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Bourgeois Equality: The Modern World Can’t Be Explained By Material Causes

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industrial-revolution-1024x665Economist Deirdre McCloskey is set to release the long-anticipated conclusion of the Bourgeois Era trilogy sometime next spring.

The book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, will build on her thesis that our newfound prosperity is not primarily due to systems, tools, or materials, but the ideas and rhetoric behind them.

“The Great Enrichment, in short, came out of a novel, pro-bourgeois, and anti-statist rhetoric that enriched the world,” she writes, in a lengthy teaser for National Review. “It is, as Adam Smith said, ‘allowing every man [and woman, dear] to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.’”

In an age where the Left continues to make age-old Marxian arguments about the destructive ju-ju of accumulated wealth, and where the Right is increasingly prone to react on those same grounds, McCloskey reminds us that the premises are entirely different.

The modern world was made not by material causes, such as coal or thrift or capital or exports or exploitation or imperialism or good property rights or even good science, all of which have been widespread in other cultures and other times. It was made by ideas from and about the bourgeoisie — by an explosion after 1800 in technical ideas and a few institutional concepts, backed by a massive ideological shift toward market-tested betterment, on a large scale at first peculiar to northwestern Europe…

…Our riches did not come from piling brick on brick, or bachelor’s degree on bachelor’s degree, or bank balance on bank balance, but from piling idea on idea. The bricks, B.A.s, and bank balances — the “capital” accumulations — were of course necessary. But so were a labor force and liquid water and the arrow of time. Oxygen is necessary for a fire, but it does not provide an illuminating explanation of the Chicago Fire. Better: a long dry spell, the city’s wooden buildings, a strong wind from the southwest, and, if you disdain Irish immigrants, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. The modern world similarly cannot be explained by routine brick-piling, such as the Indian Ocean trade, English banking, canals, the British savings rate, the Atlantic slave trade, coal, natural resources, the enclosure movement, the exploitation of workers in Satanic mills, or the accumulation in European cities of capital, whether physical or human. Such materialist ways and means are too common in world history and, as explanation, too feeble in quantitative oomph.

So what did cause it? Here’s one little taste:

The bettering ideas arose in northwestern Europe from a novel liberty and dignity that was slowly extended to all commoners (though admittedly we are still working on the project), among them the bourgeoisie. The new liberty and dignity resulted in a startling revaluation by the society as a whole of the trading and betterment in which the bourgeoisie specialized. The revaluation was derived not from some ancient superiority of the Europeans but from egalitarian accidents in their politics between Luther’s Reformation in 1517 and the American Constitution and the French Revolution in 1789. The Leveller Richard Rumbold, facing his execution in 1685, declared, “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.” Few in the crowd gathered to mock him would have agreed. A century later, many would have. By now, almost everyone.

Yet if the power of rhetoric, attitudes, and ideas comes at the beginning of civilizational prosperity, what are we to make of a world where all of that is increasingly corrupted and under attack?

Tucked away in McCloskey’s teaser is a hint of how we might counter such forces:

The Great Enrichment has also not come at the cost of spirit. True, shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? But the riches in our present lives allow the sacred and meaning-giving virtues of hope, faith, and transcendent love for science or baseball or medicine or God to bulk larger than the profane and practical virtues of prudence and temperance that are necessary among people living in extreme poverty. H. L. Mencken, no softie, noted in 1917 à propos Jennie Gerhardt’s and Sister Carrie’s good fortune that, “with the rise from want to security, from fear to ease, comes an awakening of the finer perceptions, a widening of the sympathies, a gradual unfolding of the delicate flower called personality, an increased capacity for loving and living.

Contrary to many predictions and perceptions, the spread of economic prosperity has created more room, not less, for activities centered around the transcendent. If we hope to counter the competing forces — which are aiming to invade and conquer that same space — we ought to recognize the proper place of battle.

We live at a time where we have incredible channels and resources to respond, creating meaningful enterprises and institutions that remind society of its fundamental purpose and foremost obligations.

We have, as McCloskey puts it, “increased capacity for loving and living,” and we’d best get about it.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Comments

  • Todd Johnson

    “Contrary to many predictions and perceptions, the spread of economic prosperity has created more room, not less, for activities centered around the transcendent. If we hope to counter the competing forces — which are aiming to invade and conquer that same space — we ought to recognize the proper place of battle.”

    I suspect that because progressives tend to view everything through a political lens, which is a zero-sum-game, it clouds their view of economics. They view the world through a lens of scarcity while free-market thinkers (which sadly doesn’t include all conservatives) view the world through a lens of abundance.

    Here is a great 5min video from PragerU that backs up Ms. McCloskey’s points – https://youtu.be/661TPEvCCTU?list=PLIBtb_NuIJ1w_5qAEs5cSUJ5Bk0R8QLaY