Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy comprises a magisterial analysis of the causes of what McCloskey calls “The Great Enrichment” (i.e. the 30+ fold increase in human material wealth since 1800). All three volumes are well worth reading but they are long – 1,700 pages in all – and thus have limited reach. Art Carden has, therefore, tried to bring McCloskey’s arguments to a wider audience. He describes Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich as “a popular riff” on McCloskey’s trilogy written by him “with McCloskey’s more or less heavy editing”. He adds that, for McCloskey’s reliance on a large body of scientific and humanistic literature, he has substituted “brief examples and quickie arguments” (page xvi).
The book is essentially an appeal for economic and political “hands-off” liberalism, which Carden makes clear is very different not just from socialism or social democracy but also from any system that imposes material restrictions on economic freedom whether of the kind advocated by the Left or that advocated by the Right. Carden (and, through him, McCloskey) thus takes on not merely those on the Left who favour big government but those on the Right who are obsessed with immigration, favour restrictions on trade or dream of some form of autarky.
In doing this, the authors challenge well-entrenched political and economic narratives and slay some long-lived sacred cows: they challenge the view that countries need to be competitive in the international market; their response to the fear that European and American incomes will fall relative to other societies is “But so what? It’s good, not bad, that other societies are also becoming rich” (page 60); and Dickens’s famous attack on northern industrialism, in his 1854 novel Hard Times, is dismissed as “muddle headed in its understanding of industry” (page 57).
The authors also take issue with the pessimism that prevails across the political spectrum, which would have us believe that things are getting worse or, at least, that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer. They produce copious evidence that this is not true and that, on the contrary, “By every measure, the lives of average people – and of the poorest, too – are better than they have ever been and are rapidly getting better still” (page 16). They also assert (certainly correctly) that “the poor have been the chief beneficiaries of the Great Enrichment” (page 38), pointing out that the developments of the last 200 years have consistently brought to the poor things that were previously the preserves of the rich and quoting with approval Schumpeter’s famous comment that “The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort” (page 49).
The book provides a good summary of McCloskey’s persuasive arguments relating to the causes of this Great Enrichment. Separate chapters are devoted to refuting explanations based upon the availability of resources or property rights, the growth in savings or capital, access to schooling or growth in scientific knowledge, imperialism and slavery. Instead, the authors argue that the key driver of enrichment has been “a tidal wave of ingenuity” and that “the British got rich – and then Westerners and then much of the world, and all humans in the next few generations – because of a change in ethics and rhetoric and ideology” (page 86).
The authors are not materialists. Indeed they state that “Materialism…is a danger to the soul” (page 75), they attack Jeremy Bentham’s “vulgar utilitarianism” (page 159) and they will have nothing to do with “greed is good” philosophy (which they rightly point out is a travesty of the careful moral position adopted by Adam Smith, page 176). They also recognise the reality of climate change and are contemptuous of attempts of some US states to manipulate teaching so as to belittle the problem. However, they balance this by pointing out that the response of governments to some environmental problems has been counterproductive and suggesting that the market has a role to play in the solutions.
All of these points are made in ways that are accessible to most educated readers and the authors use examples and illustrations that are engaging and memorable. For example, their arguments relating to the impact of the Great Enrichment on the poor take as their starting point a performance of “Les Misérables” in Birmingham, Alabama in 2014 that was used by the local Women’s Fund as the occasion for an exhortation to the audience to “Help Women Like Fantine in Birmingham” (the impoverished Fantine being one of the musical’s main characters). The exhortation noted that the median income for a single mother with two children was then US$29,390, which McCloskey and Carden point out is between four and five and a half times higher in real terms than the average income in France in 1832 and, probably, more like eight to ten times higher than the income which a real-life Fantine would then have received.
The book thus has great strengths. However, it also has weaknesses. In particular, its style will annoy some readers. In the Preface, Carden says that the book includes “a bit of corny clowning around, in which both authors idiotically delight” (page xvi) and this together with the conversational, almost light-hearted, tone that is frequently adopted, may grate. For example, having described some of the benefits of the Great Enrichment, the books goes on “’But it has come at the expense of the world’s poor,’ you say. Crucially, we repeat, and we will say to you again and again until you confess your deep error, and stop repeating it…, no, no, no” (page 38). This kind of thing is doubtless intended to be light-hearted but it may come across as arrogant condescension.
The authors occasionally take side swipes at particular people or views. The fact that Donald Trump is one of these will doubtless please many readers but they may feel somewhat less comfortable when the target is nearer to home (e.g. the statement that the Great Enrichment didn’t occur because of “a Christianity which for some reason waited nearly two thousand years to pay off in mundane equality”, page 171). Such comments don’t assist the book’s arguments and are more likely to alienate than to persuade the uncommitted reader.
Some regrettable exaggerations and mistakes may also undermine the confidence of such readers. For example, contrary to what is stated on page 127, John Newton was not a Quaker and the statement that “no one, from Aristotle to Daniel Defoe, regarded forced labour as an evil system” (page 124) is the kind of statement that might be forgivable in the course of ordinary conversation but is obviously an exaggeration.
More seriously, whilst the book points to good evidence to support its core arguments, many important points are less well-evidenced. Some of these points are peripheral to the main argument (e.g. that relating to the impact of Eudaimonism on economic growth, page 156) but others are of greater significance. In particular, readers who are supportive of extensive government intervention in the economy will doubtless note the lack of properly argued support for the authors’ dismissal of the efficacy of such intervention. This is a pity because, in recent years, many have asserted that the market is the cause of poverty or, at the very least, that the solution to poverty lies primarily in government action and it is important that this assertion be carefully analysed and its flaws exposed.
Criticism of the lack of supporting evidence may, however, be unfair. The objective of Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich is to present McCloskey’s basic theses in an accessible form and the authors’ response to this criticism would probably be to suggest that the critic read McCloskey’s underlying works.
For those who have time to do so, this would be a good suggestion. In particular, McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality provides answers to many of the questions that Leave Me Alone And I’ll Make You Rich fails to answer. Readers who do not have the time or inclination to tackle Bourgeois Equality would, however, do well to read Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich.
“Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich” by Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden was published in 2020 by The University of Chicago Press (ISBN-13:9780226739663). 189pp.
Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and he is currently a member of the Panel. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the firm’s Executive Committee.