Bourgeois Equality | Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

Summary of: Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World
By: Deirdre Nansen McCloskey


Take a glimpse into the unique story of the world’s unprecedented enrichment and the ideas that transformed society through Bourgeois Equality. In this book, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey dives into the heart of the ‘Great Enrichment’ that occurred in the 1800s and how the middle class, or bourgeoisie, played a pivotal role in society’s economic prosperity. Explore how changes in people’s perception of the bourgeoisie led to creative destruction and innovation, and learn about the power of ideas and rhetoric in shaping the world we live in today. Discover the insightful thoughts of great personalities like Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, and Jane Austen, as they capture the essence of the ‘Bourgeois Deal’ and the cornerstone of our modern world.

The Great Enrichment Sparks Human Progress

The unprecedented boom in innovation, dubbed the Great Enrichment, that occurred two centuries ago sparked a proliferation of “bettering ideas” that have led to our current prosperous world. This massive progress was made possible by society’s willingness to give the middle class greater freedom to engage in innovation, also known as “creative destruction.” The middle class began to specialize in “trading and betterment,” and changes in how society viewed and spoke about it enabled greater freedom. The benefits of the Great Enrichment, from environmentalism to global literacy, have led to overall betterment and a higher standard of living.

Malthusianism of History

The book discusses the principle of population by Thomas Robert Malthus and how it explains why most people throughout history barely survived due to slow enrichment, which cannot compete with rapid population growth. The author mentions the Bubonic Plague and how the sharp increase in wages for farm laborers during the plague eventually fell to half of what they previously peaked at due to increased population growth again.

The Great Enrichment Decoded

The Great Enrichment was not a result of trade or imperialism, but instead was caused by investment in innovation and increased freedom for the bourgeoisie. Contrary to popular belief, institutions did not bring about the Enrichment, and regulations meant to protect against monopolies and corruption may actually do more harm than good. Instead, free trade and innovation protected against these ills and brought about widespread enrichment.

The Ethical Understanding of the Bourgeois Deal

The assumption of a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain results in another’s loss, helps those who oppose the “Bourgeois Deal” to frame it as inherently dishonest. However, 18th-century economist-philosopher Adam Smith offered a different ethical understanding of the Bourgeois Deal. Smith saw middle-class free trade activity as not just based on prudence, but also on temperance and justice. He believed governments were only likely to act partially on people’s behalf. Therefore, the ideal bourgeois ethic exemplifies temperance, justice, and prudence.

The Shifting Views of the Bourgeoisie in 18th Century Literature

The 18th century saw a change in the views of the bourgeoisie, evident in the literary works of Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen. While Johnson viewed writing as a trade, Austen’s novels depicted the bourgeois values of her characters. Adam Smith’s theory of balancing prudence and social interaction played a crucial role in the development of modern bourgeois society. Benjamin Franklin’s actions exemplified Smith’s ideas on commerce’s social aspect. The changing meaning of the word “honest” in literature reflects the evolving views of the bourgeoisie towards prudence. This shift in ideas, driven by “favorable rhetoric [leading] to betterments,” was the foundation of the middle class’s changing view in the early 19th century.

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