By Deirdre McCloskey

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.

Reviews:Donald J. Boudreaux on The Independent Review; A Journal of Political Economy wrote:

"if any fact about human history demands explanation, it is the Industrial Revolution—the 'wealth explosion,' as historian Steve Davies calls it, or the 'Great Fact,' as McCloskey herself names it. [...] One of the many rewards of reading Bourgeois Dignity is to receive from a worldclass historian as penetrating and eloquent a tour of commercial and industrial history as can possibly be fitted into a single volume. Along with this tour, the reader also is treated by a world-class economist to a masterful review of each of the major (and some not so major) contending explanations of the Great Fact. [...] The economics that she rightly accuses of falling short in its efforts to explain the modern world—the economics that ignores human passions other than for the prudential pursuit of observable material gain and that bullyingly rejects as sissified any methods of inquiry other than those expressed in formal mathematics—is, although dominant, not the only species of economics. Economics properly done can indeed help to explain the modern world. Bourgeois Dignity is exhibit A."

Henry Clark on Erasmus Journal for Philosphy and Economics wrote:

"McCloskey brings a sustained conversational engagement that is all too rare in academic writing, especially economics. Perhaps more important, she makes available to a wider audience some of the intriguing findings of recent specialists. [...] There are, on the other hand, somewhat more serious problems raised by the book. The multi-volume project as a whole will need to convince readers of the author’s argument not only that innovation created the modern world, an argument Mokyr and others have also supported, but that the key determinant of that innovation was a change in values and rhetoric. The author offers only occasional hints about how she might go about making such a case, but they are enough to raise questions about her general approach."

Author Giving a Lecture about the Book

Additional Info

About Deirdre McCloskey

Deidre McCloskey

From her own website: "Deirdre McCloskey taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2000 to 2015 in economics, history, English, and communication. A well-known economist and historian and rhetorician, she has written 17 books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy and the ethics of the bourgeois virtues. She is known as a “conservative” economist, Chicago-School style (she taught in the Economics Department there from 1968 to 1980, and in History), but protests that “I’m a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian libertarian.”"

Table of Contents of Bourgeois Dignity

  1. The Modern World Was an Economic Tide, But Did Not Have Economic Causes.
  2. Liberal Ideas Caused the Innovation
  3. And a New Rhetoric Protected the Ideas.
  4. Many Other Plausible Stories Don’t Work Very Well.
  5. The Correct Story Praises “Capitalism.”
  6. Modern Growth Was a Factor of at Least Sixteen.
  7. Increasing Scope, Not Pot-of-Pleasure “Happiness,” Is What Mattered,
  8. And the Poor Won.
  9. Creative Destruction Can Be Justified Therefore on Utilitarian Grounds
  10. British Economists Did Not Recognize the Tide,
  11. But the Figures Tell.
  12. Britain’s (and Europe’s) Lead Was an Episode,
  13. And Followers Could Leap over Stages.
  14. The Tide Didn’t Happen because of Thrift;
  15. Capital Fundamentalism Is Wrong.
  16. A Rise of Greed or of a Protestant Ethic Didn’t Happen;
  17. “Endless” Accumulation Does Not Typify the Modern World.
  18. Nor Was the Cause Original Accumulation or a Sin of Expropriation.
  19. Nor Was It Accumulation of Human Capital, Until Lately.
  20. Transport or Other Domestic Reshufflings Didn’t Cause It,
  21. Nor Geography, nor Natural Resources;
  22. Not Even Coal.
  23. Foreign Trade Was Not the Cause, Though World Prices Were a Context,
  24. And the Logic of Trade-as-an-Engine Is Dubious,
  25. And Even the Dynamic Effects of Trade Were Small.
  26. The Effects on Europe of the Slave Trade and British Imperialism Were Smaller Still,
  27. And Other Exploitations, External or Internal, Were Equally Profitless to Ordinary Europeans.
  28. It Was Not the Sheer Quickening of Commerce
  29. Nor the Struggle over the Spoils.
  30. Eugenic Materialism Doesn’t Work;
  31. Neo-Darwinism Doesn’t Compute;
  32. And Inheritance Fades.
  33. Institutions Cannot Be Viewed Merely as Incentive-Providing Constraints,
  34. And So the Better Institutions, Such as Those Alleged for 1689, Don’t Explain,
  35. And Anyway the Entire Absence of Property Is Not Relevant to the Place or Period
  36. And the Chronology of Property and Incentives Has Been Mismeasured,
  37. And So the Routine of Max U Doesn’t Work.
  38. The Cause Was Not Science,
  39. But Bourgeois Dignity and Liberty Entwined with the Enlightenment.
  40. It Was Not Allocation:
  41. It Was Words.
  42. Dignity and Liberty for Ordinary People, in Short, Were the Greatest Externalities,
  43. And the Model Can Be Formalized.
  44. Opposing the Bourgeoisie Hurts the Poor,
  45. And the Bourgeois Era Warrants Therefore Not Political or Environmental Pessimism
  46. But an Amiable, if Guarded, Optimism.