©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Bourgeois Dignity: A Revolution in Rhetoric:
Lead essay for Cato Unbound

by Deirdre McCloskey
Oct. 4, 2010
This article originally appeared at Cato Unbound and has comments
Filed under articles [bourgeois dignity] and bourgeois era

A big change in the common opinion about markets and innovation, I claim, caused the Industrial Revolution, and then the modern world. The change occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in northwestern Europe. More or less suddenly the Dutch and British and then the Americans and the French began talking about the middle class, high or low — the "bourgeoisie" — as though it were dignified and free. The result was modern economic growth.

That is, ideas, or "rhetoric," enriched us.1 The cause, in other words, was language, that most human of our accomplishments. The cause was not in the first instance an economic/material change — not the rise of this or that class, or the flourishing of this or that trade, or the exploitation of this or that group. To put the claim another way, our enrichment was not a matter of Prudence Only, which after all is a virtue possessed by rats and grass, too. A change in rhetoric about prudence, and about the other and peculiarly human virtues, exercised in a commercial society, started the material and spiritual progress. Since then the bourgeois rhetoric has been alleviating poverty worldwide, and enlarging the spiritual scope of human life. The outcome has falsified the old prediction from the left that markets and innovation would make the working class miserable, or from the right that the material gains from industrialization would be offset by moral corruption.

In other words, I argue that depending exclusively on materialism to explain the modern world, whether right-wing economics or left-wing historical materialism, is mistaken. The two books to follow will make the positive case for a rhetorical, or ideological, cause of our greatly enlarged human scope. In my current project, the case is negative. The usual and materialist economic histories do not seem to work. Bourgeois dignity and liberty might.

Such a theme is old-fashioned, as old as eighteenth-century political theory. Or it is new-fashioned, as new as twenty-first-century studies of discourse. Either way, it challenges the usual notions about "capitalism." Most people harbor beliefs about the origins of the modern economy that historical and economic science have shown to be mistaken. People believe, for example, that imperialism explains European riches. Or they believe that markets and greed arrived recently. Or they believe that "capitalism" required a new class or a new self-consciousness about one's class (as against a new rhetoric about what an old class did). Or they believe that economic events must be explained "ultimately," and every single time, by material interests. Or they believe that it was trade unions and government protections that have elevated the working class. None of these is correct, as I hope to persuade you. The correct explanation is ideas.

I've tried to write a book engaging the educated reader. But the argument has to use the findings of economic and historical specialists, and to get down into some of the details of their arguments. I tell the story of modern economic growth, summarizing what we have thought we knew from 1776 to the present about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations — how we got refrigerators and college degrees and secret ballots. The book tests the traditional stories against the actually-happened, setting aside the stories that in light of the recent findings of scientific history don't seem to work very well. A surprisingly large number of the stories don't. Not Karl Marx and his classes. Not Max Weber and his Protestants. Not Fernand Braudel and his Mafia-style capitalists. Not Douglass North and his institutions. Not the mathematical theories of endogenous growth and its capital accumulation. Not the left-wing's theory of working-class struggle, or the right-wing's theory of spiritual decline.

Yet the conclusion is in the end positive. As the political scientist John Mueller put it, capitalism — or as I prefer to call it, "innovation" — is like Ralph's Grocery in Garrison Keillor's self-effacing little Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon: "pretty good."2 Something that's pretty good, after all, is pretty good. Not perfect, not a utopia, but probably worth keeping in view of the worse alternatives so easily fallen into. Innovation backed by liberal economic ideas has made billions of poor people pretty well off, without hurting other people.3 By now the pretty good innovation has helped quite a few people even in China and India. Let's keep it.

The Big Economic Story of our times has not been the Great Recession of 2007-2009, unpleasant though it was. And the important moral is not the one that was drawn in the journals of opinion during 2009 — about how very rotten the Great Recession shows economics to be, and especially an economics of free markets. Failure to predict recessions is not what is wrong with economics, whether free-market economics or not. Such prediction is anyway impossible: if economists were so smart as to be able to predict recessions they would be rich. They're not.4 No science can predict its own future, which is what predicting business cycles entails. Economists are among the molecules their theory of cycles is supposed to predict. No can do — not in a society in which the molecules are watching and arbitraging.

The important flaw in economics, I argue here, is not its mathematical and necessarily mistaken theory of future business cycles, but its materialist and unnecessarily mistaken theory of past growth. The Big Economic Story of our own times is that the Chinese in 1978 and then the Indians in 1991 adopted liberal ideas in the economy, and came to attribute a dignity and a liberty to the bourgeoisie formerly denied. And then China and India exploded in economic growth. The important moral, therefore, is that in achieving a pretty good life for the mass of humankind, and a chance at a fully human existence, ideas have mattered more than the usual material causes. As the economic historian Joel Mokyr put it recently in the opening sentence of one of his luminous books, "economic change in all periods depends, more than most economists think, on what people believe."5 The Big Story of the past two hundred years is the innovation after 1700 or 1800 around the North Sea, and recently in once poor places like Taiwan or Ireland, and most noticeably now in the world's biggest tyranny and the world's biggest democracy. It has given many formerly poor and ignorant people the scope to flourish. And contrary to the usual declarations of the economists since Adam Smith or Karl Marx, the Biggest Economic Story was not caused by trade or investment or exploitation. It was caused by ideas. The idea of bourgeois dignity and liberty led to a rise of real income per head in 2010 prices from about $3 a day in 1800 worldwide to over $100 in places that have accepted the Bourgeois Deal and its creative destruction.

Innovation backed by ideology, then, promises in time to give pretty good lives to us all. Left and right tend to dismiss the other's ideology as "faith." The usage devalues faith, a noble virtue required for physics as much as for philosophy, and not necessarily irrational. But maybe both sides are correct. A socialist maintains her faith in governmental planning despite the evidence that it doesn't work to the benefit of the poor. A conservative maintains his faith that what's good for the military-industrial complex is good for the country despite the evidence that it impoverishes and coarsens the people.

I claim that a true liberalism, what Adam Smith called "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty," contrary to both the socialist and conservative ideologues, has the historical evidence on its side. Despite the elements of regulation and corporatism defacing it (and the welfare programs improving it), it has worked pretty well for the poor and for the people for two centuries. I reckon we should keep it — though tending better to its ethics.

When bourgeois virtues do not thrive, and especially when they are not admired by other classes and by their governments and by the bourgeoisie itself, the results are sad. As the economists Virgil Storr and Peter Boettke note about the Bahamas, "Virtually all models of success to be found in the Bahamas' economic past have to be characterized as piratical," with the result that entrepreneurs there "pursue 'rents' rather than [productive] profits."6 It hasn't worked very well to depend on a piratical greed, which is to say a self-interested prudence without the balance of other virtues such as justice (except, to speak of the actual history of piracy, democratic justice on shipboard among the pirates themselves). Contrary to a widespread opinion on left and right, such piratical Prudence Only is not characteristically bourgeois. Bernard Mandeville and Ivan Boesky got it wrong. Prudence is not the only virtue of an innovative society. People (not to speak of grass and bacteria and rats) have always been prudent, and there have always been greedy people among them unwilling to balance prudence with other virtues. What changed around 1700 was the valuation of economic and intellectual novelties within a system of all the virtues.

Yet innovation, even in a proper system of the virtues, has continued to be scorned by many of our opinion makers now for a century and a half, from Thomas Carlyle to Naomi Klein. At the behest of such a clerisy we can if we wish repeat the nationalist and socialist horrors of the mid-twentieth century. If we imagine only the disruptions of a pastoral ideal, and reject the gains from innovation, we can stay poor shepherds and dirt farmers, with little scope for intellectual and spiritual growth. If we worship hierarchy and violence and the nation, we can hand our lives over to the military-industrial complex. If we abandon economic principles in our worrying about the environment, we can revert to $3 a day, and live in huts on a hillock in the woods by Walden Pond, depending on our friends in town to supply us with nails and books. Now in the early twenty-first century we can even if we wish add for good measure an antibourgeois religiosity, as new as airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and as old as the socialist reading of the Sermon on the Mount.

But I suggest that we don't. I suggest instead that we recoup the bourgeois virtues, which have given us the scope, in von Humboldt's words, to develop the highest and most harmonious of our powers to a complete and consistent whole. We will need to abandon the materialist premise that reshuffling and efficiency, or an exploitation of the poor, made the modern world. And we will need to make a new science of history and the economy, a humanistic one that acknowledges number and word, interest and rhetoric, behavior and meaning.


  1. [back] Since the seventeenth century the word rhetoric has often been misunderstood as lies or bloviation. I use it in its ancient sense, "the means of [unforced] persuasion," which includes logic and metaphor, fact and story. Modern pragmatics, criticism, and social psychology have largely been a reinvention of ancient rhetoric, how words matter. If any of that strikes you as crazy or indefensible, you may wish to consult McCloskey 1985a (1998), 1990, 1994c.
  2. [back] Mueller 1999.
  3. [back] I will use the word liberal throughout not in its confused and twentieth-century American sense ("left-wing") but in its older and still European sense of "devoted to liberty, especially political and economic liberty." It is part of my argument that the American sense can be corrosive of true liberalism. (But so can neoconservatism.)
  4. [back] McCloskey 1990.
  5. [back] Mokyr 2010, p. 1.
  6. [back] Boettke and Storr 2002, pp. 180-181. Compare Storr 2006.