by Joseph Sunde
Economist Deirdre McCloskey has been making waves with the release of her new book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. In the book, McCloskey seeks to topple our conventional views on what leads to economic growth, arguing that “economic change depends less on foreign trade, investment, or material causes, and a whole lot more on ideas and what people believe.”
In a recent interview with Bill Easterly’s Aid Watch, McCloskey provided a bit more clarity, offering the following summary of her book’s thesis:
Modern economic growth — that stunning increase from $3 a day in 1800 worldwide to now upwards of $130 a day in the richest countries, and anyway $30 as a worldwide average — can’t be accounted for in the usual and materialist ways. It wasn’t trade, investment, exploitation, imperialism, education, legal changes, genes, science. It was innovation, such as cheap steel and the modern university, supported by an entirely new attitude towards the middle class, emerging from Holland around 1600. (It has parallels in classical music and mathematics and politics, in all of which the Europeans burst out, 1600-1800.)
Tis a compelling argument indeed, not to mention a damning one for all those angst-ridden postcolonialism majors (“Blame the British!”). But what drives the innovative spirit that McCloskey lauds as being so integral to economic growth?
Similar to the arguments of Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz (as well as Bill Easterly himself), McCloskey believes that the political and sociological realms (and thus, the cultural sphere as a whole), have great potential to help or hinder a society. At the very heart of productive economies is a spirit of creativity and ingenuity, one that, as Kling and Schulz argue, transcends scarcity.
This spirit, McCloskey’s continues, is one that is best promoted (and preserved) by a healthy dose of both liberty and dignity.
Indeed, these two components are fundamentally interconnected and equally necessary:
If a place has dignity for the bourgeoisie but not liberty to exercise it — think of Venice late in its history — then it will not innovate. And having liberty without dignity — think of liberated Jews in Europe, and the dismal outcome in the Holocaust — then the liberty will prove in the long run a dead letter. My libertarian friends want the politics by itself, Liberty Alone, to suffice. I don’t think so: we need dignity, too. We need the sociological admiration for innovation and markets, to protect and inspire the liberated.
What isn’t mentioned — at least, not in this interview — is the role that religion plays in shaping this “sociological admiration.” It is undeniable that our religious views have a significant influence on our social outlooks, but how are we to begin analyzing that impact? To what extent does Christianity (or Islam) transform our views as they relate to liberty and dignity?
To use the evangelical sphere as an example, there seems to be an increasingly common sociological disdain for innovation and markets, which seems to imply that the “tenets” of evangelicalism conflict with the outlook that McCloskey recommends. I would argue, however, that the common applications among modern-day evangelicals are simply ill-suited to the fundamental beliefs they claim to derive from.
This leads to yet another set of questions involving the extent to which Christianity predisposes us to McCloskey’s core drivers: creativity and innovation. By believing in a God who creates us in his own (creative) image, and correspondingly tasks us with creative stewardship over his output, there would seem to be plenty of features within evangelical Christianity that point us toward a more positive sociological orientation than that which currently dominates.
As McCloskey indicates, much of this comes down to our basic attitudes:
Politics and sociology, not psychology and economics, are what make growth possible. You can kill an economy with a License Raj or a disdain for the bourgeoisie. People have always been maximizers in markets, but have not always been joyful innovators. Admiring economic novelty irritates the intellectuals, and giving rein to creative destruction pains the vested interests. But both of them, dignity and liberty, seem to be necessary.
What, then, is the attitude of modern-day evangelicalism toward “economic novelty” and “creative destruction”? Do McCloskey’s views illuminate a larger problem in our common construction of our roles in this world (and the God who put us here)?
Are we serving a God who admires lax and passive lemming-ism, or one who inspires creativity, innovation and productive activity? Are we serving a God who calls us to cower in the face of destruction and disappointment (seeking artificial protection along the way), or one who calls us to reach the world despite the inevitable struggles and challenges? Upon stunning earthly defeat, are we to run and hide, or unite in One Accord, being led by the Spirit with explosive creative energy and power?
I certainly believe we must be “maximizers” in our attempts to serve the materially depraved and reach the spiritually Lost, but let’s be sure to be” joyful innovators” along the way.