The Great Fact: A Review of Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Dignity | Print Version
by Bradley Doucet*
Le Québécois Libre, September 15, 2014, No 324

We live in astonishing times. We take it for granted, of course, which is good in a way because, well, we have to get on with the business of living and can’t spend every waking moment going, “Oh my God! This is amazing!” But it’s a good idea to stop and take stock from time to time in order to appreciate just how far we’ve come in the past 200 years or so—to show gratitude for just how much richer the average person is today thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

“In 1800, the average human consumed and expected her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to go on consuming a mere $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two,” writes economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey in her excellent 2010 book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. That’s in modern-day, US prices, corrected for cost of living. Apart from a comparatively few wealthier lords, bishops, and the odd rich merchant, people were dirt poor, barely subsisting, unable to afford luxuries like elementary education for their kids—who had a 50% chance at birth of not making it past the age of 30. That’s the way it was, the way it had always been, and as far as anyone could tell, the way it always would be.

More Than 16 Times Richer

But thankfully, things turned out a little differently. There are seven times as many of us on the planet today, but we’re many times richer on average, despite pockets of enduring dire poverty here and there. According to McCloskey, “Real income per head nowadays exceeds that around 1700 or 1800 in, say, Britain and in other countries that have experienced modern economic growth by such a large factor as sixteen, at least.” And this is a very conservative estimate of material improvement, not taking into account such novelties as jet travel, penicillin, and smartphones.

This radical, positive change brought about by the Industrial Revolution is the “Great Fact” about the modern world. “No competent economist, regardless of her politics, denies the Great Fact,” writes McCloskey. But it does require explanation, and here there are many theories. What caused it? Why did it happen where and when it happened—starting in northern Europe around 1800—instead of in some other place, at some other time? And although modern economic growth has at least begun to reach most of the world, including now China and India, if we had a better understanding of its causes, perhaps we could do a better job of encouraging it to spread to the relatively few remaining holdouts.

What changed, argues McCloskey, is the way people thought about markets and innovation and the people who were engaged in the business of making new things and buying and selling them. “More or less suddenly the Dutch and British and then the Americans and the French began talking about the middle class, high or low—the “bourgeoisie”—as though it were dignified and free. The result was modern economic growth.” In other words, the material, economic fact has a non-material, rhetorical cause, which is why economics can’t explain the modern world. Our ideas changed, and we started innovating like never before, and an explosion of innovation drove the rapid economic growth of the past 200 years.

What Didn’t Cause the Industrial Revolution

Bourgeois Dignity is the second book of a trilogy. The first book, The Bourgeois Virtues (2006), which I have not read but now plan to, argued for the positive ethical status of a bourgeois life. The third book, Bourgeois Equality, due out in 2015, will present the positive case for the claim that it is a change in ideas and rhetoric that made the modern world—and that ideas and rhetoric could unmake it, too. As for this second book in the series, it presents the negative case by examining the materialist explanations for the Great Fact offered up by economists and historians from both the left and the right, and finding them all to be lacking.

Imperialism, for instance, did not bring about the modern world. The average European did not become spectacularly wealthy by historical standards simply by taking Africa’s and America’s wealth. Imperialism did happen, and it did make a few people rich and hurt a lot of people, especially in places like the Belgian Congo. But it did not raise the standard of living of average Europeans, who would have been better off if their leaders had allowed trade to flourish instead of supporting the subjugation of people in foreign lands. Besides which, empires had existed in other times and places without bringing about an Industrial Revolution. A unique effect cannot be the result of a routine cause. And it cannot either simply be the case that wealth was moved from one place to another, because there is much more wealth per person today than ever before, despite there being many more of us around.

International trade did not do it either, according to McCloskey. Trade is a good thing, as imperialism is a bad thing, but its effects are relatively small. And extensive trade, too, existed long before the 1800s, in places other than Europe and the United States, without launching the rapid material betterment of all. And for similar reasons, it wasn’t the case that people began saving more, or finally accumulated enough, or got greedier all of a sudden, or discovered a Protestant work ethic, or finally built extensive transportation infrastructure, or formed unions, or suddenly started respecting private property, or any of dozens of other explanations presented by economists and historians over the years.

Respect for Innovation and Making Money

Only innovation has the power to make people radically better off by radically increasing the output produced from given inputs, and only innovation was a truly novel cause, to the extent that it was taking place on an unprecedented scale two hundred years ago in northern Europe. And the reason that it began happening there and then like never before was a change in rhetoric—a newfound liberty, yes, but also a newfound dignity previously reserved for clergy and warriors. For the first time, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it became respectable, even honourable, to figure out new ways of doing things and to make money selling those innovations to other people, and so innovation and business were encouraged, and much of humanity was lifted out of dire poverty for the first time in history starting in the 19th century.

Ideas matter. Supported by bourgeois dignity, and despite the betrayal of a portion of the intellectual elite as of around 1848, we have continued to innovate and make money and lift more and more people out of poverty. There have been significant setbacks due to communism and fascism and two world wars, but almost everyone is much better off today than anyone dreamed was possible just a few short centuries ago. In order to continue spreading the wealth, and the opportunities for human flourishing that go with it, we need to defend the idea that business and innovation deserve to be free and respected, as Deirdre McCloskey herself has so admirably done in this fine volume.

* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.