historians write like McCloskey—her ability to invest the facts of economic history with the urgency of a novel, or of a leading case at law, is unmatched. She summarizes modern economics and modern economic history with verve and lucidity, yet sees through to the really big scientific conclusion. Not matter, but ideas. Big books don’t come any more ambitious, or captivating, than Bourgeois Equality.
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The World Is Pretty Rich, but Once Was Poor
It had never happened before — a world in which many people, from Belgium to Botswana, have pretty good food and housing and education. We've not yet achieved, God knows, an earthly paradise. A little over seven billion people inhabit the planet. One billion of them live still in nations of economic hell: a loaf of moldy bread, some curdled milk, bad schools, bad shelter, bad clothing, bad sanitation. Most people in Haiti or Afghanistan live so, as do, in richer countries, many of the very poor. God knows that too.
Until 1800, though, such a hell was what everybody except a handful of nobles and priests and merchants expected, year after terrible year. We have achieved over the past two centuries for ordinary people worldwide, materially speaking, unevenly, for the first time, a pretty good purgatory. The whole world's average income, for example, now approaches that of present-day Brazil, or of the United States in 1941. Since 1800, in other words, and especially since 1900, the goods and services available to the average human being, and the scope for a full human life, have startlingly expanded. The event justifies its label, "the Great Enrichment."
Never in material terms had anything so Great as the Enrichment occurred — never to the mass of a population, not in the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome, not in ancient Egypt or medieval China. Startlingly, Brazil is now better off, on average, than the metropolises of the mightiest world empires before 1939. In the many and burgeoning very rich countries, such as Sweden or the United States, the value of goods and services made, earned, and consumed per person, without allowing for the radically improved quality of most goods and many services (cleaner food, better medicine), is three or four times higher even than the historically unprecedented world average.
Some Swedes and some Americans are still poor. But most aren't. The extremely high average has overwhelmed inequality so far as the standard of genuine comfort is concerned. It gives to the rich, the middling, and the poor alike a roof over their heads, plentiful food and clothing, long life expectancy, reasonable hours of work, literacy, dignity — all of which were prospects and satisfactions denied to most humans until well after 1800. The signs are good that if we keep our wits about us we can, within a few generations, achieve for everyone on earth the riches of Sweden and America. All the formerly poor can enjoy bourgeois incomes and can pursue, if they wish, the spiritual enrichment that such an income permits. We're on the way to a pretty good material paradise.
Look at the numbers. Average daily expenditures by Haitians and Afghans, expressed in present-day U.S. prices at "purchasing power parity"— and so allowing for inflation and the relevant exchange rates among currencies — are well below $3 a day, which before 1800 was what the average human more or less everywhere expected to make, earn, and consume. So it had been, always, back to the caves. Imagine living each day on the cost, spread over all your activities, of a half gallon of milk. If you've been to Liberia or Afghanistan it's not hard to imagine. Today, after two centuries of increase, recently accelerating, the world figure, an average that includes even the extraordinarily poor Liberians and Afghans, has arrived at an unprecedented $33 a day — roughly, I say, the Brazilian level.
Like all the figures, the $3 and the $33 are corrected, I emphasize, for exchange rates and inflation. They are expressed, as the economists put it, in "real" terms, and therefore are comparable — or comparable enough for the scientific point being made here. The figures are supposed to include (however imperfectly when applied to earlier economies) not only what you buy in the marketplace but whatever goods and services you make or grow for yourself. No one should put faith in the second or third digits of such an estimate, which may variously under- and overestimate the value of homework, care work, the environment, better health, and better quality of goods. But for the economic and historical science attempted here the great alteration of the first digit suffices. It is stunning.
Since 1800 the ability of humans to feed and clothe and educate themselves, even as the number of humans increased by an astonishing factor of seven, has risen, per human, by an even more astonishing factor of ten. Do the math, then, of total production. We humans now produce and consume seventy — 7 × 10 — times more goods and services worldwide than in 1800. Some people view this figure with alarm and speak of environmental degradation. But the news is mainly good. With seventy times more production, no wonder we can cultivate new economies of scale and reap their benefits through free trade. And no wonder we can harness the ingenuity of the larger population to get better antibiotics and better automobiles. No wonder we can clean up the air and the water, and turn forests into nature preserves.
In the best-run countries, such as France or Japan or Finland, all of which not so long ago were $3-a-day poor, real income per person, conventionally measured, has by now increased to roughly $100 a day. Income has risen, that is, not by 30 percent but by a factor of thirty (I will repeat the point until you feel it on your pulse), which is to say many hundreds of percent. It is not a doubling or a tripling of the material scope of a human life. Such routine increases, desirable as they are, have occurred many times before in world history, only to fall back again to $3 a day when the good times passed. Income now is thirty to one hundred times more than our ancestors could manage, and no falling back about it. The OECD, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of reasonably well-off free-trade democracies with average earnings of about $100 a day per person, has now thirty-four members, containing nearly one-sixth of the world's population. To be over precise about the fifth-grade arithmetic involved, a factor of thirty for income growth in the OECD countries from 1800 to the present means a rise of 2,900 percent. Think conservatively of the Enrichment, if you wish, and call the increase merely 2,000 or 1,500 percent. Any such order of magnitude of enrichment justifies the word "great."
The Enrichment since 1800 shows in all the evidence. (It better, if it's so Great.) Real per-person income in Brazil is now, I repeat, about the same as it was in the world-beating United States in 1941, or in the still-recovering postwar Britain in 1959. Two centuries ago fully four out of five U.S. adults worked to grow food for their families and for the remaining nonagricultural fifth. Now a single American farmer feeds three hundred people. Since 1800 worldwide the life expectancy at birth has doubled. World literacy is tending toward 100 percent. On Indian TV in 2014 an optimistic advertisement noted that for every adult illiterate in that bettering if still very poor country there are seven little children who can read a story. The scope of human life has widened, and bids fair to go on widening. All the instruments agree that most humans are massively better off now than their ancestors were two centuries ago.
You will perhaps doubt that the Great Enrichment happened, or that it was so great, or that it will continue — or doubt that it is justified, in view of environmental decay and consumerist excess. But the evidence, regarded without prejudice, is overwhelming. From about 1800 to the present the world's economy did something good, which looks to be permanent and looks to be justified. If contrary to the evidence we cling to our prejudices about economic history — our view that the Industrial Revolution was impoverishing, or that the Great Enrichment was an irremediable environmental disaster, or that Europe is rich only because of poverty in the Third World, or that the new rich are always getting relatively richer, or that after all any enrichment is vulgar — we will mistake how we got here and will give mistaken advice on how to move forward. We will betray the remaining poor of the world.
The prejudices, which is to say our justifying discourses, would not matter if the issue were divergent judgments about, say, the latest ice cream flavors from Ben and Jerry's. We could then, in the easygoing English phrase, "agree to disagree." Chocolate Therapy versus AmeriCone Dream. Whatever. But the judgment about whether the System has worked for ordinary people, and why or why not, is too important to leave to personal fancy or to prideful skepticism or to a political identity adopted in late adolescence, never to be reconsidered in the light of new evidence or mature understanding, reaffirmed daily by the particular group of shouters and sneerers we tune into on cable TV. If we are to help the remaining poor of the world, as ethically speaking we should, the political judgment needs to be made soberly and scientifically.
The Great Enrichment is the most important secular event since the invention of agriculture. It has restarted history. It will end poverty, as for a good part of humankind it already has. Surprisingly, though, economists and historians from left or right or center can't explain it. Perhaps their sciences and their politics need revision.
Our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents were very poor, which had in turn been the lot of their ancestors since time out of mind. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken. The good old days, in other words, were for ordinary people horrible to a degree that is hard now for residents of $80-a-day countries such as Italy or New Zealand to appreciate. The historian David Gilmour notes that from 1375 to 1795 the great city of Florence experienced famine prices every five years or so. In 1879 the French literary historian Hippolyte Taine expressed the horror in a vivid metaphor: "The people are like a man walking through a pond with water up to his chin. ... Old-fashioned charity and newfangled humanity try to help him out, but the water is too high. Until the level falls and the pond finds an outlet, the wretched man can only snatch an occasional gulp of air and at every instant he runs the risk of drowning." The British writer and literary historian Graham Robb, who quotes Taine, details the poverty of parts of rural France even in the improving nineteenth century. Over the winter in Burgundy the vineyard men hibernated, and not merely figuratively. An official reported in 1844 that "these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food." Robb remarks that in French agriculture in the nineteenth century "slowness was not an attempt to savor the moment." Economists have long recognized that the world's poorest agriculturalists often run out of energy before they run out of money, the more so when they are afflicted by malaria and tuberculosis and other debilitating diseases. The ploughman homeward plods his weary way. "A ploughman who took hours to reach a field," writes Robb, "was not necessarily admiring the effect of morning mist. ... He was trying to make a small amount of strength last for the working day, like a cartload of manure spread over a large field." Even in fast-enriching Sweden, whose economy grew after the liberalization of the 1860s faster than any economy except Japan's, the novelist Vilhelm Moberg remarked of his childhood around 1900 in the countryside that he could bring to mind only the long summers. In winter "the children in a smallholder's cabin ... were too badly clothed to stand the cold. ... Life in winter was quite literally shut in: we dozed by the open fire and slept through many hours of the [very long Scandinavian] night: it was, for children, a quiet vegetating in the darkness under the low cabin."
The Australian poet and cultural-literary critic Clive James struck the right note. During the nineteenth century tuberculosis afflicted the poor especially, but also the middle and upper classes. The aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, died of it in 1859, as in 1850 had his bourgeois-liberal ally Frédéric Bastiat. The working-class poet John Keats died of it too, in 1821, age twenty-five, before his pen had gleaned his teeming brain. James wrote, "Today's young tourists of a literary bent, when they pass, on the Spanish Steps in Rome, the window of [Keats's] last resting place, are being granted insight into the fearful realities of a world without antibiotics." (In 1943 the recently invented penicillin was two years away from being widely available for civilian use. My own kidneys bear the damage from the only alternative, sulfa drugs, of which the correct dose for an injured infant was poorly understood.) To grasp "the suddenness and randomness of God's wrath" in former times, James writes, we need to get inside the lives of our ancestors, "a trick of the mind ... by which we can imagine how it must have felt when the only possible way to view reality without the benefit of religious faith was to despair." In 1917 in a backwater of a definitely enriching Sweden, the potato crop failed and some of the poorer people starved to death.
So it was from the beginning to 1800, and in most places for many a painful year thereafter. In the opening lines of Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), the painter, doctor, and writer Carlo Levi described the poverty he saw when he was banished by the fascist state in 1935–1936 to a pair of villages in far southern Italy — "that other world, hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State, eternally patient, ... that land without comfort or solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death."
It was an ancient and terrible business, as it is still in Chad and Bangladesh, and on the homeless streets of Chicago and Amsterdam, too. For nearly all of humanity's time on earth the average amount of food and education and antibiotics and the rest per person stayed at subsistence, at $1 or $3 or $5 a day expressed in today's prices, or in exceptional times, briefly, $6 or $8 a day. Thus it had been, in 1800, during the two thousand or so centuries since the mitochondrial Eve (and about the same span, as has recently been discovered, since her good friend the Y-chromosome Adam). Or during the thousand or so centuries since the invention of full language. Or during the hundred or so centuries since the invention of agriculture. Or during the eight or so centuries since commerce had revived in the West. Or during the three or so centuries since Europeans had ventured by sea to Africa and India and the New World. Pick whatever period down to 1800 you want. For a long, long time nothing much happened to the economic misery of the average Jill.
She and her friend Jack could perhaps trap or purchase a little meat to go with their bread, or pick nuts to go with their grubs, but they lived in a wretched little hovel, or a tent, or a cave. Poor people (and some not-so-poor people) lived in literal caves even in France and Italy until well after World War II, for example at Matera in the arch of Italy's foot. Jill before 1800 had two sets of clothing at most, or a string skirt. In the Jericho of Pre-Pottery Neolithic times, around 10,000 BCE, 40 percent of the burials were of infants or children. In ancient Rome, on the 50-50 bet that a Jill survived to age fifteen, she could expect then to live on to age fifty-two — as against eighty-five for the same bet now. Nowadays in rich countries, and in many very poor countries, almost all of a woman's children survive to the fifteen-year-old starting line. In ancient Rome, by contrast, a third of Jill's numerous children died before their first birthdays.
It had ever been so, as it is now in rural Ethiopia (one of the African cradles of Homo sapiens). Real income might go up for a while. In the richest parts of China and Europe in their most prosperous times it might rise for a while to $6 or $8 a day. But as my mother's generation puts it, "even $7 a day is no bag of bluebirds." And then it would revert to $3 a day.
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Table of ContentsExordium: The Three Volumes Show That We Are Rich Because of an Ethical and Rhetorical Change
What Is to Be Explained?
Part I A Great Enrichment Happened, and Will Happen
1 The World Is Pretty Rich, but Once Was Poor
2 For Malthusian and Other Reasons, Very Poor
3 Then Many of Us Shot Up the Blade of a Hockey Stick
4 As Your Own Life Shows
5 The Poor Were Made Much Better Off
6 Inequality Is Not the Problem
7 Despite Doubts from the Left
8 Or from the Right and Middle
9 The Great International Divergence Can Be Overcome
Why Not the Conventional Explanations?
Part II Explanations from the Left and Right Have Proven False
10 The Divergence Was Not Caused by Imperialism
11 Poverty Cannot Be Overcome from the Left by Overthrowing “Capitalism”
12 “Accumulate, Accumulate” Is Not What Happened in History
13 But Neither Can Poverty Be Overcome from the Right by Implanting “Institutions”
14 Because Ethics Matters, and Changes, More
15 And the Oomph of Institutional Change Is Far Too Small
16 Most Governmental Institutions Make Us Poorer
What, Then, Explains the Enrichment?
Part III Bourgeois Life Had Been Rhetorically Revalued in Britain at the Onset of the Industrial Revolution
17 It Is a Truth Universally Acknowledged That Even Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen Exhibit the Bourgeois Revaluation
18 No Woman but a Blockhead Wrote for Anything but Money
19 Adam Smith Exhibits Bourgeois Theory at Its Ethical Best
20 Smith Was Not a Mr. Max U, but Rather the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists
21 That Is, He Was No Reductionist, Economistic or Otherwise
22 And He Formulated the Bourgeois Deal
23 Ben Franklin Was Bourgeois, and He Embodied Betterment
24 By 1848 a Bourgeois Ideology Had Wholly Triumphed
Part IV A Pro-Bourgeois Rhetoric Was Forming in England around 1700
25 The Word “Honest” Shows the Changing Attitude toward the Aristocracy and the Bourgeoisie
26 And So Does the Word “Eerlijk”
27 Defoe, Addison, and Steele Show It, Too
28 The Bourgeois Revaluation Becomes a Commonplace, as in The London Merchant
29 Bourgeois Europe, for Example, Loved Measurement
30 The Change Was in Social Habits of the Lip, Not in Psychology
31 And the Change Was Specifically British
Part V Yet England Had Recently Lagged in Bourgeois Ideology, Compared with the Netherlands
32 Bourgeois Shakespeare Disdained Trade and the Bourgeoisie
33 As Did Elizabethan England Generally
34 Aristocratic England, for Example, Scorned Measurement
35 The Dutch Preached Bourgeois Virtue
36 And the Dutch Bourgeoisie Was Virtuous
37 For Instance, Bourgeois Holland Was Tolerant, and Not for Prudence Only
Part VI Reformation, Revolt, Revolution, and Reading Increased the Liberty and Dignity of Ordinary Europeans
38 The Causes Were Local, Temporary, and Unpredictable
39 “Democratic” Church Governance Emboldened People
40 The Theology of Happiness Changed circa 1700
41 Printing and Reading and Fragmentation Sustained the Dignity of Commoners
42 Political Ideas Mattered for Equal Liberty and Dignity
43 Ideas Made for a Bourgeois Revaluation
44 The Rhetorical Change Was Necessary, and Maybe Sufficient
Part VII Nowhere Before on a Large Scale Had Bourgeois or Other Commoners Been Honored
45 Talk Had Been Hostile to Betterment
46 The Hostility Was Ancient
47 Yet Some Christians Anticipated a Respected Bourgeoisie
48 And Betterment, Though Long Disdained, Developed Its Own Vested Interests
49 And Then Turned
50 On the Whole, However, the Bourgeoisies and Their Bettering Projects Have Been Precarious
Part VIII Words and Ideas Caused the Modern World
51 Sweet Talk Rules the Economy
52 And Its Rhetoric Can Change Quickly
53 It Was Not a Deep Cultural Change
54 Yes, It Was Ideas, Not Interests or Institutions, That Changed, Suddenly, in Northwestern Europe
55 Elsewhere Ideas about the Bourgeoisie Did Not Change
What Are the Dangers?
Part IX The History and Economics Have Been Misunderstood
56 The Change in Ideas Contradicts Many Ideas from the Political Middle, 1890–1980
57 And Many Polanyish Ideas from the Left
58 Yet Polanyi Was Right about Embeddedness
59 Trade-Tested Betterment Is Democratic in Consumption
60 And Liberating in Production
61 And Therefore Bourgeois Rhetoric Was Better for the Poor
Part X That Is, Rhetoric Made Us, but Can Readily Unmake Us
62 After 1848 the Clerisy Converted to Antibetterment
63 The Clerisy Betrayed the Bourgeois Deal, and Approved the Bolshevik and Bismarckian Deals
64 Anticonsumerism and Pro-Bohemianism Were Fruits of the Antibetterment Reaction
65 Despite the Clerisy’s Doubts
66 What Matters Ethically Is Not Equality of Outcome, but the Condition of the Working Class
67 A Change in Rhetoric Made Modernity, and Can Spread It
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