The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity, by Deirdre McCloskey

My favorite quote of Deirdre McCloskey comes from a sarcastic review of her book How to Be Human – Though an Economist by Gregory Clark: “When the gods handed out gifts they gave her enough eloquence, style, and panache that whole cities and tribes must have been rendered mute and dull.”

(That may apply to Gregory Clark as well, given the number of choice phrases in that review.)

The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity are two of a three-part by McCloskey about commerce and ethics. Specifically, she says that respect for merchants and commercial life explains what she calls the Great Fact: Humans have gone from living on about $3 a day in 1800 to as high as $150 a day, in constant dollars. Yes, an attitude explains this phenomenal growth in wealth.

One by one she moves through materialist arguments and historical arguments, rejecting them for this cultural/psychological one. Proof by contradiction is a dangerous way to reason, but McCloskey has struck down a lot of different and popular arguments; it’s hard to imagine that there are a great deal of good ones left.

Most of these two books are difficult to get through. They’re about 1200 pages combined. Much of it is boring. Whole chapters are dedicated to proving a single researcher wrong. Those part’s aren’t always fun. Neither are the parts that deal heavily with Church teachings.

Still, the breadth of her knowledge is breathtaking, and there’s so much historical and cultural knowledge in these two books.

The best part of the first book is the 50-page apology that kicks it off. It’s an apology in the ecclesiastical sense: a defense a position. And what does she defend? Capitalism. You can read a sample of it here.