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Attention Deirdre McCloskey: Here’s the Big Thing about the Bourgeoisie

by Christopher Chantrill
May 31, 2016 at 12:00 am


FIVE YEARS after Bourgeois Dignity the third and last volume of Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Trilogy, all 787 pages, has hit the UPS truck. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say anything that McCloskey hasn’t already said.

The new book is titled Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital and Institutions, Enriched the World. The subtitle gives the clue. The book is about defending McCloskey’s thesis from two other narratives about capitalism. First, the capital-as-accumulation notion, as recently advanced by French lefty Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-first Century and taken apart here; and second, the idea that it was institutions that made the difference.

McCloskey will have none of it. It was ideas, rhetoric, she writes, a different way of thinking about the world that powered the Great Enrichment, the astonishing rise in income from $3 per person per day to the present $100-120 per day. There has never been anything like it, ever.

Apart from a new improved catchphrase, “trade-tested betterment,” McCloskey already said all this in The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity, the first two volumes of her epic.

Are you sure there is nothing new in Bourgeois Equality, I said to myself, when blogging all this a week ago? Just to be sure I went back to my McCloskey Week blogs of five years ago and found that I had written this.

The key thing that changed, according to McCloskey, was not technological change, but a cultural, rhetorical change. About three hundred years ago, around the North Sea, societies started to respect the commercial bourgeoisie and the things that it did. It allowed, for the first time, the bourgeoisie to do what comes naturally, to innovate and change things.

McCloskey closes the current book by stating that the Bourgeois Revaluation “came out of a rhetoric that would, and will, enrich the world.” So why not call the book “Bourgeois Rhetoric: How I am Right and the Guys That Say It Was Capital or Institutions are Wrong.” Because the problem with picking fights with other academics and going into the long grass with the Oxford English Dictionary to find out when the word "innovation" ceased being a pejorative is this: We Don’t Care.

The whole book is a rerun. We get the same magnificent assertions about the Great Enrichment, the same swipes at the “post 1848 clerisy” and also something we have become familiar with in the Obama era, the false equivalence between left and right. Jonah Goldberg is a bit disappointed about that, when McCloskey states that “Intellectuals on the political right, for instance, looked back with nostalgia to an imagined Middle Ages, free from the vulgarity of trade, a nonmarket golden age in which rents and hierarchy ruled.”

OK, so Russell Kirk, now resting for all eternity under his beloved Piety Hill in Michigan, was a bit stiff. McCloskey also takes a cheap shot at Edmund Burke, for his hatred of “innovation,” which I also get. Burke hated the innovation of the French Revolution.

But these sallies do not distract her from important things, like regular bathroom breaks for public-service announcements from your friendly local LGBT activist.

I was hoping for something more from Bourgeois Equality, a vision that looked above and beyond the well-mown lawns of Virtues and Dignity. But what? I have been thinking about that for a few days, and now I have come up with an answer.

The critical thing to understand about the bourgeois, who I call the People of the Responsible Self in my reductive Three Peoples theory, is that they are not that interested in power. That is the thread that pulls together bourgeois virtues, bourgeois dignity, the culture of “having a go,” “trade-tested betterment,” innovation, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and the failure of the Marxist prophecy of 1848.

Consider the robber barons. When John D. Rockefeller finished building Standard Oil he retired and invented modern philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie quit steel to build libraries. Now we have Bill Gates working on malaria and Elon Musk planning to have a go at Mars.

The same cannot be said for our progressive friends, for whom politics and power are everything, and you are a racist, sexist homophobe besides. There is no hiding from the gaze of progressive power, and no right to dissent from its orthodoxy. And certainly no right to innovate and “have a go.”

When you are not that interested in power, you find that the whole world opens up to you. Now the way is clear to get into “virtue” and “create a rhetoric” to “dignify” innovation and “having a go,” and watch the Great Enrichment sweep across the world. Now the way is clear to free the slaves and enfranchise the working class, and even indulge upper-class women and sexual adventurers in their shallow enthusiasms and conceits. All because you are not that interested in power.

I wish that Deirdre McCloskey had written that about the bourgeoisie.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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