James Pethokoukis, Bourgeois Dignity, and the value of work

From Pethokoukis’s “Sorry, America, You're Rich Enough. Stop Working” (Richocet, 5 July 2012):

[E]lites like Skidelsky have often frowned on work despite their professed affection for the working man. As economist Deirdre McCloskey writes in Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World, the rising reputation of commerce—of making money through private trade rather than government favor—was a key driver of the Industrial Revolution. Historically, elites have looked down on the merchant class, particularly what today we call small business and entrepreneurs. She notes that in ancient Rome, Cicero declared that "commerce, if on a small scale, is to be regarded as vulgar; but if large and rich … it is not so very discreditable … if the merchant … contented with his profits … betakes himself from the port itself to an estate in the country.” Even the commercial Dutch in the 1500s thought hustling for a buck was disreputable, an attitude summed up by the proverb, "A lie is a merchant's prosperity.”

But then that all changed:

After about 1700 in Britain … the vulgarities of the economy and of money and of dealing with their unsettling creativity came gradually to be talked about as noncorrupting. They began to be seen in theory as worthy of a certain respect, as not being hopelessly vulgar or sinful or underhanded or lower caste. In a word they became dignified, in part because they were recognized as good for the nation, not a useless scam. [Bourgeois Dignity, 2010]

Work can be mindless repetition. But it can also be an outlet for creativity and imagination, one that brings a sense of self-worth, identity, and achievement. A job well done as a way of doing the Lord's work, of creating a "good life.”

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