How boring people made us rich
Deirdre McCloskey, fotografiert von Maartje Geels.

How boring people made us rich

The economic success of the West was made possible by a revaluation of bourgeois virtues and liberty. They were kindled in 1848.


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The Swiss philosopher and writer Alain de Botton once spoke proudly of his home city of Zurich that its “distinctive lesson to the world lies in its ability to remind us of how truly imaginative and humane it can be to ask of a city that it be nothing other than boring and bourgeois.” Yes.

He quoted Montaigne, that gentle noble of the robe descended from a dealer in fish, writing similarly at the end of the 16th century in favor of bourgeois life: “Storming a breech, conducting an embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating, and living together gently and justly with your household and with yourself is something more difficult.” Yes, yes.

Living together gently and justly is magnificent and humane. It has in the past two centuries made us in industrialized nations very, very rich and at least a little more virtuous. We are richer in food and housing and literacy and length of life, real income per person has increased by factors of 10 or 30 or 50, we also ended slavery and the subjection of women, we care about the far Uighurs and no longer beat tour horses.

«We should stop being ashamed

of being so very bourgeois».

We should stop being entranced by dreams of boyish military heroism and girlish spiritual heroism. The real heroism of real adults shows in their daily struggles, not in the gun fights and car chases that entice the teenage boys into seats at the cinema, bringing along the teenage girls. There’s little wrong with being adult and responsible and middle class, spending one’s life providing for others in the bourse and in the home.

“Capitalism” is a misleadingly loaded and scientifically foolish word, imposed over a century ago by followers of Marx. A scientifically more accurate word for what happened after 1800 is “innovism.” Explosive innovation in the past two centuries has made the poor rich, now even in China, and coming along in India. The Swiss, for example, have escaped from the grim business plan of exporting young men into the wars of Europe, and have become instead one the richest of nations, festooned with BMWs and central heating and educations in three or four languages.

The Great Enrichment of the Swiss, rising from $3 a day in 1800 to around $200 a day now, happened because its bourgeoisie in the past two centuries steadily, gently set aside the aristocratic and priestly passions that had troubled Europe for so long. Not that such passions entirely disappeared. They pop up in Putin’s Orthodox nationalism and Maduro’s holy socialism, in both cases to justify tyranny.

Expanding the pie

For a sign of the change to a Bourgeois Era, look at the European novel from Henry Fielding to Max Frisch. It’s not Shakespearean in glorifying Harry, England, and St. George. Even Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” does not cast either as military or spiritual heroism. The European novel tells not of noble needs of knights and saints but of the ordinary lives of you and me, boring bourgeois folk. Amos Oz called Thomas Mann “the lover and moralizer of the bourgeois age.” Mann’s first successful novel, Buddenbrooks, in 1901, told of his own merchant family in Lübeck “where men walked the streets proud of their irreproachable reputation as businessmen.” What’s wrong with that?

The root of the Great Enrichment is liberty, the liberty theorized in 18th-century liberalism, and kindled in 1848 across Europe, after a long and dismal reaction…