The Magazine

An Obvious Secret

The monumental achievements of middle-class morality.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By JAMES SEATON
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The Bourgeois Virtues

Ethics for an Age of Commerce

by Deirdre N. McCloskey

Chicago, 634 pp., $22.50

Deirdre McCloskey is well aware that the Western intellectual class—what she calls, following Samuel Coleridge, “the clerisy”—has been, with notable exceptions, hostile to capitalism and downright contemptuous of the morals and attitudes of the middle class that has flourished under capitalism. Since 1848, the most damning adjective among intellectuals from the radical left through the romantic right has been “bourgeois.” McCloskey also knows, and demonstrates beyond cavil, that such contempt has been not only mistaken but dangerous: She observes that “in actual fact middle-class people have not been monsters” while “their sworn enemies, from Lenin to Pol Pot, Abimael Guzman, and Osama bin Laden, commonly have been.” The great anticapitalist tyrannies of the 20th century “killed many millions and nearly killed us all.”

Meanwhile, even well-meaning attempts to interfere with free markets have almost always hurt rather than helped those needing help the most. McCloskey provides plenty
of examples:

Minimum wages protected union jobs but made the poor unemployable. .  .  . Zoning and planning permission has protected rich landlords rather than helping the poor. Rent control makes the poor and the mentally ill unhousable. .  .  . Regulation of electricity hurt householders by raising electricity costs, as did the ban on nuclear power. .  .  . The importation of socialism into the third world .  .  . stifled growth, enriched large industrialists, and kept the people poor.

Today there should be little question that capitalism “works better for the average person, as we saw 1917-1989, than so-called central planning backed by a Cheka or a KGB.” The success of capitalism and the failure of central planning in improving the lot of ordinary citizens have not, however, diminished the clerisy’s attraction to government planning or its disdain for the market. Instead, the clerisy has claimed that the wealth of some in a world where others are poor is a sure sign of the sinfulness of the former and the innocence, if not sainthood, of the latter.

McCloskey will have none of it. Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have pointed out to Scott Fitzgerald that the rich were not really different except in having more money. McCloskey makes a similar observation about those with less: “The poor are not better than you and me. They’re just poorer.” Individual success in the market does not require another’s failure, so personal wealth is not an indicator of moral culpability: “Guilt over success in a commercial society is for a victimless crime.”

Likewise, McCloskey briskly dismisses the clerisy’s use of imperialism as a blanket explanation for the gulf between the wealth of the industrialized nations and the poverty of what is still called the Third World: “Countries are rich or poor, have a great deal to consume or very little, mainly because they work well or badly, not because some outsider is adding to or stealing from a God-given endowment.” Or yet more pithily: “Countries where stealing rather than dealing rules become poor and then remain so.” The kleptocratic socialisms of the Third World, that is to say, have succeeded in preventing the embourgeoisement of their countries at the price of keeping the wretched of the earth wretched.

Others, of course, have made the case for capitalism as an instrument for creating wealth, but some of the most influential defenders have erred, McCloskey argues, in assuming that nothing more needs to be said. They have also erred in believing with Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism that human beings are concerned with nothing but maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. On this view, courage, faith, justice, and the other traditional virtues are irrelevant and unnecessary, since the only virtue required for the good life is a narrow prudence. In the American academy for the last half-century the dominant view of capitalism was set by the late Paul Samuelson, whose “Samuelsonian economics” intimated thatthe only character we need in understanding capitalism is Mr. Maximum Utility, the monster of Prudence who has no place in his character for Love—or any passion beyond Prudence Only.” Thus “in the late twentieth century even sophisticated capitalists came to recommend a devotion to Prudence Only, Wall Street’s ‘greed is good.’ ”

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