There had always been enough capital. What was different, she maintains, is how people thought about new ideas. Creative destruction became not only accepted but also encouraged, as did individual enterprise. “What made us rich,” she writes, “was a new rhetoric that was favorable to unbounded innovation, imagination, alertness, persuasion, originality, with individual rewards often paid in a coin of honor or thankfulness — not individual accumulation restlessly stirring, or mere duty to a calling, which are ancient and routine and uncreative.”
This is a radical claim, and one that McCloskey, having dispatched the alternatives, plans to demonstrate further in her next book, “The Treasured Bourgeoisie.” The idea will sound particularly strange if you learned your economic history, as many political intellectuals do, in a diluted version of Marx and Polanyi (on the left) or Weber (on the right) and thus assume that economic growth depends, first and foremost, on some accumulated store of wealth. You might be inclined, therefore, to sneer at innovation — or even, as Daniel Bell did, to write a book condemning it as a “cultural contradiction” of capitalism — and at bourgeois virtue. If you think that capital, not insight or innovation, is the critical ingredient, it’s also a short hop to the belief that the entrepreneur doesn’t deserve praise for building the business.
McCloskey’s book is not only a useful survey of how scholars answer the biggest question in economics: What causes growth? It is also a timely reminder that prosperity depends on more than effort or resources or infrastructure or good laws.