By Deirdre McCloskey

There’s little doubt that most humans today are better off than their forebears. Stunningly so, the economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey argues in Bourgeois Equality, the concluding volume of her trilogy celebrating the oft-derided virtues of the bourgeoisie. The poorest of humanity, McCloskey shows, will soon be joining the comparative riches of Japan and Sweden and Botswana.

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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Reviews:Diane Coyle on Financial Times wrote:

"... the fear that automation will destroy jobs and exacerbate inequality. Instead, she argues, “The work we do will be more and more about decisions and persuading others to agree, changing minds, and less and less about implementation by hand.” Besides, she argues, inequality of incomes does not matter as long as the “condition of the working class”, or the poorest in society, improves. This is oddly complacent, given the role inequality plays in the present distrust of business and the tide of populism McCloskey warns about. She does not make much effort to stand up her argument that automation will change the character of work rather than simply destroy it [...] Bourgeois Equality is on stronger ground looking back than forward. It suffers from some repetition and an overdone archness of tone. But it is richly detailed and erudite, and it will join its companion volumes as essential reading on the industrial revolution, as well as a model of the intellectual depth and breadth achievable through the study of economics."

Scott Taylor on Organization Studies wrote:

"This book, and the two that precede it in the now-complete trilogy, work with the argument that economics is founded on metaphor, language and argument, despite its practitioners’ claims to represent reality through equations leading to mathematical proofs. [...] Rhetoric is the underpinning of the book’s structure, purpose and argument, it is central to the theorizing, and its practice here communicates the ideas that McCloskey claims have changed the world and how we live in the last two hundred years. [...] The substantive argument is simultaneously transparent, easy to follow, and obscurely difficult to grasp. [...] What, or who, is the argument for? Its creator tells us it is in the tradition of, first and foremost, the ‘Blessed Adam Smith’, then Veblen, Keynes, Gramsci, Galbraith, Hirschman, Sen and Ostrom, all economists who take the position that economic agents are in fact people who practise virtues. Evidence and theory are presented from a range of disciplines (e.g. social history, economics, politics, literature, art history, philosophy) in a variety of forms. The narrative also takes in most of what everyone else has said or written about post-Industrial Revolution political economy, sometimes dismissively. [...] McCloskey’s social and economic libertarianism are more prominent, more clearly articulated, here than in previous books."

Short Interview 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 Equality'

Exordium: The Three Volumes Show That We Are Rich Because of an Ethical and Rhetorical Change

First Question; 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

Second Question; Why Not the Conventional Explanations?

Part II Explanations from the Left and Right Have Proven False

  1. The Divergence Was Not Caused by Imperialism
  2. Poverty Cannot Be Overcome from the Left by Overthrowing “Capitalism”
  3. “Accumulate, Accumulate” Is Not What Happened in History
  4. But Neither Can Poverty Be Overcome from the Right by Implanting “Institutions”
  5. Because Ethics Matters, and Changes, More
  6. And the Oomph of Institutional Change Is Far Too Small
  7. Most Governmental Institutions Make Us Poorer

Third Question; What, Then, Explains the Enrichment?

Part III Bourgeois Life Had Been Rhetorically Revalued in Britain at the Onset of the Industrial Revolution

  1. It Is a Truth Universally Acknowledged That Even Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen Exhibit the Bourgeois Revaluation
  2. No Woman but a Blockhead Wrote for Anything but Money
  3. Adam Smith Exhibits Bourgeois Theory at Its Ethical Best
  4. Smith Was Not a Mr. Max U, but Rather the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists
  5. That Is, He Was No Reductionist, Economistic or Otherwise
  6. And He Formulated the Bourgeois Deal
  7. Ben Franklin Was Bourgeois, and He Embodied Betterment
  8. By 1848 a Bourgeois Ideology Had Wholly Triumphed

Part IV A Pro-Bourgeois Rhetoric Was Forming in England around 1700

  1. The Word “Honest” Shows the Changing Attitude toward the Aristocracy and the Bourgeoisie
  2. And So Does the Word “Eerlijk”
  3. Defoe, Addison, and Steele Show It, Too
  4. The Bourgeois Revaluation Becomes a Commonplace, as in The London Merchant
  5. Bourgeois Europe, for Example, Loved Measurement
  6. The Change Was in Social Habits of the Lip, Not in Psychology
  7. And the Change Was Specifically British

Part V Yet England Had Recently Lagged in Bourgeois Ideology, Compared with the Netherlands

  1. Bourgeois Shakespeare Disdained Trade and the Bourgeoisie
  2. As Did Elizabethan England Generally
  3. Aristocratic England, for Example, Scorned Measurement
  4. The Dutch Preached Bourgeois Virtue
  5. And the Dutch Bourgeoisie Was Virtuous
  6. 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

  1. The Causes Were Local, Temporary, and Unpredictable
  2. “Democratic” Church Governance Emboldened People
  3. The Theology of Happiness Changed circa 1700
  4. Printing and Reading and Fragmentation Sustained the Dignity of Commoners
  5. Political Ideas Mattered for Equal Liberty and Dignity
  6. Ideas Made for a Bourgeois Revaluation
  7. The Rhetorical Change Was Necessary, and Maybe Sufficient

Part VII Nowhere Before on a Large Scale Had Bourgeois or Other Commoners Been Honored

  1. Talk Had Been Hostile to Betterment
  2. The Hostility Was Ancient
  3. Yet Some Christians Anticipated a Respected Bourgeoisie
  4. And Betterment, Though Long Disdained, Developed Its Own Vested Interests
  5. And Then Turned
  6. On the Whole, However, the Bourgeoisies and Their Bettering Projects Have Been Precarious

Part VIII Words and Ideas Caused the Modern World

  1. Sweet Talk Rules the Economy
  2. And Its Rhetoric Can Change Quickly
  3. It Was Not a Deep Cultural Change
  4. Yes, It Was Ideas, Not Interests or Institutions, That Changed, Suddenly, in Northwestern Europe
  5. Elsewhere Ideas about the Bourgeoisie Did Not Change

Fourth Question; What Are the Dangers?

Part IX The History and Economics Have Been Misunderstood

  1. The Change in Ideas Contradicts Many Ideas from the Political Middle, 1890–1980
  2. And Many Polanyish Ideas from the Left
  3. Yet Polanyi Was Right about Embeddedness
  4. Trade-Tested Betterment Is Democratic in Consumption
  5. And Liberating in Production
  6. And Therefore Bourgeois Rhetoric Was Better for the Poor

Part X That Is, Rhetoric Made Us, but Can Readily Unmake Us

  1. After 1848 the Clerisy Converted to Antibetterment
  2. The Clerisy Betrayed the Bourgeois Deal, and Approved the Bolshevik and Bismarckian Deals
  3. Anticonsumerism and Pro-Bohemianism Were Fruits of the  Antibetterment Reaction
  4. Despite the Clerisy’s Doubts
  5. What Matters Ethically Is Not Equality of Outcome, but the Condition of the Working Class
  6. A Change in Rhetoric Made Modernity, and Can Spread It