McCloskey on how virtues led to the modern explosion in human betterment

(Photo: Unsplash/James Coleman)
(Photo: Unsplash/James Coleman)

[Trigger warning: Professor McCloskey’s once told me “I’m a left libertarian Christian economist who used to be a man.” So, dear reader, if your beliefs are such that you don’t think you may read things written by someone like this, or are offended that a Christian like me, a very conservative evangelical Christian, thinks that I can still learn from someone across the cultural divide, you probably want to stop reading here. For the rest, read, and listen (with discernment) and perhaps learn something.]

Professor Deirdre McCloskey is one of the most interesting thinkers in economics today. In this interview, conducted in Rapid City South Dakota, near Deadwood, we push past a number of frontiers and traverse an open range of topics. That’s McCloskey in a nutshell – ignore the artificial fences between academic specializations and let the conversation go where it goes. In this case it goes through such territories as: the astonishing rise in standards of living since the rise of capitalism; why capitalism shouldn’t be called capitalism; what it should be called; why bourgeois values have enriched us (and in more ways than economically); what the difference is between virtues and values; what Christianity had to do (and didn’t have to do) with the rise of modern human betterment; why theoretical economics has been wrong to obsess over “Maximum Utility” (a sociopathic form of economic modeling); the cult of statistical significance and its addiction to the p-value, and an upcoming book on Christianity and economics. Here are some selected questions transcribed from the full interview, which can be found here.

The work you’re probably best known for is the Bourgeois trilogy, Prudence, Equality, and Dignity. What got you started in that direction, what was the trigger?

“Well, you know in my academic career, which was about British economic history, I find myself defending the business people in Britain from the claim that they had failed in the late 19th century because Germany and the United States developed. Which, when you put it that way, you can see how strange the claim that they failed is, so I started out a long time ago when I was a teenager as a Marxist. I've gone from Marxism to libertarianism and beyond, this was part of my progression, but in the 1990s, I started to think, well, I should write a book defending the ethics of what we usually call capitalism. I don't like the word capitalism, I'd rather call it Innovism, which is a scientifically more accurate word. But in any case, that first volume, which was published in 2006 was called The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, and then I realized as an economist that my talk about the ethical change that had happened in Holland and then in England, in the 17th and 18th century, in which people stopped hating the bourgeoisie as much as they did before the middle class, had resulted in the modern world. I mean, you can call it the Enlightenment if you want, but I don't think it's really the Enlightenment. That's the issue here. It's what Adam Smith – the Blessed Adam Smith – said was liberalism, the idea that hierarchies, the old hierarchies, should be dissolved, that women shouldn't be slaves to men and slaves shouldn't be slaves to masters, and no one should be slaves to the state. It took me a while, I didn't know before I started to write this that I was going to end up with 1,700 pages of evidence and argument from literature and philosophy and economics and blah, blah, blah, baseball. I mean, it's just crazy and the conclusion was that it’s what made the modern world, what made us rich. And what made us not too bad, ethically speaking, was freedom, liberalism.“

Liberalism as a political order, but you also talked a lot about a cultural shift, the bourgeois virtues.

“Well, indeed, and indeed that's a crucial part of it because it's not so much Max Weber over again. Max Weber, a great German sociologist and economist, a hundred years ago - over a hundred - made the argument that the Protestant ethic came to be the source of modern economic growth. And, I think that's wrong. Although his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of the great books of the modern world, and everyone should read it, but it wasn't a psychological change inside the businessmen's head, mainly men. It was the attitude of the rest of the society towards them that changed, and that’s crucial.”

Cultural permission.

“Exactly, cultural permission which in all of our gradual liberations is what matters. I mean votes for women came as men, who were actually the ones who are going to vote for it one way or the other, came to give cultural permission to women to enter the political sphere, and the same happened earlier with slavery. The abolition movement was a turn in the attitude towards slavery, not the attitude of the slaveholders that's for sure, or even the slaves.”

Virtue is an interesting word, it's a countercultural word. I remember Bill Bennett told me once that the publisher wanted to name the book the book of values, and he said no, it's the book of virtues. Why virtues rather than values?

“As he said, and I kind of admire his book, he was a professional philosopher and he should have done more research, especially in theology before he got going on this book. But in any case, my great guide here is St. Thomas Aquinas, who goes through the four Pagan virtues of Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Prudence, to which is added by Christians Faith, Hope, and Love. It's a sort of a jury-rigged 4 plus 3, oh well, it kind of goes together. The idea, in the pagan world, that love would be a principle virtue is looney, right? That's what's so striking about Christianity. “God is love” is utterly meaningless in the pagan world. But, it turns out that just values, you know, “I value Fritos” or something is not enough. You've got to be specific, and that's why Bennett’s system uses the word virtues and I do too.”

To listen to the full interview, click here.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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