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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.

The question, then, is what happened to make this radical doubling and redoubling of social wealth, which McCloskey presents as basically a sixteen-fold increase in wealth from pre-industrial to developed status, possible not only in England, but in nation after nation around the world?

Having thus posed the main question reasonably (with the exception of one matter, which I will discuss later), McCloskey takes the reader on her entertaining and informative survey of the various attempts to answer it. The first impression of the non-specialist reader would probably be surprise at how many diverse theories have been posited, and the degree to which residues of various such theories continue to encrust contemporary discourse. Marx’s supposition that excess surplus squeezed out of peasants provided newly available capital that turned into industrialization is one such. (The negative case is, Nope, it’s easy to show they couldn’t possibly have squeezed enough out to make a difference, and there was no prior shortage of capital in any event.) A very common one is the idea that the African slave trade provided the surplus, but McCloskey shows that the numbers just aren’t there to support that supposition. Total profits and labor-saving in the West from slavery were minimal. The only people who got substantially more from slavery than they did from their other available options were probably the Africans who captured and sold the slaves in the first place.

Nor did empire and the stolen wealth of Third World economies account for very much. In fact, aside from a small number of connected businessmen, nobody made all that much money off of empires. Overseas empires were more an effect of industrialization than a cause. Industrial success enabled European nations to acquire overseas empires on the cheap, given steamships and machine guns. Linkages between imperialism and industrialization are called into question also by the fact that the original large European empires, those of Spain and Portugal, were remarkably ineffective in sparking an industrial revolution at home. In contrast, Britain’s Industrial Revolution occurred precisely during the time after the loss of her American colonies but before the integration of her Asian and African empire.

Nor, writes McCloskey, do a wide range of theories about capital accumulation, geography, mineral resources, or other material factors adequately explain the takeoff. Many such theories have at least some truth to them: Britain did have a great deal of readily available coal, for example, and began substituting it for wood very early. Looking at each of these factors, she concludes that none is by itself an adequate explanation. (There was also plenty of coal available in nearby Belgium, whose pre-industrial economy looked not so different from England’s — but the Industrial Revolution did not originate there.)

Conservative readers will certainly enjoy the puncturing of many favorite leftist development theories. But McCloskey shoots, Gaullist fashion, tous azimuts. Among the theories she critiques are a number that have received favorable consideration in Right circles (including some I have used in my own writing): critiques that emphasize law, property rights, and stable constitutional government. These theories differ among themselves, but her overarching point, applicable to most of them, is that market economies, sophisticated uses of capital, strong property rights, and transparent adjudication were known prior to the Industrial Revolution. The Parable of the Talents demonstrated a fairly good grasp of the basic principles of capitalism, which in fact the ancient Mediterranean world generally enjoyed. Classical Rome and Ming China had solid property rights. Fourteenth-century estate managers’ handbooks in England had sophisticated discussions of return on capital. McCloskey cites historical anthropologist Alan Macfarlane’s work, properly, as demonstrating that England of that era was already fully capitalist in terms of its institutions and mentalities. Marx’s idea of a transition from peasant subsistence to a cash nexus as an immediate precursor of industrialization, at least in England and the Netherlands, was simply wrong.

Thus far, McCloskey’s book is interesting, informative, and, depending on the reader’s taste for her idiosyncratic personal voice, entertaining, with the proviso that it is a polemical book that does not pretend to give a disinterested summary of the various arguments. What, then, is McCloskey’s answer? One does not have far to look. It is summarized in her title, and expounded in detail in her first several chapters: Bourgeois Dignity.

Her thesis is that, in the decades prior to England’s rapid takeoff into the Industrial Revolution, there was a revolution in attitudes, which she prefers to characterize as a revolution in rhetoric, using the term in its broader, classical sense: the language of discourse, and the attitudes it embodies. This change in rhetoric, she argues, shifted the prevailing culture from one of aristocratic values based on honor and status to one of bourgeois values based on thrift, prudence, trust, etc. This brought dignity to the town-dwelling merchant class and fostered innovation in business practice. In fact, she argues that the term capitalism is inappropriate to the current system, as all economic systems fundamentally are built on capital, but only the system that arose in England and spread throughout the West (and, subsequently, elsewhere) was founded on innovation. She considers calling the system innovism; recognizing, however, that such a tag is unlikely to catch on, she settles for calling it innovation.

There is much to like in this. I have long disliked Marx’s coinage and the many wrong ideas that are packed into it. I have tended to use the term market economy in preference, but as McCloskey rightly points out, market economies with many of the mechanisms we consider definitive have also been present since ancient times. A system that expects, encourages, and takes advantage of innovation is the genuinely new thing of our times, and it may make sense to adopt that term for our system.

However, the argument that a revolution in rhetoric was the primary cause is a much more complicated claim, and the fact that she is making it reflects some peculiarities of the evolution of the social sciences. The question of the Industrial Revolution, and the advent of modernity in general, has engaged historians, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, and many others. Although these disciplines overlap, and at least some members of each discipline read and talk to one another outside of their own field, many do not, and each discipline adheres to its own methodology. McCloskey has primarily engaged theorists from her own discipline, economic history, and much of her intellectual effort has gone into critiquing them for, in essence, staying excessively within the boundaries of that discipline. Her subtitle, “Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World,” summarizes her message to them nicely.

There are two ways of looking at economics in human affairs. One is that it consists of all activities relating to production and exchange of things of value, within a particular culture’s framework of rules, institutions, and assumptions. The other is that economics explains all human activity, period, and that all actions amount to some form of economic activity, however indirect, and are subject to analysis by the methods of economics. Anthropologists, sociologists, and some economists adhere to the former approach; the latter is adhered to primarily by the subset of economists who are economic reductionists. When Hayek said, “Capitalism depends upon values that it did not create and cannot replace,” he placed himself in the former category; McCloskey’s subtitle places her there as well.

Her argument that the primary cause of the rise of modernity was a change in rhetoric thus falls into an odd place. She is an economic historian who has taken on an anthropological argument, but she is not engaging with the conceptual framework of anthropology. Although (non-reductionist) economic historians and historical anthropologists may read one another’s work, each group tends to regard the other’s output primarily as supporting material for its own wider explanations. A case in point is that McCloskey cites Alan Macfarlane’s work on early English individualism a number of times, quite accurately, but disappointingly fails to engage him as a theorist, although his work is more on point than many of the authors whose theories she dissects.

An anthropologist would see her discussion of rhetoric and the transition in status of the bourgeoisie as a subset of a cultural argument, but she fails to address the issue from this standpoint — and thus fails to subject her view to possible comparison with other culture-based explanations. Rhetoric as she uses the term cannot be independent from the language in which it is framed, or the culture with which the language is intertwined.  “Gentleman,” “aristocrat,” and “merchant” are by no means neutral terms with precise equivalents in every language, and to argue a social shift from the values of one to those of another requires examining each culture as a specific case. As it happens, the particular English case in this matter may be very significant to the question of why England was the first to achieve modernity.

Other questions arise. While she makes a reasonable case for her solution as the leading cause relative to others, she does not make a strong case for there being one overwhelming, sole cause of modernity in the first place. Even to prove that her proposed transition in status was a sine qua non of modernity would not prove that there were not others. McCloskey’s case that this change in status was an essential part of the transition to modernity is stronger than the case that it was the only or the primary one; the case for multicausality is too logical and too strong to be easily refuted.

Further questions include whether the transition was a cause or an effect of other contemporary changes; whether the transition could only have happened first in England, or might have begun elsewhere; and to what extent previously existing cultural patterns render nations more or less susceptible to making such a transition. Macfarlane’s work certainly argues that longstanding cultural patterns in England, for which he suggests a number of interacting causes, were so critical that it is not at all clear that the transition to modernity could have emerged anywhere else. He argues that, although pre-industrial England included an aristocracy with an honor-centered identity that held itself superior to the merchant bourgeoisie, the gap between aristocrat and bourgeois was — from quite early times — narrower and more permeable in England than almost anywhere else. The lack of a concept of noble blood in English law and custom meant that almost every titled aristocrat had a web of untitled younger siblings who married into and overlapped with the bourgeoisie, forming a class of respectable bourgeois, knights, and other gentry with no real continental equivalents, outside of perhaps Holland.

The army was aristocratic, to be sure, but the navy was meritocratic and bourgeois from very early times: It offered a route to a title, rather than demanding one, as did the French, as a precondition for a commission. Surely the road to the revolution in esteem and regard was far better paved in England than elsewhere; were not the factors that made it so, whatever they may have been, part of the causation for that revolution? In fact, the antiquity and strengths of the bourgeois world in England suggest that revolution may not be the right word at all: The shift might rather have been described as an evolutionary transition from the predominance of aristocrats to bourgeois, taking place over several centuries — with occasional visible milestones such as the Reform Act of 1832 reminding people of the degree to which the shift had taken place.

Last, but certainly not least, her assumption that the whole world, including England, was largely impoverished prior to the 19th century is by no means generally accepted. Although much of the world indeed had confined the great majority of its population to McCloskey’s figure of $3 a day, by the onset of the Industrial Revolution, probably only the lowest levels of English society were in that category.

Robert Allen, for example, writing in 2007, concluded that wage levels in the advanced part of Western Europe, including England, were substantially higher than those in China (and other areas including India, the Ottoman Empire, and southern Europe) throughout the 18th century. There are certainly revisionists such as Kenneth Pomeranz who would agree with McCloskey, but the question is far from settled, and deserves more of a discussion than she provides.

McCloskey’s book will be of great interest to anyone concerned with this question. As for her principal point, her argument for the change in status as the sole or primary cause of the transition to modernity must be regarded as “not proven.” This is only the second volume of a projected six, so I hope we will see further discussion of some of the points raised above in future volumes.

– Mr. Bennett is author of The Anglosphere Challenge (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

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