Was the Industrial Revolution caused by Bourgeois Dignity or Institutional Change?

Most of Deidre McCloskey’s important new book serves to establish that if we want to explain the industrial revolution we need to explain why so much innovation occurred in England from the late 18th century and through the 19th century. She suggests that we should dismiss attempts to explain the industrial revolution in terms of such factors as thrift, accumulation of capital (physical or human), transport, geography, natural resources, the slave trade, business organization, imperialism, eugenics and even foreign trade.

The style of the exposition suggests, at times, that Deidre may not suffer fools gladly (or has a wicked sense of humour): ‘If someone claims that foreign trade made possible, say, economies of scale in cotton textiles or shipping services she owes it to her readers (as I have already said twice: I wish you would pay attention) to explain why the gains on the swings are not lost on the roundabouts. Why do not the industries made smaller by the large extension of British foreign trade end up on the negative side of the account?’ (p 221).

Well, I’m not sure Deidre, perhaps there is a link between international trade, specialization and scale economies – but you may have discussed that possibility somewhere else in the book when I wasn’t paying attention. In any case, I agree with you that innovation must have been a lot more important than scale economies.

Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World

I was a little more concerned that I didn’t see any recognition of the possibility, as discussed in Eric Jones’ recent book (reviewed here), that clustering of manufacturing in the north of England – as a result of trade and specialization within England – provided an economic environment conducive to subsequent innovations. Perhaps middle class enrichment resulting from trade and specialization could also help to explain why the bourgeois revaluation occurred when and where it did. (The bourgeois revaluation is the greater approval of the middle classes – and of innovation and markets – that began to occur in thought and talk in Holland and England three centuries ago.)

My main concern, Deidre, is that in attempting to clear the field prior to sowing a new crop of ideas (or the old ideas you want to propagate anew) you may be inadvertently slashing and burning some other ideas that are worth preserving. This applies, in particular, to the relationship between institutional change and economic performance as discussed by Douglass North (‘Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance’, 1990). I agree with you that North could not have been correct in attributing the industrial revolution to more secure property rights following the Glorious Revolution. There is, however, more to institutional change than more secure property rights. I reject your attempt to dismiss appeals to institutional change as ‘still another attempt to reduce one of the greatest surprises in human history to a materialist routine’ and to claim that changes in institutions did not have much to do with the industrial revolution (p. 354).

In fact, evidence that you cite in your book seems to conflict with your claim that changes in institutions – the rules of the game – had little to do with the industrial revolution. You acknowledge that ‘the norms of antibourgeois aristocrats and clerics did discourage innovation’ (p. 267). You also suggest: ‘Had the Ottoman or the Qing empires or the Japanese Shogunate admired trade and innovation sufficiently to overcome their worries about the maintenance of state power – encouraging innovation and having a go rather than crushing it – then they, not the Europeans, would have come first’ (p. 371). You note that in France and Spain in the 18th century a nobleman caught engaging in commerce could be stripped on his rank’ (p. 387) and that in France it was necessary to apply to the state for permission to open a factory (p. 395).

I think your true position may be that bourgeois dignity and institutions (economic freedom) are both important in explaining the industrial revolution. This comes through fairly clearly when you write: ‘By adopting the respect for deal-making and innovation and the liberty to carry out the deals that Amsterdam and London pioneered around 1700, the modern world was born’ (p. 397). In such passages you seem to be offering an encompassing theory incorporating both bourgeois dignity and institutional change.

So far so good. I can understand that ideology (an amalgam of perceptions and values) influences the climate of opinion toward commerce and innovation which in turn influences both informal institutions (conventions and codes of behaviour) and formal institutions (regulations, laws, constitutions) which may or may not provide a climate conducive to innovation. Is that all there is to understand?

Perhaps not. The missing element is a sense of personal identity. As you say: ‘In truth, the agent wants to act because she attributes meaning to her life … She is a human with an identity, not a Max U calculating machine like grass or bacteria or rats’ (p. 307).

That gets me thinking again about identity economics – the idea of George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton that people gain utility when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity (which I first discussed here). Even a person with great potential to be innovative might find that difficult if the norms and ideals of their identity dictated that any attempt to innovate would be futile. If we start thinking in terms of identity economics, however, we might have to question the sub-title of your book – perhaps economics can explain the modern world after all.

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