The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce

University of Chicago Press
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For a century and a half, the artists and intellectuals of Europe have scorned the bourgeoisie. And for a millennium and a half, the philosophers and theologians of Europe have scorned the marketplace. The bourgeois life, capitalism, Mencken’s “booboisie” and David Brooks’s “bobos”—all have been, and still are, framed as being responsible for everything from financial to moral poverty, world wars, and spiritual desuetude. Countering these centuries of assumptions and unexamined thinking is Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, a magnum opus that offers a radical view: capitalism is good for us.

McCloskey’s sweeping, charming, and even humorous survey of ethical thought and economic realities—from Plato to Barbara Ehrenreich—overturns every assumption we have about being bourgeois. Can you be virtuous and bourgeois? Do markets improve ethics? Has capitalism made us better as well as richer? Yes, yes, and yes, argues McCloskey, who takes on centuries of capitalism’s critics with her erudition and sheer scope of knowledge. Applying a new tradition of “virtue ethics” to our lives in modern economies, she affirms American capitalism without ignoring its faults and celebrates the bourgeois lives we actually live, without supposing that they must be lives without ethical foundations.

High Noon, Kant, Bill Murray, the modern novel, van Gogh, and of course economics and the economy all come into play in a book that can only be described as a monumental project and a life’s work. The Bourgeois Virtues is nothing less than a dazzling reinterpretation of Western intellectual history, a dead-serious reply to the critics of capitalism—and a surprising page-turner.
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About the author

Deirdre N. McCloskey is distinguished professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Among her many books are Crossing: A Memoir and If You’re So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Mar 15, 2010
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Pages
634
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ISBN
9780226556673
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Language
English
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Genres
Business & Economics / Economic History
Business & Economics / General
History / General
Philosophy / Ethics & Moral Philosophy
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This content is DRM protected.
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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, and a whole lot more on ideas and what people believe.

Or so says Deirdre N. McCloskey in Bourgeois Dignity, a fiercely contrarian history that wages a similar argument about economics in the West. Here she turns her attention to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe to reconsider the birth of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. According to McCloskey, our modern world was not the product of new markets and innovations, but rather the result of shifting opinions about them. During this time, talk of private property, commerce, and even the bourgeoisie itself radically altered, becoming far more approving and flying in the face of prejudices several millennia old. The wealth of nations, then, didn’t grow so dramatically because of economic factors: it grew because rhetoric about markets and free enterprise finally became enthusiastic and encouraging of their inherent dignity.

An utterly fascinating sequel to her critically acclaimed book The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity is a feast of intellectual riches from one of our most spirited and ambitious historians—a work that will forever change our understanding of how the power of persuasion shapes our economic lives.
Why are some parts of the world so rich and others so poor? Why did the Industrial Revolution--and the unprecedented economic growth that came with it--occur in eighteenth-century England, and not at some other time, or in some other place? Why didn't industrialization make the whole world rich--and why did it make large parts of the world even poorer? In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark tackles these profound questions and suggests a new and provocative way in which culture--not exploitation, geography, or resources--explains the wealth, and the poverty, of nations.

Countering the prevailing theory that the Industrial Revolution was sparked by the sudden development of stable political, legal, and economic institutions in seventeenth-century Europe, Clark shows that such institutions existed long before industrialization. He argues instead that these institutions gradually led to deep cultural changes by encouraging people to abandon hunter-gatherer instincts-violence, impatience, and economy of effort-and adopt economic habits-hard work, rationality, and education.


The problem, Clark says, is that only societies that have long histories of settlement and security seem to develop the cultural characteristics and effective workforces that enable economic growth. For the many societies that have not enjoyed long periods of stability, industrialization has not been a blessing. Clark also dissects the notion, championed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, that natural endowments such as geography account for differences in the wealth of nations.


A brilliant and sobering challenge to the idea that poor societies can be economically developed through outside intervention, A Farewell to Alms may change the way global economic history is understood.

“McCloskey and Ziliak have been pushing this very elementary, very correct, very important argument through several articles over several years and for reasons I cannot fathom it is still resisted. If it takes a book to get it across, I hope this book will do it. It ought to.”

—Thomas Schelling, Distinguished University Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, and 2005 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics

“With humor, insight, piercing logic and a nod to history, Ziliak and McCloskey show how economists—and other scientists—suffer from a mass delusion about statistical analysis. The quest for statistical significance that pervades science today is a deeply flawed substitute for thoughtful analysis. . . . Yet few participants in the scientific bureaucracy have been willing to admit what Ziliak and McCloskey make clear: the emperor has no clothes.”

—Kenneth Rothman, Professor of Epidemiology, Boston University School of Health

The Cult of Statistical Significance shows, field by field, how “statistical significance,” a technique that dominates many sciences, has been a huge mistake. The authors find that researchers in a broad spectrum of fields, from agronomy to zoology, employ “testing” that doesn’t test and “estimating” that doesn’t estimate. The facts will startle the outside reader: how could a group of brilliant scientists wander so far from scientific magnitudes? This study will encourage scientists who want to know how to get the statistical sciences back on track and fulfill their quantitative promise. The book shows for the first time how wide the disaster is, and how bad for science, and it traces the problem to its historical, sociological, and philosophical roots.

Stephen T. Ziliak is the author or editor of many articles and two books. He currently lives in Chicago, where he is Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University. Deirdre N. McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of twenty books and three hundred scholarly articles. She has held Guggenheim and National Humanities Fellowships. She is best known for How to Be Human* Though an Economist (University of Michigan Press, 2000) and her most recent book, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006).

There’s little doubt that most humans today are better off than their forebears. Stunningly so, the economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey argues in the concluding volume of her trilogy celebrating the oft-derided virtues of the bourgeoisie. The poorest of humanity, McCloskey shows, will soon be joining the comparative riches of Japan and Sweden and Botswana.

Why? Most economists—from Adam Smith and Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty—say the Great Enrichment since 1800 came from accumulated capital. McCloskey disagrees, fiercely. “Our riches,” she argues, “were made not by piling brick on brick, bank balance on bank balance, but by piling idea on idea.” Capital was necessary, but so was the presence of oxygen. It was ideas, not matter, that drove “trade-tested betterment.” Nor were institutions the drivers. The World Bank orthodoxy of “add institutions and stir” doesn’t work, and didn’t. McCloskey builds a powerful case for the initiating role of ideas—ideas for electric motors and free elections, of course, but more deeply the bizarre and liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for ordinary folk. Liberalism arose from theological and political revolutions in northwest Europe, yielding a unique respect for betterment and its practitioners, and upending ancient hierarchies. Commoners were encouraged to have a go, and the bourgeoisie took up the Bourgeois Deal, and we were all enriched.

Few economists or historians write like McCloskey—her ability to invest the facts of economic history with the urgency of a novel, or of a leading case at law, is unmatched. She summarizes modern economics and modern economic history with verve and lucidity, yet sees through to the really big scientific conclusion. Not matter, but ideas. Big books don’t come any more ambitious, or captivating, than Bourgeois Equality.
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