How Piketty misses the point


Thomas Piketty is a French economist who obsesses about the distribution of wealth. Deirdre McCloskey is an economist and philosopher who emphasizes the moral and ideational aspects of how we became so wealthy over the last several centuries. She calls it the Great Enrichment. She chastizes her fellow economists in how they have failed to explain the most salient feature of human existence since 1700: why is it that humans are sixty times wealthier than they were in 1700? Why is world poverty falling? This, she says, is the vital question. Economists who fuss about income inequality are missing the vital point.

McCloskey is the author of Bourgeois Dignity and many other great books.

Here she is on Piketty:


The most fundamental problem in Piketty’s book, then, is that he misses the main act. In focusing solely on the distribution of income, he overlooks the most surprising secular event in history: the Great Enrichment of the average individual on the planet by a factor of 10 and in rich countries by a factor of 30 or more. Many humans are now stunningly better off than their ancestors were.

This includes a gigantic improvement of the poorest — your ancestors and mine. By dramatic increases in the size of the pie, the poor have been lifted to 90 or 95 percent of equal sustenance and dignity, as against the 10 or 5 percent attainable by redistribution without enlarging the pie.

What caused the Great Enrichment? It cannot be explained by the accumulation of capital, as the very name “capitalism” implies. Our riches were not made by piling brick upon brick, bachelor’s degree upon bachelor’s degree, bank balance upon bank balance, but by piling idea upon idea. The bricks, BAs, and bank balances were of course necessary. Oxygen is necessary for a fire. But it would be unenlightening to explain the Chicago Fire of 1871 by the presence of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere.

The original and sustaining causes of the modern world were indeed ethical, not material. They were the widening adoption of two new ideas: the liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the democratic social idea of dignity for them. This, in turn, released human creativity from its ancient trammels. Radically creative destruction piled up ideas, such as the railways creatively destroying walking and the stage coaches, or electricity creatively destroying kerosene lighting and the hand washing of clothes, or universities creatively destroying literary ignorance and low productivity in agriculture. The Great Enrichment requires not accumulation of capital or the exploitation of workers but what I call the Bourgeois Deal. In the historical lottery the idea of an equalizing liberty and dignity was the winning ticket, and the bourgeoisie held it.

That even over the long run there remain some poor people does not mean the system is not working for the poor, so long as their condition is continuing to improve, as it is, and so long as the percentage of the desperately poor is heading toward zero, as it is. That people still sometimes die in hospitals does not mean that medicine is to be replaced by witch doctors, so long as death rates are falling and so long as the death rate would not fall under the care of the witch doctors. It is a brave book Thomas Piketty has written. But it is mistaken.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, “How Piketty Misses the Point”, Cato Policy Report, 2015-07.

“The idea of equalizing liberty and dignity” – emblazon that idea into your memory, and save it for your next argument with some twee leftist.