≡ Menu

Lynne Kiesling on Deirdre McCloskey

As part of its Essential Scholars series, the Fraser Institute’s volume titled Essential Women of Liberty is forthcoming. Available here is Lynne Kiesling’s entry, for this forthcoming volume, on Deirdre McCloskey. A slice (links added):

McCloskey thus starts the trilogy with Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), grounding the emergent processes of prosperity in a virtue-ethics framework. Scorn for both the bourgeoisie and markets has been commonplace in human history, and McCloskey argues that this misplaced scorn emerges from a failure to appreciate the extent to which markets and exchange have moral as well as material value. In Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010), she investigates the many other causal factors that have been offered as explanations for the Great Enrichment—geography, institutions, capital, culture, foreign trade, colonialism, slavery—and argues that even in combination they are not sufficient to account for the 300-fold improvement in living standards that we have experienced. Again in this book McCloskey applies fundamental “compared to what?” economic logic, even while rejecting monocausal economic arguments. Invoking Adam Smith’s language, the wealth of nations increased due not (I would say not solely, but here she and I may have a gentle disagreement) to these economic factors, but due to ideas, rhetoric, and their evolving into a recognition of the inherent dignity of free enterprise. In the final volume, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (2016), she expands this argument and emphasizes the liberal egalitarian implications of the spread of bourgeois ideas. The belief spread that ordinary people have equal liberty and inherent dignity, and should be free to “have a go” and try out new ideas. This freedom to choose, to experiment, and to innovate is morally proper and, over time, materially fruitful for individuals and for the societies composed of them. Without an ethical framework that honours hard work and industrious creativity, the Great Enrichment could not have happened. These three volumes make for an entertaining and engaging read, and reflect a magisterial breadth and depth of scholarship. Recently, McCloskey and Art Carden collaborated on a one-volume distillation of the themes and arguments in the Bourgeois trilogy: Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World (2020).