©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

A review of The Bourgeois Virtues

by Steve Goddard
Book Alert / History Wire, January 8, 2007
Filed under academic interests [bourgeois virtues]

"[T]his is a book you won't forget soon."

Deirdre McCloskey is a member of economics's fabled Chicago School, so passionately championed by the recently departed Milton Friedman. But she's embarked on the writing of a tetralogy about capitalism that she confesses most of her colleagues would consider irrelevant: "...any one of my fellow Chicago School economists who don't really claim to know much about philosophy or the Middle Ages—Friedman, Becker, Barro, step forward—would protest, "Philosophy? What scientist needs that? Ethics? Bosh. I'm a positive scientist, not a preacher. Capitalism is efficient, which is all I preach. Who needs faith? Put your faith in Prudence Only."

And you thought Sisyphus had a tough job. And to advance the titles of your next three books, together with chapter synopses, upon the publication of book one seems either amazingly courageous or reckless—who knows which? I often go back and chuckle at the chapter synopses I've submitted to publishers at the contract stage, only to find them change radically as research and writing of the work progresses. But when one considers that Deirdre McCloskey used to be Donald McCloskey and, after a lifetime of agonizing, left a marriage to become a transsexual and emerged, whole, on the other side, one realizes that this is not a person to be easily doubted. Read her memoir Crossing for further insight.

McCloskey is a true believer in capitalism and she wants you to be too. I mean, she really wants you to be. No, that's not strong enough: she really, really wants you to believe in it and that, no matter what you've read to the contrary, capitalism is good for you and is truly ethical in its operation. Her style is at once erudite and conversational if abstruse at times. She's like your highly intelligent seatmate on an airplane, who knows the plane's going to land in two hours and is damned if she's not going to convince you of the rightness of her point of view before then.

So she trots out allusions and individuals that just might strike a chord with her reader, from Bill Murray to Immanuel Kant. And if she senses they might not sway you, in from left field comes a reference to the movie High Noon or a painting by van Gogh. This isn't a book you can finish in an evening or even a week, but it rewards attention. And the author's enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, carrying you along beyond the point at which you thought you'd put the book down.

One might call McCloskey's a "kinder, gentler" capitalism, although she'd probably argue that she's not championing a new form of capitalism but simply revealing elements inherent in capitalism that produce ethically good results. That capitalism, more than socialism or communism for example, is the best antidote to poverty. Her arguments are tendentious, while sometimes persuasive and sometimes strained. But this is a book you won't forget soon.

Stephen B. Goddard is a national authority on the history and social impact of American transportation. The author of the critically-acclaimed book, Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century (Basic Books, l994), he has spoken to audiences from coast to coast, and his pieces have appeared in several dozen newspapers, including The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Newsday, The Atlanta Constitution, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chicago Tribune, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. His article, "The Road to Now" appeared in the September, l997 issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. Getting There, featured on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," won overwhelmingly positive reviews and was published in paperback by the University of Chicago Press.