I have recently been reading Escape From Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity by Walter Scheidel. Scheidel himself summarises the arguments in this book in this piece.
Better yet, Scheidel also provides (pp.489-490) a very short summary of Deidre McCloskey’s very long trilogy about how the bourgeoisie ignited the Industrial Revolution:
Deirdre McCloskey has advanced a bold thesis that places values at the center of modernization and the Great Escape. In her telling, “liberal ideas caused the innovation” necessary to sustain this process. By 1700, talk and thought about the middle class began to change. As “general opinion shifted in favor of the bourgeoisie, and especially in favor of its marketing and innovating commerce and investment in human capital expanded as a consequence of this shift, rather than precipitating it. This led to a sweeping “Bourgeois Revaluation” embodied in a new rhetoric that protected the pursuit of business: whereas aristocratic-inflected discourse had previously stigmatized it as a vulgar pursuit, it now garnered acceptance and even admiration. This new mode of thinking permitted the bourgeoisie to join the ruling class and to infuse and enrich it with innovative and competitive traits. In the final analysis, the idea of liberty and dignity for ordinary people was the principal driving force behind this change.
According to McCloskey, this process unfolded in a series of steps. The Reformation together with the growth of commerce, the fragmentation of Europe, and the freedom of their cities enabled the Dutch bourgeoisie to enjoy freedom and dignity. Over time, Dutch influence that encouraged emulation of their practices regarding trading, banking, and public debt converged with the spread of printing and English liberties in similarly liberating and dignifying the British bourgeoisie, whose efforts subsequently unleashed modern economic growth.
Thus, “the Four Rs” – reading, reformation, revolt (in the Netherlands), and revolution (in England in 1688) culminated in late seventeenth-century England in the fifth and ultimately decisive “R,”the revaluation of the bourgeoisie, an “R-caused, egalitarian reappraisal of ordinary people.” Democratic church governance introduced by the Reformation emboldened the populace, and northern Protestantism encouraged literacy. McCloskey regards political fragmentation as vital to these processes: these forms of improvement worked better on a small scale. But political ideas, and ideas more generally, took the lead: “rhetorical change was necessary, and maybe sufficient.” She consequently documents at great length the emergence of a pro-bourgeois rhetoric in Britain during the eighteenth century.
As one who has struggled to plough through all of McCloskey’s three books, I am very grateful to Seidel.
I have dipped extensively into the McCloskey trilogy, and my guess is that if I joined up all my dippings, so to speak, I would conclude that these books are long on illustrated assertion but short on actual arguments to the effect that what is asserted is right rather than just asserted. As it happens, I share McCloskey’s admiration for the bourgeois virtues and I think she is right to believe in their transformative importance in British and global economic history. But if I didn’t already agree, I don’t believe that these books would do enough to convince me of much besides how strongly McCloskey believes what she believes. And what I actually believe also, but for other reasons.