Here is my personal effort to summarize the thoughts of Dr. McCloskey
found in her three very large books on the critical role of the Bourgeoise in
enabling and participating on the 'Industrial Revolution" or Revaluation
or 'betterment' as she coins that term. I attempt to put the essence of her
thesis into a broader context including concepts she does not state explicitly
in the texts. The three books are listed here. My extensive comments are found
at each link. Together, the three volumes comprise a very complex discussion of
a very complex event (process) in world history and its continuation to today.
I try to review and comment more explicitly below as well as in more detail
with each volume. The author has three very different audiences (readers) in
mind - the general public - her professional academic colleagues in economics
and history - and public policy makers (rulers).
For the general public the author hopes to demonstrate that the event (process)
and its continuation today is/was extremely beneficial to everyone, begining
with the small core of Dutch and British middle class people who began it, but
subsequently to the expanding population and now is at least available to the
world population. She also demonstrates that despite this, it has been
seriously opposed by various members of the elite, intelligentsia, and
political interest groups who benefit from the status quo or deplore various
preferences, such as in cultural developments. 'Unspoken' but 'between the
lines' is her hope that the general readership will be energized to action to
defend the regime of increasing innovation which has so benefited everyone. Her
hope, therefore, is to influence politicians and government officials both
indirectly through the public and directly as readers.
For her academic colleagues, she engages them on their own ground, so to speak.
by marshaling authority against their authorities, logic against their logic,
rhetoric against their rhetoric. The result is this massive compendium of
facts, names, theories - arguments - that are the essence of the lives of these
'experts'. Whether or not she will achieve her objective I cannot venture to
The steps in the argument:
1 - the Industrial Revolution happened and its results are apparent to everyone
today, so its existence is not at issue. but its causes and results are much
2- at the time and for some years later it was seen to provide 'betterment' and
it was generally applauded. even while resisted and grudgingly acknowledged by
the aristocracy and clerical elite.
3- once underway, however, it came to be seen as also creating various results
(social, political, economic, cultural) that were disliked, even hated, by
various group and individuals - generally members of elite - self-acknowledged
- members of the intelligentsia who railed against one or more aspects
(results) and who obtained sufficient favor from authorities responding to
interest groups to interfere, manipulate, curtail, and otherwise reduce the
general 'betterment' for all.
4. this baleful situation has been much aided and abetted by the participation
of the professional economists and historians to whom her argument is
addressed. Their errors have not only adversely influenced the authorities
(decision makers) but also much of the general public who then make or accept
decisions based on errors.
5. the basic cause of the academicians position (errors) is due to their
general adoption in mid 19th century of the materialist theory of reality -
that is their recognition of only material, physical, observable, theoretically
acceptable things as real; and this results in the theory of utilitarianism as
the only real motivating source of human decision and action. (Part of the
broader Methodenstreit after the 1880's ) The theory, then, creates the
'economic man', that is individuals who seek only to maximize their economic
well-being. This, in turn, means that they admit of only one of the seven
fundamental 'virtues' basic to Western civilization - Prudence. Everyone is and
behaves as this 'economic man' in reality even if he does not realize it.
Moreover, humans always did favor Prudence. Therefor economists can and should
ignore any other motivations when seeking to understand human action. The
'material' world is it, forget about transcendental myths or other
methodological errors in the explanation of earlier history.
6. She denies this theory and its results, claiming that many at least of
people did and do seek to live in accordance with other 'virtues' and if they
do not they are living in error. She does not point out how hypocritical it is
that these economists do not, themselves, act as 'economic man'.
7. This leads the author to devote a very large and significant part of her
efforts and resulting prose to elaboration of just what these seven core
virtues are and describe how they were for centuries significant motivating
factors, especially for the rising middle class as it created this Industrial
Revolution. Furthermore, decisions and actions today ought to be based on
'virtues' including more than only Prudence.
8. At the same time, she identifies a second event (process) and claims it was
the causal factor behind this incredible expansion of prosperity, namely the
achievement of a segment of society, described but not defined - the bourgeoise
- the group between aristocrats and peasants - to achieve recognition of their
'dignity' and 'liberty.' The social quality that had been denied them
throughout history. For proof of this she presents the literary evidence. This
is another wide diversion into comparison of the rhetoric depicting them for
centuries before 1600 and the rhetoric describing them especially after 1750 or
so. She draws on a huge variety of authors to demonstrate this.
9. But demonstrating the changed status of the bourgeoise is insufficient. She
provides a long list of the more popular alternate theories about the causes of
the 'betterment' and attempts to demolish them one by one - chapter by chapter.
Unless the reader understands from begining to study the three volumes that
this seemingly digressive excursion into the history and description of seven
'virtues' and then the other digressive excursion into literary criticism are
critical to the author's line of argument he may wonder what it all has to do
with the history of economic development.
But for full understanding the student should also read Geoffrey Ingham's The Nature of Money to learn about aspects
of the transformation that Dr. McCloskey leaves out. For instance, this from
Dr. Ingham "The social relations for the 'manufacture' of capitalist
credit-money were first successfully developed in England from the late
seventeenth century onwards, and were copied, with varying degrees of success,
throughout the developing Western World. Capitalist credit-money connects the
state with the bourgeois classes." And he stresses it was the spread of
the bourgeois 'virtues' throughout culture that provided the trustworthiness
essential for acceptance of credit-money.
And, in my opinion Dr. McCloskey specifically reduces the importance of the
evolutionary development of cultural change in Europe prior to about 1700.
Thus, the new book by Joel Mokyr in which he
describes this significant cultural basis for the further development that Dr.
McCloskey stresses does fill in an important part of the full story. Dr.
McCloskey also describes the sitution after around 1848 as the 'reason' of the
intelligentsia who became increasingly anti-bourgeois. The changing composition
and role of the bourgeois segment of European society is well described by
Richard Evans. The psychological core of the
intelligentsia attack on both bourgeoise and 'betterment' it self is descried
by Ludwig von Mises in his The
Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. And selected examples of these opponents
are included in Jerry Muller's The Mind and the
Market. Some of the most outrageous recent 'thinkers' are featured in
Roger Scruton's Fools, Frauds and
Firebrands. A general discussion of basic envy is in Helmuty
Schoeck's Envy: A Theory of Social
Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for An Age of Commerce
Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics can't Explain the Modern World
Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched
Review and comment -
Dr. McCloskey explains that she initially conceived of a set of six volumes to
describe the central role of the bourgeois in Northwestern Europe in the
Industrial Revolution, but she has reorganized her thoughts into the three
published volumes discussed here. The first observation about these is to note
the remarkable way in which the author has marshaled such a wide variety of
references from throughout history and from so many varied authors
(playwrights, poets, philosophers, economists, historians. archeologists,
novelists, and many more). And organized this information into a literary
structure that presents and defends her thesis.
For a better understanding of her complete theory one should read the sections
in volumes 1 and 2 in which she outlines her original agenda. Her central idea
is that a change in the social position and its recognition of the bourgeois
first in Northwestern Europe developed after around 1600 and reached sufficient
extent by 1800 to enable the newly accepted bourgeois to accomplish the
innovations that rapidly created the unprecedented huge expansion of the means
to a better life for everyone. Building on their acceptance in 'dignity' and
'liberty' they expounded the concept of 'betterment'.
That is why I find it unusual that she does not cite J. B. Bury who wrote on
the Idea of Progress.. It seems the
broader shift in general belief that 'progress' is indeed a characteristic
basis of human history was essential for the specific class - bourgeois - to
recognize that they were creating progress.
That this event ("Industrial Revolution") occurred in the time and
place noted is not disputed. But its causes and ultimate results have been
widely disputed and both applauded and denounced. Her first mission, then, is
both the positive one of explaining how and why the bourgeois played such a
central role, and the negative one of showing why each of the many other causes
advanced by her colleagues in economics and history are inadequate to explain
the unprecedented increase in living standards that developed first in England
and Holland and since 1800 has spread throughout the world. For a description
of the material results of the provess please read Fran Trentmann's
Empire of Things.
Then, her second mission is to uphold her causes and the bourgeois as still
critically important today in the face of continual objection and denigration.
She denounces the 'treason' of the intelligentsia, who still today exercise
influence that endangers the continued economic innovation that has raised and
continues to raise the real living standards of billions of 'poor' families
throughout the world
The three volumes describe an integrated argument, but ( I guess) to let each
stand more alone, there is considerable repetition of material between them.
The names of authors and their works come up repeatedly, many of these are well
known, but it is also amazing how she brings in relatively obscure writers as
well. Naming names is critical for her method to link her argument with
specific opponents and those who support it, but might be 'over kill' for the
general reader. Apparently she believes it necessary to cite specific authors
and books (or articles) that advance other explanations and then cite others
who agree or provide evidence (opinions) that support her case. It is rather a
Scholastic appeal to authority. the general reader might be overwhelmed by all
She addresses a multitude of theories and real developments that are claimed by
others to might be 'causes' in some way. She marshals counter theories and
historical events in her effort to disagree. But in my opinion she does not
discuss or give enough attention to the financial aspect of the ability of the
bourgeois to innovate and create the explosive expansion of economic
'betterment' that describes the modern world. Checking her sources and the
names of the many authors with whom she agrees or disagrees, it appears that
she has ignored the whole specialist study and literature on the history of
money and banking. Geoffrey Ingham notes that the
economist profession came to overlook the nature of money when it split off
from sociology and political science. Another significant reference, among
many, on the role of modern finance in the success of the bourgeois is Martin.
She also discounts the expansion of 'trade' during this period, but does not
include the real history of commercial exchange between the English American
colonies and England itself. She also does not address sociological and
political aspects of this increase in bourgeois power, or that money has not
only economic but also critical political and social roles. It seems to me that
ideas are indeed central and critical, but these must include not only ideas
about economic activity but also ideas about holding the political power and
financial capacity to achieve them. During the same period during which she
discusses the bourgeois in terms of its new 'dignity' and 'liberty' as concepts
the social composition of the bourgeois changed and it also greatly expanded
its political power.
A main cause, she believes, of the failure of the majority of the economics
profession to recognize this important role of the bourgeois is the movement of
the professors into materialism - which then means utilitarianism - which
relies on the concept of purely 'economic man' a rational, utility-maximizing
animal. This enthrones 'prudence' as the sole 'virtue' providing ethical
justification for human action. Her dispute with this notion results in her
devoting a great amount of time, space and attention to the entire set of
fundamental Western 'virtues', which she shows were the basis for social
ethics. Out of the seven, three are religious concepts, faith, hope and love.
She deplores materialism and utilitarianism, yet, paradoxically, has no kind
words for the previous guiding concept of a 'great chain of being', nor of the
The volumes are of great interest and enjoyment purely for their academic
enrichment. But their highest importance today is that the solid arguments
directly refute the prevailing Establishment political policies on the basis of
their lack of fundamental and theoretical justification. As Clarence Carson
wrote some years ago in The World in the Grip of an
Idea the reigning political establishment maintains its legitimacy with
the people on the basis of promoting belief in false ideas. Dr. McCloskey's
work is probably too erudite to engage much of the public directly and it is
actually largely directed to professional economists and others. But if the
public could be taught to think in the manner and about the content of what she
so well expounds we would have more hope for the future.
The subject being this newly enhanced status for the bourgeois, the author does
not give an adequate description or definition of exactly whom she is writing
about. Well, we presume the 'middle class' but who are they in 18th and 19th
century English society? For instance, some social histories of England
describe a process in which the younger members of aristocratic families took
up business - and some members of the gentry also began commercial endeavors.
Merchants (individuals who were shop keepers or engaged in local or
international trade) also expanded their activities to invest in production of
the assets the were trading. May not the increasing acceptance and recognition
of bourgeois 'liberty' and 'dignity' be due to individuals who already
possessed such 'quality' becoming bourgeois? For instance, she mentions Ben
Franklin several times. Well, he was clearly a bourgeois (and from a colony no
less) but was accepted into European high society as a 'gentleman'.
Looking back to classical and medieval societies she focuses on the commonly
described disdain of the 'upper classes' for 'work' and/or for 'workers' -
especially for merchants. For instance, Cicero
provides an explicit listing of the types of endeavour in which a 'gentleman'
may engage - war, politics, law, philosophy, oratory, farming, and commerce on
a large scale. Such professions as medicine, architecture, and teaching are
respectable but are for slaves or freedmen. Totally unworthy are shop keeping,
retail trade, tax-collecting and usury. Cicero himself of course was extremely
wealthy based on extensive agricultural land holdings worked by slaves and
extensive urban slum dwellings from which he obtained rent. Yet, he was heavily
in debt and nearly bankrupt due to large debts to money lenders needed to
finance his political career. Actually, he is an excellent example of the
opposite of this 'economic man' because he devoted all his economic resources
to achieving social benefits of honor and distinction. He dispersed wealth as
fast as he accumulated it in furtherance of political and social goals. In
other words, he is an example of financial 'illiquidity' holding long term
fixed assets but having short term liabilities.
The issue from this situation related to the 'new' status of the bourgeois is
that increasingly during the subject time ( 18th - 19th century) respectable
and increasingly wealthy individuals in England were engaging in these formerly
disdained occupations. Worse yet, from Cicero's point of view, they were
engaging in politics, or the reverse, politicians were engaging in sordid
commerce.) In other words, as a matter of cause and effect, was this a case of
the bourgeois becoming newly respectable or was it rather respectable
individuals entering into formerly 'unworthy' economic activities denoting
their status as bourgeois? Also worth noting was the increasing problem of
trying, and often failing, to match the time relationship between short term
liabilities and long term assets.
In my opinion the weakness of the author's effort lies in her concentration
only on establishing the 'second event' the changed social status of the
bourgeois via the extensive appeal to rhetoric. If we agree fully with this
thesis, then, even so, we look for the mechanism, the how, did the bourgeois,
granted this new status, actually accomplish the process of the Industrial
Revolution. It seems to me this involved not only social status, but very
significant changed political status - resting much political power from the
sovereign. And a major component of this enhanced political power was the new
financial power - to create private money backed by the sovereign authority.
Felix Martin terms this "The Great Monetary
Settlement" and it remains the essential feature today of the unity of
public and sovereign money. See also, Wray -
Mehrling for current theories and practice in
Throughout, I include a computer link to references I have here that Dr.
McCloskey cites and to other books I consider relevant. The links are to the
bibliographical data, and eventually to my comment on those books as well, as
quickly as I can manage to do it.
Joel Mokyr - Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern
Richard J. Evans - The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815 - 1914
Paul Mantoux - The Industrial Revolution In the Eighteenth
Frank Trentman - Empire of Things: How We Became a World of
Consumerss, from teh 15th Century to the 21st
Recommended further reading