The Bourgeois Virtues

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

This book is unfair in many ways. For all the seriousness of its content, it is written in such a beguiling manner that the reader is seduced into reading for sheer enjoyment rather than dutifully putting together wisdom and enlightenment. The author is a brilliant economist, and in the work are economics lectures. The book, however, is no textbook or treatise. Deirdre N. McCloskey is one of the few living intellectuals who has seen the world from both a masculine and feminine perspective and used this perspective to good effect. It is unfair that this is merely volume one of a projected four-volume study. No one should know that much.

McCloskey also writes from a Christian perspective from which love, faith, and hope are characterized as Christian and feminine virtues. Courage and temperance are pagan and masculine virtues, leaving prudence and justice as androgynous. Several chapters are devoted to each virtue, taking the reader through an awesome array of literary, philosophical, and historical reference points. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith figure prominently.

The word “bourgeois” initially referred to people who lived in towns and cities, particularly the shopkeepers, professionals, and clerks. Karl Marx appropriated the term to apply to capitalists (entrepreneurs). The term is often accompanied by a sneer, most often delivered by “the clerisy”the intellectuals, readers, and writers, who are uncritically anticapitalist. “It’s the clerisy’s job to provide articulations that illuminate our lives. . . For a century and a half a good part of the clerisy has been off duty, standing in the street outside the factory or office or movie studio hurling insults at the varied workers there,” says McCloskey.

A penetrating section develops the theme “anticapitalism is bad for us,” chiefly through government economic interventions which, at best, generate economic inefficiency and injustice, and at worst, beget mass murder. Now, economic wisdom recognizes that masses of people are moving from poverty to affluence through private property rights and free markets and not through government ownership and political foreign-aid programs.

Surely, though, capitalism is about “greed.” Not really. Greed has certainly been observed in all types of societies throughout history. It has been condemned in equal degree. Most people learn to moderate or disguise their greed, out of self-interest. It does not win friends or influence people. What capitalism can do is to harness greed to public benefitprovided the greed is constrained by law and by competition. Greed is certainly not a defining feature of the most prominent entrepreneurs. Seeking a high income in order to send children (or grandchildren) to college is not exactly greed.

McCloskey suggests that one understand a bourgeois to be “a city dweller practicing an honored profession or owning a business or functioning at a managerial level in someone else’s enterprise, including governmental and non-profit enterprises.” So it is not merely a synonym for middle class. The bourgeoisie honor work.

Appropriately for a Christian, the author gives priority of place to the virtue of love, through which one is committed to the true welfare of another. The preoccupation with male-female romantic interactions makes it challenging to deal analytically with love. It need not be a feelingor not merely a feelingbut a set of actionsbasically, what good parents as well as good mates do. McCloskey echoes C. S. Lewis (another intellectual who came late to Christian faith), urging that love needs a transcendent dimensionsomething beyond the purely secular and pragmatic. Love also needs to be balanced by other virtues, especially justice.

McCloskey aims many darts at the preoccupation of economists with utility maximization, treating prudence as the universal determinant of behavior. The efforts of Nobel Prize-winner Gary Becker to interpret love purely in terms of self-interest will not do. To McCloskey, love extends to solidarity with others, to finding meaning in actions, to commitment and duty. She concludes that “markets and even the much-maligned corporations encourage friendships wider and deeper than the atomism of a full-blown socialist regime or the claustrophobic, murderous atmosphere of a ’traditional’ village.” With that thought goes a strong attack on the myths of some past social golden age.

Faith combines elements of confidence (that one’s actions will somehow turn out all right) and trust. Successful modern market economies rest on...

(The entire section is 1887 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Library Journal 131, no. 6 (April 1, 2006): 108.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 20 (December 21, 2006): 70-73.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (July 30, 2006): 14-15.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 14 (April 3, 2006): 57.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 20, 2006, pp. 3-4.

The Wall Street Journal 248, no. 18 (July 22, 2006): P10.