Munich Personal RePEc Archive

Bourgeois dignity and liberty: Why economics can’t explain the modern world

McCloskey, Deirdre (2009): Bourgeois dignity and liberty: Why economics can’t explain the modern world.

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Abstract

Two centuries ago the world’s economy stood at the present level of Chad. Two centuries later the world supports more than six-and-half times more people. Starvation worldwide is at an all-time low, and falling. Literacy and life expectancy are at all-time highs, and rising. How did average income in the world move from $3 to $30 a day? Economics mattered in shaping the pattern but to understand it economists must know the history and historians must know the economics. Material, economic forces were not the original and sustaining causes of the modern rise, 1800 to the present. Ethical talk runs the world. Dignity encourages faith. Liberty encourages hope. The claim is that the dignity to stand in one’s place and the liberty to venture made the modern world. An internal ethical change allowed it, beginning in northwestern Europe after 1700. For the first time on a big scale people looked with favor on the market economy, and even on the creative destruction coming from its profitable innovations. The world began to revalue the bourgeois towns. If envy and local interest and keeping the peace between users of old and new technologies are allowed to call the shots, innovation and the modern world is blocked. If bourgeois dignity and liberty are not on the whole embraced by public opinion, the enrichment of the poor doesn’t happen. The older suppliers win. The poor remain unspeakably poor. By 1800 in northwestern Europe, for the first time in economic history, an important part of public opinion came to accept creative accumulation and destruction in the economy. People were willing to change jobs and allow technology to progress. People stopped attributing riches or poverty to politics or witchcraft. The historians of the world that trade created do not acknowledge the largest economic event in world history since the domestication of plants and animals, happening in the middle of their story. Ordinary Europeans got a dignity and liberty that the proud man’s contumely had long been devoted to suppressing. The material economy followed.

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