Opinion and Economic Analysis

Hicks: Bourgeois dignity and the modern world

April 13, 2013

I have just read a most remarkable book, “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World,” by Deirdre McCloskey, a distinguished professor of (get this) economics, history, English and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago. It is part of a body of work making great waves in three academic disciplines.

The book’s main thesis is that all the explanations of the explosion of economic growth that occurred about 300 years ago are inadequate.

From the beginning of recorded time until the 17th century, the average human lived daily on $3 of goods and services (in today’s dollars), meaning uncertain meals, two or three sets of clothes, and a short life lived within a hovel. Think of eastern Afghanistan or Pakistan.

About 300 years ago, in the Western world this changed rapidly so that, within three generations, economic growth in Western Europe and North America had exceeded all the recorded and archaeological history.

Several theories try to explain this. Some have failed spectacularly, such as those offered by Karl Marx. Others explain only elements of that historical shift, such as modern economic growth theory.

McCloskey argues that sometime during the 1700s, attitudes changed to accept a set of values that have since been labeled as bourgeois. These include honesty, industry or effort, hope and faith in the future.

McCloskey argues that a belief in these values manifested itself in a few places in Western Europe, and through observed changes to language and rhetoric (Jane Austen’s novels, for example), gave what we might call the middle classes a dignity that had beforehand been reserved only for the nobility.

Once liberty was mixed with the dignity of what we might call middle-class toil, an economic renaissance emerged. She recounts the spread of growth with this rhetoric over the past two centuries. More important, McCloskey outlines where it continues to emerge in places where bourgeois dignity mixes with freedom—India, China and Africa.

Like truly great intellectual innovations, it is simultaneously brilliant and, once revealed, so utterly simple that one is left wondering why it took so long to uncover. It is one of the great intellectual achievements of the new century.

If the encouragement of a young Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison or Bill Gates is key to economic growth, how are we doing as a nation? Is the sort of industriousness that McCloskey argues propelled us from great poverty to great wealth still common or is it increasingly derided in popular culture? Has the rhetoric dignifying hard work been supplanted by valorization of easy riches and effortless talent?•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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