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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.’ ”

The clerisy properly rejects such an impoverished view of human beings, but falsely assumes that if Bentham and his intellectual descendants are wrong, then capitalism itself is wrong. Deirdre McCloskey is out to demonstrate that life under capitalism—bourgeois life—nourishes the virtues more than life under feudalism, socialism, or any other alternative. She claims that “actually existing capitalism, not the collectivisms of the left or of the right, has reached beyond mere consumption, producing the best art and the best people.” Even if capitalism were not able to do what almost all observers agree it does do—deliver the goods—McCloskey argues that it would, on moral grounds, still be the best economic and social system around: “Had capitalism not enriched the world by a cent nonetheless its bourgeois, antifeudal virtues would have made us better people than in the world we have lost.”

McCloskey’s argument is, in part, historical. Against romantics of both the right and left who yearn for the alleged warmth and community of a medieval village, she points out that “the murder rate in villages in the thirteenth century, to take the English case, was higher than comparable places now.” It was, after all, the despised bourgeoisie that “ended slavery and emancipated women and founded universities and rebuilt churches, none of these for material profit and none by damaging the rest of the world.” In the long view, it has been the “bourgeois virtues [that] led us from terrified hunter bands and violent agricultural villages to peaceful suburbs and lively cities.” In traditional societies where outsiders are enemies, “one makes friends to keep from being assaulted,” while in societies where relations between individuals are governed by the infamous “cash nexus,” friendship based on personal affinities is possible: “In a world governed by markets one buys protection, one hopes, anonymously with taxes or with fees to one’s condominium association, and then is at leisure to make friends for the sake of real friendship.”

For her defense of the morality of capitalism on the basis of its encouragement of the virtues to be fully persuasive, McCloskey must first demonstrate the centrality of the seven traditional virtues—courage, justice, temperance, prudence, faith, hope, and love—to the consideration of moral issues. Just as McCloskey criticizes the Benthamite attempt to answer all moral questions by reference to utility alone, she argues that the Kantian project to reduce all morality to “good intentions” is similarly flawed. Kantianism and utilitarianism may achieve logical consistency, which is fine for academic system-builders, but human life is too complicated to be explained by focusing on only one quality to the exclusion of all others. Hope is a virtue, certainly, but “when unbalanced by the other virtues, it produces evil, such as revolutionary socialism or revolutionary fascism.” Hitler had hope and possessed “personal courage beyond doubt,” but, McCloskey notes, he lacked “temperance and justice and prudence.” Figures even more celebrated than John Lennon have proclaimed that “love is all you need,” but unless love is guided by the other virtues, it too can be self-destructive.

Having made a strong case for the importance of the traditional virtues to moral questions, McCloskey goes on to argue that capitalism not only allows but encourages individuals to exercise the seven both in and outside the market. The qualities of the bourgeois virtues may differ in some respects from the virtues practiced in pre-capitalist societies, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Bourgeois justice emphasizes equality before the law, in contrast to the justice between unequals in traditional or feudal societies, since “two people doing business must deal with each other, not overawe or submit to each other. So bourgeois society developed a historically unique notion of justice.”

Love in bourgeois culture surely includes “the Love to take care of one’s own,” but under capitalism, society is not divided into friends and enemies, our family or tribe against the others, since the free market depends on equality under the law. Thus, “it is also a bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, to wish well of humankind, to seek God.”

Yes, McCloskey concedes, “The leading bourgeois virtue is the Prudence to buy low and sell high,” but such bourgeois prudence also includes the inclination and ability “to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence.” Temperance in a commercial society certainly includes the ability “to save and accumulate,” but bourgeois temperance is “also the temperance to educate oneself in business and in life, to listen to the customer humbly, to resist the temptations to cheat, to ask quietly whether there might be a compromise here.”

The Bourgeois Virtues is a most impressive book: thoughtful, scholarly, wide-ranging, and well-written. Whether these qualities will be enough to convince McCloskey’s intended audience—“people who think that capitalism is probably rotten, and who believe that a claim to bourgeois ‘virtues,’ of all things, is laughable”—is another matter. Reaching out to the intellectuals while questioning their most cherished beliefs, McCloskey emphasizes her essential kinship with her would-be readers. Although she believes the clerisy has been persistently and grossly mistaken about capitalism, she herself remains a member of the group. The author shares the tastes of the intellectuals she hopes to persuade and accepts, it seems, the same cultural arbiters. She writes for “the readers of the New York Times or Le Monde, listeners to Charlie Rose, book readers, or at any rate book-review readers. My people. Like me.”

McCloskey also goes out of her way on several occasions to signal that, like the clerisy in general, she has nothing in common with garden-variety conservatives and especially anybody who may have voted for George W. Bush—except, that is, for preferring capitalism to socialism. Explaining the nature of faith as a virtue, she offers the following examples: “Faith is the who-you-are that finds you contributing to public radio” or “turning up to vote against George W. Bush when your vote was after all of no consequence.” Whether faith is possible for those who listen to unsubsidized talk radio, or voted for George W. Bush, is left unclear. Later the notion that the “tough-guy American style of making decisions .  .  . is a sacred thing” is illustrated by “George W. Bush in his maturity accepting Jesus as his personal savior.”

If McCloskey is not a typical conservative, she might yet be considered a philosophical neoconservative since, unlike many traditionalists or “paleos,” but in accord with most neoconservatives, she harbors no doubts about the superiority of capitalist society not only to socialism but also to traditional social orders. It is hard to imagine any neoconservative, no matter how convinced of the value of capitalism and democracy for the rest of the world, going further than the author when she declares that “during the twenty-first century, if we can draw back from the unfreedom of anticapitalism and adopt instead the simple and obvious system of natural liberty, every person on the planet, in Vietnam and Colombia, India and Kenya, can come to have, compliments of the bourgeois virtues, the scope of life afforded now to a suburban minority in the West.”

It turns out, however, that McCloskey no more wants to be identified with neoconservatives than with supporters of George W. Bush. According to her, “neocons seem often to want order at any cost in freedom, rather than freedom achieved in an orderly manner.” She herself is pleased by the “breaking of constraints in the 1960s that so irritates neoconservatives.” In contrast to those picky neocons, she offers cheers: “Hurrah for late twentieth-century enrichment and democratization. Hurrah for birth control and the civil rights movement. Arise ye wretched of the earth.” But after revealing her inner Frantz Fanon, McCloskey immediately has second thoughts:

True, the 1960s worldwide saw itself as antibourgeois, even socialist, and this intemperance of freedom had costs. .  .  . It would have been better if every social movement of the 1960s had adhered to nonviolence and self-discipline and mutual respect, and had therefore joined the bourgeois project down in
the marketplace.

No doubt it would have been better. But now the differences between her view of the movements of the sixties and that of most neoconservatives has narrowed to the vanishing point.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.


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