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Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  337 ratings  ·  35 reviews

The big economic story of our times is not the Great Recession. It is how China and India began to embrace neoliberal ideas of economics and attributed a sense of dignity and liberty to the bourgeoisie they had denied for so long. The result was an explosion in economic growth and proof that economic change depends less on foreign trade, investment, or material causes,

Hardcover, 592 pages
Published November 30th 2010 by University of Chicago Press (first published October 4th 2010)
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Mar 15, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: dismal-science
My ancestors were illiterate peasants living in their own filth. But that’s okay – so were yours, and you probably don’t have to go back very far to find them (mine crawled out of the rural idiocy of the Scottish Highlands a mere six or seven generations ago). Unless you happen to be reading this in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, you are enormously, fantastically richer than your great-great-grandparents ever dreamed of being. Even if your Visa card is maxed out and your ’92 Honda Accord is emitting ...more
May 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a work of economic history. That's not a topic that I would usually interest myself in, but I heard the author speaking on the radio and I was impressed. The question this book seeks to answer, apparently a perennial one for economic historians, is why did the Industrial Revolution occur when and where it did, and not somewhere else and at another time? The answer, it is asserted, is pretty simple, but all the economists have missed it:

"A big change in the common opinion about markets an
Kevin Carson
Jul 26, 2020 rated it it was ok
The book's line of inquiry is into the causes of what she calls "the Fact" -- the tenfold or more increase in the average person's standard of living in a couple centuries' time.
Her actual argumentation is a mess. What she's actually engaged in an apologetic *for* seems to be an unstable amalgamation of everything she has an aesthetic affinity for, and varies from place to place in the book. But for the most part the view of the world she's advancing is roughly that of Postrel's Enemies of the F
Sean Rosenthal
Interesting Quotes:

"[T]he modern world arose out of an entirely new 'ideology.' Or, equivalently, it arose out of an entirely new social 'rhetoric'--an older term meaning about the same thing. For example, the word 'honest' in Shakespeare's time, as you can see in dictionaries of Shakespearean English or by searching the texts of the plays, was understood mainly as 'noble' (that is, honorable in an aristocratic way, achieved in battle or at court: 'Honest, honest Iago'). Its rhetoric changed rad
Dan Walker
Dec 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, economics
I believe Deirdre McCloskey has unlocked the secret to why we are so wealthy today. Most people, and apparently all politicians, walk around believing there is something fundamentally wrong with the world and that money is a big part of the problem. Somehow things just aren't right and what we really need to do is reshuffle the deck and spread the wealth "fairly." Strangely, "fairness" seems to coincide with helping this or that politician win the next election.

Since most people only live a few
Otto Lehto
Nov 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Like a bubble bath in the ambrosia of cultural memory, McCloskey's encyclopaedic (and almost papal encyclical) book, written in a stream of consciousness prose, presents a kaleidoscopic view of economic history. Her central tenet is a marriage of humanistic and economic learning: that ideas and language, not just institutions and material factors, determine the shape of economic growth.

The narrow argument of the book is, one the one hand, as simple as stated above. But, on the other hand, the b
Jan 10, 2011 marked it as to-read
Brilliant and worldview-changing. McCloskey surveys all the leading explanations for the Industrial Revolution (institutions, trade, science...) and finds them wanting. Her preferred answer is a "bourgeois revaluation" that exalted peaceful commerce and innovation as opposed to the old ways of getting honor through war and conquest.... ...more
Jesse Field
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
What is "bourgeois dignity?" Oddly enough, you will hardly find much on the topic in this essay by Deirdre McClosky. For despite its wonky disputations with classical economics, Marxist economics and the new institutionalism after Paul Samuelson, McClosky only reaches the productive portion of her thesis in the last three chapters: the language and rhetoric of bourgeois values, especially of dignity and liberty, drove the rapid economic growth of the industrial revolution. She makes it clear eno ...more
Alex MacMillan
Dec 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: thesis-citation
A brilliantly-written culmination of a lifetime researching and critically thinking about why the Industrial Revolution happened. Information contained in ten-page chapters were superior to entire books or even semester-long college courses. This is a must read for anyone who majored in a liberal arts discipline who wants their perspective about the nature of modernity expanded beyond the constraints in their thinking (absorbed unawares) by socialists, neoliberals, conservatives, economists, sci ...more
Bernard M.
Jun 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
There are a few reasons to read this great book. McCloskey admits to having friends on the left and right and so she tries to bridge the political divide. She is as comfortable with the humanities as she is with economic modeling, so she is able to bridge the notorious gap between the two cultures. And, she seems to have read a LOT, to the reader's benefit. In fact she explicitly says she reads a lot of books.

Her big insight is that none of the traditional explanations for the industrial revolut
Oleksandr Zholud
Sep 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is the second volume in yet unfinished multi-volume magnum opus regarding history of economic development. The first volume, bourgeois virtues was about how, according to the author change in rhetoric and attitudes created the current world as we know it.

The second volume starts with giving a general overview why the growth is so important – chiefly the problem that throughout the human history most people lived at $3 per day (comparative prices of course), but now the average is the factor
Jul 14, 2021 rated it liked it
This book is a lot better than the first one in the trilogy!

McCloskey still spends rather too much time refuting authors who've criticized her in the past, when probably most readers aren't in agreement with her critics, or aren't familiar with them. And near the end, she commits the basic fallacy of singing too-high praises of European welfare states without examination of the much-higher costs of living they create... nor of the impact to innovation, which is the primary theme of this book! St
Colm Gillis
Oct 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
An excellent book. McCloskey adopts a non-reductionist approach to the 'great fact,' the explosion in personal wealth and luxury in many parts of the world over the last 200 years. She sets herself up as a champion of the bourgeoisie (a position most wouldnt apply for) and sets herself against communitarian ideals. The most impressive aspect of the book is the broad range of scholarship McCloskey can call on to refute many of the myths surrounding theories of economic growth. She also writes wit ...more
Peter Spung
Apr 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Important ideas explored and dissected, with dash of erudition

What are the proximal and ultimate causes of the explosive growth in human flourishing and prosperity over the last 200 years that is unequivocally unique in thousands of years of human history? This is a question moderns debate almost as much as "What is the meaning of life?", and "Does God exist?" Antecedents and plausible explanations abounded for thousands of years. McCloskey asserts bourgeois dignity is the ultimate cause, and Cl
Nicki Fruth
Jan 25, 2021 rated it really liked it
If David Foster Wallace wrote non-fiction without footnotes after a career change, you'd probably get this. I find her entertaining, but I feel the way she communicates would be more pleasant in a lecture than a book.

Her premise, that we overlook a shift in rhetoric around what we value and respect in society, and that enabled vocational and material changes seen in the industrial revolution, is unique and interesting. She also has a multi-subject expertise to draw on, make parallels of seemingl
May 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
A little verbose, sometimes pathologically so, but not without its local pleasures. It's a great survey-critique of the competing theories of the industrial revolution (which is really a metaphor for the beginning of the era of modern economic growth). From what I remember, her chapter on Gregory Clark's argument is almost worthless. The theory that she offers as an alternative -- that unleashing the forces of the bourgeoisie by making their activities legally permitted and socially valued is re ...more
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This series presents short condensations of an author's work, then adds commentary by several authors, with responses by the original author. I had read the blurbs on Amazon about her other econ books and was interested in learning more. Now that I've read this ultra short version and the responses, I doubt if I'll read the other books. Her argument is basically that high level abstract ideas precede and are a precondition for socioeconomic change. Scholars of revolutions have pounded on that pr ...more
Jon Webber
Nov 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wow, excellent academic approach explaining away most economic theory of explosive growth 1830 - 2000. Innovation and respect for bourgeois values, dignity and liberty. Beyond economic prudence of capitalism are drivers fueled by Hope, Justice, Faith, Courage, etc. Combing the middle class story of valued individual innovation with econometric functions.
Taylor Barkley
Nov 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Like the first volume in the series, it is very impressive in its scope. The important subject and question it seeks to answer is hidden by the title: why has GDP per capita increased by a factor of 16? McCloskey walks through and refutes every major theory and arrives at her thesis. We don’t think enough about the difference in quality of life between 1800 and now and the rest of human history.
Aug 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This volume is an improvement on McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues. I am not sure if I am entirely convinced by her thesis, but she makes excellent use of economics, philosophy, literary analysis, and humor to make her argument. ...more
Henrik Akselsen
Apr 24, 2021 rated it it was ok
Couldn't finish it.

The book's narrative is too unfocused and every chapter (and there is a lot of them) gets long-winded. Much more of the content should be in footnotes.

Although I am sympathetic to get thesis, I cannot recommend this book, in it's current verbosity. Read "Why liberalism works" instead.
The Well-Read Investor
Mar 10, 2021 rated it it was amazing
One of the greatest living economic historians delivers the first volume of her magisterial trilogy in thunderous, persuasive format.
Paul Sand
Sep 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing

[Imported automatically from my blog. Some formatting there may not have translated here.]

The subtitle is: "Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World". It is the second volume in Deirdre McCloskey's exploration of how the bourgeois mindset caused the miracle of prosperity that has lifted much of the world out of abject poverty, and can do the same for many more, if we let it. My report on the first volume in the series is here.

The emphasis here is on varying explanations for the "astonishi

Paul Crider
Mar 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
McCloskey offers an invaluable contribution to the quest to understand the causes of what she calls the Great Enrichment, that explosion in human capabilities that has been ongoing since ~1800 or so. The book is in its bulk critical of the other theses that have been suggested by other scholars. Her own theory is unique in that it is resolutely non-materialistic. Ideas matter. Art, literature, etc, but especially ethics and our conversation around these ideas all matter as much as the underlying ...more
The American Conservative
'McCloskey’s learning is prodigious—ranging across history, literature, and economics—though always lightly worn. She writes chattily, if at times a bit obsessively, and has a great professor’s ability to make the complex accessible.

Bourgeois Dignity, like its predecessor The Bourgeois Virtues, is a tour de force. If the four subsequent volumes are on this level, “The Bourgeois Era,” as her series is named, will stand as one of the great achievements in intellectual history of our time.'

Read th
Andrew Clough
Jul 14, 2013 rated it it was ok
I was hoping for a book on how people started to respect commerce and how it might have contributed to western economic development. Instead I mostly just got a very unpersuasive attack on competing theories. I spent the book trying to figure out what exactly the difference between her theory and the "Institutions" theory of development was, and didn't find anything in the book to let me figure that out.

Also, listing among the reasons that science couldn't have been responsible for development s
Will A
Dec 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Highly interesting, erudite, and feisty economic history that is in effect a critical primer on attempts to explain the great fact of why massive sustained growth in productivity began only around 1800 and in Britain. McCloskey argues that the Industrial Revolution was not caused by any of the usual suspects--good institutions, high wages, the location of coal, trade, science--but by a shift in ideology to one that respected and permitted entrepreneurialism, innovation, and creative destruction. ...more
William Smith
May 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is her second volume of six planned on how bourgeois ideas caused the 15x (at least) growth in societal wealth after the 16th century. She argues it was only after merchants and commerce came to be viewed with dignity and respect in the Netherlands, and then Britain, Scotland, the U.S. and later France and Germany, and were given the freedom to innovate and trade, that the world experienced the unprecedented economic growth and improvement in human condition that we enjoy now.
Nov 20, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
I found this book basically unreadable. The author can't stay on a single thought without an endless mess of self-glorifying asides. The premise is interesting -- that wealth is basically about knowledge, not about the accumulation of physical capital or global knowledge. But the author doesn't really stay on the point. ...more
Dec 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
Not really finished, because I dipped and skipped my way through all the economics and quite a few of the pages: McCloskey has a lot to say and says it with a lot of beautifully-crafted words. I did find the book thought-provoking and enlightening and have no doubt that traditional economists consider her a complete iconoclast.
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Deirdre Nansen McCloskey has been distinguished professor of economics and history and professor of English and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of numerous books, including Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.

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20 likes · 0 comments
“Nor during the Age of Innovation have the poor gotten poorer, as people are always saying. On the contrary, the poor have been the chief beneficiaries of modern capitalism. It is an irrefutable historical finding, obscured by the logical truth that the profits from innovation go in the first act mostly to the bourgeois rich.” 15 likes
“The change in rhetoric has constituted a revolution in how people view themselves and how they view the middle class, the Bourgeois Revaluation. People have become tolerant of markets and innovation.” 3 likes
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