A Review of Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World by Deirdre McCloskey
D’Amato reviews the third book in McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy.
No review could do justice to a project of such well‐executed ambition. In Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, Deirdre McCloskey has given us what is likely the most comprehensive explanation of the “Great Enrichment,” a testament to the awesome power of ideas. And libertarians will exult in McCloskey’s account, because ours are the ideas she credits with the transformation—the most important, she argues, “since the invention of agriculture.” McCloskey’s latest book (and the series of which it is part) is a response to her wonder at the fact that economists and historians have hitherto been unable to explain this event. The sprawling and fascinating investigation provided here demonstrates that liberalism’s characteristic change in ideology and ethics was as much about equality as about liberty, that the two are practically inextricable in liberal thought. Libertarians are often accused of giving short shrift to the notion of equality, even of outrightly opposing it in the abstract as incompatible with our goal of a society based on individual rights and free markets. And often the accusations are quite justified. The liberty movement has largely abandoned attempts to take back the language of equality and social egalitarianism, reckoning it hopelessly entangled with leftist concepts of social justice. We learned the lessons of history, particularly the twentieth century, perhaps too well, the fear and hatred of authoritarian collectivism washing out older, better conceptualizations of equality. The eminent scholar McCloskey, however, is not afraid to embrace equality as a friend and natural corollary of freedom and prosperity; hence the title Bourgeois Equality, highlighting the fact that liberalism arose “from egalitarian accidents in [European] politics 1517–1789.”
The emphasis of McCloskey’s sweeping Bourgeois Era trilogy (the previous entries were 2006’s The Bourgeois Virtues and 2010’s Bourgeois Dignity) is the importance and centrality of ideas, as contrasted with mere matter, in the passage from a world of seemingly permanent poverty to one of ever‐increasing wealth. McCloskey’s thesis thus dismisses as “not causal … the conventional factors of accumulated capital and institutional change,” themselves the results of “betterment and liberalism.” And Bourgeois Equality has much to say about how we ought to describe the ideological shifts that gave way to the Bourgeois era and the Great Enrichment. Ideas are the driving force, the substratum upon which history and social phenomena play out; if we attempt to erect the institutions without them, coaxing progress and prosperity prematurely, prior to the necessary social awakening, we risk regression and discord—much as attempts to overthrow governments by violent revolution often yield still worse tyrannies. Ideas lead and practical political change follows. Our footing upon certain of these liberal ideas is indeed so stable that we hardly notice how very remarkable it is. In the West, we assume, for example, the legitimacy of whomever we elect as president, partisanship and other disagreements notwithstanding. The fact of legitimacy goes unchallenged at least in the sense that we needn’t worry about military coups commandeering governments, our trust in institutions resting, for now, safely out of the zone of precarity. Thus are we actually trusting in rather abstract ideas rather than strongmen and the raw practice of power. This is no small thing and neither is our approach to the world of commerce and trade. Because we live during an age in which businessmen are highly regarded, admired as community leaders, it is perhaps difficult to image the bygone disdain for the merchant class. Before the modern era, social and economic elites were, by definition, above such mean, practical concerns as money and work. The titles of the nobility accompanied their ancestral land holdings, which—particularly before the Industrial Revolution—were the source of wealth in society. Nobles were a warrior class, not a working class, requiting the sovereign for their privileged position by pledging their swords. Such conventions inevitably informed attitudes about the kinds of conduct worthy of commendation; some of these attitudes, McCloskey observes, are distilled in a line from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta: “honor is bought with blood and not with gold.”
But all this changed in the Bourgeois era. For the first time, the merchant and entrepreneur began to enjoy a level of respect, even admiration. This shift in attitudes about the proper source of societal prestige is reflected in the work of the libertarian social theorist Herbert Spencer. In Part V of his Principles of Sociology, in the course of his examination of political institutions, Spencer describes two fundamentally different kinds of society, the “militant type” and the “industrial type.” In the former type of society, in which “the individual, primitively the owner of himself, partially or wholly loses ownership of himself,” “private claims … are over‐ridden by public claims.” Here, the individual person vanishes, sacrificed to the exigencies of war, measured by his ability either to fight or to provide sustenance to the fighters. In such a society, defined by “compulsory cooperation,” it is comparatively rare to find “bodies of citizens associated for commercial purposes” — for “frequent wars” make the development of widespread commerce impossible. The trader within such a social system is naturally a subject of contempt, a lowborn subordinate from whom rulers and feudal lords take freely. The “industrial type” of society, by contrast, is decentralized and pluralistic, characterized by “the inevitable trait” of “the multiplicity and heterogeneity of associations, political, religious commercial, professional, philanthropic, and social, of all sizes.” Voluntary, rather than compulsory, cooperation orders society. McCloskey’s bourgeois values come to replace the warlike morality of the nobles.
McCloskey’s bourgeoisie are prudent, practical, and strategic, grounded by the need to make a living, yet not oblivious to other, more abstract virtues. The change, McCloskey explains, was “about what brought honor,” for people had always acted prudently, focused on their own interests—“if they wanted to eat,” that is. Earlier Europeans had hewed closely to the expectations of their social class, their lifestyles and decisions bound closely to their class identities. But the bourgeoisie, unique among all classes, engaged in the pragmatic science of “profane calculation” quite without guilt, as long as “it was exercised in an ethical framework.” Throughout Bourgeois Equality we see that, before the Bourgeois era, to be concerned with profit was regarded as contrary to the gentlemanly code. Aristocrats were defined by their adherence to either military or ecclesiastical values, to which they succeeded without thought or choice, no less limited by their surnames than were peasants. The new, liberal equality of the Bourgeois era undermined the foundations of this rank‐ and class‐based world, yet progressives and socialists—ostensibly concerned with equality—have been eager to reinstitute systems of power, privilege, and social engineering. What, then, explains this apparent paradox? To begin with, the debate about “capitalism” illuminates the curious desire of “the ‘clerisy’ of artists and intellectuals” to, as McCloskey says, betray the Bourgeois Deal.
The word capitalism, McCloskey notes, “acquired its prominence from Marx and his followers” as a term of opprobrium (though she notes also that capitalism arrives on the scene later than did capitalist or capitalistic, Marx actually using the latter two terms). “We should drop the word,” admonishes McCloskey, arguing that the fallacy it represents leads people into flawed thinking. The term problematically makes capital itself paramount, exactly the notion that Bourgeois Equality challenges. Marx, we learn, inherited these errors largely from classical economists like Adam Smith, for whom the capital accumulation stage of history was a new, propulsive force. But capital accumulation, it turns out, was neither novel nor sufficient to transform the world. The world is not the rich, dynamic, and interconnected place it is today merely because we accumulated piles of capital, stacking “brick on brick,” as it were. Rather, the “trade‐tested betterment” to which we’ve grown accustomed is a product of a change in the social order, namely, the extension of “a new liberty and dignity for commoners.” And McCloskey is right: “capitalism” really isn’t the best or most accurate term for the market‐driven growth and prosperity libertarians favor; the word hardly connotes “[t]he two linked and preposterous ethical ideas” that together go by the name equality—“equality of liberty in law and of dignity in esteem.” McCloskey does not, of course, regard these ethical ideas as preposterous; she means to underline the fact that, until the subject point in history, the kind of bourgeois equality that is the subject of her book was unthinkable.
Such thoroughly bourgeois ways of thinking are today taken for granted, having perfused Western culture and language, but the transformation is not complete. While the Great Enrichment may well have “restarted history,” history does not follow a straight line in the direction of progress, as McCloskey readily acknowledges. For while she is optimistic, satisfied that the Great Enrichment will continue, bringing an end to poverty, there is much of the pre‐modern, pre‐bourgeois world and its ideas left in our politics. Indeed, it seems at times that we are regressing to an antiliberal world of rank, in which trade‐tested betterment is forsaken in favor of “nationalism or socialism or proliferating regulation.” The clerisy continue to believe that they know best—better than the hated bourgeois and their crass pragmatism. Never mind that much of the world turned backwards, toward nationalism and socialism, for much of the twentieth century. And even if we could ever assume that the “Genuine Philosophers” of Platonic ideal know best, the question would remain whether they should be allowed to use “violent hands able to compel people to adopt the plan.” Bourgeois Equality is a powerful case for the opposite of elite‐managed compulsion, for the process of discovery that has, for the past two hundred years, made the world richer, cleaner, and healthier than was ever imaginable. McCloskey invites her reader to be astonished by that fact, with an eloquence and erudition that is itself astonishing.