Tuesday, May 31, 2016

McCloskey Again: The Bourgeoisie is not That Interested In Power

I've been blogging and writing about Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality for the last week. It was a disappointment to me because it didn't take the argument beyond The Bourgeois Virtues  and Bourgeois Dignity.

McCloskey's big idea is that the Great Enrichment of the past 200 years, from $3 per day to $100 per day, did not come from capital accumulation and/or institutions but from rhetoric. People started to dignify the occupation of trader and innovator and refrain from smothering innovations in their cradles. And the result was what we see around us.

But I wanted something more, and I didn't get it. So I blogged my complaint here and then wrote about it in today's American Thinker piece: "Attention Deirdre McCloskey."

But the McCloskey dead end forced me to think. What is it about the bourgeoisie, you and me, that McCloskey is missing? And then I got it.

The bourgeoisie is just not that interested in power.

So I wrote in the AT piece:
When you are not that interested in power, you find that the whole world opens up to you. Now the way is clear to get into “virtue” and “create a rhetoric” to “dignify” innovation and “having a go,” and watch the Great Enrichment sweep across the world. Now the way is clear to free the slaves and enfranchise the working class, and even indulge upper-class women and sexual adventurers in their shallow enthusiasms and conceits. All because you are not that interested in power.
All down the ages, rulers have been obsessed with power. In Nicholas Wade's memorable words: "men like power and will seize it if they can." And so, down the ages, men have been at each others' throats, and mankind has been half throttled.

But what if a race of men arose that were not that interested in power? They would be men -- and women -- that did not feel the need to slip the stiletto in the other guy's ribs first, just to be on the safe side. They might be men that lived according to the iterated Prisoners Dilemma, and believed that you generally offer trust and reciprocity to other people, on principle. But if they show they are untrustworthy then you stop dealing with them right now. This new race might be men that thought about what they could offer to the world before they started to think about what they wanted from the world. They might be men that surrendered to the verdict of the market and did not, like union workers and crony capitalists, go running to the government for a sweet use of force whenever things went against them. They might find, to their amazement, that such behavior would result in a Great Enrichment, as per McCloskey, that increased per capita income from $3 per day to $100 per day in 200 years while also increasing human population from one billion souls to seven billion souls.

Then we get to understand the fatal mistake that our liberal and lefty friends have made. They think that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is power. Power to the people. Power to educated evolved people like us. Power to government. Power to the experts. Power to peaceful protesters. Power to traditionally marginalized groups. Power to suppressed voices. Power to silence "hate speech." And so on.

And it is not just wrong. It is folly. Worse than a crime, it is a blunder.

You can see where this faith in power comes from. It comes from Nicholas Wade's words, that men like power and will seize it if they can. It seems to be the answer to everything and maybe it was in the old hunter-gatherer days. If you want food, you better grab it before someone else gets it. If you want to eat you must defend your territory, to the last man.

But the market system changes all that. Because all of a sudden, things aren't a question of life and death, of kill or be killed. Now everything is negotiable. Now the question is what you can make that other people want to buy. Maybe it is a product, maybe it is a skill. Maybe it is just labor.

Hegel in his dialectic of Master and Slave has a parallel analysis. When two men meet in the wilderness, it is a question of kill or be killed, a Fight to the Death, unless one of the combatants surrenders and becomes a Slave. What humiliation! And yet it is the Slave that benefits from the relationship, because he learns how to master Nature in his Work for the Master, and then he begins to desire freedom. Yet that will be achieved not by another fight to the death, but by getting the Master to recognize him, the Slave, as another person, not just as a subordinate Slave.

Our lefty friends, unfortunately, cannot seem to escape from the dead end of Mastery. They must be Masters, that is all.

We are seeing, at this very moment, the problem with Mastery. Nicolás Maduro is Master of Venezuela, and a lot of good it is doing him and the Venezuelans.

Imagine what Venezuela and even the United States could become if the rulers and their supporters just weren't that interested in power.

Just like the bourgeoisie.


  1. Dear Mr. Cantrill,

    I am sorry you believe the third volume did not progress over the first two. I disagree, of course. You must have missed the 450 pages in which I document that change of attitude towards the bourgeoisie, and try to explain it. Or the 100 pages in which I take on the left with new arguments.

    Anyway, I am puzzled at the vehemence of your columns on it, considering that you have been kind to my views in the past. I believe
    some of your new readers might get the impression that such views are simply rubbish, and not worth reading. Even those 450 + 100 pages.

    It led me to reflect: why is the right unable to win nowadays, against a left without any new or feasible old ideas? (Bernie Sanders and I agreed in 1960, when we were both Marxist kids. The difference is that he hasn't altered any of his 1960 views.) Could it be that splitting hairs makes for ineffective politics? It certainly makes for bad political and historical and economic science.

    I'm intrigued by your thought that a lack of interest in power is what damages the bourgeoisie. You need to talk to Fred Smith at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who is working on a similar theme.


    Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

  2. "Chanrtill," not "Cantrill"! As someone subject to name misspelling, I am embarrassed!

  3. And in fact a main point of Bourgeois Equality is that liberal ideas were exactly those you call an interest in power. Our hypotheses are identical, which makes your claim to disagree more puzzling yet!