the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie
McCloskey certainly is libertarian enough to have a strong appreciation for markets. She's also primarily an economic historian, it appears, and is able to cite the research in economic history of the past fifty years, which often casts a new light on the subject—for example, she discusses the recent evidence on the actual economic impact of enclosures in England. This in fact defines her central question, which is: Why did human economic productivity drag along at $3 per person per day, give or take a factor of two, for century after century, and then, a couple of centuries ago, enter a period of explosive growth that massively increased it in quite a short time? (McCloskey offers an estimate that average economic output has increased by a factor of 16 as a world average—more than that in the rich countries.)
It's also worthy of note that McCloskey isn't just giving an efficiency defense of markets, as things that may be ethically dubious but have to be tolerated because they make us better off. McCloskey's position is that markets as such also embody praiseworthy ethical values: greater freedom of choice (as in the medieval saying "city air makes free"), respect for work and thrift, acceptance of people directing their own lives instead of being told what to do and how to live and what to think by rulers and priests and often by owners. Her approach to ethics is one called "virtue ethics," which she prefers to both Kantian deontology and Millian utilitarianism, and which has been gaining renewed attention from philosophers in recent decades after a near total eclipse; and it's also the approach I consider best.
To bring these two together, McCloskey looks at the idea that what explains the economic takeoff is in fact not any of the usually proposed material or institutional factors, but a change in values, which she calls "bourgeois dignity"—the conviction that merchants and city people are not disreputable scum, hardly better than criminals, but in fact are worthy of respect and entitled to demand it. She sees this attitude as having emerged in Holland in the 1600s and England in the 1700s, and she sets out to explore the idea that it accounts for the change from incremental to explosive growth.
The Less Good
I'm not as satisfied with McCloskey's choice of a particular virtue ethic: She puts forth the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues of medieval thought as her framework. I don't find the theological virtues praiseworthy, and I prefer the cardinal virtues in the form originally proposed by Plato in his Republic: the transformation of wisdom into prudence and of courage into fortitude was something of a distortion. I don't think that Christian moral ideas are that good a foundation for a free society; there have been too many times, past and present, when Christians were all too willing to compel observance, enforce their own morality, and suppress criticism and dissent. I'd also note that McCloskey defines "prudence" in narrowly material and pragmatic terms, which is not how Aquinas thought of it when he said that it was the essence of all virtue; Aquinas thought that prudence meant doing what is really for your own good, in the widest possible sense, and on that I think he was right.
It probably goes along with this the McCloskey oddly slights one of the twentieth century's most vigorous advocates both of virtue ethics and of markets as embodying ethical values: Ayn Rand. I say "oddly" because, toward the end of her book, McCloskey offers most of a page filled with names of people she thinks of as notable forerunners, including among others Joan Kennedy Taylor, Roy Childs, Wendy McElroy, Tibor Machan, Douglas Den Uyl, and Douglas Rasmussen—but neglects to mention that Ayn Rand was the big intellectual influence on the first four, and that the last two were impressed enough by her to edit the first anthology of philosophical studies of her ideas (and quite a good one, which I have on my shelves). This book wasn't the place for a detailed discussion of Rand's ethical ideas—that would have fit better in her earlier book The Bourgeois Virtues—but Rand gets only four brief mentions there, the most substantive of which is a slighting remark about Rand's "egoism," which suggests that McCloskey didn't take the time to find out what Rand meant by "egoism." That's just not good critical reading, and makes me doubt McCloskey's trustworthiness as an interpreter of other thinkers whom I know less well. I should have liked to see McCloskey contrast Rand's seven essential virtues with the traditional seven.
It also troubles me to see McCloskey putting forth Jean-Jacques Rousseau as an advocate of views akin to hers. Rousseau is, of course, one of the three great founders of the Social Contract tradition. But his version of the Social Contract has everyone agreeing to be totally subject to the General Will: meaning that freedom means taking an equal part in voting on what rules everyone is to be compelled to follow, and then accepting an absolute duty to follow those rules, with no room for any personal choices or preferences. To my mind Rousseau is one of the great authoritarians of history, whose ideas paid off in the usual way during the mass murders of the French Revolution.
As to McCloskey's historical thesis, she spends the great majority of the book examining and critiquing a whole bunch of alternative theories of how the West gained unimaginable riches, and how other countries, including China and India, have started to do the same. But she doesn't actually do anything that I would call a demonstration of her theory. She just eliminates the rival theories, and offers her proposal as the "last one standing." I don't think that's sufficient to the purpose. In fact, I don't really see that she has described a process by which bourgeois freedom and dignity make for greater wealth. I certainly would like to believe that they do, but I'd prefer to see a mechanism!
Finally, McCloskey is a bit too sanguine, I think, about welfare states and social democracies. She seems to think that the market can still function perfectly well, making us all rich and free and happy, while it's being taxed and regulated and redistributed. I don't think she tries to envision how much the deadweight costs of such policies do to diminish wealth and slow growth. Worse, I don't think that she even considers that paying them might do real harm to market economies—even though her book came out during the early years of the current Great Recession, and it was already evident that the developed countries had adopted unsustainable spending commitments. She seems to think that taxes and regulations are no more than fleabites; but a cat badly enough infested with fleas may be badly debilitated, and may die of stresses that one without them could withstand. And, finally, she doesn't seem to consider how it destroys the dignity she praises to be constantly required to fill out forms, pay fees and taxes, stand in line to be inspected, compelled to take direction from other people in all the details of one's life, and in general live like a child in a strictly run boarding school supervised by government officials; or how much of the good life lies simply in being free to decide things for oneself.
This was an interesting book, and had some instructive things to say. But now I've read it, and I'm mainly conscious of how it could have been better.