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Deirdre McCloskey’s feast of words on the “great enrichment”

My review in the Times of Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality:


It took me two months to read this 650-page, small-type book, the third volume in a trilogy. In that time I read several other books, absorbing Bourgeois Equality in small doses on trains, ships, Tubes, sofas and beds. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s not. I wanted to savour every sentence of this remarkable feast of prose.

It is a giant of a book about a giant of a topic: the “great enrichment” of humanity over the past 300 years. It is so rich in vocabulary, allusion and fact as to be a contender for the great book of our age.

There’s only one flaw. For all the book’s startling and acute insights individually, I am still not persuaded that Deirdre McCloskey has the answer to those most tantalising of historical questions: why the world suddenly began getting much, much richer, healthier and longer-lived some time in 1700 — and why did it start in a soggy polder in northwest Europe and on a rain-soaked island off the coast of Europe?

She thinks it was all about a change in rhetoric that allowed Holland, Britain and then the world to respect the bourgeois values of “trade-tested betterment”, McCloskey’s phrase for free enterprise. That certainly happened, but was it cause or effect?

It is fair to begin, though, by celebrating the author’s own rhetoric. McCloskey is an emerita professor of economics, English and history at the University of Illinois. There is hardly a paragraph that lacks a witty literary aside or philosophical joke, and yet the style is the very opposite of pompous. It is bright, light, sharp and crisp.

Here she is, for example, on the change in values that happened in the 18th century: “For the first time, thank God — and thank the Levellers and then Locke in the 17th century, and Voltaire and Smith and Franklin and Paine and Wollstonecraft among other of the advanced thinkers in the 18th century — the ordinary people, the commoners, both workers and bosses, began to be released from the ancient notion of hierarchy, the naturalisation of the noble gentleman’s rule over hoi polloi.”

The gist of her argument is that the Industrial Revolution (which was not a revolution, for it started extremely slowly and is still gathering pace) was not caused by an accumulation of capital, or the exploitation of colonies, or science, or government policy, or a change in institutions. All these explanations are too small or arrive too late to explain the astonishing 2,900 per cent increase in real incomes of westerners.

The cause was a change in values that allowed merchants to engage in trade without being despised and persecuted, “a bourgeois and rhetorical tsunami around 1700 in the North Sea”. Before — and in many places, since — “the sneer by the aristocrat, the damning by the priest, the envy by the peasant, all directed against trade and profit and the bourgeoisie, conventional in every literature since ancient times, has long sufficed to kill economic growth.”

One of the crucial changes was that the making of money through trade became if not respectable, then at least not disgraceful. With it came a valuing of innovation and an honouring of practical men — engineers who got their hands dirty.

By the time of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen (whose work she knows inside out) even intellectuals had developed a grudging respect for businessmen. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Dr Johnson said. Jane Austen, says McCloskey, “understood that ethical self-love — prudence — is indeed a virtue when balanced by other virtues”; prudence being a great bourgeois virtue. WH Auden later described his shock at how Austen was wont to “reveal so frankly and with such sobriety/ The economic basis of society”.

It was not to last. After 1848, the sons of bourgeois merchants who had become intellectuals were again pouring scorn on everything bourgeois, as they still do today. McCloskey is especially acute in documenting this contempt for mercantile values in literature: “There is scarcely an English or French intellectual in the 19th century who was not simultaneously the son of a bourgeois and sternly hostile to everything bourgeois . . . In Dickens every hero starts poor, ending rich from inheritance, not from buying ideas low and selling them high in the tiresome bourgeois way,” McCloskey writes.

In the 1990s McCloskey could think of only two novelists who have portrayed businessmen in a sympathetic light since 1848: Thomas Mann in Buddenbrooks (1901) and David Lodge in Nice Work (1988). She later added VS Naipaul and Willa Cather to her list. Warriors, priests, farmers, thieves, spies, cops, cowboys, bureaucrats may be heroes of films and books but hardly ever businessmen. The exceptions — Oskar Schindler, say — rather prove the rule: the old and cruel virtues of courage, sacrifice and honour are admired, but rarely prudence.

The modern clerisy — her word for intellectuals — can barely contain its hatred of people who buy low and sell high. Yet it was the bourgeoisie who sparked innovation, rising living standards and, yes, even virtue. McCloskey observes acidly that far from being corrupted “by riches earned from gin, spices, herring and government bonds”, Holland became exceptionally moral in the 17th century.

So you can see my problem with her thesis: respect for bourgeois values is still all too rare. It is clearly true that Britain — protected by the Channel from marauding militarism, dependent on maritime trade and subject to a Dutch takeover in 1688 — was unusually tolerant of merchants and their values for a crucial period. Yet surely this just fired the starter motor on a selfreinforcing engine of innovation and growth that kept on running despite the contempt of the clerisy.

What was it about the innovation- driven rise in productivity of the ordinary person that the reactionary tax-eaters could not stop, as they had done in the Abbasid Muslim world, Ming China and Renaissance Italy?

The key, I think, was harnessing growing quantities of energy. Without that, the bourgeois revaluation would have been strangled in the crib by Malthusian population growth or by prejudice against the middleman.

The reason this happened in Europe (here she and I and David Hume agree) is because of that continent’s geographical and political fragmentation. Its many peninsulas make Europe especially hard to integrate, as Hadrian, Napoleon, Hitler and others have discovered.

So innovators could escape uncongenial rulers. The Dutch opted out of Charles V’s and Philip II’s vision of a Habsburg Europe in a way that Shanghai could not from Ming China. McCloskey is no fan of the European Union: “European industry has adapted to the Common Market regulations, frozen in old standards now hard to change, which has led to productive sclerosis. Free-flowing commerce had come after 1800 from Europe’s fragmentation.”

McCloskey has no truck with those who say commerce creates inequality. Sure, when all the world was poor, it was more equal, but it was an equality of “utter, terrified misery, walking through a pond with water up to our chins . . . At $3 a day in a traditional or totalitarian society the number of paths are two only, conformity or brigandage.” Today we have growing equality of consumption — the rich still put on their trousers one leg at a time, as she puts it — which is what matters.

As for the future, McCloskey is resolutely and rationally optimistic: “In 50 years, in other words, if tyrants, robbers, militarists, populists, Maoists, and the less thoughtful among socialists, regulators, end-state egalitarians, Bakuninite anarchists and environmentalists do not break it, the business-like blade of the hockey stick will have eliminated the worst of human ignorance and poverty, the malaria-crippled, soldier-raped, zero-schooling lives of the poorest among us . . .

“A bottom billion out of seven is a scandal. Let’s fix it. But let’s actually help the billion, not merely indulge in our indignation and our conviction of ethical superiority by supporting policies that in fact make them worse off.” Amen.

Dump your copy of Thomas Piketty and put Deirdre McCloskey on the bookshelf in its place. This is a great book.

Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World by Deirdre McCloskey, University of Chicago Press, 768pp, £31.50. To buy this book for £27.50, visit or call 0845 2712134


The earlier volumes 

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006)

In this first volume, McCloskey focuses on religious and philosophical values from classical Greece onwards. In it she argues that the bourgeois habits of free markets not only make us wealthier but more virtuous.

Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010)

In volume two, McCloskey examines the various economic theories — Marx, Max Weber, Fernand Braudel and so on — that attempt to explain the great increase in wealth in the past 400 years. She finds them all wanting, arguing that economic factors were not the driver but a change in cultural attitude. We learnt to love commercial enterprise.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times