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 economists attention.
I, too, would have reacted in this way to Viners observation had I not read
Deirdre McCloskeys 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
Revolutionthe 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 greatgreat 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 rightswithout 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 Factfor 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 worldclass
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 respectable.
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 launched.
Of course, McCloskeys 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 princes ransom.
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 transportation costs.
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
historysecure 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 plausibleindeed, it seems less sothan
McCloskeys explanation that, given a few rather historically common preconditions
(such as secure private-property rights), a happy and historically unique change
in attitudes toward the bourgeoisie unleashed humankinds innovative zeal as never
before. And that zeal, once unleashed, is not easily driven back into lethargythankfully
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
theres 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
I close with a cavil. I dispute the truth of Bourgeois Dignitys subtitle Why
Economics Cant Explain the Modern World. Economics can explain the modern
world. Solid evidence is McCloskeys 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 correctlyas a systematic, open-minded, truthseeking
inquiry unburdened by dogmas about what does and doesnt count as a
The economics that she rightly accuses of falling short in its efforts to explain the
modern worldthe 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 mathematicsis, although
dominant, not the only species of economics. Economics properly done can indeed
help to explain the modern world. Bourgeois Dignity is exhibit A.
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