Not all my summer reading is light, beach-worthy stuff. One objective this summer is to finish the weighty Bourgeois Trilogy by the great economist Dierdre McCloskey. She persuasively argues her view about what caused the Great Enrichment (the explosion of economic growth that began about 1680 after thousands of years of subsistence living and which continues to the present).
Her first book in that trilogy is Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. Here McCloskey presents foundational arguments for her sweeping opus which is expounded in two more volumes. One such foundational argument is that the ethics of the bourgeoisie, not the ethics of the peasantry and not the ethics of the aristocracy, were the necessary ethical environment for the flourishing of ideas that she believes is the source of the Great Enrichment.
Bourgeois Virtues identifies seven principle virtues which are conducive to such flourishing. There are three "Christian" virtues; Faith, Hope and Love which give dignity and purpose to the individual. There are four "pagan" virtues; Courage, Justice, Temperance and Prudence which provide guidance to societal interaction. She argues that when all seven of these virtues are balanced and present then ideas and society will flourish.
Whereas modern political economics often reduces ethics to prudence only (i.e. reasoned self-interest), for example in its mathematical macroeconomic models or in macroeconomic policy proposals (getting the right tax incentives or the right federal funds interest rate), McCloskey is having none of that. The world is complex, and it takes more than self-interested prudence to get it right.
In her view, balanced bourgeois virtues are just the ticket. Ideas are free to grow and develop in a liberal economy in which these bourgeois virtues are widespread. An illiberal economy (e.g., a feudal economy or a modern Progressive regulated economy) in which bourgeois virtues are supplanted by an alternative ethic is conducive to stagnation. Ideas and innovations are quashed at birth by the powers that be, or are never birthed in the first place, because the potential idea-birther became a medieval era priest or a modern era regulator, not a disruptive idea generator.
My point is not to give a synopsis of McCloskey's ideas (the paragraph above is just a snippet from the scope of McCloskey's work). Instead, inspired by McCloskey's latest book, I got to thinking about the virtues needed to Make America Great Again.
For the past 85 years, but especially during the Obama Administration, America has been transforming itself from "the land of the free" to "the land of the regulated". We are becoming a vast Progressive regulated administrative state. Does such a transformation change the ethical outlook of society? Does America still have the ethical framework necessary to make America great again?
Borrowing from McCloskey, the ethics necessary for a "land of the free" are bourgeois virtues; the transcendent virtues of Faith, Hope and Love, the social virtues of Justice, Courage and Temperance, and the self-oriented virtue of Prudence. Taken altogether, these are the ethical framework for a liberal (in the classical meaning of the word) economy.
What, I wonder, are the ethics of the Progressive regulated administrative state that we are becoming? Is there a transcendental virtue akin to love and hope and faith? I think not.
The Progressive administrative state is decidedly materialist, completely ignoring the existence of an individual's spirit and soul, even to the point of pursuing policies which damage the soul (fostering dependencies, for example).
To the extent that there is a higher purpose in the Progressive regulated administrative state, it might be to preserve Mother Earth. Taking good care of the environment is a worthy virtue, and one that Christians especially embrace as stewards of God's creation. But preserving Mother Earth implies that the individual is insignificant and it becomes a justification for expanding the Progressive regulated administrative state.
What about social virtues akin to Justice, Courage and Temperance necessary to a (classical) liberal society?
To some extent, the answer depends on whether you belong to the powerful aristocracy, the regulators, or whether you are among the powerless peasantry, the regulated. For the aristocratic regulator, necessary virtues are Logical Legal Reasoning (minds like Mr. Spock), Uprightness (committed to uphold the rule, incorruptible), and Uniformity (everyone is treated the same).
For the regulated peasantry, necessary virtues are Compliance to the rules, and Trust (in experts and in the process of rule-making). The self-interested virtue of Prudence is inescapable in all societies, but the degree of freedom in which Prudence is operable is greatly reduced in the Progressive regulated administrative state relative to a liberated economy.
How do the virtues of a Progressive regulated administrative state compare to the bourgeois virtues of a liberal economy?
Instead of Justice, the ethic that each person rightly receives what they have earned, the Progressive virtue is Social Justice, the ethic that everyone in an identity group is entitled to an equal share, regardless of their individual role in earning it.
Instead of Temperance, the ethic of self-control, the Progressive virtue is Compliance, the police-enforced ethic of adhering to the letter, if not the spirit, of regulations.
Instead of Courage, the ethic of risk-taking, the Progressive virtue is Caution, the ethic of Safety and Security.
Instead of Prudence, the ethic of reasoned self-interest and persuasion, the Progressive virtue is Trust, the ethic of reliance on the wisdom and incorruptible nature of experts and process.
Do you see the picture I am seeing? In a liberal free-market economy, there is a dynamic but messy interaction of free, courageous, self-controlled, prudent people intent on finding ways to work on behalf of those around them (for a profit, of course). Profit is evidence that customers approve. In a Progressive regulated administrative state there is uniformity, comprehensive regulation, safety, and stagnation. Profits are viewed suspiciously as evidence that something unfair is going on and they are punished by heavy taxes and redistributed according to identity group.
Which kind of ethics will make America great again?
Channeling McCloskey, I am persuaded that the bourgeois ethics of a classical liberal economy are the right framework for society to flourish. I embrace the idea that individuals are made in the image of God, called to a higher purpose than themselves, but free to act with Justice, Courage, Temperance and Prudence. The resulting chaotic order is self-enforced by voluntary interactions.
But many Americans, perhaps not thinking very deeply about such matters, are choosing uniformity, order, safety and regulations, enforced by the police powers of the Progressive regulated administrative state. As a result, we are slipping into an ethical framework which will strangle innovation, self-expression, and risk-taking.
To make America great again, we the people, not Donald Trump or anyone else, must stop the transformation of the ethical framework. We must not pay so much respect to rule-based compliance and uniformity. Celebrate iconoclasts. We must reestablish respect for the dignity and liberty of the individual with the corresponding expectation of individual responsibility.
Greatness needs to start within each one of us. Thank you, Professor McCloskey.