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Bourgeois Equality

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Bourgeois Equality

How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World

University of Chicago Press,

15 min read
10 take-aways
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Why, beginning in the 1700s, did Europeans and Americans experience a drastic improvement in welfare?

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  • Innovative


Why, beginning in the 18th century, did average citizens in Europe, and later in the United States, experience a drastic improvement in welfare? Economists and historians argue this so-called “Great Enrichment” occurred due to material reasons like imperialism or simply the “accumulation of capital.” Economist Deirdre Nansen McCloskey’s groundbreaking new book offers compelling evidence in favor of an alternate theory. She posits that the Enrichment resulted from society’s changing ideas about the middle class and their “trade-tested betterments.” McCloskey claims that the acceptance of this so-called “Bourgeois Deal” enriches societies financially and spiritually, while rejecting it brings stagnation. McCloskey’s skill in melding history, economic theory and big ethical ideas makes her arguments highly accessible. Her concern with the ways economic theory affects regular people will appeal to and challenge thoughtful readers. getAbstract recommends this tour de force to academics, sociologists and anyone interested in the currents that shape modern economic and social thought.


“The Great Enrichment”

The unprecedented “proliferation of bettering ideas” that flourished around 1800 has made today’s world richer and today’s lives better than at any other point in human history. This proliferation began when society gave the middle class – the bourgeoisie – increased freedom to engage in “creative destruction,” that is, innovation. This freedom derived from changes in how society viewed – and, more significantly, how people spoke about – the “trading and betterment in which the bourgeoisie specialized.” The Great Enrichment’s gains were both material and spiritual. The rise in average income over the course of the two centuries since the Enrichment began enabled other kinds of benefits – a rise in environmentalism and a drop in illiteracy, which fell globally from more than 90% of adults in 1850 to 20% in 2000.

From Subsistence to Enrichment

The principle of population, set out by Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798, helps explain why most people merely subsisted for much of history. Slow enrichment could not compete with population growth. The vast number of deaths during the Bubonic Plague led to a sharp increase in farm laborers’ wages. ...

About the Author

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey is a distinguished professor of economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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