Religion & Liberty Online

Deirdre McCloskey on Ethics and Rhetoric in the ‘Great Enrichment’

800px-Hartmann_Maschinenhalle_1868_(01)In a marvelous speech on the origins of economic freedom (and its subsequent fruits), Deirdre McCloskey aptly crystallizes the deeper implications of her work on bourgeois virtues and bourgeois dignity.

For example, though many doubted that those in once-socialistic India would come to see markets favorably, eventually those attitudes changed, and with it came prosperity. As McCloskey explains:

The leading Bollywood films changed their heroes from the 1950s to the 1980s from bureaucrats to businesspeople, and their villains from factory owners to policemen, in parallel with a similar shift in the ratio of praise for market-tested improvement and supply in the editorial pages of The Times of India… Did the change from hatred to admiration of market-tested improvement and supply make possible the Singh Reforms after 1991? Without some change in ideology Singh would not in a democracy have been able to liberalize the Indian economy…

…After 1991 and Singh much of the culture didn’t change, and probably won’t change much in future. Economic growth does not need to make people European. Unlike the British, Indians in 2030 will probably still give offerings to Lakshmi and the  son of Gauri, as they did in 1947 and 1991. Unlike the Germans, they will still play cricket, rather well. So it’s not deep “culture.” It’s sociology, rhetoric, ethics, how people talk about each other.

To summarize:

The Industrial Revolution and the modern world…did not arise in the first instance from a quickening of the capitalist spirit or the Scientific Revolution or an original accumulation of capital or an exploitation of the periphery or imperialistic exploitation or a rise in the savings rate or a better enforcement of property rights or a higher birth-rate of the profit-making class or a manufacturing activity taking over from commercial activity, or from any other of the mainly materialist machinery beloved of economists and calculators left and right. The machines weren’t necessary. There were substitutes for each of them, as Alexander Gerschenkron argued long ago.

Surprisingly, what seem at first the most malleable of things—words, metaphors, narratives, ethics, and ideology—were the most necessary…

…What we do is to some large degree determined by how we talk to others and to ourselves. That is to say, it is a matter of public ethics, such as the new acceptance of the Bourgeois Deal, or the honoring of a free press, or an egalitarian ethos of letting ordinary people have a go. As Bernard Manin put it, “The free individual is not one who already knows absolutely what he wants, but one who has incomplete preferences and is trying by means of interior deliberation and dialogue with others to determine precisely what he does want.”

As Christians, we ought to hear particular echoes when digesting such prose, absorbing McCloskey’s observations about the importance of ethics, rhetoric, and attitudes, while shying away from her occasional dings at tradition (in and of itself) or her passive shrugs at the role of “deep culture” or the prospects of human flourishing amid Lakshmi worship.

Getting our ethics and attitudes right about basic human exchange will yield certain material fruits, encouraging gifted people to leverage their gifts creatively and collaboratively. By “liberating and honoring market-tested improvement and supply,” McCloskey aruges, we “unleash human creativity in a novel liberty and dignity for ordinary people.” “A society open to conversation and open to entry yields a creativity that disturbs the rules of the game designed by the  elites and the monopolies, rules favoring the already rich.”

Yet for all the goods that may come from these attitudes, ours remains an “interior deliberation and dialogue” not altogether earthbound and “rational,” observant of and concerned with the natural order and natural ends, but not slavish to the cost-benefit analyses of men, and with sights ultimately set toward and guided by something higher. The origins of our prosperity are important if we hope to retain it, but as bellies continue to be filled, we ought to keep looking forward toward new levels of “enrichment.”

As McCloskey demonstrates throughout her speech, everyone from progressives to conservatives to libertarians have begun to dilute this rhetoric in varying degress. Thus, a renewed focus and emphasis on its importance is needed. Christians ought to be the first to participate in that renewal, offering meat on the bone via the Above-and-Beyonds that we know to be true.

We can and should fight, quite pluralistically, for rightly ordered ethics and rhetoric that lead to material prosperity for all. But ultimately, this is all for the Glory of God. By him and through him the seeming “malleable things” of which McCloskey speaks become not so malleable after all — varied and complex, to be sure, but specific, particular, and focused toward his purposes alone, both earthy and transcendent, for this life and the next.

HT: James Pethokoukis

As a sidebar to all of this, see Dale Coulter and Greg Forster’s recent exchange over at First Things.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.