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Free Minds & Free Markets

Bourgeois Equality

Ideas, not capital, transformed the world.

University of Chicago PressUniversity of Chicago PressContrary to economists from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty, our riches cannot be explained by the accumulation of capital, as the misleading word capitalism implies. The Great Enrichment did not come from piling brick on brick, or bachelor's degree on bachelor's degree, or bank balance on bank balance, but from piling idea on idea. The accumulation of capital was of course necessary. But so were a labor force and the existence of liquid water. Oxygen is necessary for a fire. Yet it would be unhelpful to explain the Chicago Fire of October 8–10, 1871, by the presence of oxygen in the earth's atmosphere.

The modern world, in other words, can't be explained by routine brick piling, such as the Indian Ocean trade, English banking, canals, the British savings rate, the Atlantic slave trade, the enclosure movement, the exploitation of workers in satanic mills, or the original accumulation of capital in European cities. Such routines are too common in world history and too feeble in quantitative oomph to explain the 30- to 100-fold enrichment per person unique to the past two centuries.

Hear again that amazing fact: In the two centuries after 1800, the goods and services made and consumed by the average person in Sweden or Taiwan rose by a factor of 30 to 100—that is, a rise of 2,900 to 9,900 percent. The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has dwarfed any of the previous and temporary enrichments. It was caused by massively better ideas in technology and institutions. And the betterments were released for the first time by a new liberty and dignity for commoners—expressed as the ideology of European liberalism. Not "liberalism" as it's come to be understood in the United States, as ever-increasing government, but its old and still European sense, what Adam Smith advocated in 1776: "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice."

Why did such ideas shift so dramatically in northwestern Europe, and for a while only there? Why did Leonardo da Vinci in 1519 conceal his engineering dreams in secret writing, yet in 1825 James Watt of steam-engine fame was to have a statue set up in Westminster Abbey? In 1400 or even in 1600, a canny observer would have bet on an Industrial Revolution and a Great Enrichment—if she could have imagined such freakish events—in technologically advanced China or the vigorous Ottoman Empire. Not in backward, quarrelsome Europe.

The answer does not lie in some 1,000-year-old superiority, such as English common law, or in the deep genetic ancestry of Europeans. The liberalism that led to ordinary people being allowed to have a go, and then bettering their lives and ours with a wave of gadgets, lies rather in the black-swan luck of northwestern Europe's reaction to the turmoil of the Early Modern—the coincidence in northwestern Europe of successful reading, reformation, revolt, and revolution. The dice were rolled by Gutenberg, Luther, Willem van Oranje, and Oliver Cromwell. By a lucky chance for England their payoffs were deposited in that formerly not-so-consequential nation in a pile late in the late 17th century. A result of those four Rs was a fifth R, a crucial revaluation of the bourgeoisie, an egalitarian reappraisal of ordinary people.

The Renaissance, much to be admired for other reasons, was not one of the relevant Rs. It yielded betterments, all right—human dissection, perspective drawing, Palladian architecture, and the printing of edited Greek classics, among my favorites. But the test it applied for valuing them was aristocratic, not bourgeois, that is, not a market-tested betterment. They did not improve the lives of ordinary people, at any rate not for a very long time.

One could argue, as the brilliant economic historian Joel Mokyr does, that what mattered for betterment was the change in outlook among a technical elite of doctors, chemists, technicians, instrument makers. An essay that Mokyr co-wrote recently puts it this way: "What counted above all was [Britain's] highly skilled mechanics and engineers, who may not have been a large proportion of the labor force."

If one is speaking of the proximate cause, surely he's right: A tiny elite mattered. Yet where did such a technical elite come from? In Holland and Britain and the United States, and then the world, it came from ordinary people freed from ancient suppressions of their hopes. Such freeing is the sole way of achieving a mass of technically literate folk, oriented not toward rare luxuries or military victories but toward the ordinary goods of peacetime for the bulk of ordinary people—iron bridges, chemical bleaching, weaving of wool cloth by machines powered by falling water. The problem in, say, France in the 18th century was that the engineers came from the younger sons of its large nobility, such as Napoleon, educated for military careers. In Britain, by contrast, a promising lad from the working class could become a bourgeois master of new machines and of new institutions as an engineer or an entrepreneur. Or at least he could do pretty well as a clockmaker or a spinning-machine mechanic.

In Britain and its offshoots and imitators, in other words, the career of the enterprising bourgeois or the skilled worker was open to talent. John Harrison (1693–1776), the inventor of the marine chronometer, which solved by machine the problem of finding longitude in the wideness of the sea, against the arrogantly enforced demand by the elite that it be solved in the heavens by elite astronomy, was a rural Lincolnshire carpenter. His first clock was made of wood. The British working man, Napoleon might have said but didn't, carried the baton of a field marshal of industry in his rucksack.

What began to characterize northwestern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries was not so much new ethics at the level of individual responsibility, though that happened a little, encouraging and benefiting from arms-length trading. Much more important was a change at the social level of the ethical opinion people had of each other. "You made a fortune trading with the East. Good." Or: "That fellow invented a new transmission for automobiles. Good."

In other words, the new liberty and dignity for commoners was a sociological event, not a psychological one. It originated in a changing conversation in the society, not in psychological self-monitoring by the individual. People in Holland and then England (and now China and India) didn't suddenly start alertly attending to profit. They suddenly started admiring such alertness and stopped calling it sinful greed.

It was not, as you may have heard recently from the World Bank, "institutions." An institution works well not merely because of good official rules of the game, beloved of economists, "incentives." An institution works, if it does, mainly because of the good ethics of its participants, intrinsic motivations powerfully reinforced by the ethical opinion people have of each other. A society can craft an official rule against cheating in business, a good institution. Yet if the rule is enforced with a nudge and a wink among people who ignore simple honesty or who sneer at the very language of ethics, and who are not effectively condemned by the rest of society for doing so—as in a corrupt Chicago during the 1890s or in a corrupt Shanghai during the 1990s—the economy won't work as well as it could.

The crux is not black-letter constitutions but how the constitutions came about ethically and how they are sustained in social ethics, the continually renegotiated dance located out in the language games that people play as much as in their "utility functions." When a society or its elite earnestly wants the rules of the game to work, and talks about them a lot, and scolds violators from an early age, the constitutions work, pretty much regardless of imperfections in the written-down rules and incentives. The political scientists Elinor and Vincent Ostrom at Indiana University showed repeatedly that a situation that would in the usual economics always be a hopeless case of "free riding" and "the tragedy of the commons," such as the overexploitation of the Los Angeles aquifer, can often be solved by talk among serious-minded, ethically disciplined people.

After the failed revolutions of 1848, a new and virulent detestation of the bourgeoisie infected the mass of artists, intellectuals, journalists, professionals, and bureaucrats—the "clerisy," as it was called by the poet Coleridge. The clerisy of Germany, Britain, and especially France came to hate the merchants and manufacturers and indeed anyone who did not admire the clerisy's books and paintings. (Flaubert declared, "I call bourgeois whoever thinks basely.") In the 18th century, certain members of the clerisy, such as Voltaire and Tom Paine, had courageously advocated for liberty in trade. But by 1848 a much enlarged clerisy, mostly the sons of bourgeois fathers, had commenced sneering at the economic liberties their fathers exercised so vigorously. They advocated instead the vigorous use of the state's monopoly of violence to achieve utopia, now.

On the political right the clerisy, influenced by the Romantic movement, looked back with nostalgia to an imagined Middle Ages free from the vulgarity of trade, a non-market golden age in which rents and hierarchy ruled. Such a Romantic vision of olden times fits well with the right's perch in the ruling class, governing the mere in-dwellers. Later, under the influence of a version of science, the right seized upon social Darwinism and eugenics to devalue the liberty and dignity of ordinary people, and to elevate the nation's mission above the mere individual person, recommending colonialism and compulsory sterilization and the cleansing power of war.

On the left, meanwhile, the cadres of another version of the clerisy—also influenced by Romance and then by a scientistic enthusiasm, in their case for historical materialism—developed the illiberal idea that ideas do not matter. What matters to progress, the left declared, is the unstoppable tide of history, aided (it declared further, contradicting the unstoppability) by protest or strike or revolution directed at the thieving bourgeoisie. Such thrilling actions would be led, of course, by the clerisy. Later, in European socialism and American progressivism, the left proposed to defeat bourgeois monopolies in meat and sugar and steel by gathering them all into one supreme monopoly called the state.

While all this deep thinking was roiling the clerisy of Europe, the commercial bourgeoisie created merely the Great Enrichment and the modern world. The Enrichment gigantically improved our lives. In doing so, it proved that both social Darwinism and economic Marxism were mistaken. The allegedly lower races and lower classes proved to be creative, not inferior. The allegedly exploited proletariat was enriched, not immiserated. In its enthusiasm for the deeply erroneous pseudo-discoveries of the 19th century—Benthamite utilitarianism, Comtean positivism, nationalism, socialism, historical materialism, social Darwinism, scientific racism, theorized imperialism, eugenics, geographic determinism, institutionalism, social engineering, progressive regulation, the rule of experts, a cynicism about the force of ethical ideas—much of the clerisy mislaid its earlier commitment to a free and dignified common people. It forgot the correct social discovery of the 19th century, which was itself in accord with a Romanticism so mischievous in other ways: that ordinary men and women do not need to be directed from above, and when honored and left alone become immensely creative. "I contain multitudes," sang Walt Whitman, the democratic poet. And he did.

The economic liberation and social honoring together did the trick in Holland and England, then in Austria and Japan. Now they are doing the trick with astonishing force in Taiwan and South Korea, China and India.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that marine chronometers help determine latitude. They determine longitude.

Photo Credit: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Deirdre McCloskey is emerita professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author most recently of Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World

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  • Shirley Knott||

    Given how badly the word has been tarnished, and given its origin with Marx, we really seriously need to stop talking about 'capitalism'.
    We're not about capitalism, we're about freedom.
    The choices are stark -- freedom or slavery. Every form of socialism is a form of slavery. Every 'mixed economy' is an aggregation of slave-holders and 'part time' slaves. Politics is the art of hiding the fact that it's all about slavers and slaves.
    Autarky now!

  • Mainer2||

    Surely you can't be serious.

  • LarryA||

    “Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.”
    Robert Heinlein

  • Richie||

    Autarky... Austerity... Brexit...

    wtf do these words mean?

  • Citizen X||

    Your sister and aunt should read the article.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    I can't be sarcastic with McCloskey. I'l just stand back and gaze lovingly from afar.

    Damned good read. *bookmarks*

  • Hyperbolical||

    Yes, she is definitely one of my favorites. This new addition to her series, I've been waiting on for a couple of years. Must go buy it right away.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    It's been on my wish list. Boudreaux says wonderful things about it.

  • Hyperbolical||

    People in Holland and then England (and now China and India) didn't suddenly start alertly attending to profit. They suddenly started admiring such alertness and stopped calling it sinful greed.

    And progressives want to take us back to the time when real progress was called "sinful greed." They want to undo the great gains of the Industrial Revolution while assuming that they'll get to keep their iPhone.

  • Suicidy||

    Which is why we call the, 'progtards'.

  • ||

    "The Renaissance, much to be admired for other reasons, was not one of the relevant Rs. It yielded betterments, all right—human dissection, perspective drawing, Palladian architecture, and the printing of edited Greek classics,"

    I would add a much more important intangible. Renaissance thinkers, artists, engineers etc., shifted its positioning from looking at thing from God and pointed it directly to a human perspectives. Suddenly, they looked at what man could achieve. This unleashed a force we still see today.

  • Domestic Dissident||

    Uhhhh, you need both for crying out loud. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you have no investment cash, you're probably not going to see much return out of it, unless you can successfully sell it so someone who does have the cash or convince someone to take the risk to invest in you.

    Building a factory and the equipment in it is pretty darn expensive.

  • Hyperbolical||

    I think she points out that capital is important, but that capital accumulation did not on its own create the "great enrichment."

  • kbolino||

    The accumulation of capital was of course necessary.

    Indeed, she says as much. I think an editor picked the subhed "Ideas, not capital, transformed the world" because it doesn't really reflect the piece. McCloskey's point is that liberty in all its forms was enabler of transformative forces.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    I think she points out that capital is important, but that capital accumulation did not on its own create the "great enrichment."

    Which, of course, is a big strawman, since no free market economist ever said that capital accumulation alone is sufficient. In fact, "capital accumulation" isn't even a necessary feature of free market economies.

    Obviously, for free markets to produce growth and wealth, people need to understand the "ideas" of voluntary exchanges, basic microeconomics, and property rights. But that's it, and people have understood them for millennia. They weren't invented by Adam Smith or during the Enlightenment, they were simply popularized and written down clearly.

    The much larger class of ideas has about as much to do with free markets as wheat or pigs: they are just a product of an economy, any economy. Communist economies create ideas the same way free market economies, they simply are less efficient at it, just like they are less efficient at everything else.

  • LynchPin1477||

    people need to understand the "ideas" of voluntary exchanges, basic microeconomics, and property rights. But that's it

    One of the main points of the article is that that isn't it. It's not enough for those ideas to exist and be understood. They need to be respected and promoted as virtues, rather than vices.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    One of the main points of the article is that that isn't it.

    Well, the article is a bunch of hot air and bullshit, written by some idiot who can't put two coherent sentences together.

  • Hyperbolical||

    Well, the article is a bunch of hot air and bullshit, written by some idiot who can't put two coherent sentences together.

    Really?! Do you really believe that Deirdre McCloskey is unable to "put two coherent sentences together"? I've read several of her books and find her to be an independent thinker with a sense of humor. I've certainly learned a lot about economic history from her writings.

    I wonder whether you've read any of her books, or if you just disagree with her thesis without checking out her argument.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I thought it was an extremely well written and interesting article.

  • LarryA||

    Communist economies create ideas the same way free market economies, they simply are less efficient at it, just like they are less efficient at everything else.

    Nope. Communist economies are run by communist governments, which create five-year plans and ten-year plans, set priorities, make rules, redirect resources, and in dozens of other ways strangle ideas before they can bloom.

  • kbolino||

    Indeed, neither capital nor ideas are sufficient on their own but are necessary. Capital is useless without ideas on how to exploit it and ideas are useless without capital to exploit.

  • LynchPin1477||

    solved by machine the problem of finding latitude in the wideness of the sea, against the arrogantly enforced demand by the elite that it be solved in the heavens by elite astronomy

    I just have to point out that they still used astronomy to find latitude, by measuring the time when some star transited. The problem prior was a timekeeping device that was accurate in the conditions on the high seas.

  • DblEagle||

    You are correct. Determining latitude was figured out by the Greeks and Romans since it is easy enough to do. Set Polaris or another object at a set height above the horizon and run a course to keep it in that position.

    Longitude was the killer and many methods over hundreds of years attempted it. But you are right in manufacturing a highly accurate timepiece that could fit and survive in a heaving ship over long periods was the key. That and a bunch of trigonometry. The book- Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel is a great read about John Harrison, the man who figured it out.

  • notJoe||

    Recommendation seconded!

    Re: Lynch, weren't the transits (at least just prior to solution of the timepiece-in-motion accuracy problem) those of the moons of Jupiter? Or has this damn mad cow disease eaten another batch of memory cells...

  • Hyperbolical||

    Check out this video for a for a speech and discusion of this new book.

  • LynchPin1477||

    People in Holland and then England (and now China and India) didn't suddenly start alertly attending to profit. They suddenly started admiring such alertness and stopped calling it sinful greed

    This is an interesting point. To the extent that it is true, it contrasts with the attitude among much of American society today. One of the cases where that is notably not the case is Silicon Valley, which not surprisingly is one of the more intellectually vibrant parts of the country.

  • Hyperbolical||

    The opposite (and scary part) is that people like Bernie Sanders are castigating Wall Street, and others, suggesting punishment of "sinful greed" for their accomplishments. We need voters to understand just how backward these socialists are. Their utopia exists in a Rouseunian, bucolic, agrarian lifestyle that never existed. Their utopia was abject poverty for the vast majority of humans on the planet. They are "regressive" not progressive in their thinking.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    People in Holland and then England (and now China and India) didn't suddenly start alertly attending to profit. They suddenly started admiring such alertness and stopped calling it sinful greed


    This is an interesting point.

    Yeah, but unfortunately, it's also bullshit as an explanation of economic history. "Sinful greed" is a concept associated with some branches of Christianity; most of the world never considered accumulating wealth through trade or industry as "sinful" per se. At most, the wealthy had a moral obligation to share with the poor.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I'm not an expert on world religions, but my impression is that many religions portray worldly concerns as an impediment to spiritual development. Buddhism comes immediately to mind.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    I'm not an expert on world religions, but my impression is that many religions portray worldly concerns as an impediment to spiritual development. Buddhism comes immediately to mind.

    Most religions are perfectly tolerant of regular folks engaging in trade. And even in many forms of Christianity, success at business is seen as a blessing from God, rather than as a form of greed. Equating business and free markets with greed is more an obsession of modern progressives.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Well which is it? Modern progressives or Christians? You're all over the place trying to criticize this article for no good reason at all.

  • Hyperbolical||

    You obviously have never heard or the Parable of the talents. The teachings of the Christ include putting one's talents/resources to work. This makes it "sinful" to bury one's talents in the ground rather than put them to work. Perhaps you'd do better reading scripture rather than depending on denominational doctrine.

  • LarryA||

    Perhaps you'd do better reading scripture rather than depending on denominational doctrine.

    Um, RE called out "some branches of Christianity," the equivalent of your "denominational doctrine." There are many denominations that preach "The Rich Young Ruler" a lot more Sundays than they do "The Parable of the Talents."

  • Hyperbolical||

    My point still stands, Larry. I don't believe that the "Rich Young Ruler" is about greed but about the reluctance to give up all one has in the pursuit of perfection.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    Regardless of what you believe Christianity does or doesn't teach about "greed is sin", there are many different forms of Christianity and even more religions in the world, and most of them do not equate engaging in profitable free market transactions with greed, or equate greed with sin (in fact, most of them do not have a concept of "sin" in the Christian sense at all).

    You are suffering from the same blindness as the author of the article, namely believing that one particular form of Christianity you happen to be familiar with explains all of world history.

  • Hyperbolical||

    Uhm, I think you got my point backwards.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    Perhaps you'd do better reading scripture rather than depending on denominational doctrine.

    Perhaps you should read what I actually said, instead of arguing against a straw man.

  • LynchPin1477||

    The crux is not black-letter constitutions but how the constitutions came about ethically and how they are sustained in social ethics

    This I definitely agree with, and it echos what many here have said in the past. A change in the law or the Constitution doesn't mean anything unless most people actually believe in the change. Liberty ultimately lives or dies in the hearts of the people. I think black-letter constitutions still have value, because writing things down with a certain air of pomp and circumstance can help to sacralize those values, but it's certainly no guarantee. That's why it's so vital to instill an ethics of liberty in people. How to do that while still respecting their autonomy and right to not value liberty is a bit of a puzzle, though.

  • LarryA||

    Give young people individual responsibility, early and often.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Anyway, excellent and thought provoking essay. If Nick or Matt happen to delve in the comments on this one (they won't), can we get more of these?

  • Loki||

    B-b-but... TRUMP! TRANNY BATHROOM RIGHTS! NAZI WEDDING CAKES! WEED, MEXICANS AND ASS-SEX! /sarc

  • LynchPin1477||

    Judging by the number of comments, people are more interested in that stuff than an essay like this. Oh well.

  • Loki||

    People in Holland and then England (and now China and India) didn't suddenly start alertly attending to profit. They suddenly started admiring such alertness and stopped calling it sinful greed.

    And now many progressives are trying like hell to go back to viewing profits as "sinful greed." Yet more evidence that they really should be called regressives.

  • Microaggressor||

    It is, unfortunately, becoming more embedded in our culture over time.
    Yesterday I heard a representative of BECU on the radio rave about how "We're non profit! So we won't nickel and dime you to sate our capitalist greed! All the money comes back to the members! We're looking out for YOUR best interest, not some greedy shareholders!"
    I couldn't count the lies and deception in that description. Not just that non-profit status is smoke and mirrors, but the idea that a lack of profit motive (as if) makes them care more about their customers? Incentives, how the fuck do they work? If this is an effective sales pitch to the ignorant, anti-market biased Seattle area consumers, then that speaks volumes about the general sentiment.

  • Tark Marg||

    To understand the industrial revolution we must study its birthplace, England. What events are unique to England in the time preceding the industrial revolution?

    As I see it, these unique events are Magna Carta (1215), Habeas Corpus (1679), the English Civil War (1642-51; 1st anti-royal civil war decades before the more famous French one, with King Charles beheaded, and had leftist factions like the levelers/diggers on the Parliament side), the Bill of Rights etc. All of these egalitarianist events diffuse power outwards.

    Such events freed the bourgeois/peasants from feudalism, educated them, creating the substrate of the industrial revolution, while their counterparts elsewhere were mired in illiteracy. These literate and legally secure citizens are indispensable for technological advancement. Thus egalitarianism led to the industrial revolution in England.

    Recently however, this impulse has run into diminishing returns by targeting mixed-effect or marginal groups, e.g. feminism, gay and transgender rights, animal rights, etc which don't deepen the pool of scientifically productive citizens (or, in the case of feminism, do so transiently followed by decline).

    As a result, the west is mired in economic/demographic stagnation and has lost all major wars since Korea (Vietnam, Iraq 2003, ongoing in Afghanistan).

    See tarkmarg.blogspot.com especially http://tarkmarg.blogspot.sg/20.....y-and.html for more detail.

  • LarryA||

    As I see it, these unique events are...

    I would add the English longbow, which enabled the English yeoman to stand up to the most heavily-armored knight. That was an attitude change. The battle at Agincourt was a turning point in history.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    What a meaningless effluvium of words. As Feynman would say "this isn't even wrong."

  • LynchPin1477||

    you mad bro?

  • Rational Exuberance||

    Yes, I'm "mad" that that kind of drivel appears on a libertarian website.

  • LynchPin1477||

    And yet you haven't pointed out any substantive issue with the article.

  • uunderstand||

    While I agree with you, RE, can an effluvium be meaningless?

  • Rational Exuberance||

    "Effluvium" is roughly synonymous with "bullshit" in this context, but also mocks the author's feeble attempt to sound erudite.

  • uunderstand||

    I see your point.

  • Conchfritters||

    I had professor McCloskey in the early 90s at Iowa before he became a she. Glad to see that she has picked up the torch from her old friend Milton Friedman and is still carrying it forward.

  • But Enough About Me||

    Interesting.

    Have any of you read Gregory Clark's A Farewell To Alms? Another attempt (in my mind, quite convincing) to explain why the Industrial Revolution, with its concomitant ramping-up of productivity leading to what McCloskey calls "The Great Enrichment," happened only in England and Northern Europe when it did.

    Now I'm gonna have to buy McCloskey's book just to do the compare-and-contrast thing...

  • Hyperbolical||

    I highly recommend it. McCloskey is an independent thinker with a sense of humor. An enjoyable read.

    This is the third in a series, but I'd imagine it stands alone enough to not require catching up with the other two. I'm starting it today.

  • Richie||

    So why aren't revolutionary ideas considered capital? Does capital need to be tangible? You can still put a dollar amount on an idea.

  • Gracchus||

    "The modern world, in other words, can't be explained by routine brick piling, such as the Indian Ocean trade, English banking, canals, the British savings rate, the Atlantic slave trade, the enclosure movement, the exploitation of workers in satanic mills, or the original accumulation of capital in European cities. Such routines are too common in world history and too feeble in quantitative oomph to explain the 30- to 100-fold enrichment per person unique to the past two centuries."

    Not saying that's she's necessarily wrong, but come on. Really? The Atlantic slave trade and the enclosure movement are "routine brick piling"? These events weren't quite the "common" and "feeble" events in history that McCloskey implies. The Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration by sea in the history of the modern world, and it was underwritten by innovations in finance capital. Joint stock ownership, stock exchanges, mortgage securities, modern credit, etc. The enclosure movement nullified the rights of commons enshrined by the Charter of the Forest and led to the development of the wool industry in England, precipitating the Industrial Revolution and sounding the death knell of feudalism and agrarian-based economies. All of these social and technological changes helped support and underwrite the great liberal project of the Enlightenment.
    Routine brick piling indeed.

  • sgreffenius||

    Great article. I heard an economist at the University of Iowa, Donald McCloskey, back in the 1980s. His ideas were similarly bold and well thought through. Makes me wonder if a family relation exists.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Dierdre McCloskey
    Born Donald Nansen McCloskey
  • sgreffenius||

    Now I see the comment above:

    I had professor McCloskey in the early 90s at Iowa before he became a she. Glad to see that she has picked up the torch from her old friend Milton Friedman and is still carrying it forward.

    I obviously wasn't staying in touch with Iowa's economics department!

    Anyway, great essay!

  • Roger Knights||

    An ounce of invention is worth a pound of care.

  • Bob Cotton||

    Correction: the problem solved by the invention of the chronometer was longitude, not latitude.
    Otherwise a fine essay.

  • eSim||

    This work brings us full circle with Adam Smith. The first sentence in the article is untrue: "Contrary to economists from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty, our riches cannot be explained by the accumulation of capital," Adam Smith does not fit this category in any sense.

    Adam Smith's 1776 work was called "An inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations." As the title implies, it was not solely about economics. He spent some time explaining how the greater freedom of the English working class and bourgeoisie compared to France and other countries made England richer. He also pointed out the corruption of elites everywhere -- ie those who had capital. Read it.

  • Saksin||

    Tinkering, inventiveness, and the freedom to try your luck, indeed, and a moral ambience that accords you respect to the extent that your trying ends up in something that is useful to others. It sounds simple, but such an ethos is up against formidable barriers in most times and climes (such as your presumed duty to remember your "station" in life).

    And yes, ideas most definitely lead. How, really, could it be otherwise? As I have said for a few decades: "The means of production are minds, not machines"...

  • Luke Lea||

    Ideas are part of our accumulated capital. Without an agricultural surplus in the beginning no one would have time to think. For what is capital if not a kind of stored servitude? It is the accumulated crime and sacrifice of centuries, plus interest.

  • Saksin||

    We have always had time to think, for at least as long as there has been human language, a facility which far antedates the agricultural revolution. The latter, moreover, reduced rather than expanded leisure, as shown by comparisons in comparable environments between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. See for example Richard Lee's 1979 classic "The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society".

  • StephenKMackSD||

    Would very much like to read Deirdre McCloskey's extended thoughts, comments on Neo-Liberalism and her comments, if any, on Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos. I am working my way through McCloskey's The Rhetoric of Economics, and making slow but steady progress.
    Best regards,
    StephenKMackSD

  • ahmed kamel||

    Would very much like to read Deirdre McCloskey's extended thoughts, comments on Neo-Liberalism and her comments, if any, on Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos. I am working my way through McCloskey's The Rhetoric of Economics, and making slow but steady progress.
    Best regards,
    masr news
    masr news

  • برامج انترنت||

    Eh bien, je suis un bon poste watcher vous pouvez dire et je ne donne pas une seule raison de critiquer ou de donner une bonne critique à un poste. Je lis des blogs de 5 dernières années et ce blog est vraiment bon cet écrivain a les capacités pour faire avancer les choses i aimerais voir nouveau poste par vous Merci

    برامج 2017 برامج كمبيوتر.

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