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Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World Paperback – November 15, 2011
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“The startling perspective McCloskey brings to the history of economics qualifies her as the Max Weber of our times. This is a wonderfully entertaining and stimulating antidote for the reigning view of Homo Economicus.”
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The book, however, is far more than a compilation of theory; it is a basis for thinking for self about what she describes, and much of what she describes is the foundation of what the United States is and has become. It is not hype, and it is not whitewash; it is reality, something incredibly important for all to understand and appreciate as we assimilate and debate various arguing points.
Needless to say, I have been very impressed with what Ms. McCloskey has accomplished.
McCloskey's answer is that it is simple: (1)Give the "bourgeoisie" respect; and (2)give these same bourgeosie freedom. It is, according to this very mainline economic historian, THAT simple. It is the path that countries such as South Korea and China have successfully followed to achieve the same wealth and prosperity in little more than a generation.
McCloskey considers - and discards - alternative explanations for what economic historians describe as "The Great Fact." Explantions such as "colonial exploitation," Max Weber's Protestant work ethic, and the "Guns, Germs and Steel" advantage that European nations had over the rest of the world.
On the surface - and before you read her book - you might have concluded that the author was some kind of right-wing apologist. Nothing could be farther from the truth! As McCloskey makes clear, she started off her university and economic career from a Marxist orientation. She makes clear that her political inclinations are still mainly to the "left." In other words, the facts as she discovered them forced the conclusion.
McCloskey is a very literate - and cultured - thinker. This in my opinion is a very, very important book that deserves every intellectually inclined persons attention.
First the author starts the book by explaining what she defines as "The great fact" which is the fact that while for most of history living standards have been stagnated at a very low level, circa 3 dollars a day in per capita terms according to the book while in the last 250 years incomes have exploded by a factor conservatively estimated at 10-20 times. While I agree that modern economic growth was unique in terms of scale I do not think that for the whole of human history economic growth was insignificant. This is demonstrated by the fact that huts escavated by archaeologists in China dated from the neolithic and the bronze age increased in size by a factor of 3-4 (from 7-8 square meters to 25-30 square meters). While the tiny huts of 14th century peasants were actually a great improvement over the huts of Celtic and Germanic tribesmen, or from the huts of early medieval peasants. From a geographical perspective, the living standards in 1st century Roman Italy were much better than those of Northern Europe, in terms of housing the difference is huge: houses dug in Italy were 20-30 times larger than the huts of the celts and germans. The living standards in Europe improved steadily (though, very slowly) from the 8-9th centuries to the 18th century. Seem from the perspective of modern growth, however, it looks quite small in scale and was a very slow process. So the author is correct on the uniqueness of modern economic growth, but I wouldn't stress so much the lack of economic progress in the pre-modern world.
The author does an excellecent job in demolishing the very numerous falacious theories of why the industrial revolution occured. Theories of the industrial revolution range from the idea that people got more greedy, from the concept of primitive accumulation of capital, where centuries of accumulation of "frozen capital" were at once deployed into the great industrial facilies that started the modern era and from the eugenic theories that centuries of genetic selection in England favoured people more adapted for industrialization. McClonskey demolishes all these theories and them proposes her own explanation for the Great Fact: that cultural change was the fundamental cause of the modern era. Before the 18th century innovating entrepreneurs weren't accorded dignity and after the "bourgeois reevaluation" they were.
In that respect I agree with the author, but the exact details seem a bit lacking. After reading the book I had a much better idea of invalid models for the industrial revolution but I still am not fully convinced that it was cultural change in the direction of greater dignity for entrepreneurial activities that played the fundamental role. While the author claims that it wasn't the size of the British or European market that created the industrial revolution by arguing that trade in the Indian ocean was larger in scale and involved larger markets than European pre-industrial markets. That's incorrect. It was estimated that Indian ocean trade involved merchant fleets of gross tonnage ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 tons. For comparison, the whole European merchant fleet by 1780 AD had gross tonnage of 3.8 million tons, at the time when the industrial revolution is said to have begun, dozens of times larger than those of non-European societies. While the last 200 years have been spectacular, one has to remember that in all of human history no previous civilization had reached the degree of complexity attained by Europe at the turn of the 19th century. It was a civilization of over 200 million people (the combined population of Europe and it's American offshots) covering half of the world's landmass, while Chinese and Indian civilizations covered 5% of the world's landmass and had populations of 130 and 160 million respectivelly, in 1700 AD. Britain by 1780 had over 10 million inhabitants and represented the most complex economy of this size in all of human history: Athens and Venice also were complex and prosperous market economies, but their populations numbered only the hundreds of thousands. Large countries were historicaly poor and simple subsistence economies (like pre-modern France and China). So the argument that scale and the size of the markets is not a valid explanation for the Great Fact because other markets in the past were bigger is not valid: not in all of human history there was a market economy comparable in scale to the extended order of European civilization by the time of Napoleon. And scale is important because more people engaged in a market means more ideas which means more innovations which means faster economic progress.
The very fast economic progress of recent decades is also the consequence of the even greater scale of our modern global market economy of billions of individual potential innovators. I conclude that the scale of our modern markets is an important element of our uniquely fast rate of economic progress as more people mean more ideas and more ideas means more innovations which implies in faster economic growth.