Ammo for the Battle of Ideas


Don't get too excited about the extra congressional seats for red states, warns Jonah Goldberg.  In red states like Texas, some of those new districts will end up as Democratic and Hispanic.  In fact, he says, conservatives shouldn't rely on demographics to solve their political problems. "The only way for the GOP to make real progress toward becoming a majority party is by making and winning arguments."

Among the best arguments being made right now is the one Deirdre McCloskey is making in her mammoth Bourgeois Cycle.  First she published The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, a full frontal argument for the virtues, all seven of them.  We should abandon the rage for the One Good "as maximum utility, or as the categorical imperative, or as the Idea of the Good," and especially the modern rage for Prudence Only.  We should embrace, in all their complexity, the four pagan virtues: not just Prudence, but Temperance, Courage, and Justice.  And then reach out to the Christian virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.

You can see the grand strategy here.  You take a dirty word like "bourgeois" and unfashionable "virtue" and combine them into a fighting manifesto.  Then you up the ante for volume two.

Just in time for Christmas, McCloskey delivered the second installment of the Bourgeois Cycle. It's called Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. In Volume Two McCloskey argues that the Great Fact of modern prosperity comes down to one thing.  People stopped sneering at bourgeois merchants.  (Very possibly, but bourgeois dignity, dahling?)

More or less suddenly the Dutch and British and then the Americans and French began talking about the middle class... as though it were dignified and free.  The result was modern economic growth.

And just in case you weren't paying attention, we are talking about growth from $3 per day production and consumption in 1800 to, in the US, $120 per day, or 40 times the wealth in 1800. 

OK, let's forget 1800.  Let's look at the great economic story of today.  No, we are not talking about the Great Recession. Writes McCloskey.

The Big Economic Story of our own times is that the Chinese in 1978 and then the Indians in 1991 adopted liberal ideas in the economy, and came to attribute a dignity and a liberty to the bourgeoisie formerly denied.  And then China and India exploded in economic growth.

We are not talking about the Chinese and the Indians struggling to a modest prosperity a generation later, we are talking about explosive growth starting the very next day -- the day after the ruling class lifted the Maoist totalitarian controls and the Fabian-inspired "license Raj."

The rest of Bourgeois Dignity is devoted to refutation of other explanations for the Industrial Revolution explosion.  No it wasn't the Protestant Ethic, for Catholic businessmen are just as purposeful as Protestant businessmen; it wasn't the exploitation of the workers, for you don't increase prosperity by 40 times for everyone including the exploited workers by reducing the food intake of the workers from $3 per day to $2 per day.  It wasn't the profits from the slave trade, or the enclosure movement, or favorable geography, or extraordinary thriftiness, or even property rights.  No, argues McCloskey, none of that can explain an explosion in wealth of 40 times.  What creates the explosion in wealth was

stumbled into by the United Provinces in the seventeenth century, and then by the United Kingdom imitating the bourgeois Dutch in the eighteenth century.  The external effects thus revealed were a new dignity for the bourgeoisie in its dealings and a new liberty for the bourgeoisie to innovate in economic affairs.

All of a sudden it became a Good Thing to innovate and risk creative destruction, and the ruling class got stripped of its age-old power to strangle new ideas in their cradles.  The result was unimagined prosperity for everyone, from the richest to the poorest.

In the battle of ideas we depend on thinkers like Deirdre McCloskey -- a libertarian progressive -- and her encyclopedic knowledge of economics, history, culture, and the post-1958 school of virtue ethics.  We need people with the courage to fling down a reckless challenge, as she does at the beginning of The Bourgeois Virtues:

My implied readers are... the "clerisy," opinion makers and opinion takers... the readers of the New York Times or Le Monde... [who think] that "bourgeois virtues" is an oxymoron on the level of "military intelligence" or "academic administration."

She wants to shock our liberal friends so they never think of "bourgeois," or "virtue," or "dignity" in the old way ever again.

We conservatives have a parallel agenda.  We want an America where no liberal would dare to misunderestimate conservative ideas or conservative thinkers ever again.  That America is not yet.  But with manna from Deirdre McCloskey and a few more like her we will get to the Promised Land.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and also  At he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.
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