Saturday, August 20, 2016

Deirdre McCloskey and the Evolutionary Science of Liberalism as Symbolic Niche Construction

The most momentous event in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens over the past 200,000 years was the emergence of the Bourgeois Era through the Industrial Revolution (beginning around 1800) followed by the Great Enrichment (beginning around 1860).  The only other equally momentous event was the emergence of the Agrarian Era, when human beings moved from foraging (hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants) to farming (herding domesticated animals and cultivating domesticated plants), which began about 10,000 years ago.

We all recognize the importance of the Industrial Revolution, but few of us recognize that economic historians have uncovered other industrial revolutions at other times and places in history.  Those other industrial revolutions did not bring a Great Enrichment--the explosive growth in wealth sustaining an explosive growth in population over the past two centuries, beginning in northwestern Europe and then spreading around the world.  One of the deepest questions for all of the intellectual disciplines--the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--is how to explain why this has happened.  Or, in other words, why is our world in the Bourgeois Era so very different from the world of all of our ancestors?

Bourgeois Equality (2016) is the third big book in a trilogy of big books that Deirdre McCloskey has written to answer this question.  The previous two are The Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010).  All three books elaborate arguments that were first set forth in 1994 in an article--"Bourgeois Virtue"--in the American Scholar, written by Donald McCloskey before he became Deirdre.  Every main idea, and sometimes even the exact wording, in the books comes from the article.

The plan for this intellectual project came to McCloskey while she was on an airplane and reading John Casey's book Pagan Virtue (1990)As suggested by Friedrich Nietzsche, Casey contrasts the pagan aristocratic virtues of Achilles, for whom courage is the primary virtue, and the plebeian Christian virtues of Saint Paul, for whom charity is the primary virtue.  Today, McCloskey thought, most of us are bourgeois, and we are neither pagan aristocrats nor Christian plebeians.  We are neither heroes nor saints.  What are our bourgeois virtues?  Or must we admit, as Gustav Flaubert and other bohemian critics of the bourgeois have declared, that the only way for the bourgeois to become good is to stop being bourgeois?  Bourgeois liberalism has allowed more human beings to enjoy individual liberty, equal dignity, and economic prosperity than ever before in the history of the world.  Prior to 1800, most people everywhere lived in grinding poverty.  Now, few people live in such poverty.  Surely, there must be something good in that, something virtuous.

The greatness of the Great Enrichment is evident in the economic data.  McCloskey summarizes some of the data from economic historians (like Angus Maddison) and from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Penn Tables (put together by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania) (Bourgeois Equality, 5-13).  Expressed in present-day U.S. prices, corrected for exchange rates and inflation, the average human being prior to 1800 lived on $3 a day, which is the average today for Haitians and Afghans.  Today, the world average, which includes the poorest people like the Haitians and Afghans, is $33 a day, which is about the level of present-day Brazil or of the United States in 1941.  So average per person income has increased over the past two centuries by a favor of 10.  And since the world population has increased over that same period from under one billion to over seven billion, we can say that the production and consumption of goods and services has increased worldwide by a factor of 70 (7 X 10).  In the wealthier countries today, the average real income per person per day is well over $100, which means an income growth from 1800 to the present of 2,900%.

Prior to 1800, periods of increasing economic growth could double or triple average daily income--from $3 a day to $6 or $9 a day--but inevitably these periods of growth were followed by a decline back to subsistence levels.  So, prior to 1800, real income per person could increase by 100% or 200% in times of great economic growth, but never by 2,900%, as has happened in the past two centuries.

McCloskey contends that the greatest transformation in human history was not the 450 years of sustained economic growth in England, 1348-1750, at a growth rate of one-tenth or two-tenths of 1 percent per year.  And it was not the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, 1760-1860, with growth over a hundred years of a factor of 2.  The great transformation was the Great Enrichment, with growth of 5.87% per year and a factor of 100 over two centuries (BE, 532).  There had been major growth phases in earlier history elsewhere in the world--early Song China and early Tokugawa Japan, for example--but these were periods in which growth rose by factors of 2 or 3, not factors of 10 or 30 or 100 (BE, 534-35).

Moreover, other measures of improving human conditions of life show the same Great Enrichment.  Average life expectancies have doubled since 1800, for example, and literacy has increased from less than 10% in 1850 to almost 90% today.  The increase in literacy indicates not just material enrichment, but also intellectual and spiritual enrichment.

Social scientists have offered many different kinds of explanations for this unprecedented turn in human history, beginning first in northwestern Europe and North America, and then spreading around the world.  One explanation popular with many economists (such as Douglass North, Daron Acemoglu, and James Robinson) emphasizes the importance of economic, legal, and political institutions that favor economic growth--particularly, property rights, the rule of law, free trade, and general incorporation laws for forming economic corporations, which provided the incentives for economic exchange and innovation.

But while such institutional rules are necessary conditions for economic growth, McCloskey argues, they are hardly sufficient to explain the historically unique explosion in economic development that began after 1800.  Good institutions are necessary, but only quick changes in good ideas can explain the quick move to the Great Enrichment.  Ideas matter, McCloskey insists, particularly ethical ideas about the  bourgeois life.  What changed in the eighteenth century in Great Britain (preceded by the same change in the seventeenth century in the Dutch Republic) was that for the first time in human history the bourgeois life of trade-tested betterment--buying low and selling high--was judged not as morally corrupting, as it had been throughout history, but as morally virtuous and thus honorable.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings have expressed the bourgeois "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange," which has fostered economic growth.  But it was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in northwestern Europe that philosophers like Adam Smith defended this as a virtuous activity that should be admired as protected by a system of natural liberty that would recognize the equal liberty and dignity of ordinary people in living their lives as they please.  This change in the ethical rhetoric of ideas brought the Great Enrichment of the nineteenth century.  This change was the move to liberalism, to Smith's liberal idea for "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (Wealth of Nations, Liberty Fund, 664, 687).

The institutions of property rights, the rule of law, and free trade can be found in many civilizations throughout human history.  For example, as McCloskey points out, Genghis Khan's Pax Mongolia of the thirteenth century enforced property rights and the rule of law over a land empire stretching from Korea to Hungary, which protected global free trade throughout Central Asia.  China had private property, extensive markets, and large firms many centuries before England had such institutions.  Even ancient Mesopotamia had property rights and trade protected by law four thousand years ago.  What all of these countries lacked, however, was the bourgeois ethics of Smithian liberalism that led to the Great Enrichment beginning in nineteenth century Great Britain.

Institutions without ideas are not enough to explain this.  In fact, as McCloskey points out (BE, 518), even institutionalists like North will occasionally admit this.  In Violence and Social Orders (2009) by North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast, there is one passage (pp. 192-93) where the authors must fall back on ideational explanation for the transition to "open access societies": they speak of a "transformation in thinking," a "new understanding," "the language of rights," and "the logic of the argument."  But then they fail to reflect on how this points to the primacy of liberal ideas advanced by people like John Locke and Adam Smith.

If McCloskey is right about the rhetorical appeal of liberal ideas promoting bourgeois ethics, as I think she is, then we must wonder what it is about evolved human nature that makes such ideas rhetorically appealing.  Generally, McCloskey scorns evolutionary science in explaining social and economic history, because she fears that this falls into a crude social Darwinism, scientific racism, and eugenic materialism, which she sees, for example, in Gregory Clark's explanation of the British Industrial Revolution as arising from "survival of the richest" (Bourgeois Dignity, 266-95).

McCloskey also says, however, that her argument can be put into "evolutionary terms," because "I am arguing that the meme 'trade-tested-betterments are good' had reproductive success, and further, that on the success of the idea depended the material success of the modern world" (BE, 521-22).  This would be a case of cultural evolution, of the sort studied by evolutionary scientists like Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, and Joseph Henrich.  Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have shown that in evolutionary history there are four systems of inheritance: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic.  Of these four, the first three are manifest among nonhuman animals.  Symbolic evolution is the one uniquely human line of evolutionary inheritance, which includes the whole realm of conceptual ideas and rhetorical persuasion.  What McCloskey identifies as the Bourgeois Revaluation in liberalism belongs to human symbolic evolution.

McCloskey (BE, 631-39) also embraces an evolutionary theory of liberalism set forth in a paper by Gerald Gaus (2015), who relies largely on ideas developed by Christopher Boehm (1999, 2012) and by Richerson and Boyd (2008).  This is the same evolutionary account of liberalism that has been defended by Jonathan Turner, Alexandra Maryanski, Paul Rubin, and me (in various writings as well as on this blog).

The basic idea, as McCloskey says, is that bourgeois liberalism is "reinstating a pre-agricultural equality" by establishing an equal dignity and liberty for ordinary people--including an "equality of genuine comfort"--that restores the equal autonomy of individuals enjoyed in hunter-gatherer bands for hundreds of thousands of years until the establishment of rigid class hierarchies in agrarian societies. 

As I have argued in some earlier posts, this is a restatement of John Locke's argument for liberalism as the restoration of the natural liberty and equality that hunter-gatherers had in the "state of nature."  Locke's account of the state of nature depended on the reports of Europeans about the foraging life of native Americans.  "In the beginning," Locke declared, "all the world was America."  Now, after two centuries of scientific studies of the foraging way of life, we can confirm Locke's account of the state of nature as mostly right.  And we can see that the modern liberal ideas of equality, liberty, and dignity can be understood as appealing to that evolved human nature as shaped in the hunter-gatherer bands of our evolutionary ancestors.

And yet, one might object that, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out in his evolutionary account of liberalism, the liberalism of the Great Society--of the extended order of exchange in which millions of people can cooperate anonymously for their mutual benefit--requires a repression of the natural instincts shaped by life in ancient families and small bands.  In those families and foraging bands, our ancestors lived in primitive communism, just as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels recognized, in which wealth was distributed equally for the common good according to some deliberate plan.  By contrast to this, a modern free market society requires that goods and services be distributed through market prices, which does not conform to any standard of social justice.  The socialist rejection of the market system of allocation in favor of a deliberately planned distribution for the common good appeals to our evolved instincts for the socialism of families and small bands.

In fact, McCloskey observes, our families "are little socialist economies," and the "instinctive basis" for wanting a centrally planned society is that central planning really does work in a family household, and perhaps also in small bands and small business firms (BE, 577, 624).  Moreover, McCloskey notes, the family can rightly be seen as the original social insurance scheme to provide care for children, the sick, the unemployed, and the old (BE, 605).  The problem, however, is that while it is natural for a family or a band to be centrally planned according to the communist principle of  "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," it is not natural for large societies of millions of individuals to be centrally planned; and in such large societies, we need life to be organized by trade.

According to Hayek, this means that in large liberal societies, we must live in two worlds at once that are based on conflicting principles of order.  We must neither apply the rules of the market to family life, nor apply the rules of family life to the market.  Hayek explained: "If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.  Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once" (The Fatal Conceit, 18).

But as Gaus and I and a few others have argued, Hayek is mistaken in his belief that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a completely socialist or collectivist order with no individual autonomy, and therefore our evolved human nature must be suppressed if we are to live in a free society of autonomous individuals who trade with one another for mutual benefit.  In fact, as McCloskey indicates, there is plenty of evidence for long-distance trading networks among our ancient foraging ancestors (BE, 22, 106-107, 283, 376, 403, 543-59).  Even Hayek himself sometimes concedes that there is evidence for ancient trading (Fatal Conceit, 11, 16-17, 29, 38-45, 60, 133). 

Moreover, there is also evidence, as Boehm and others have shown, that foragers assert their individual autonomy and liberty in resisting the attempts of anyone to establish dominance over others.  If this is so, then the liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for all individuals and resistance to the sort of dominance hierarchies established in agrarian states can be understood as appealing to the original liberalism of the state of nature.


Arnhart, Larry. 2015. "The Evolution of Darwinian Liberalism." Journal of Bioeconomics 17:3-15.

Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Boehm, Christopher. 2012. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.

Gaus, Gerald. 2015. "The Egalitarian Species." Social Philosophy and Policy 31: 1-27.

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion Lamb. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Maryanski, Alexandra, and Jonathan Turner. 1992. The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. 2008. "The Evolution of Free Enterprise Values." In Paul J. Zak, ed., Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, 107-41. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rubin, Paul H. 2002. Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origins of Freedom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Turner, Jonathan H., and Alexandra Maryanski. 2008.  On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Elaboration of some of my points here can be found in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here, here, herehere., here., here., here, and here.


W. Bond said...


I find the topic towards the end particularly interesting, namely the different ethical and economic relations between the individual with close family, neighbor/fellow-citizen, and foreigner. With the caveat that lines blur (as they often do with categories) classic liberalism extends the realm of the middle case: we can't all be brothers, but we can all be - potentially- good neighbors.

W. Bond said...

I might add that - since the rule of law is one of those necessary (if not sufficient) conditions for classic liberalism - in addition to ethical and economic relations I should include legal. I am reminded of this Epstein talk on Natural Law in the Roman Empire that touches on these topics, that I link to here, and that your readers might enjoy.

Anonymous said...

"But while such institutional rules are necessary conditions for economic growth, McCloskey argues, they are hardly sufficient to explain the historically unique explosion in economic development that began after 1800."

It's because man learned how to harness high energy fossil fuels at that time starting with coal, and then oil and natural gas.