Capitalist Virtues: An Oxymoron?

Posted on September 12, 2013 by


I am in the middle of reading a couple of really interesting and controversial books on capitalism.  One is Deidre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for An Age of Commerce.  University of Chicago Press, 2006.  This is a big book on big subject, a grand sweep type of book with high ambition.  McCloskey is currently a professor in (yes) economics, history, English and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She was at one time a staunch Chicago School economist, a hard-headed positivist and quantitative advocate.  Over the years, her scope of interest as well as here orientation have obviously shifted.  But, amazingly, she is still a huge fan of markets, albeit from a somewhat iconoclastic perspective (as I am finding out).

What is this book about then?  It is fundamentally about how, despite the claims of anti-capitalists to the contrary (she argues, beginning around 1848), markets are founded on virtues, what she calls “bourgeois virtues.”  Historically, the word was not a pejorative term that it would come to be after Marx.  It simply referred to the average citizen or businessman, including the capitalist.  The bourgeois virtues are the four “pagan” virtues plus the three Christian virtues–justice, courage, temperance, prudence, faith, hope, love      These virtues she opposes to what she sees as the modern, Samuelsonian economic calculus of the “Prudent Only,” purely rational and self-interested individual.  In other words, McCloskey views capitalism as rooted in virtue for the most part, allowing for human falleness, not pure and cold, even selfish, calculation.  On that point of course she breaks ranks with many of her colleagues in the economics profession who in fact have dismissed pretty much every virtue except that of the rational self-maximizer (whom McCloskey calls “Max U”).  

McCloskey spends the next about 500 pages supporting her thesis.  Yes, her writing is sometimes rambling, sometimes more polemical or rhetorical than analytical.  In addition, I would register my disagreement with her version of Christianity, though through it, she does, unlike many scholars today, even economists, actually support the Christian religion.  In fact, much of her argument would be undermined without Christianity.  We need arguments like this, that capitalism is not in itself unethical, though any given capitalist may be.  Ethics does play a vital role in underpinning a capitalist system, and that is the main point:  not only does it play a vital role but it is “really there” to be found in the operation of markets.  Critics then are, to McCloskey, “barking up the wrong tree.”

Before leaving potential readers to pick up the book on their own, let me say a few more words.  The Introduction in itself is an excellent thesis for markets and could be fair game for undergraduate students pining (maybe not) for an ethical defense of capitalism.  In addition, brace yourselves, this book is only the first in a projected four volume (possibly six) treatise on the subject.  Bourgeios Dignity, the second volume, is already out and has received quite good reviews from some really excellent economists.  Finally, don’t expect an easy read.  As I said, the book is not written in the typical analytical style of a social science work.  And McCloskey can be a little “cheeky” at points.  Moreover, like me, the reader may flatly disagree with some of her characterizations.  Finally, McCloskey is not a libertarian, or a Chicagoan, or a Samuelsonian, but she does seem to treat the Austrians with respect.  But overall, this kind of book is what I have been looking for, whether it fully succeeds or not.  We must build on McCloskey’s work for the betterment of our argument for capitalism.

For those who like such teasers, my next review will be of a new book by Simon Tormey, entitled simply, Anti-Capitalism, (190 pages) published as part of the Beginners Guides Series and designed to survey periods, movements and ideas.  This movement is relatively new, though the ideas behind it are certainly not.  Stay tuned.