The making of the modern world is a question of perennial interest. We are, after all, modern. One of the signal developments of modernity is that for the first time, widespread economic prosperity becomes possible. Not all societies attain it, even in the modern world. But only modern societies have done it at all. How did they do it?

Answering this question may do more for human welfare than any other intellectual task before us. What is special about the prosperous modern society? Many answers have arisen. Institutionalist accounts stress law and social practice; Marxists point to proletarian and colonial exploitation; thinkers of a wide variety of persuasions have examined genetic and environmental factors.

In this month’s Cato Unbound, we are pleased to offer an iconoclastic view. All previous answers are wrong, says polymath economist Deirdre McCloskey. Professor McCloskey is at the halfway point of a four-part series of books on the rise of the bourgeoisie. In it, she argues that what really changed in the modern world was the rhetoric of economic activity.

If this sounds wildly improbable, it shouldn’t. The classical art of rhetoric referred not to blustering phrases and glib talk, but to the unforced art of persuasion via argument and evidence. People began to talk differently about economics, and to conceive of economic production and exchange in new ways that had never been seen before. In simple terms, the artisans and shopkeepers of the world became understood as a dignified, honest, and worthwhile group — rather than a crafty cabal of dishonest penny-pinchers.

Laws, institutions, and wealth all followed, but they could not have done so without a revolution in thought. The revolution began as an idea, and it became an idea that convinced the world.

Such a bold hypothesis won’t stand unchallenged for long, and it’s only fair that we’ve invited several others, each with a distinct viewpoint, to discuss McCloskey’s ideas. Economic historian Gregory Clark, science journalist Matt Ridley, and economist Jonathan Feinstein will each contribute a response essay in which they’ll examine the rhetoric of bourgeois dignity.

 

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Deirdre McCloskey summarizes the argument of her forthcoming book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. She argues that while the modern world rode an economic tide, the tide did not have economic causes. Changes in thinking and, yes, in rhetoric did the real work. Neither thrift, nor greed, nor the Protestant ethos are at the heart of this transformation, which brought material prosperity to whole classes that had never before known it. A variety of possible causes must be dismissed, she argues, from foreign trade, to legal institutions, to coal. The dignity and liberty of the bourgeoisie are the keys to economic transformation.

Essays

  • Gregory Clark argues that cultural or intellectual developments, like the rise of the bourgeois virtues, ultimately can’t explain the modern world. Not only were such virtues around long before the Industrial Revolution, but they have come and gone throughout many different societies over thousands of years. Why, then, did the Industrial Revolution only happen so recently, and only once? Worse, if we accept that cultural changes brought modern prosperity, we face the prospect that future changes in intellectual fashion may rob us of prosperity as easily as it was bestowed. This he finds both unfortunate and, thankfully, unlikely.

  • Matt Ridley makes two connected points: First, surges in creativity and innovation are far from unique. They can be observed throughout history, and they are usually connected to increases in trade and specialization. In this sense, Britain during the eighteenth century was not exceptional.

    Second, however, Britain was exceptional in another respect — it had large reserves of coal, and it began putting them to use. Cheap energy helped ensure that the boom in innovation didn’t die out. Entrepreneurs won out against plunderers in part because they had this resource at their disposal, and because they could make the case for the benefits of innovation so easily. It was only after the switch to a coal-driven economy that wages finally began to rise for the typical British worker. They continue to do so today thanks to coal and to other sources of cheap energy that have since been discovered and exploited.

  • Jonathan Feinstein suggests that the revolution in human creativity is still underway, and that we have not yet fully recognized what it means to be creative. The science of creativity, he argues, is key here, as the creative process is very different from what most people imagine it to be.

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