Thursday, December 04, 2014

Deirdre McCloskey and the Evolution of the Bourgeois Virtues

In the natural history of the human species, there are three eras identified by three kinds of social order.  From about 250,000 to 10,000 years ago, human beings lived in foraging societies based on hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  From about 10,000 years ago, many human beings lived in farming societies based on herding domesticated animals and cultivating domesticated plants.  Beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some human beings in Northwest Europe and North America--first in the Dutch Republic and later in England, Scotland, and the former British colonies in America--began to live in commercial societies based on innovation generated by free market trading.

Biopolitical philosophy requires a grand theory to explain the natural evolutionary history of those three eras.  Explaining the emergence of the Industrial Revolution and the modern commercial society remains the subject of intense debate among economic and social historians.  One point of general agreement is that commerce, trade, or capitalism were not new.  Commerce is one of the world's oldest professions.  There is evidence for trading networks among Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.  And some of the earliest written records in ancient Mesopotamia show people engaged in business dealing.  In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber declared: "Capitalism existed in China, India, Babylon, in the classic world, and in the Middle Ages," but this capitalism did not have the same vibrant spirit as modern capitalism (Scribner's edition, p. 52).

Something happened in Northwest Europe around the North Sea in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to create the commercial society described by Adam Smith:
"When the division of labor has been once thoroughly established, it is but a small part of a man's wants which the produce of his own labour can supply.  He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he has occasion for.  Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society" (Wealth of Nations, 37).
This commercial society has also been called a bourgeois society, using the French translation for a German word for those who lived in walled cities, which became the common term for those middle-class urban people who flourish in a modern commercial society.  The primary cause for the emergence of this society, economist Deirdre McCloskey has claimed, was a change in ideas, so that while previously the bourgeois life had been scorned as vicious, it was for the first time recognized as virtuous.  And yet there is still resistance to the idea of bourgeois virtues--from both supporters and opponents of capitalism--who assume that the bourgeois life is driven only by the vice of greed.  At the beginning of Capital, Marx points to "the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone . . ., this boundless greed after riches."  Recently, Thomas Piketty has lamented the growing inequality of wealth in which a few greedy capitalists control most of the wealth as an unearned inheritance.  Even those on the right, like the Straussians, warn about the "problem of the bourgeois" that was seen first by Rousseau--the problem of a society that produces great wealth and a comfortable existence but without the noble virtue and heroic excellence that would elevate the soul above the level of Nietzsche's "last man."

Against this, McCloskey has made her argument for the bourgeois virtues--first in an article ("Bourgeois Virtue") in The American Scholar in 1994 and then in a series of books published by the University of Chicago Press: The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World (2010), and Bourgeois Equality: How Betterment Became Virtuous, 1600-1848, and Then Suspect (2015).  (In her article, her first name was Donald.  It's a long story.)

In her article, McCloskey separated the new bourgeois virtues from the older pagan and Christian virtues.  The pagan virtues were aristocratic virtues embodied in heroes like Achilles.  The Christian virtues were peasant virtues embodied in saints like St. Francis.  The bourgeois virtues were mercantile virtues embodied in successful men like Benjamin Franklin.

But in her books, she has suggested that the distinction between bourgeois and other kinds of virtues is "mere verbal shading" (Bourgeois Virtues, 350).  So, for example, one could distinguish pagan courage, Christian fortitude, and bourgeois enterprise, or pagan love, Christian charity, and bourgeois affection.

Generally, she adopts the traditional seven virtues of Western culture: courage, prudence, temperance, and justice as the four pagan virtues and faith, hope, and charity as the three Christian virtues.  And she understands the bourgeois virtues as "merely the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society" (508).  Courage tends to be ranked at the top of the pagan virtues, while prudence tends to be ranked at the top of the bourgeois virtues.  But in some situations, aristocratic courage is required even in a bourgeois society.  And prudence was as much a virtue for Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as for Adam Smith.

It was as true for Smith as for Aristotle and Aquinas that prudence was not the only virtue.  For those economists who explain human beings as rational maximizers of utility, prudence understood as a rational calculation of one's interests would seem to be the only virtue.  But McCloskey argues that the moral excellence of the bourgeois virtues requires a balance of all seven virtues.  As Aristotle saw, happiness requires some development of all of the virtues.

Most importantly, one needs to see that Smith never says that "greed is good."  Of course, there is a lot of greed in bourgeois societies, just as there has always been greed in every human society.  But there is nothing about a bourgeois society that prevents the cultivation of all seven of the traditional virtues as bourgeois virtues.  On the contrary, McCloskey argues, the Bourgeois Revolution that produced modern commercial society has elevated the human moral condition in three ways.

First, since 1800 the bourgeois revolution has increased the amount of goods and services for the average person around the world by about eight and a half.  Even the poorest areas, as in Africa, have seen at least a tripling of average income since the beginning of the 19th century.  And in those places were the bourgeois virtues have flourished the most--like the United States, England, Taiwan, and Hong Kong--national income per capita has increased by a factor of nineteen, which means an increase of eighteen hundred per cent!  Keep in mind what this means:  for the first time in 250,000 years of human history, the majority of human beings are not living in a condition of grinding poverty that ruins their development.

The second great improvement in the human condition brought by the Bourgeois Revolution is the increase in the average human lifespan and in the human population.  More human beings are living longer, healthy lives than ever before in human history.  The population of the Earth has increased from less than one billion to over six billion, and amazingly most of those people are not starving.

But while most capitalist economists point to these material achievements of capitalism in securing longer, healthier lives for more human bodies, McCloskey also sees a third achievement: the bourgeois virtues have made us better people by deepening our human souls.  She writes:
"I claim that actually existing capitalism, not the collectivisms of the left or of the right, has reached beyond mere consumption, producing the best art and the best people.  People have purposes.  A capitalist economy gives them scope to try them out.  Go to an American Kennel Club show, or an antique show, or a square-dancing convention, or to a gathering of the many millions of American birdwatchers, and you'll find people of no social pretensions passionately engaged.  Yes, some people watch more than four hours of TV a day.  Yes, some people engage in corrupting purchases.  But they are no worse than their ancestors, and on average better" (24).
"The richer, more urban, more bourgeois people, one person averaged with another, I claim, have larger, not smaller, spiritual lives than their impoverished ancestors of the pastoral.  They have more, not fewer, real friends than their great-great-great-great grandparents in 'closed-corporate' villages.  They have broader, not narrower, choices of identity than the one imposed on them by the country, custom, language, and religion of their birth.  They have deeper, not shallower, contacts with the transcendent of art or science or God, and sometimes even of nature, than the superstitious peasants and haunted hunters-gatherers from whom we all descend."
"They are better humans--because they in their billions have acquired the scope to become so and because market societies encourage art and science and religion to flourish and because anyway a life in careers and deal making and companies and marketplaces is not the worst life for a full human being. . . ." (28-29).
The way I would put this is that the bourgeois virtues secure a commercial society that is the most desirable society in all of human history, because it tends to provide the fullest satisfaction of the 20 natural desires.  So, for example, four of the natural human desires of our evolved human nature are desires to love and be loved: parental care, conjugal love, familial bonding, and friendship.  And as McCloskey indicates, in our bourgeois economies, over half of the purchases that consumers make are on behalf of their children, their spouses, their parents, and their friends (56-57).  Bourgeois people are not solitary egoists, because, as Smith observed, "the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved" (TMS, 41).

Similarly, we can see the natural desire for intellectual understanding expressed in bourgeois societies.  Scottish philosophers like Hume and Smith saw that the modern commercial society would provide the conditions for people like themselves to satisfy their longings for intellectual inquiry and philosophic friendship.  Socratic philosophy arose in the commercial empire of Athens.  And the arts and sciences are more widely available to more people in our commercial societies today than ever before in human history.

But surely, critics of capitalism like Thomas Piketty will object, we cannot plausibly claim that the wealthiest people in a capitalist society are the most virtuous people.  According to Piketty's data, in the United States today, those people in the top 1% of yearly income take almost 50% of the total national income (Capital, 323).  The top managers of large firms are often paid tens of millions of dollars a year, 50-100 times average income.  Surely, McCloskey will not claim that these rich people are 50-100 times more virtuous than others!

In her review of Piketty's book, McCloskey admits that the inequality of wealth in countries like the United States probably cannot be completely justified morally based on the merit of the rich ("Measured, Unmeasured, Mismeasured, and Unjustified Pessimism: A Review Essay of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century," Erasmus Journal of Philosophy and Economics, 7 [Autumn 2014]: 73-115).  She admits that it would be good if a Smithian liberal society produced the sort of economic equality that Piketty desires.  But she points out that even Piketty's data indicates variation in the patterns of inequality.  The recent growth in economic inequality is characteristic only of the United States, Canada, and the UK, and not of the European countries generally.

McCloskey also argues that improving the absolute welfare of the poor has more moral weight than reducing inequality.  Smith was egalitarian in promoting the idea of "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (WN, 664).  He saw the liberty and dignity of ordinary people as based on equality of respect and before the law, but not the equality of material outcome.  A liberal government will protect private property, which includes the property of laborers in their labor (WN, 138, 715, 783).  And while the "system of natural liberty" will allow some people to be richer than others, it will not allow the rich to use the power of government to gain special privileges for themselves and protection from competition in the market.  There will be great inequalities of property in such a free market system, but there will also be "that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people" (WN, 22).  Using the government to coercively redistribute the wealth, as Piketty recommends, would reduce the economic productivity that raises the welfare of the poor.  The pursuit of an absolute equality of condition would create an equality of poverty.

The bourgeois virtues include charity, McCloskey argues.  So we rightly expect rich people in a bourgeois society to be charitable, and we should condemn them if they are too greedy.  And historically, wealthy people in bourgeois societies (like Andrew Carnegie, for example) have felt a moral duty to give away their wealth for the public good.

Some of my posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

No comments: