Bourgeois Dignity

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The subtitle is: "Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World". It is the second volume in Deirdre McCloskey's exploration of how the bourgeois mindset caused the miracle of prosperity that has lifted much of the world out of abject poverty, and can do the same for many more, if we let it. My report on the first volume in the series is here.

The emphasis here is on varying explanations for the "astonishing enrichment" that occurred in many countries in a relative historical eyeblink. (E.g. Norway, where incomes went from $3/day/person in 1800 to $137 in 2006—and way more today.) As the subtitle implies, McCloskey argues this economic miracle did not have economic causes. Explanations need to meet various challenges: why did the miracle occur here and here, and not there, or there? Why then, and not before, after, or never? And (most important, and often missed) why a hockey-stick increase in prosperity, and not a "mere" modest 2-4% increase per annum? Instead, McCloskey says, the root cause was a flip-flop of respect and encouragement for the commercial professsions and the ideas and values that undergird them.

It's a little funny that this needs to be explained at all: the historical facts are pretty well known. Everybody had their eyes open at the time. Yet the explanations often come with the baggage of ideology (you've heard of Karl Marx, perhaps?). And others resemble the methodology of the blind men exploring the elephant: author A finds semi-plausible cause B, and flogs it mercilessly for a couple of academic papers or perhaps a popular tome that might crack the best-seller list.

So: McCloskey does a pretty good job of shooting down multiple alternative explanataions. It's clear that this is an ongoing academic debate. (And, caveat lector, we are only getting her side of the story here.)

As I noted about the previous volume, McCloskey's style is at the opposite pole from much academic prose. I will plagiarize myself: it's personal (lots of "I"s and "you"s) very funny in spots, fearless and aggressive in argument. Not condescending at all.

I'm not (however) totally persuaded. I tend to the "just dumb luck" theory of economic prosperity: a synergistic combination of factors that nobody intentionally combined or designed, not even obvious in retrospect. Certainly McCloskey's "dignity" revolution is one of those factors; but maybe not the only one?

But I'm a dilettante in this field, so I'm probably wrong. Or maybe I missed or misunderstood the part where McCloskey discussed this. Ignore me.

I was also slightly disappointed by McCloskey's dismissal of Gregory Clark's argument that genetics might have some role in the human social behavior that underlies economic activity. Probably because I'd just read Nicholas Wade's recent book that treats that argument more fully and respectfully. McCloskey gets pretty rude, for example her gratuitous use of "Untermenschen" to caricature Clark's description of various nationalities. That's argumentum ad Hitlerum. Unworthy.

But whatever the details, the point remains: if you want a prosperous society (with all the attendant bells and whistles of peace, health, and opportunities for human flourishing), it's very important that the bourgeois virtues be honored, and the forces of innovation and trade be respected. What was done can be undone.

Virginia Postrel (of course) makes the explicit point better than I: the left wing political elite (including our President) thinks that it's deeply insightful to mock and deride business ("You didn't build that"). Also see Michelle Obama's unsage advice to avoid "corporate America" in your career plans. After reading McCloskey, those attitudes are, at best, a source of head-shaking despair about the future of our country.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:21 PM EDT