Bourgeois Dignity

Deirdre McCloskey thinks that a shift in rhetoric and public opinion is what made possible what she calls the Great Fact – the tenfold rise in global per-capita GDP from $3 per day in 1800 to around $30 today, and growing. The average person in rich countries make over $100 per day, more than a 30-fold increase. Remember, even the mighty U.S. was once a $3 a day nation. We had to start somewhere.

Sometime around the Enlightenment, public opinion shifted from hostility to entrepreneurship and innovation to at least a grudging acceptance. We liberals need to take great care to keep public opinion tolerant, or else the Great Fact could become a relic of history. Traders can only trade, and inventors can only invent, when people let them. Unfortunately,  the clerisy (McCloskey’s word for the intellectual class that drives long-run public opinion) is strongly anti-commerce, as she points out:

Such antibourgeois people (many of them my good friends) do not believe the bourgeois axiom that a deal between two adults has a strong presumption in its favor, practically and ethically and aesthetically. They deny hotly that allowing such deals and honoring their makers has resulted in the modern enrichment of the poor. They think instead quite against the historical evidence, that governments or trade unions did it.

Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, p. 397-98.

The liberal’s job, then, is to legitimize the entrepreneur and the innovator, morally, ethically, and aesthetically, as well as economically. That wonderful project we call modernity hinges on it.