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Review of Bourgeois Dignity

by Jared Rubin
Feb. 23, 2011
This article originally appeared at EH.Net
Filed under articles [Bourgeois Dignity] and bourgeois era

Jared Rubin
Bourgeois Dignity, the second part of Deirdre McCloskey's (University of Illinois, Chicago) four-volume magnum opus, is a daring, innovative, extremely well-researched, and important addition to "big think" economic history. McCloskey provides a new answer to the question, "Why did Western incomes grow from an average of $3 a day prior to the Industrial Revolution to anywhere between 16 and 100 times that amount today while the rest of the world (for the most part) lags behind?" McCloskey suggests, as in the first volume (Bourgeois Virtues) that it was the changing of attitudes and rhetoric towards the bourgeois, markets, and innovation — first in northwestern Europe and then in the rest of Europe — that heralded the changes in incentives and production necessary for the emergence of the modern economy.

The book is broken into forty-six short chapters. The first thirteen chapters set the stage for the argument — noting that there has been indeed a staggering jump in income in the West since the Industrial Revolution, this growth has been transmitted to all classes, and it commenced in England and the Netherlands. This opening salvo provides a nice overview of recent (and not-so-recent) work done on this period and should not be too controversial to most economic historians. It is the second section of the book, chapters 14 through 38, where McCloskey is at her best and at times most controversial. Like the excellent and honest social scientist she is, McCloskey presents in these chapters the various alternative theories that have emerged to explain the rise in Western income by at least a factor of sixteen. A short list of the explanations she takes on includes the Protestant ethic (Weber), accumulation (Marx), geography (Diamond), eugenic materialism (Clark), science (Mokyr) and institutions (North), among many, many others. In each chapter, she takes on these alternatives and explains why they cannot explain the "factor of sixteen." Some of these explanations are more convincing than others — for example, her criticism of Gregory Clark's Farewell to Alms is particularly devastating. McCloskey remains honest in criticisms of each of the alternatives, many of which are quite brilliant. She never states that any of them cannot account for some degree of economic growth, merely that they cannot account for the degree of growth seen in the West since the Industrial Revolution.

McCloskey presents her own thesis in the final eight chapters. In McCloskey's words, "it was words." It was the rhetoric concerning the bourgeois and the ensuing dignity and liberty bestowed on them that elevated the financiers, innovators, marketers, merchants, and others to a place where a broader swath of society had incentive to aspire to become bourgeois. This change in values was a necessary precondition for modern economic success — where there is a rise in Bourgeois Dignity (including recently in China and India) — economic success follows. Indeed, McCloskey goes to great length to show that these changes in values and dignity arose in northwestern Europe in the period preceding the massive changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. McCloskey's argument is a cultural one at heart, but one with substantially more nuance than most of the cultural, Eurocentric arguments proposed over the last century.

I believe that this book is an important addition to the "big question" literature and any criticism that focuses on the specifics of McCloskey's argument misses the big picture. That said, there are two aspects of McCloskey's argument that leave me wanting. The first (and less important) problem is that McCloskey seems to be a bit quick in trivializing the possible impact of the alternatives. Many of the chapters conclude with something along the lines of "explanation x may account for a rise of incomes of a factor of y, but not sixteen." There are three reasons why this is unsatisfying. First, the empirical evidence provided for these assertions varies dramatically — some cases are much less convincing than others that a factor of sixteen cannot be accounted for. Second, McCloskey does not consider (in depth) the possibility that a confluence of the many influences presented as alternatives could account for the big leap — perhaps a monocausal (or even duocausal) solution is not the one we should seek. Finally, McCloskey does not provide empirical evidence that a change in values, words, or dignity favoring the bourgeois can account for the factor of sixteen. Though this is undoubtedly due to the difficulties of quantifying culture, as McCloskey readily admits, it is difficult to uphold McCloskey's argument using the same methodology which is used to deconstruct alternatives.

More importantly, McCloskey does not provide an account of where the change in Bourgeois Dignity came from. This is a shortcoming that she does not deny, and the reader is left to believe that she has an answer somewhere, but may be holding her cards for a future volume. McCloskey does provide a model (p. 409) which suggests that the Renaissance, Reformation, European fragmentation, free cities, printing, English liberties, and other events could have led to a "bourgeois dignification." In theory, these are intriguing possibilities that provide a nice causal pathway leading from historical events to Bourgeois Dignity to economic growth. The problem is that McCloskey spends too few pages making the causal connections. This is a problem since Bourgeois Dignity could have arisen from one of the alternatives that McCloskey downplays earlier in the book. Indeed, this is where the institutional crowd will likely leave unsatisfied — why, they will ask, are changes in institutions (such as those protecting property rights) not the root cause of changes in perceptions of the bourgeois? Are cultural attitudes not endogenous to broader economic, political, religious, and social institutions and interactions? It is not clear — in this tome at least — that McCloskey provides a full-throated answer to such questions.

This should by no means, however, denigrate the importance of Bourgeois Dignity. The reader will undoubtedly leave this book thinking that words matter and attitudes towards the bourgeois matter even more. This book absolutely cannot be ignored by economic historians. For those predisposed to disagree with McCloskey's conclusions, the task is clear — explain the shortcomings of her argument. This is such a well-researched, thoughtful book that this is an extremely tall task. For those economic historians (among whom I would include myself) who believe that McCloskey is on to something big, the task is more muddled — explain where her arguments substitute and complement others. This too is no small task. For these reasons, Bourgeois Dignity (and the entirety of the Bourgeois tetralogy) is bound to live a very long life and play an important role in shaping "big think" works for decades to come. __________________________________________
Jared Rubin is an assistant professor of economics at California State University, Fullerton. His work focuses on the institutional roots of the economics divergence between the Middle East and Western Europe. His recent publications on this topic include "Institutions, the Rise of Commerce, and the Persistence of Laws: Interest Restrictions in Islam and Christianity" (Economic Journal, forthcoming) and "Bills of Exchange, Interest Bans, and Impersonal Exchange in Islam and Christianity," (Explorations in Economic History, 2010).

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