Economic history looks, in graphic representation, like a hockey stick. For tens of thousands of years we traced nasty, brutish, and short lives along the shaft. Children anticipated a world no different from their grandparents’. Shakespeare’s audiences had only marginally better lives than Sophocles’. But at the beginning of the 18th century, mankind — beginning with the British and Dutch — hit the blade of that hockey stick, enjoying an unpreceAdentedly sharp and irreversible upturn in prosperity, life expectancy, and health. Ever since, the world has changed more quickly in every generation than it had previously in millennia. By all criteria, human life has improved in ways unthinkable 300 years ago.
Solving the mysteries of the birth of the Industrial Revolution (and, subsequently, the modern world) has been the primary task and test of economic history. And, according to Deirdre McCloskey, all explanations so far have failed. Those failures, in turn, indicate the failings of modern economics. Her magnum opus, an explanation of the birth and flourishing of the bourgeoisie and its subsequent transformation of the modern world, will occupy at least six volumes. This month, Chicago University Press releases the second installment: Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.
Traditional economic models — the ones we find in Econ 101 — center on labor, capital, technology, population, etc. McCloskey’s economics incorporates two more factors: dignity and rhetoric. Economics, she argues, has failed be a humane science that accounts for the ways in which things like human speech — rhetoric — influence the way a society lives and works. After a detailed examination of traditional explanations of economic growth, McCloskey concludes that each is inadequate, and that the only explanation for the peculiar birth of the modern world is speech: At the beginning of the 18th century, people in the Netherlands and Britain began talking about commerce as a good thing — a novelty at that time. They gave dignity to the bourgeoisie. And that drove capitalism, giving birth to the modern world.
McCloskey is a renaissance intellectual, with appointments in both the social sciences and the humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and writings on everyone from Euler and Gödel to Plato and Derrida. This ferocious intellect talked with NRO’s Matthew Shaffer about her latest book and the state of modern economics.
matthew Shaffer: You approach the Industrial Revolution as something peculiar. We who don’t spend our lives thinking about it assume it was inevitable — only a matter of time. But you think it’s weird that this idea — that being economically productive was a good thing — caught on. Are we very lucky? What would the world be like today if bourgeois dignity hadn’t caught on?
deirdre McCloskey: You got it. We would be at $3 a day, as a good deal of the world still is. It was a weird idea, historically speaking. Especially we Americans, in this most bourgeois-admiring of cultures, don’t notice the ideological water in which we are swimming. Humans in northwestern Europe, and now much of the world, were lucky. It was luck, not some ancient virtue of the English constitution, and least of all some biological superiority of Europeans or Us British or the like. It was not inevitable in 1600. By 1800 it was, and by 1900 everyone not blinded by some millennial fantasy, Left or Right, could feel it.
shaffer: “Bourgeois” and “rhetoric” are, for many, terms of derision. But they are superlatives for you. Explain. In what sense, and in the vein of which intellectual traditions, do you use the words? Hegel and Aristotle?
McCloskey: Aristotle for sure. Plato was disdainful of rhetoric, which he rightly saw as an instrument of democracy. And Plato hated democracy. He wanted the rule of the best, hoi aristoi. That doesn’t leave room for democratic assemblies and law courts, or Fox News or MSNBC.