It’s Ideas that Count

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Bourgeois Equality is the third book in Prof. Deirdre McCloskey’s trilogy, following Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010), on the rise of the modern economy. In Dignity, she knocked down rival theories of what made the modern world. Now she argues for her theory — that the modern world was started by ideas, rhetoric, talk.

It’s a better theory than it sounds. In Bourgeois Equality she defends it ably and with flair.

“Equality” has been the Left’s word. Libertarians have no interest in an equal possession of income or wealth, and we don’t believe that everyone’s voice has an equal claim on our attention. We do believe in equal liberty to strive for income and wealth, to talk and write and thereby attempt to win our attention. We forget, sometimes, how powerful that kind of equality can be, and rarely imagine what the world was like before people had it. A third of a millennium ago the Englishmen who dared proclaim it were smeared as “levellers” and put in prison.

That is when the modern world was just beginning.

Deirdre McCloskey is a libertarian and professor of economics, history, English, and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In Equality, her attention is on the development of “a business-respecting civilization,” with its seed in Venice and Florence in the 1500s, its sprouting in Holland in the 1600s, and its flowering in England in the 1700s. Since 1800, the result has been what McCloskey calls “the Great Enrichment.”

Libertarians believe in equal liberty to strive for income and wealth, to talk and write and thereby attempt to win our attention.

Everyone knows the world got richer, but they seldom reflect on the magnitude of it. Consider Afghanistan. People in villages there live on $3 a day, “which before 1800,” McCloskey writes, “was what the average human more or less everywhere expected to make.” In the rich countries, average income per person is about $100 per day. The earth carries vastly more people than in 1800, and life expectancy has doubled.

What started all this? It was not mere saving and investment, “piling brick upon brick” of the medieval economy. It was creating a new economy, over and over again, and destroying the old one.

The mental picture, McCloskey writes, “should not be nuclear fission, the reaching of a threshold — in which, with the creative people bouncing against each other, the reaction becomes self-sustaining. It was more like a forest fire. The kindling for a creative conflagration lay about for millennia, carefully prevented from burning by traditional societies and governing elites with watering cans. Then the historically unique rise of liberty and dignity for ordinary people disabled the watering cans and put the whole forest to the torch.”

Everyone knows the world got richer, but they seldom reflect on the magnitude of it.

The match was the idea that the aristocracy and established church had no right to rule. The alternative was the practical egalitarianism of accomplished commoners — merchants and artisans. These bourgeois had been around for centuries, but always had to bow to their betters. Then they stopped bowing and made a new world.

“No bishops,” McCloskey writes. “And at length no lords and kings. And then no central planning or expert regulation. Laissez faire.”

She calls the new idea “the Bourgeois Deal”: You are free to try something new. If it pays, you get to keep the money and push on.

The change had begun with religion. Printing had put the Bible in the hands of well-off commoners, who could interpret the Good Book in any way they liked — focusing on worldly works rather than an afterlife, for instance. This brought the Reformation, bloody war, and eventually a godly compromise: religious laissez-faire. An early apostle of it, when it was still new and strange, was the English Leveller John Lilburne, who wrote in 1649 that every person should be free “to exercise of Religion according to his Conscience, nothing having caused more distractions, and heart burnings in all ages.”

These bourgeois had been around for centuries, but always had to bow to their betters. Then they stopped bowing and made a new world.

Along with freedom to print Bibles came freedom to print other things. “By 1600 the Dutch had taken over from the Venetians the role of unrestricted publishers of Europe,” McCloskey writes, “publishing the books of heretics like Baruch Spinoza in Latin, John Locke in English, and Pierre Bayle in French, not to mention pornography in whatever language would sell.”

A marketplace of ideas — and other things.

Freedom also came to science, an event that some historians say created the modern world. McCloskey disagrees. “Science didn’t make the modern world,” she writes. “Technology did, in the hands of newly liberated and honored instrument makers and tinkerers.” The economic payoffs from elite science came later. The method of science, in her view, is what mattered first. A scientist was free to advance a claim, and other scientists were free to check it. Innovation, but a market test: the Bourgeois Deal.

“The only alternative to a marketplace of ideas,” McCloskey writes, “is a socialism of ideas.” Or an aristocracy of ideas, which amounts to the same thing.

The break from the aristocracy of ideas began with talk, much of it in the new coffeehouses of the late 1600s. “It is the habits of the lip that shape the habits of the mind and heart,” McCloskey writes. “Rhetoric therefore is fundamental. We can know the rhetoric of an age, the habits of the lip, by reading its literary and other written products.”

In Bourgeois Equality, McCloskey pays much more attention to words than numbers. In her hands, for example, Daniel Defoe’s pathbreaking novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) becomes an example of a commoner who demonstrates a “prudent calculation of costs and benefits” as he scavenges items from his wrecked ship. She also has a whole chapter on the word “honest,” and how it changed from its aristocratic meaning, “honorably high-class,” to its modern meaning, “truthful.”

The economic payoffs from elite science came later. The method of science, in McCloskey's view, is what mattered first.

Others have written that economic development has cultural roots. David Landes, for example, wrote in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), “Culture makes all the difference . . . What counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity.” Which at any point in time is true enough. McCloskey’s take is to specify that it is the attitude toward these things — “the rhetoric people presently find persuasive” — that comes first.

Can rhetoric really be more important than law and institutions? Yes, she says: “There is nothing weird or scary or unscientific or self-contradictory about claiming that rhetoric matters.”

As a Christian, McCloskey makes a few jabs at fellow libertarians who don’t care about the poor. She does care. She is accepting of the welfare state, as long as it stays within reasonable bounds. Her concern is that political, cultural, and economic life remain open to innovation, and always with that egalitarian regulator: a market test. Innovation should not mean giving power to experts and elites. “Engineers,” she writes, “are full of bad ideas, too.”

So are some economists and historians. Read Bourgeois Equality, and give it the market test.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World," by Deirdre McCloskey. University of Chicago Press, 2016, 787 pages.



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Comments

Deirdre McCloskey

Dear Mr. Ramsey,

What a lucid and accurate review! I see the skill of an old newspaperman!

Sincerely,

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
deirdremccloskey.org

Geezer

As a Christian, McCloskey makes a few jabs at fellow libertarians who don’t care about the poor. She does care. She is accepting of the welfare state, as long as it stays within reasonable bounds.

The unstated basis for those three sentences is that people who are unwilling to be generous with other people's money "don’t care about the poor." Welfare state socialism (like all forms of socialism) is motivated by coveting and implemented by stealing. Christians are commanded to refrain from doing either. McCloskey is a thoroughgoing phony.

Stevecsd

Good point, Geezer. When I hear professed Christians, especially ministers or pastors, "We need the government to do X for the poor" I have a response. I say "Please show me in the Bible where Jesus Christ said go to your neighbor's house and take money from his purse." They can't. Nowhere did Jesus profess that. He said help the poor with your own time and money. Jesus led by persuasion not coercion, but is coercion that many Christians resort to by advocating government intervention.

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