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I watched that fascinating and insightful video of McCloskey discussing his new book on bourgeois dignity.

McCloskey argues that the great turn of events was the innovative spirit that was let loose on the world due to the triumph of the bourgeois, or middle class, values of industry, hard work, forethought, fairly unrestricted competitive openness. That was what began the process that has given us the wealth and standard of living - and freedom - which we enjoy and too often take for granted.

It is interesting to wonder how people in the 19th century viewed and considered their own times, compared to the epoch before this transforming liberal, bourgeois revolution in thought, attitude, and action.

I have recently been reading some works written during the closing years of the 19th century by authors attempting to sum up the changes, transformations and achievements of their century.

Most contrasted the world before 1815 -- the year when the nearly quarter-century war between Great Britain and first revolutionary and Napoleonic France finally came to an end -- and the era that followed, that is, the era through when they had been living and which calender century was rapidly reaching its close.

That earlier "world war" had left destruction, death, and massive government debts. But these admittedly mostly British authors who I have been reading all recounted the radical revolution that was now set loose on Great Britain and increasingly the rest of the "civilized" world.

Radical not only in the political sense -- yes, the French Revolution had had its deep affect in making intellectuals and many among the "common man" to now have an awakening to the spirit of self-government, "democracy" and civil freedom. But the political order reconstructed on the continent after 1815, had attempted to put that Genie back in the bottle.

But there was an equally radical revolution, centered first in Great Britain, in liberating the innovative and creative spirit of all Englishmen.

Regulations, restrictions, protections, government-guarded monopolies all slowly but surely were lowered, loosened, and in many cases abolished. And in a comparatively short period of time -- from 1820 to 1850, a thirty-year period.

Slavery first in the British Empire (1833) and then step-by-step around the rest of the world was formally abolished; women were given legal rights; Jews and other religious minorities had fewer legal and social restrictions on their economic range of opportunities.

Technological innovation was set free to accelerate what we now call the industrial revolution. New and better paying jobs and employment opportunities arose on this freer market. The common man earned more, lived better, had become literate, and culturally awakened.

One of these authors briefly recounted the industrial innovation of something as simple as -- the match, that transformed the ability of turning dark into light by anyone, at any time, and anywhere. That little bit of sulfur at the end of a short wooden stick changed a good part of the common man's everyday life.

Bold men -- mostly through the private sector avenues of possibility -- began the innovative reforms of caring for the sick, treating kindly the mentally ill, and nurturing the potentials of the young and orphaned.

Ending the taxes on paper and ink, opened the door to innovation of mass production and distribution of the cheap "penny press," that gave anyone who had, now mastered his "ABC's" the ability at hardly any price at all to learn about and listen into the ever-changing affairs of his own society and the greater world around him. Which, in turn, was made possible due to the innovation of the telegraph, and the laying of undersea cables.

They marveled at "photography." Even the poorest man could increasingly afford the permanent picture image of his family -- which previously only belonged to the nobility who could afford the expense of the hired portrait artist.

And marvel of marvels, now, nearer the end of the 19th century, innovation had created a way of preserving the human voice on the phonograph. One author hailed the magic that centuries from now (1890), people would be able to hear the voices of great men and singers of that wondrous and "advanced" 19th century.

Those authors also often reflected on the growing wisdom of their age that knew the evils of war, and the ruinous cost of armaments. They hoped that man's increasing enlightenment about peace-based prosperity that was rising man up from the ages-long condition of poverty, would make them wise enough to find ways to settle disputes other than through cutting short the lives of young men, and squandering the hard-earned and created wealth of industrious people. (But even out of war came some enlightened good -- Florence Nightingale and what became the Red Cross out of the Crimean War of the 1850.)

They, for the most part, praised those bourgeois virtues, and the dignity of free and industrious and innovative men.

Oh, it was not all "light" and exaggerated pride in their own time and accomplishments. No, they traced out the remaining brutalities, corruptions of governments and imperfect men. The existence of reactionary forces and backward ideas that held back enlightened reform and progress in other parts of Europe and beyond.

The the wiser ones, as the 19th century came to its close and the 20th century opened before them, pointed out the cruelties of Great Britain and other imperial powers in their rule and treatment of their subjects in far-flung colonies around the world. The most liberal among these British authors abhorred Britain's brutal crushing of the Boers in South Africa, and the behavior of the Belgian king in the Congo, and the French in their North African territories.

The 20th century did not meet up to their visions and dreams of an unimpeded continuation of the best of these 19th century trends.

But they understood how the enlightened and liberating liberal spirit had set men and their minds and actions free from the shackles of earlier ages -- and had begun that marvelous transformation of the world that they saw before their eyes.

They appreciated and hailed what McCloskey had called the bourgeois virtues and the dignity and achievements of bourgeois man.

Richard Ebeling

Professor Ebeling's comments are often as interesting and informative as the original post (which is very interesting as well--economic history and history of thought are fascinating subjects).


I agree --- Richard's comments are 9 times out of 10 (perhaps 10 out of 10) much better than the posts I put up that he responds to. Richard's deep learning, and wit and wisdom are truly unique within the Austrian camp, it is joy to read his comments.

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I read the online draft and found it fascinating. I like the way she takes down all of the prevailing theories of European development. Of course, the next step is to explain the causes of the bourgeois values revolution. The old values held for tens of thousands of years and still hold in much of the world. How did the change happen in one small part of the world.

I spent some time in Morocco many years ago and learned that few Moroccans study engineering in college because they consider it manual labor. They admire education, so most went into teaching or the arts, which left them with a shortage of engineers. Culture does matter to economics.

It would not surprise me if the bourgeois virtues came about because of the emergence of the Reformation. With the Reformation Europe saw a proliferation of religions and, with it, a proliferation of ethical views as well. Among them was finding virtue in work. With a wide variety of religious/ethical products, people could choose which ones they wanted (as opposed to having to stick with the monopoly product of the Medieval Catholic church). Places where the protestant emphasis on the virtue of work took root emerged as strong economies. Those countries which emulated the successful ones thus followed suit with economic growth. One might reflect that protestantism was questioning church authority, and this likely led to a questioning of political authority as well. The governments, to retain their authority, gave in on a few economic issues, which led to more economic growth. Anyone paying attention to that would have emulated it to get stronger growth, and thus we have ever-increasing economic growth.

All of this came about because of a priest with a strong conscience. Of course, he was not the first priest with a strong conscience, but he was the first one with the Guttenberg press.

Aha, Troy, you're a Weberian Catholic!

Troy, my explanation is that the Dutch Republic implemented the thought of the late scholastics. Lessius was the conduit. had a good series on him in their journal. With their rebellion against Spain in the late 16th century, the Dutch tried to be normal and have a king, but no existing monarch would have them for fear of Spain. In the process of creating a government without a monarch they decided to get rid of a lot of old ways and implement some of the new ideas about government that came out of the Reformation. The book "Against Tyranny" had a big impact on them. In the market, they implemented Lessius' teachings about free markets and property. As Angus Maddison has written, the Dutch protected property for the first time in European history.

The Dutch Republic was also dominated by protestants. It started off with religious tolerance, to try to integrate the Catholics and the protestants, but in the end the protestants came to dominate. Certainly there are political considerations, but in the end, it is culture, culture, culture. If you don't have the culture -- which among the Dutch was primarily protestant -- then you don't get the economic system.

David, It does annoy many other Catholics -- including my wife -- when I say the best thing that happened to the Catholic church was the Reformation. :-)

If your daughter volunteers to clean you house, you can't point out to her, the way you could when she was a teenager, the dust she missed!

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