Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

The Bourgeoisie and the Scholar

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

The Bourgeoisie and the Scholar

Article excerpt

Deirdre McCloskey is a true sui generis in our intellectual universe. In the latest (and last, by her own promise) installment of her Bourgeoisie trilogy, she had brought together many of the ideas proposed in the two earlier volumes, as well as in a long stream of essays and lectures. She is an economist like no other economist: fiercely opposed to the domination of game theory, vociferously suspicious of the use of mindless statistical significance in empirical work, and resistant to the "institutional turn" in economic history. In these three volumes she effectively demolishes the idea of historical materialism. Economic forces do not determine what people believe and think, she maintains; it's the other way around. Ideas determine how people act and behave, whether they will invest or waste, accept bribes or serve the public honestly, whether they will be makers or takers, think outside the box or remain loyal to age-old conceptions, and hence whether the economy will be static and stagnant or dynamic and vibrant.

Specifically, she asks this question about modern economic growth, or what she calls "the Great Enrichment" (a term that is to be preferred to "the Great Divergence", which stresses the gap opening up between East and West in the eighteenth century rather than the miraculous rise in living standards). The argument, in a nutshell, is that in a few core areas in the western part of Europe, the prestige and social standing of economically active and ambitious "bourgeois" agents-merchants, entrepreneurs, innovative industrialists and farmers, bankers and so on-began to increase. The Bourgeois "revaluation" or "deal" is what accounts for modern economic growth. "There was a sharp rise in society's receptiveness to improvers" (p. 472). Slowly, and in the face of much resistance, people began to shed the notion that trade and voluntary transactions between consenting adults were improving for all sides. The world was understood to be positive-sum.

In other words, the culture (a word she eschews, but that seems unavoidable here) of society as a whole mattered, not just the beliefs of the actors themselves. Not much else changed in Europe before the industrial Revolution, she feels, that would explain the take-off that led into the Great Enrichment. "We must look to ideas, which did change at the right time in the right places, and greatly", as she puts it (p. 470). I cannot possibly disagree: indeed, my own Gifts of Athena (2002) and my Enlightened economy (2009) make a similar point. But McCloskey emphasizes a different angle. The hierarchy of values in every society determines what careers young men and women choose and how hard they try to succeed. in a military-oriented society they will stress physical prowess, in a scholarly society they will strive to become learned in the books that matter. in a capitalist society in which commerce and economic success are respected, entrepreneurship and profitable innovation will thrive and economic prosperity will ensue. But profits were not everything, much less the only thing. People are not just driven by greed ("prudence" in her somewhat quaint nomenclature), they have ethical beliefs and care what others think of them. For a scholar trained in modern economics, this is a bold, heterodox thought. But it may have the advantage of being correct.

In making her arguments, McCloskey treads on grounds rarely visited by economists: she cites novelists, philosophers, playwrights, political theorists, poets, The theory of moral sentiments (the "other" Smith masterpiece that most economists skip) (1976 [1759]), and what not. If that makes her arguments more persuasive to her fellow economists or not remains to be seen. Indeed, at times her tone slides into a condescension that some readers may find off-putting. I have read all these books in the humanities and philosophy, she says, and "they" have not. So they are in no position to question my conclusions. one scholar is advised by her to re-read The theory of moral sentiments-'"slowly. …

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