The Morality of Prosperity

Grinding poverty was the norm for humanity until 1800. It changed with the rise of values like tolerance and respect for individual liberty.

By Darrin M. McMahon


What accounts for the wealth and prosperity of the developed nations of the world? How did we get so rich, and how might others join the fold? Deirdre McCloskey, a distinguished economist and historian, has a clarion answer: ideas. It was ideas, she insists—about commerce, innovation and the virtues that support them—that account for the “Great Enrichment” that has transformed much of the world since 1800.

Whatever Bernie Sanders might say, the Great Enrichment is a fact, an astonishing departure from the grinding poverty that was once the norm for our ancestors in every society of the world. Conditions of widespread impoverishment began to change around 1800, when a dramatic takeoff began—first in Western Europe and North America, more recently in India and China.

There are different ways to quantify the takeoff. But the upshot is that income in the 34 countries that constitute the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has risen since 1800 on the order of 2,900%. All told, Ms. McCloskey concludes, the Great Enrichment is “the most important secular event” since the Agricultural Revolution that began in the 10th century B.C., and it has pulled millions and millions of people out of poverty and destitution.

How to explain this startling transformation? Economists and social theorists have put forward a number of explanations, from capital accumulation to property rights and the rule of law.

Left-wing critics of capitalism, for their part, have either denied the Great Enrichment altogether or argued that the West’s wealth was extracted, zero-sum, from the colonized and oppressed.

Ms. McCloskey convincingly dismisses each one of these explanations. The Chinese, after all, long had a thriving mercantile culture and good “institutions.” But the Great Enrichment didn’t begin there. Italian bankers accumulated vast sums of capital in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But by the 18th century, their leading cities languished in faded grandeur. And the “economic effect of imperialism on ordinary Europeans” was, for all its horrors, “nil or negative.” One can’t explain the Great Enrichment by theft.

No, this monumental achievement was caused by a change in values, Ms. McCloskey says—the rise of what she calls, in a mocking nod to Marx, a “bourgeois ideology.” It was far from an apology for greed, however. Anglo-Dutch in origin, the new ideology presented a deeply moral vision of the world that vaunted the value of work and innovation, earthly happiness and prosperity, and the liberty, dignity and equality of ordinary people. Preaching tolerance of difference and respect for the individual, it applauded those who sought to improve their lives (and the lives of others) through material betterment, scientific and technological inquiry, self-improvement, and honest work. Suspicious of hierarchy and stasis, proponents of bourgeois values attacked monopoly and privilege and extolled free trade and free lives while setting great store by prudence, enterprise, decency and hope.

Such values were best expressed, Ms. McCloskey maintains, in the writings of Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin. But they found their way into a whole range of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century productions, from novels and sermons to newspaper columns and works of art.

Collectively, they constituted a striking shift in rhetoric that justified new values for a world in which improvement and innovation were not just tolerated but esteemed.

Ms. McCloskey clearly relishes a good argument, and there is plenty of material in the book to argue about. One might take issue, for example, with the coherence of categories like “bourgeois” or “bourgeoisie,” which seem to be ever-rising in influence but are difficult to situate on the ground. She is also somewhat vague about why bourgeois ideology emerged when and where it did. Was it an effect of the Protestant Reformation? (Somewhat, she suggests.) A product of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment? (Not entirely, it seems.) Finally, it is not clear why an event as complex as the Great Enrichment needs to be reduced to a single cause—ideas—in the first place.

Most historical events of this magnitude are multi-causal and over-determined.

And yet, even when it is not entirely convincing, “Bourgeois Equality” is always learned, provocative and smart. It is, in fact, a rarity: a work of economic history that is engaging (and often funny) on nearly every page. There can be little doubt, moreover, that it succeeds in its overall aim, serving as a bracing reminder that ideas do matter and that they have played an essential part in forging the world’s prosperity.

That is a vital lesson for the present and the future as well. For Ms. McCloskey’s book is ultimately a call to extend the wonders of the Great Enrichment to those parts of the world that it has yet to touch. We can end dire poverty once and for all, she believes, while continuing the trend of reducing inequality between nations, even if inequality rises within them.

To leave markets free to do their work, and ordinary people empowered to innovate and improve, is an achievable goal. But as Ms. McCloskey warns, a “clerisy” of naysayers has assailed bourgeois values from the start, dismissing capitalism as unjust and decrying its freedoms as illusory. Those voices are still strong, and growing stronger, on both the left and the right, urging retrenchment and retreat. As “Bourgeois Equality” reminds us: If we hope to leave a better world to our children, this is not a time to be building walls.

Mr. McMahon, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, is currently writing a history of equality.

0 comentarios:

Publicar un comentario en la entrada