©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

McCloskey's letter to the editor of Books and Culture
See also Reply to McCarraher and Reply to McInturf

Filed under academic interests [bourgeois virtues]

John Wilson
Books and Culture

Dear Mr. Wilson:

I recently discovered (by the grace of the internet) Eugene McCarraher's long, long review in Books and Culture of one of my recent books, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006). I'd like to respond. I'll not respond quite in the tone that Professor McCarraher allows himself in his writings, here and elsewhere. McCarraher hates me and he hates the book, as he hates many, many other people and things (Michael Novak, MSNBC, Pelagianism), and he prides himself on his angers. He hasn't quite grasped the gospel of love. But one must in Christian charity forgive his youthful intemperances.

After all, he felt the book deserved 7000 words. An author can't complain about that intemperance, if the reviewer spells her name right. Yet most of the 7000, sadly, are not arguments that might improve our understanding even if they were mistaken, but boiling, sneering hatreds. Anything goes in McCarraher's rhetorical armamentarium. No chance to sneer, however small, is missed. When I note that Americans consume a great deal because they produce a great deal, which is an accounting truth often forgotten by critics of consumerism, I am said to "bark." When I remind my fellow economists that solidarity matters to human communities, a point they are very inclined to forget, it is "not quite worthy of Polonius." And on and on, a "Sargasso Sea of intellectual froth." (One hazard of invective, quite aside from its corruption of the soul, is that the mud tends to stick to the hand of the thrower). McCarraher even finds space to drag in my gender history, for Lord's sake, and refers to me as "he."

But consider the few actual arguments that McCarraher makes. He asserts that anti-capitalism is not, as I call it, "the high orthodoxy of the West." His evidence is that the World Bank favors capitalism. Agreed. But when I used the adjective "high" I was not applying it to the bourgeoisie and what Gramsci calls "the historical bloc of capitalism," but to artists and intellectuals, what Coleridge and I call the "clerisy"---the people like you, me, and Eugene McCarraher who read Books and Culture, say. Many such people, and among them the heights (Shaw, Weil, Sartre, Rorty), have since 1848 turned against capitalism and the bourgeoisie. I don't think there's any doubt on the matter in the book, or in the history of Europe. And in truth McCarraher agrees, as he shows in his opening sarcasm: he pretends to confess that he has indeed sinned, Father, as a snob, a fraud, and an ignoramus about economics, a typical exponent of the high orthodoxy of the West. He is admitting here and throughout that the high intellectual orthodoxy, and especially the orthodoxy of intellectual Christians, is anticapitalist.

McCarraher does not like my defense of an ethical and Christian capitalism, he himself being a socialist. He's not I think a Stalinist or even, as I was for a month or two in my own angry youth, a Trotskyist, but a Christian syndicalist. Perhaps it's Prince Kropotkin (also my first political love) supplemented by a hateful version of Jesus. McCarraher exhibits little sign of understanding Marx or Adam Smith, so I am puzzled what really is his social gospel. But whatever McCarraher is, he views capitalism as evil, the chief evil. As many left-leaning Christians do, he believes that the gospels and a proper common sense view capitalism that way, too. He sneers at my readings of the synoptic gospels, though as usual not pausing to tell why my readings are mistaken. That Jesus and his tradition used rhetorical figures of prudence as well as justice---the honest workman as well as they that mourn---is not something that the left-orthodox and Christian clerisy is willing to acknowledge.

He quotes me---"Capitalism has triumphed in our time, which I claim is a good thing, though boring"---and exclaims, in a good example of his invective, "So why spend 500 frigging pages on it?" Because, dear boy, it is good, and accords with many versions of Christianity, and you say it's not, and doesn't. In 1919 Paul Tillich in McCarraher style wrote that "the spirit of Christian love accuses a social order which consciously and in principle is built upon economic and political egoism, and it demands a new order in which the feeling of community is the foundation of the social structure. It accuses the deliberate egoism of an economy . . . in which each is the enemy of the other, because his advantage is conditioned by the disadvantage or ruin of the other, and it demands an economy of solidarity of all, and of joy in work rather than in profit." That's McCarraher's view, and Dorothy Day's, and Wendell Berry's. But McCarraher offers no evidence that it's correct, and neither did Tillich or Day or Berry. I offer 500 frigging pages that it's false. The economy in the left-Christian view, for example, is a zero sum game, which is false. And trading goods and services is said to be inconsistent with Christian love, which is false. And capitalism is said to be mainly competition rather than cooperation, which is false.

McCarraher accuses me of being against "system" in ethics. This is a strange charge, and suggests that he was soooo vexed by what he takes to be my politics that he couldn't actually bring himself to read the book. I spend literally hundreds of pages erecting exactly a system of ethics, on the model of Aquinas, but adopted by Adam Smith, too. On page 304 I even give a diagram of it, in a chapter called precisely "The System of the Virtues." McCarraher does not, I think, like diagrams, so that must be why he skipped over such sections.

But what he mainly skipped over, and is the main oddness in his review, are the pages (some of the same hundreds) in which I attack the Prudence Only view of the right wing. For instance, pp. 108-138, 394-432, and passim. The book is a reasoned reply to the left, but also to the right.

And that's my main objection. I've long noted that there's a certain incompetence on both left and right in making alliances. "Why make alliances with another Christian against economism," McCarraher says in effect, "when he/she doesn't agree with me on every single point?" If we're going to get beyond invective and the mere reassertion of orthodoxy---God knows the Christian tradition has plenty of that---were going have to get serious about the other's arguments.

McCarraher does not.


Deirdre McCloskey

Economics, History, English, and Communications

University of Illinois at Chicago, Academia Vitae (Deventer, The Netherlands), University of the Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa)