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Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World Kindle Edition
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The author describes how, after centuries of generations living about the same as previous generations, the world began to show economic growth commencing around 1800 in northwest Europe. This economic growth accelerated to where today's generation in much of the world lives immeasurably better than the folks of the 18th century. The cause of this economic growth was "trade-tested betterment" in the author's words, and was stimulated by a greater respect for the individual (and a less "hierarchical" society), a greater openness to new ideas, and a willingness to test the new ideas in the marketplace. The Netherlands was the initial focus of this economic transformation followed by England, Scotland, and America. The merchant, the banker, the ship-owner, and the factory owner became as respected as the lords and bishops in these lands. To my mind, McCloskey doesn't really apportion the sources of this ideological shift in northwest Europe, soon adopted in the rest of Europe, and in much of the world by this century (as if this might be possible), but she discusses the Protestant Reformation, urbanization, democratization, equality, individualism, and the overall promotion of an exchange economy and suggests they all played a part. Some economic historians have cited capital accumulation from the surplus finally wrung from previous subsistence economies as the cause of this growth; others cite the development of institutional factors, e.g., incentives, intellectual property law, contract law, limited liability corporations. The author minimizes these explanations and maintains that it was essentially due to the acceptance of new and market-tested ideas from anyone as permitted by the new, more democratic social ethos. This is why the author doesn't attribute the take-off in economic growth necessarily to the development of capitalism, which she says pre-dated this growth spurt. (It might be noted that while McCloskey might disparage Solow-type growth models as "Samuelsonian", empirical estimates of Solow growth models in most countries indicate that about one-third of economic growth comes from capital accumulation and about two-thirds comes from efficiency gains from technology and innovation.)
Strengths of the book: (1) the book is well-written and I enjoyed the author's conversational tone, (2) I particularly enjoyed the author's dissection of the Max Weber thesis (the Reformation's effect was more sociological than psychological) and her description of the economic impact of having a less hierarchy-ridden society, (3) I liked her examples from literature illustrating the migration of themes from aristocratic to middle class (She's a professor of English as well as of Economics), and (4) she uses many good examples from economic history from steam power to software innovations.
Some Irritants of the book: (1) the book is too long for its theme (67 chapters!) and is repetitious in too many places, (2) there's a broad display of impressive erudition but it seems to me excessive and extraneous. We get lots of literary analysis, opera dissections, ancient history, political theory. It seems to me that its "wordy" author did a "core dump" of a life time of scholarship, (3) there's too many personal scholarly battles alluded to in the text where her intellectual adversaries are vanquished (however, in the author's defense her notes indicate numerous instances of scholarly debts she pays to colleagues for clarifications, etc.), (4) While she's a strong libertarian, it's ironic to read this tenured professor decry collective bargaining, unemployment compensation, and social security. Even the Reagan administration realized that fostering a dynamic economy required some level of safety net, and (5) more libertarian rhetoric: about 30 times she alludes to "state violence" when she's referring to the regulatory and taxing powers of the government. To call (indirectly) Fines and Cease-and-Desist orders for, say, drug efficacy testing by the FDA, fraudulent advertising monitoring by the FTC, and ensuring accurate financial disclosure by the SEC, "state violence" is rhetorical excess.
But I must have enjoyed the book because I stayed with it and read all of it including most of the notes!
Yet I note a glaring omission from this book's otherwise comprehensive treatment of its subject. It seems to me that enormous increases in the efficiency and scope of mass production are also crucial to improved well-being since 1800. Astonishingly, the author ignores mass production, neither acknowledging nor refuting its importance. I checked whether she acknowledged its importance in her earlier book, Bourgeois Dignity. Chapter 11 of that book describes revolutionary increases in the productivity of several British industries from 1780 to 1860, but without discussing mass production's contribution to that productivity. Even productivity seems not to be addressed in Bourgeois Equality.
I, like many other reviewers, found Bourgeois Equality important, but overly repetitive and discursive. Fortunately, its long table of contents lays out clearly the essence of its claims and could be very useful to any potential reader.
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