Bourgeois equality was the idea that fuelled Europe’s progress, McCloskey argued: equality of dignity and before the law, rather than equality of income. It created the conditions that allow and encourage people to be creative, and to “have a go”. 

McCloskey noted that innovation, until the 19th century, was viewed with suspicion: it promised change, which elites feared would bring loss of power. Yet innovation, or ‘trade-tested betterment’, is the route to solving the problems of the poor: The magnitude of improvement for the working class, through economic growth of this kind, is 30 times more than that which redistribution can achieve.  “Socialism” McCloskey argued, put “equality front and centre… [but] equality is not the point, raising up the working class is ... This trade-tested betterment, this “having a go”, is the best way to do that.” 

Central to McCloskey’s argument, is her concept of the Bourgeois Deal, whereby, in the first act, the bourgeois are permitted to “have a go”, set up their enterprise, and keep the profits. In the second, this enterprise stands up to market competition and profits go to investors and the bourgeois. In the third act, the working class benefit from the increased wealth. 

She defended trade tested betterment as ethical, and deeply so: “It works universally. It keeps being tried … and it keeps working … Dignity and liberty are not specific to one part of the world… And if you accede to the bourgeois deal, it turns out that people of very different characteristics can do well.”

Video Interview​​

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  • Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, Deirdre McCloskey, Legatum Institute, January 2012 [Event]
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About the Speaker

Deirdre McCloskey teaches economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A well-known economist and historian, she has written sixteen books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistics to transgender advocacy and the ethics of the bourgeois virtues. Her latest book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 2010), is the second in a series of three on The Bourgeois Era. With Stephen Ziliak she wrote in 2008, The Cult of Statistical Significance (2008), which criticises the proliferation of tests of "significance". Further information about McCloskey's books is available here.

About the History of Capitalism Series

This series of lectures, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The series' lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations. Further information available here.