Alan Ryan

Rise of the Middling Sort

Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World

By Deirdre N McCloskey

University of Chicago Press 787pp £31.50 order from our bookshop

Bourgeois Equality is the third and final volume in an astonishing trilogy on a familiar question: how to explain the exponential increase in the production and consumption of goods and services of all sorts – what Deirdre McCloskey refers to generically as ‘stuff’ – over the past century and a half. The trilogy is astonishing partly because of its sheer bulk: Bourgeois Equality is almost eight hundred pages long, and its companion volumes, Bourgeois Dignity and Bourgeois Virtues, are scarcely shorter. But the really remarkable feature is its theoretical underpinning.

What these books argue is that the prosperity of the modern world cannot be explained by technological change, or by clear and scrupulously enforced property rights, or by Max Weber’s ‘Protestant ethic’, or by what Marx called the ‘extraction of surplus value’, or by any other of the usual suspects. What explains the explosion in productivity, economic growth and material wellbeing over the past century and a half is changes in ideas. McCloskey has produced something very unlikely: an idealist defence of materialism and an idealist account of how what she calls ‘betterment’ has come about. It is engrossing, even when it is not entirely convincing. It is also written with immense high spirits. 

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