McCloskey’s Main Event

Here’s Deirdre McCloskey’s explanation, or one version of it, for the advent of modern economic growth:

What did change in northwestern Europe was the spoken attitude towards the bourgeois life and the capitalist economy, in the rhetoric of the bourgeoisie themselves and in that of their traditional enemies. The enemies revived after the Reformation in the Spanish and French lands to crush enterprise — the crushing correlated with fresh religious intolerance which England, Denmark, and Prussia managed to side-step — and then revived again Europe-wide after 1848. Such rhetoric for and against innovation was no side show. It was the main event, and it did change greatly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In England the pro-innovation rhetoric triumphed, and then in the world, arousing in the nineteenth century a counter-rhetoric leading to the catastrophes of the twentieth century.

These look to me like two somewhat different things: “pro-bourgeois” is not quite the same as “pro-innovation”. The latter I would associate with the Enlightenment, a questioning of traditional orthodoxies found in no other civilization. But where did that come from? The former, I’m not sure where it came from.


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