At Cato Policy Report the brilliant economist Deirdre McCloskey of the University of Illinois-Chicago and Erasmus University of Amsterdam (formerly the brilliant economist Donald McCloskey) writes about “bourgeois virtues,” the subject of her new book. McCloskey says that in Western civilization we have traditionally recognized two kinds of virtues — the aristocratic virtues such as courage, and the peasant or Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity.
But, she argues, these virtues were developed for a pre-capitalist world of defined social classes. In the United States and an increasing part of the world, very few people are aristocrats and no one is condemned to peasant life. Rather, we are all bourgeois now. We live in commercial society, mostly in towns (the root of the word bourgeois). We’re mostly middle class and engaged in business, as entrepreneurs, investors, managers, or employees, and also as customers.
And since the beginning of bourgeois society, the vocabulary of virtues has been used to berate and denounce capitalism. We’re told that business is based on greed, not on virtue. It may be necessary to modern life, but businessmen are still expected to accept their dubious moral standing. Wouldn’t sharing be more virtuous than selling? Isn’t it better to serve society than to produce wealth?
McCloskey points out that the assaults on the alleged vices of capitalism “led, in the 20th century, to some visions of Hell.” Surely capitalism has proven better than the alternative. But she wants to make a stronger case than that: “bourgeois life improves us ethically.” It has led not just to vast increases in material wellbeing but to civility, religious tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and honesty. She examines how the classical virtues apply in a commercial world. “The leading bourgeois virtue is the prudence to buy low and sell high…but it is also the prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence.”
She goes on to add temperance — to save and accumulate, but also to look for compromise. Justice is private property, along with respecting merit, not privilege, and viewing success without envy. And so on through courage, love, faith, and hope, the old virtues for the modern world.
McCloskey says that her goal is to take the word “bourgeois” back from its enemies, to make it a term of honor, by showing how the virtues inform capitalism and how capitalism encourages the virtues.