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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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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