Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain
the Modern World
By Deirdre N. McCloskey
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Pp. xvi, 571. $35.00 cloth.
In an exhaustive history of English-language economics prior to
Adam Smith, Jacob Viner wrote: "A constant note in the writings of
the merchants was the insistence upon the usefulness to the community of
trade and the dignity and social value of the trader, and in the
eighteenth century it appears to have become common for others than the
traders themselves to accept them at their own valuation" (Studies
in the Theory of International Trade [New York: Harper & Bros.,
1937], p. 107). Most economists see nothing especially interesting in
this statement. It reports, at best, a forgettable historical tidbit. A
comment merely about how people wrote (and presumably spoke) about
commerce and merchants is economically irrelevant sociology, containing
nothing worthy of an economist's attention.
I, too, would have reacted in this way to Viner's observation
had I not read Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Dignity. Although
Viner himself quickly sped past his own observation to discuss other
matters, my attention was gripped. This fact about attitudes in the
eighteenth century, I realized, is evidence for the revolutionary theory
that McCloskey offers to explain the Industrial Revolution.
And if any fact about human history demands explanation, it is the
Industrial Revolution--the "wealth explosion," as historian
Steve Davies calls it, or the "Great Fact," as McCloskey
herself names it. Readers of this journal need not be Persuaded that
this Great Fact is both factual and great--"great" both in the
sense of being enormous in scope and effect and in the sense of being a
huge blessing for humanity.
A fact so great does not languish for long without attempts being
made to explain it. Such attempted explanations are as old as the Great
Fact itself. They include exploitation of wage workers, slavery,
colonialism, Protestantism, Catholicism, science, temperate climates,
temperate citizens, glorious political revolutions, and lower
transportation costs and the resulting expansion in trade.
None of these explanations, however, explain when the Great Fact
manifested itself (the eighteenth century) and where it began
(northwestern Europe). Some of these explanations highlight important
preconditions for the Industrial Revolution-for example, reasonably
secure private-property rights--without clarifying why the Industrial
Revolution started when and where it did start. Other explanations fail
to account for any of the unique aspects of the Great Fact--for example,
slavery is a millennia-old institution whose changes are negatively
associated (both temporally and spatially) with the Great Fact.
One of the many rewards of reading Bourgeois Dignity is to receive
from a world-class historian as penetrating and eloquent a tour of
commercial and industrial history as can possibly be fitted into a
single volume. Along with this tour, the reader also is treated by a
world-class economist to a masterful review of each of the major (and
some not so major) contending explanations of the Great Fact.
Having convinced her readers (or at least this reviewer) of the
inadequacies of each of the previously offered explanations of the Great
Fact, McCloskey argues that what does explain it is a sea change in
attitudes toward the bourgeoisie. For the first time in history, the
bourgeoisie of northwestern Europe in the eighteenth century came to
possess dignity. The bourgeoisie and their activities finally came to be
regarded by a large enough swath of society as dignified and
Being group animals, we care deeply what other people think about
us. And what people think about us is typically conveyed, to us and to
others, by talk. McCloskey insists that, first in Holland and soon
afterward in England, the way people talked about profit-seeking
merchants and commercial and industrial innovators changed. That talk
became more admiring. What we might call the "dignity return"
to bourgeois activities rose.
And at the same time, at least the relative "dignity
return" on nonbourgeois activities fell. Less were the relative
amounts of dignity meted out to those who specialized in slaughtering
people in battle or in idling about in manor houses counting the
hectares on which peasants toiled to produce sustenance for the nobility
and the clergy.
As the dignity return to bourgeois activity rose relative to that
of other occupations, so predictably, too, did the amount of bourgeois
activity. People do respond to incentives! The Industrial Revolution was
Of course, McCloskey's rhetoric-centered theory of the Great
Fact does not deny the importance of secure property rights, the
benefits of prudent and industrious behavior, the helpfulness of
low-cost means of transportation, and the wonders of science. Even the
most boundless glorification of the bourgeoisie would have done nothing
to spark the Industrial Revolution if, say, private-property rights in
northwestern Europe were insecure or if the terrain there was so rugged
and harsh that transportation over even short distances cost a
But all the pre-McCloskean explanations fail because none of the
many phenomena that these various theories propose as The Cause is
unique to eighteenth-century northwestern Europe. Secure property rights
existed in England long before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and
prudent, sober attitudes about saving did not first appear then and
there. Nor did big cities (by eighteenth-century standards) and their
potentially thick markets. Nor did science. Nor did reductions in
It is possible that eighteenth-century northwestern Europe was the
site of a perfect storm of all or most of these conditions coming
together for the first time in history--secure property rights and a
respect for science comingling for the first time with falling
transportation costs and saved surplus values wrung by Calvinists from
But this possibility is no more plausible--indeed, it seems less
set--than McCloskey's explanation that, given a few rather
historically common preconditions (such as secure private-property
tights), a happy and historically unique change in attitudes toward the
bourgeoisie unleashed humankind's innovative zeal as never before.
And that zeal, once unleashed, is not easily driven back into
lethargy--thankfully so, given the battering that bourgeois activities
and norms have taken over the past century or more from professors,
pundits, and politicians whose impressive skills in rhetoric are
exceeded only by their shameful ignorance of basic economic principles.
Bourgeois Dignity is the second volume in a projected six-volume
work. So there's much more to come. One of these volumes is a
promised fuller explanation of why rhetoric in eighteenth-century
northwestern Europe turned so pro-bourgeois. That would be nice to know.
But note that even if no one, including McCloskey, can supply a
compelling explanation of why pro-bourgeois rhetoric emerged where and
when it did, the thesis of Bourgeois Dignity remains unscathed. The
historically unique change in rhetoric can be the spark of the Great
Fact even if we do not understand what sparked the change itself. Things
happen sometimes for no reason reducible to analytic explanation. Maybe
that rhetoric change "just happened."
I doubt, though, that such was the case. If the cause or causes of
the rhetoric change can be identified, Deirdre McCloskey is just the
scholar for doing so successfully.
I close with a cavil. I dispute the truth of Bourgeois
Dignity's subtitle Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern
World. Economics can explain the modern world. Solid evidence is
McCloskey's own work. Although appointed to faculties of English,
history, and communications in addition to economics, she is above all
an economist. And her contributions as an economist to our understanding
of the modern world rank second to none among scholars from whichever
fields you might name. McCloskey does economics correctly--as a
systematic, open-minded, truth-seeking inquiry unburdened by dogmas
about what does and doesn't count as a "legitimate"
The economics that she rightly accuses of falling short in its
efforts to explain the modern world--the economics that ignores human
passions other than for the prudential pursuit of observable material
gain and that bullyingly rejects as sissified any methods of inquiry
other than those expressed in formal mathematics--is, although dominant,
not the only species of economics. Economics properly done can indeed
help to explain the modern world. Bourgeois Dignity is exhibit A.
DONALD J. BOUDREAUX
George Mason University