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Birth of the Modern

by James C. Bennett

Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, by Deirdre N. McCloskey (Chicago, 504 pp., $35)

How and why did modernity originate? The question — considered by many to be settled — remains actually a very open one. Economic historian Deirdre McCloskey is writing a series of books, of which Bourgeois Dignity is the second, that stake out a position on it. The volume can also serve as a useful primer for those who are not familiar with the field: It provides an overview of the issue, followed by a brief but adequate summary of all the views proposed by others, and her argument as to why each proposed answer is inadequate (along with a thought experiment that tests the claim). The discussions are intellectually serious but not academically dry or overly technical.

Her approach has a number of merits; the first is that it starts by posing the question better than many. As she tells the story, since the beginning of civilization, a well-ordered, generally peaceful culture not in the midst of some crisis has typically afforded its inhabitants the equivalent of about $3 per day. This provides a basic diet, basic clothing, and basic shelter, and not much more. It was the income of an average person in ancient Rome, ancient China, and modern Haiti. Toward the end of the 18th century, something extraordinary began to happen. Throughout all of England, this average began to rise rapidly and steadily, not just for a few people, or for some sectors of society, but broadly through almost all levels of society. Within a few decades, the small number of people still living on the equivalent of $3 were no longer regarded as normal, but rather as particularly poor. As England grew richer, a few other nations — Belgium, the U.S., gradually all of Western Europe, then Japan — started to imitate the measures England had taken, and saw their wealth rise broadly as well.

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