©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL


by Leonard Long
Jan. 30, 2011
This article originally appeared at Cosmopolitan Lawyer
Filed under articles [bourgeois dignity] and bourgeois era

McCloskey, Deirdre N., Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World (Chicago & London: U. of Chicago Press, 2010)


'Thrift' has been much praised in American civic theology. 'Work hard, follow the rules,' say the American politicians: 'Anyone can achieve the American Dream.' No, sadly, they cannot, if the Dream is of riches. Accidents happen; the Being who governs the world doth sometimes, in His wise providence, determine that accumulation comes to naught; and great riches comes mainly from great and creative alertness. Like many other of the sacred words, such as 'democracy' or 'equality' or 'opportunity' or progress,' the rhetoric of thrift and hard work and following the rules turns out to be more weighty than its material force. It's time for the old tale of thriftiness to be retired, and an accurate history of innovation to take its place." Id. at 167. "Take for example so trivial an institution for providing incentives as a traffic light. When it turns red it surely does create incentives to stop. For one thing, the rule is self-enforcing, because the cross traffic has the green. . . . For another, the police may be watching, or the automatic camera may capture your license plate. The red light is a fence, a constraint, a rule of the game, or of the asylum. . . . Id. at 304. "Yet the red light has meaning to humans, who are more than rats in a Prudence Only experiment. . . . Among other things it means state dominance over drivers. It signals the presence of civilization, and the legitimacy granted to the state that a civilization entails. . . . The red light is in Lachmann's terms a system of thought. It is a system that some drivers find comforting and others find irritating, depending on their attitudes toward the state, toward mechanical inventions, toward traffic officers. For a responsible citizen, or an Iowan, or indeed for a fascist conformist, the red light means the keeping of rules. . . . Again, incentives [to run the red light] be damned. But for a principled social rebel, or a Bostonian, or indeed for a sociopath, the red light is a challenge to his autonomy, state-sponsored insult. Again, incentives [here, to obey the red light] be damned. . . . Id. at 304. "Meaning matters. A cyclist in Chicago writing to the newspaper in 2008 about a fellow cyclist killed when he ran a red light declared that 'when the traffic light changes color, the streets of our cities become an everyman-for-himself, anything-goes killing zone, where anyone who dares enter will be caught in a stream of intentionally more-deadly, high-mass projectiles, controlled by operators who are given a license to kill when the light turns green.' The motorist who unintentionally hit the cyclist probably gave a different meaning to the event. A good deal of life and politics and exchange takes place in the damning f incentives and the assertion of meaning--what Keynes (and after him George Akerlof and Robert Shiller) called 'animal spirits' and what Sen calls 'commitment' and what call 'virtues and correspondingly vices other than Prudence only'." Id. at 305 (citation omitted). From the book jacket: "The big economic story of the past 400 years is not in its origins economic. And the the big economic story of our own times is not the Great Recession. It is how China and India have embraced neoliberal ideas of economics, attributing a sense a dignity and liberty to the bourgeoisie denied for so long. The result has been a explosion in economic growth, and roof that economic change depends less on foreign trade, investment, property rights, exploitation, imperialism, genetics, and other material causes, an a great deal more on ideas and what people believe.' Or so say Deirdre N. McCloskey in this fiercely contrarian history that wages a similar argument about economics in the West. Bourgeois Dignity turns to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe to reconsider the birth of the i]Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism. . . . The wealth of nations, then, didn't grow so dramatically after 1800 because of economic factors; it grew because rhetoric about markets, enterprise, and innovation finally became enthusiastic and encouraging of their inherent dignity.

This is the second of six projected volumes. Although the second volume stands up quite well when read alone, I do suggest one read the first volume, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2006) to fully appreciate this second volume.).