©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

"Some Responses to Paul Hohenberg's Views on Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World"

by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
June 2011
Filed under academic interests [bourgeois dignity]

Paul, my dear old friend: You spend a good deal of space in your brief review in the June, 2011 number of the Journal of Economic History complaining about my allusive style of writing and, as far as I can make out, how very many pages I plan to devote to answering the question of how we became modern. My only, and feeble, defense is that it's a pretty big question, and I have to cover a lot of ground. I want to acknowledge in the pursuit of truth many views, many of them non-economic. Therefore Homer and Shakespeare figure, too. I can't make out why such a cultivated man as you, Paul, would sneer at literary evidence.

Of course, such sneers are standard tropes of the Scientific pose. I know because I used to deploy the sneers myself. "We're Scientists here: no artsy stuff allowed." The Agricultural History Review a long time ago rejected a paper of mine on the grounds (I am not making this up) that it was too well written. I don't know what to say about such distaste for unifying our fragmented culture.

So here let me reply merely to the scientific issues you raise:

"One aspect dear to me, and which I hope gets developed further, is the key role of cities, as hubs of information exchange, in the growth process."

I treat cities from Sumerian times on, as the homes of my beloved bourgeoisie, in A Treasured Bourgeoisie: How Innovation Became Ethical, 1600-1800, a-writing now (and available in crude draft at deirdremccloskey.org). I will make use there of your lucid writings on the history of cities, surely, and of other writers on urbanization in the West such as another old friend, Jan de Vries. And yet, and yet: "in the West." What do we make of the enormous cities of China, or of the Middle East, or even of South Asia, or for that matter pre-Columbian Mexico, which appeared to have all the economies of scale and of networking one could wish, and centuries of routine prosperity on the way to not experiencing a Great Fact of innovation leading to factors of six or thirty or at last one hundred in rising income per head? I would pose the same question to the urbanocentric views of my former student, Paul Romer. Why did urbanization in the Low Countries lead to the First Modern Economy, and in the northwest of England to innovations in the making of textiles, and then in the northwest of Europe generally to frenetic innovation in the late nineteenth century, yet to no such sustained innovation before the late twentieth century in Beijing or Delhi or Istanbul?

"When it comes to recently fashionable explanations centering on institutions and property rights, McCloskey is more circumspect, perhaps because the authors cited are often ideological allies. . . ."

Foul play, my dear Paul. (And your own ideological slip is showing.) It's wrong to say that I am "circumspect" in my four chapters criticizing Doug North's views of how his imagined improvement of the institutions of property rights did the trick. Such "ideological allies" as Doug and Daron Acemoglou (pp. 320-322) and Greg Clark (pp. 266-295) come in for what most readers see as the harshest criticism in the book.

"[I]t would seem that achieving bourgeois liberty and dignity may not be enough to explain sustained long-term growth, while the innovation supposedly at the heart of the process can regress to successful imitation without major harm."

True, as Joel Mokyr notes, what we need is an explanation of continued innovation after the initial spurt. Spurts without continuations are depressingly common: the commercial empire of Athens and its intellectual and artistic correlates; the Moslem world in the two centuries after the Prophet; Song China. But after the denizens of the shores of the North Sea discovered liberalism, bourgeois liberty and dignity did continue to spread, putting world bourgeoisies in competition with each other, 1846 to the present. The most spectacular examples-without which my argument would be much less plausible-is the recent history of China and then India. Decades of "scope for active government" led to stagnation in both places. Then they liberalized.

"While McCloskey does not actually say, with Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman, that there is no such thing as society, only autonomous individuals and their voluntary association, the sentiment is there. In her world there is indeed little scope for active government . . . ."

Your ideological slip is still showing, dear. Pull down your skirt. I say over and over that the Bourgeois Revaluation was caused by sociological and political changes (the Reformation, for example, and the Revolts and Revolutions from 1568 to 1789; and the printing press; though the details await A Treasured Bourgeosie). It was not caused I say by economic or legal changes. How much more anti-economistic, beyond autonomous individuals, do you want me to be? Read the subtitle of the book, dearie.

I admit to being suspicious of "active governments," as anyone would be watching them suppress innovation and protect elite rents since the first chieftanships. But what do you make of my admiration for Sweden's trade unions and welfare state on pp. 340, 356, 401, 425, 444-445? It's expedient to dump me with Friedman and Thatcher, I know, as a signal to leftish readers. But my politics is not so simple, and should be scientifically irrelevant anyway.

"In many times and places, marginal groups have performed admirably despite being largely deprived of both [bourgeois liberty and dignity]. Dissenters in England, Jews in Europe, "Levantines" in many places, East Indians in Africa and elsewhere, and overseas Chinese come to mind."

Yes. Yet, with the leading, and highly significant, exception of the Dissenters in England, none of these-I discussed on pp. 375-376 the case my mentor Alexander Gerschenkron emphasized in Europe in the Russian Mirror (1970), the Old Believers in sad Russia-led to a Great Fact. Why not? Because the opinion of the society, and therefore its politics, denied them scope to take the case for innovation beyond the ghetto walls. Your observation strengthens my argument. (And I made it myself on p. 275 about the Chinese flourishing overseas, only.)

"Also, certain societies have established a strong economic track record with meager helpings of bourgeois liberty and or dignity. Examples include nineteenth-century Germany, Meiji Japan, and even Communist China."

You mean Communist China after 1979, I take it. All achieved their strong track records at first on a program of frenetic imitation of what had been achieved in obviously bourgeoisie-admiring societies. Consider the Germans enticing English textiles workers to emigrate, the Japanese sending committees of inquiry to Germany and England and France, and the Communists (Steven N. S. Cheung has claimed to me) reading Capitalism and Freedom and (with Steve's help) seeing the light. Their track record will not continue to be so strong if they revert to suppression of free speech, as Germany and Japan did in the 1930s, and China may well still.

"Granted, the bourgeois may have fared better there during these times than before, in which case what counts is improvement rather than the absolute levels of liberty and dignity. Yet if that is the case, then why should growth persist when liberty and dignity are not growing further?"

The point is that liberty and dignity let the genies out of the bottles in which illiberal societies had kept them for so long. Then, as Matt Ridley and the writers he cites would express it, the genies started having sex with each other, and producing baby ideas, which commenced proliferating. There's no need for liberty and dignity to grow without bound, as your objection seems to be supposing.

Perhaps a one-volume condensed edition of all six (if not more) books that leaves out the pyrotechnics will make it easier for the reader to follow and evaluate the argument.

Just so. Stay tuned.