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Is Capitalism Good for You?

1.

The idea of providing an exuberant defense of bourgeois virtues seems on the face of it absurd. In common parlance, “bourgeois” is synonymous with “humdrum” and “conventional.” The ideal bourgeois citizen is cautious and anxious; given to deferred gratification, to considering the rainy days ahead, and to paying the price in present pleasures foregone. The bourgeois emulates the ant, not the grasshopper, working hard during the good times to survive the bad times that must lie ahead. When critics talk of “bourgeois virtues,” it is often with a sneer. Prudence is a virtue, but “bourgeois prudence” is a synonym for timidity and meanness; and “bourgeois courage” sounds very like a contradiction in terms. Exuberance seems foreign to the bourgeois soul; but a book that opens with the ringing declaration “I bring good news about our bourgeois lives” promises to be long on exuberance and short on anxiety. And so it proves.

Whether The Bourgeois Virtuesprovides a defense of distinctively bourgeois virtues is debatable. The author herself frequently seems unsure whether she is defending a set of ethics that are identifiable with a particular stratum of society, and sometimes professes herself unconcerned if it turns out that the virtues she espouses are not in fact distinctively bourgeois. It may not matter very much—there is plainly no reason why members of the bourgeoisie cannot display the “aristocratic” virtues of generosity, courage, and a disdain for narrow self-interest or the “working-class” virtues of comradeship and solidarity—but there is a never quite resolved tension between the search for a distinctively bourgeois set of virtues and the much more plausible case that the bourgeoisie display as much (classless) virtue as anyone.

McCloskey’s case is made if she can show that the bourgeoisie—which she never strictly defines but mostly takes to be the broad middle classes whose lives are shaped by their individual enterprise in a capitalist economy—by and large lead what any serious critic would have to count as virtuous lives. Given the readiness of critics of all stripes to accuse the bourgeoisie of leading cramped, self-centered, narrowly money-grubbing lives, she has a large target to aim at. Oddly, she resorts to the simplest argument—the argument from examples of people who are impeccably bourgeois and impeccably decent—only at opposite ends of this long book. At the beginning she cites an immigrant shopkeeper in Bradford, and at the end she provides a rousing defense of the philanthropy of Carnegie, Rockefeller, George Soros, and Bill Gates, although she sees that they are perhaps better described as “good barons” than bons bourgeois. It is perhaps too easy to argue that the bourgeoisie displays all the virtues if the bourgeoisie includes everyone from Norwegian electricians in Minnesota to the Medici.

What she most consistently defends is the importance of basing morality on fostering the virtues rather than on some prescriptive ethical doctrine. Against the predilections of economists and philosophers, she argues that we should abandon the search for a single unifying moral principle such as maximizing the satisfaction of human needs or desires—the utilitarian recipe for moral tidiness—or conformity to a law that all rational beings might prescribe to themselves—the Kantian recipe. As pure moral philosophy, Professor McCloskey’s approach is not particularly novel. As she readily acknowledges, the philosopher Philippa Foot argued as much in the late 1950s. The piquancy lies in the fact that it is an economist who is making the case, and economists of different tendencies are generally committed to maximizing utility—“Max U.” as McCloskey puts it.

Deirdre McCloskey is a professional economist, trained in the Chicago School, and up to a point an admirer of the analytical style that it made its own; up to a point, because she has always made a specialty of emphasizing the role of rhetoric in economics, and has never been inclined to think that mathematics speaks for itself. She is a distinguished professor of economics both at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and at the University of Illinois at Chicago; she is also a professor of rhetoric and English. For twenty-five years, she practiced economics as Professor Donald McCloskey; but in 1996 she made a widely noticed and controversial decision to abandon her identity as a male economist with a taste for cross-dressing, and to acquire a new identity as a female economist—and a historian of ideas, social theorist, and philosopher into the bargain.

Crossing, published in 1999, gives an unusually direct and unagonized account of her life before and after the change. On the way, she survived a couple of attempts on the part of colleagues and one of her sisters to have her committed to a mental hospital: “I am not crazy,” she said more than once, “I am transsexual.” Her personal history gives her incidental remarks about the male biases of her several academic professions an authoritative tartness that is as rare as it is refreshing, though some of Donald McCloskey’s women colleagues worried ten years ago at the loss of a male feminist ally.

The Bourgeois Virtues tackles so many topics, from the history of art to the philosophy of science by way of the importance of religious commitment and the civic attachments of the Dutch, that a severe reader may complain that the book lacks a unifying theme. The author’s intentions are clear enough, however. The Bourgeois Virtues is designed to be the first in an ambitious four-volume project, in which Professor McCloskey promises to tell us why capitalism is morally—not merely commercially—good for us, and why moral goodness is good for capitalism. The second and third books will trace the historical development and consequences of capitalist values from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. The fourth volume of her tetralogy is to give her account of “ethical capitalism.” As she says, she has taken Daniel Bell’s famous thesis that capitalism relies on morality, honesty, and charitable behavior that it systematically undermines by its greed and has tried to turn it inside out. Capitalism is good for morality.

In 1976, Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism argued that capitalism had been created by people who were honest on principle, not because it paid off, and who worked hard because it was a duty, not because it was the way to make more money. People who are honest and hard-working out of conviction rather than self-interest create a successful economy; but a successful economy undermines those convictions. “Porntopia” was what Daniel Bell feared we were in the process of creating, a world devoted to the instant—and profitable—gratification of our lowest tastes. Greed, selfishness, and mutual exploitation seemed to be what capitalism finally led to.

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism was a characteristic product of an unhappy decade: in the United States, the last years of the Vietnam War and an economy apparently mired in low growth and high inflation, in Europe intermittent terrorism, and in Britain a long period of uncertainty whether governments could deal with trade union militancy and solve the “British disease” of low productivity and political disaffection. The Bourgeois Virtues does not reflect current economic or political events in the same way. It is, speaking nonpejoratively, an academic work; its most obviously practical implication is the suggestion that intellectuals generally and social scientists and moral philosophers particularly are out of touch with the ordinary person’s thoughts and feelings.

The Bourgeois Virtues is thus not addressed to its heroes; it is about the virtuous middle classes, not for them. According to McCloskey, the probable response of “a Pakistani British shop owner, say, or a Norwegian American electrical contractor” to her offer to defend the bourgeois virtues and the virtuous bourgeoisie would be “What’s to apologize for? What’s to defend in our lives?” Her presumed readers are drawn from among

the theoreticians and the followers of the theoreticians, what Coleridge and I call the “clerisy,” opinion makers and opinion takers, all the reading town, 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.

It is this group, she argues, who have for two centuries derided the bourgeoisie, and attacked the bourgeois virtues from all sides—from the left in the name of socialist fraternity, from the right in the name of aristocratic excellence, or from no political direction in the name of romantic self-expression. The critics, of course, are themselves middle-class intellectuals, but they are what Marxists would call class traitors, and other analysts “free-floating intellectuals.” McCloskey alternates between describing them as bourgeois and as a “clerisy.” Her determination to fight on all these fronts distracts her from the more straightforward task that she seems to set herself at the beginning, but it adds a good deal to the vitality of her book, even if it also makes one wonder how she is to fill three further volumes on the same themes without repeating herself.

2.

As McCloskey reminds us, talk of the virtues goes back a very long way, as does the conviction that the cardinal virtues are four in number: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Perhaps the most famous discussion of this quartet occurs in Plato’s Republic. Plato presents the dialogue as an inquiry into the nature of justice; it proceeds by differentiating justice from wisdom, temperance, and courage, allocating each virtue to the social class to which it is especially appropriate—wisdom to the rulers, courage to the military, temperance to the workers—and defining justice as the virtue that preserves the whole society. Plato, she thinks, was an unhelpful monist who wanted to compress the variety of human striving into a straitjacketed search for the one true Good. Not everyone reads Plato thus, but he was certainly no enthusiast for the unfettered free market and keeping the state off the citizen’s back.

Neither, for that matter, was Aristotle, as Professor McCloskey reminds us on several occasions. She admires Aristotle’s sensitivity to the variety of human virtues and the plurality of human goods but that sensitivity had its limits. Not only were moderately well-to-do landowning Greek males the only persons fit to take part in public life; the acceptability of different ways of earning one’s living declined very swiftly from that of the gentleman farmer. Honest toil was bad for the character; trading was dubious because it encouraged us to make illicit gains from other people’s needs; and lending money at interest was a crime against nature as involving “breeding barren metal.” But Aristotle took the trouble to look at the virtues one at a time, and to analyze their nature and their place in our lives, without imposing more structure on them than they can bear. Aristotle, so interpreted, approaches moral philosophy from the right premises, but comes out on the wrong side socially and politically, failing to see the point of the bourgeois virtues and lending his authority to the tradition of aristocratic disdain for those who make a living by serving other people’s needs in the marketplace.

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