Bourgeois Dignity Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World
by Deirdre N. McCloskey
University of Chicago Press, 2010
Cloth: 978-0-226-55665-9 | Paper: 978-0-226-55674-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-55666-6


The big economic story of our times is not the Great Recession. It is how China and India began to embrace neoliberal ideas of economics and attributed a sense of dignity and liberty to the bourgeoisie they had denied for so long. The result was an explosion in economic growth and proof that economic change depends less on foreign trade, investment, or material causes, and a whole lot more on ideas and what people believe.

Or so says Deirdre N. McCloskey in Bourgeois Dignity, a fiercely contrarian history that wages a similar argument about economics in the West. Here she turns her attention to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe to reconsider the birth of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. According to McCloskey, our modern world was not the product of new markets and innovations, but rather the result of shifting opinions about them. During this time, talk of private property, commerce, and even the bourgeoisie itself radically altered, becoming far more approving and flying in the face of prejudices several millennia old. The wealth of nations, then, didn’t grow so dramatically because of economic factors: it grew because rhetoric about markets and free enterprise finally became enthusiastic and encouraging of their inherent dignity.

An utterly fascinating sequel to her critically acclaimed book The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity is a feast of intellectual riches from one of our most spirited and ambitious historians—a work that will forever change our understanding of how the power of persuasion shapes our economic lives.


Deirdre N. McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Among her many books are The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce; Crossing: A Memoir; The Secret Sins of Economics; and If You’re So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise, all published by the University of Chicago Press.


“The startling perspective McCloskey brings to the history of economics qualifies her as the Max Weber of our times. This is a wonderfully entertaining and stimulating antidote for the reigning view of Homo Economicus.”

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“Over a wide range of nations and times, McCloskey advances the arresting thesis that humble ideas, especially those pertaining to the role of a bourgeois dignity, supply the spark that jumpstarts the rest of the process. Readers will be impressed with the breadth of her knowledge, the clarity of her thought, and the sophistication of this finely wrought book.”
— Richard Epstein

“Deirdre McCloskey has embarked on a heroic enterprise, the wholesale reconsideration of the modern capitalist economy. The author’s lightness of touch is deeply admirable: competing hypotheses from the Protestant Ethic to technological determinism are rounded up and dispatched in a wonderfully invigorating fashion, and not the least of the many virtues of Bourgeois Dignity is the demonstration that serious argument can also be fun.”
— Alan Ryan


Preface and Acknowledgments

1. The Modern World Was an Economic Tide, But Did Not Have Economic Causes

2. Liberal Ideas Caused the Innovation

3. And a New Rhetoric Protected the Ideas

4. Many Other Plausible Stories Don’t Work Very Well

5. The Correct Story Praises “Capitalism”

6. Modern Growth Was a Factor of at Least Si

7. Increasing Scope, Not Pot-of-Pleasure “Happiness,” Is What Mattered

8. And the Poor Won

9. Creative Destruction Can Be Justifi ed Therefore on Utilitarian Grounds

10. British Economists Did Not Recognize the Tide

11. But the Figures Tell

12. Britain’s (and Europe’s) Lead Was an Episode

13. And Followers Could Leap over Stages

14. The Tide Didn’t Happen because of Thrift

15. Capital Fundamentalism Is Wrong

16. A Rise of Greed or of a Protestant Ethic Didn’t Happen

17. “Endless” Accumulation Does Not Typify the Modern World

18. Nor Was the Cause Original Accumulation or a Sin of Expropriation

19. Nor Was It Accumulation of Human Capital, Until Lately

20. Transport or Other Domestic Reshuffl ings Didn’t Cause It

21. Nor Geography, nor Natural Resources

22. Not Even Coal

23. Foreign Trade Was Not the Cause, Though World Prices Were a Context

24. And the Logic of Trade-as-an-Engine Is Dubious

25. And Even the Dynamic Effects of Trade Were Small

26. The Effects on Europe of the Slave Trade and British Imperialism Were Smaller Still

27. And Other Exploitations, External or Internal, Were Equally Profitless to Ordinary Europeans

28. It Was Not the Sheer Quickening of Commerce

29. Nor the Struggle over the Spoils

30. Eugenic Materialism Doesn’t Work

31. Neo-Darwinism Doesn’t Compute

32. And Inheritance Fades

33. Institutions Cannot Be Viewed Merely as Incentive-Providing Constraints

34. And So the Better Institutions, Such as Those Alleged for 1689, Don’t Explain

35. And Anyway the Entire Absence of Property Is Not Relevant to the Place or Period

36. And the Chronology of Property and Incentives Has Been Mismeasured

37. And So the Routine of Max U Doesn’t Work

38. The Cause Was Not Science

39. But Bourgeois Dignity and Liberty Entwined with the Enlightenment

40. It Was Not Allocation

41. It Was Words

42. Dignity and Liberty for Ordinary People, in Short, Were the Greatest Externalities

43. And the Model Can Be Formalized

44. Opposing the Bourgeoisie Hurts the Poor

45. And the Bourgeois Era Warrants Therefore Not Political or Environmental Pessimism

46. But an Amiable, if Guarded, Optimism


Works Cited