©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

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

Filed under academic interests [bourgeois virtues]

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

January 27, 2008

Eugene McCarraher's review of my book, The Bourgeois Virtues (Books and Culture, A Christian Review, 13 (#6, Nov/Dec.): p. 37) is amusingly written but substantively off the point. I'd like to start the dialogue and stop the yelling.

McCarraher found the book "awful" and "bloated," which seems to be the explanation for why he didn't read most of it. Others who have read the whole thing don't find it unnecessarily long. The book is long because it needs to be, because the high orthodoxy, of which McCarraher is the world-denying Augustinian part, demands a response. If one put together two books by a world-denier would that constitute "bloating"?

McCarraher doesn't like Polonius: well, sure. As Orwell said, roughly, the situation is so desperate that it is the duty of us all to state the obvious! But, really, is the offending statement (directed at economists who do not believe it) so silly in context? I think not.

There's a crucial point here. You've not realized---or at any rate not acknowledged (perhaps the chapters on it were simply too many, and your eyes glazed over)---that the implied reader for the book is not only you on the left, as much as I love you all (just finished dear Eric Hobsbawm's autobiography), but also (as I repeatedly say) my dear friends on the right, and in particular economists who think that Prudence Only rules. You've missed about half of the point of the book. More like two thirds. You are so intent on assaulting my case for capitalism that you miss my own assault on the prudence-only versions of it. I find this astonishing, and pretty good evidence, actually, that you didn't read the book.

The invective of your writing suggests that you were so vexed by the book that you could not coolly consider it.

"Lack of style": that's a new one on me. And in a rambling, abusive piece like yours such charges do come across as self-refuting.

As to the luminaries on the back cover, did it ever occur to you that if such a range of folk found the book good (like the curate's egg, in parts), it might be just that? I know you are sure of your position. What would shake it?

"Disdain for intellectuals" is not of course my game, or else I would not go to so much trouble to engage with them, would I? It's unfair to tar me with that, one of numerous little unfairnesses of phrase that you indulge in, and I ask you now for an apology. Let's test your intellectual and ethical seriousness, eh?

My disdain is for intellectuals who won't learn anything about economics, yet disdain it. And I say repeatedly that I have similar disdain for intellectuals who won't learn anything about theology, but disdain it. I was just last month at a strange gathering at the Salk Institute of scientific atheists. I was the only confessed Christian, I believe. What struck me is their self-confidence about things they knew little about.

What exactly is "unfortunate" about quoting Alasdair on the definition of virtue? So what if he remains hostile to capitalism?

"A fondness for charts": ah, I detect a non-quantitative person in Our Reporter! There are, what, five of them? "Fondness"? You don't know economics books, I gather!

Making merry of my title of "distinguished professor," by the way, makes you look small. When an assistant professor has done a little more he'll be in a better position to sneer at someone who has written many books. I remember that my early book reviews, before I had written any books myself, were fierce like yours.

You claim that I do not wish to systematize the virtues. This is a silly remark, since I spend vast swathes of the book doing just that. What do you make of my chart?---ah, I remember, you don't do charts. I get the strong feeling that you are so outraged that anyone would undertake to defend capitalism as a ethical system that you lose your ability to read. You say I use "system" as a pejorative. I suppose this comes from a hasty reading of the section on Orwell and Austen? What I criticize are 3"x5" card versions of ethical reflection, such as Kant and especially Bentham. You don't get this, either.

You claim to know about the injustice, waste, and fraud of the capitalist system. But you have no reply---none---to the many arguments I make that the capitalist system is good for people, that is, for your and my poor ancestors and for us, materially and otherwise. You merely repeat the socialist line c. 1930, as iterated by Ruskin and Marx and Dorothy Day. "We're aspiring to . . . a system that makes it easier to be good." So am I, and my system has the merit that it actually, in practice, achieves such ends. Yours achieves, yes, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, show trials, dachas for party hacks, and poverty for the rest. Cuba, with Haiti, is the only part of the western hemisphere whose income per head has gone down since 1959, not sharply up. I don't suppose you would argue that Cuba is an ethical success.

You really must have a look at Eric's book, where he struggles to defend his lifelong communism. He admits (p. 150) that "the 'really existing' socialist economy [viz., East Germany], clearly inferior to the capitalist one [viz., West Germany], was not working at all." He admits (p. 127) that: the "children of the October Revolution. . . have collapsed, . . . leaving behind a landscape of material and moral ruin. . . . [It] must now be obvious that failure was built into this enterprise from the start." His only defense is yours, that we should keep the idealism alive. That's wonderful for the intellectuals and party members who espouse it; but it doesn't do a thing for the working class. We capitalists have a plan---a plan that has actually worked---to make the working class rich and ethical.

I do not know what is "question-begging" (unless you are misusing the phrase in the usual way it is to mean "giving rise to questions") about claiming on the evidence that bourgeoisies are old. I didn't say "history" is about the bourgeoisie. On the contrary: it's mainly about stealing, from Cain to communism. "What economic system isn't regulated by law and ethics?" you ask indignantly. Well, let's see: how about that of Mao's China? Or Nero's Rome?

Your biggest and best point is that I am talking mainly about individual, not systemic, virtue. That's right, and a problem I try to face in volume 2. But you might have noted, if you did read those parts, that I said so in Volume 1. It's a reviewer's vice to use the author's own admission of fault against her without acknowledging that she thought it up first! Perhaps the passages didn't catch your glazed eyes:

p. 29: "If capitalism is to be blamed for systemic evils then it also is to be given credit for systemic goods, compared not with an imaginary ideal but with actually existing alternatives."

p. 32: "The claim on the left, in short, is that regardless of the individual capitalist's virtue or vice the system of capitalism leads to evil. The claim is mistaken."

and especially p. 248:

"Smith, Tocqueville, and Marx each had invisible-hand explanations of why good or bad in people can lead to bad or good in the system. But observe that they held on to their non-invisible-hand indignations, about mercantilists corrupting the British state or intendants over-centralizing pre-Revolutionary France or Mr. Moneybags engorging the national income.

"The dilemma is that private good is neither necessary nor sufficient for public good. The dilemma shows among the American Founding Fathers, as David Prindle among others has noted. John Adams doubted "whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic"; yet James Madison expected political competition, like economic competition, to make it "more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried." Adams stands for a civic republicanism depending on individual virtue, Madison for a liberalism depending on constitutional structures. Either individual virtue is necessary for the polity to thrive, or else ingenious structures can offset the passions with the interests.

"Set aside for the present book, that is, the potentially paradoxical details of "social teleology." I will return to it in Bourgeois Towns: How a Capitalist Ethic Grew in the Dutch and English Lands, 1600-1800 [now two books for the price of one] I hope. At least we can agree, following Aristotle, that person-by-person the whole set of pagan virtues is desirable for the telos of the person herself: 'No one would call a man happy [makarion] who had no particle of courage, temperance, justice, or wisdom.'"

And in any case I give plenty of arguments and evidence that capitalism as a system works better than the available alternatives, systemically, arguments and evidence you reply to merely by saying they are scandalous---you don't actually argue.

I'm going to pause here, at about the place in your charming rant where you write "Indeed, this definition obscures. . . ." and see what I get from you by way of reaction. If just more yelling, I guess we can agree to end our colloquy. But if you are willing to listen, I am, too, and perhaps we can learn something.


Deirdre McCloskey