In her trilogy of books on what she calls “the Bourgeois Era,” Deirdre McCloskey argues that we owe our prosperity to the Bourgeois Deal, a broad social consensus that embraces market-tested innovation. In our book Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World, Professor McCloskey and I condense, elaborate, and illustrate. The Bourgeois Deal—in brief, “Leave me alone to buy, sell, innovate, and test my ideas in markets, and I’ll make you rich”—has, in fact, led to a Great Enrichment of the world that started in northwestern Europe and that now threatens to actually make poverty history. In contrast, the non-Bourgeois Deals—the Blue Blood Deal, the Bismarckian Deal, the Bolshevik Deal, and finally the Bureaucratic Deal—have bound us, limited us, and made us, ultimately, poorer than we would otherwise be.
Hierarchy and inequality unite the non-Bourgeois Deals, which are only “deals” insofar as the term can be applied to an understanding among non-equals, one of whom has a gun under the table. Lest you think this gun is a metaphor, I assure you, the gun is very, very real. Try breaking the Blue Blood Deal in the calamitous fourteenth century (OK, fine–it might not have been a gun in the fourteenth century) or the Bolshevik Deal in Russia after the Revolution or the Bureaucratic Deal of a highly-credentialed American License Raj and see where it gets you. Here are the Deals and what they mean, in brief.
The Blue Blood Deal: In her Bourgeois Era trilogy, McCloskey calls this the Aristocratic Deal. We call it the Blue Blood Deal for alliterative purposes. It extols rank and distinction, blood and birth. It is the Deal of Arthur’s Round Table, where the good and gentle do feats of piety and condescending service because they are great. In its harsher version, it is the presumption of Queen Jadis in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew entering 20th century England and commanding Uncle Andrew
“Procure for me at once a chariot or a flying carpet or a well-trained dragon, or whatever is usual for royal and noble persons in your land. Then bring me to places where I get clothes and jewels and slaves fit for my rank. Tomorrow I will begin the conquest of the world.”
The knights and Queen Jadis are not made great by their actions: rather, their greatness creates for them a handful of noble obligations and prerogatives. The Blue Blood Deal rallies British soldiers at Agincourt to the side of Henry V not because winning the battle will better the lives of the average British man or woman but because it will bring glory to Henry and gentle the condition of the soldier who in years to come can show the scars from the wounds he took on St. Crispin’s Day. The Blue Blood Deal embraces and praises feats of arms on the battlefield but laughs in amusement or contempt at the idea of dignity for the executive exhausted from a day of making very big decisions for the sake of nameless, faceless shareholders.
The Bolshevik Deal: Honor The Party and those who wish to plan every aspect of your life. They might be bloodthirsty tyrants, but their bloodthirst and their tyranny serves the very noble vision expressed in John Lennon’s “Imagine” and in progressive Twitter feeds. It is a Deal beset by obligation: we have done for you (even though you didn’t ask, or agree to the social contract). In its milder forms it points to the infrastructure that supports small businesses and says with Barack Obama or Elizabeth Warren “You didn’t build that,” ignoring all the while that the super-rich pay taxes out of proportion to their income. It says “You have, and by assumption, your having causes others to have not. Therefore, you owe us. Shut up, obey, don’t ask the wrong questions, and maybe we won’t put a bullet in your head or send you to starve or freeze to death in a gulag.”
The Bismarckian Deal: The deal, obviously, gets its name from Germany’s Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and the social insurance schemes he implemented in order to fend off the socialists. It tells us, in short, to forsake the imperfectly-operating institutions of civil society. Ignore what the historian David Beito and the economic historian John E. Murray have found, and embrace the state as your caretaker from cradle to grave. The state is a substitute god or parent that will feed you and educate you. The state will care for you in old age and in the event of an accident that leaves you unable to work. Never mind that the money they put in your right pocket comes out of your left pocket, or someone else’s pocket. See The State as your noble, wise, and sufficient caretaker, and all will go well with you—in particular, the Bismarckian state will defend you from the bolsheviks and the bourgeoisie.
The Bureaucratic Deal: This is the Deal of the administrative state. It says “Honor me and defer to me by virtue of my expertise (as indicated by my master’s degree or my Ed.D or my other credentials). Follow The Science (which I produce and interpret), and seek permission at every turn for the times when you want to open a new store or introduce a new product or come up with a new way to produce an old product. It is the Deal of the nudgers, the deal of permission for everything. It is the Deal of applied behavioral economics that says, to paraphrase the philosopher David Schmidtz, “We run our own lives poorly, but we will run others’ lives well.”
The Bourgeois Deal: Meanwhile, the Bourgeois Deal says “Physician, heal thyself.” The Bourgeois Deal, we argue, is the appropriate Deal for a society of masterless men and women: it says leave me, a fully-grown adult, alone to blaze my own trails and try new things. Especially don’t expect me to ask you or the American Consolidated Mousetrap Company for permission to produce, sell, and market what I think will be a much better mousetrap than anything they offer. I grudgingly admit that people will imitate my innovations or at least come up with innovations of their own that lead to better mouse-catching, and hence, I don’t expect my unusual profits to last very long before I’m grudgingly forced to accept a normal rate of return—though I’ll admit when looking at a lot of those other deals that they look pretty good once I’ve got mine. By the time I’m finished, I will have made you—my customers, my shareholders, my bondholders, and my business associates—rich.
The Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan and his acolytes in the Virginia School of political economy sought to develop a political-economic analysis for a society of natural equals. Only radical egalitarianism of the Bourgeois Deal really fits the bill. The non-bourgeois deals seem to mask thinly-veiled contempt for other human beings who, if not controlled, will make the wrong choices. As H.L. Mencken famously said, the urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the desire to rule it. We’ve paid the butcher’s bill for generations of guillotine-operating humanitarians and kindly inquisitors. Perhaps we should grow up a little and take a different path.
Parts of this article are adapted loosely from chapter 20 of Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World.