Ideas, Not Interests or Institutions, Caused the Great Enrichment

Deirdre N. McCloskey 1
  • 1 University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, USA
Deirdre N. McCloskey

Abstract

The question is why the Great Enrichment of 4,000 or 10,000 percent increase in material scope per person, 1800 to the present, awaited 1800. The answer lies with ideas, ideologies, sociology, habits of lip, conversation, ethics – in short, how people viewed each other. They began rather suddenly in northwestern Europe from 1600 or so to view each other as having liberty and dignity, which is to say the legal ability to have a go and and social honor in doing so. Not that material causes do not matter. But none of material causes are unique to Europe or the modern world – coal was use anciently in China on a large scale, trade was larger in the Indian Ocean than anywhere until the nineteenth century, property rights were fully protected under Roman law, and yet none of these places had a great enrichment. There is nothing unscientific about emphasizing ideas. The unscientific attitude would be to assume, as economists are inclined to do, that only incentives of a straightforwardly Samuelsonian sort can matter. The unscientific attitude characterizes many of a neo-institutionalist tendency.

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