Bourgeois Dignity and Modern Prosperity

by Matthew Shaffer

 

Prof. Deidre McCloskey, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, has distinguished herself in the economics profession for her breadth, and for her tendency to be something of a gadfly. Her deep readings in the humanities — her books address everyone from Cicero to Foucault — have led her to be critical of the methodology and narrow scope of modern economics. Her most recent book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, applies her preferred — broader and more humanistic — style of economics, positing that modern prosperity is a product of changes in language and mores, not of the material factors economics traditionally encompasses. I interviewed this blazing intellect on her work, and her thoughts on modern economics. Here’s an excerpt from my introduction:

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.

The whole thing is here.

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