McCloskey, Lawler and Middle Class Virtues

Libertarians can often get left out of some of the more interesting bits of cultural commentary going on today. This is not a fault of libertarianism or more broadly the economic frame of mind per se, even stalwart critics of global market capitalism, like Jacobin’s Mike Beggs, are willing to admit most economists are not positivist boogiemen:

Criticism of the incoherence or unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics can be easily deflected – most economists will freely admit they are simply heuristics and would be quite happy to be considered pragmatic “casual empiricists.

But all the same, there can be a tendency to double down on economic consequentialism when criticisms of the market surface. It doesn’t do much to reply to the charge the suburbs are alienating with statistics on how cheap the houses are, and how good the schools. It doesn’t do much to reply that the death of the locally owned bookstore isn’t so bad, because now we can get all the books we want on Amazon Prime with Two Day Shipping. The critic is making a point about flourishing, not optimization. The critic can just point out that you are missing the point and that we are made for eudaimonia, not mammon.

This is why I am happy to be writing under the banner of Sweet Talk as I believe Deirdre McCloskey is a useful corrective to the claim that capitalism gains us the world but rids of our soul. She gives libertarians and market oriented conservatives an account not just of human enrichment but of human flourishing. In particular, I want to put her in conversation with the Postmodern Conservative Peter Lawler at National Review (formerly of First Things).

Central to most center right apologies for the modern era is a simple rapture for the virtue of ordinariness. Ordinary people get a lot detractors no matter who they happen to be or in what era. Marx has unkind things to say of the idiocy of rural life, and Jane Jacobs is one of the earliest critics of those who fled the urban core for the safety, and she would likely say banality, of the suburbs. This is a very common social cycle, what is rising is admired and praised, until it is a little too common, then it is derided as alienating and then as it passes away it is eulogized as a unique social structure that was a ticket to a full and dignified life. So it was with the subsidence farmer, the yeoman farmer, the skilled urban tradesman, the factory worker and on and on it goes.

What is constant is the ordinary people. This type of person who fulfilled many social roles throughout history but remains remarkably constant in its character, and is perhaps best identified with Tolkien’s Hobbits. Unpretentious, respectful of philosophers but suspicious of too much abstraction too far from reality, loyal, friendly, always attempting to be as good as one understands where one is, the hobbit is fondly remembered in his past forms, but frequently chided in his present reality. Today’s hobbits are bourgeois and what unites Peter Lawler and Deirdre McCloskey is a love for ordinary people and a belief that even here and now, in some cases especially here and now, it is possible to have a flourishing purposeful life, even if that life is in a Wal-Mart.

For Lawler human nature is like a tall oak,  our feeling of verticality and our sense that the “best way to feel good is to be good” is not going away anytime soon. He believes that “virtue is alive in the tacky McMansions we find in sprawling exurbs.” We cannot rid ourselves of our nature even when we look toward Singularity. Biotechnology cannot get rid of our human anxiety and neither can our loss of the front porch. We will always want to be good, and always make outlets for that to happen. Lawler notes that the bourgeois man, the free man who must work, in many ways heightens the contradictions of our existential problems. Simple aristocratic complacency and leisure is not open to us and neither is the constant work and unity of purpose of a slave’s life. We are free and bound to labor as bourgeois man, neither master nor slave. This is similar to how man is the rational animal, neither angel nor ape. This middle class of the middle being brings in our constant need for industry and it never satisfies. This should, for Lawler, bring about our Augustinian condition, that “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

If Lawler’s account for our current condition constitutes an apology, McCloskey’s constitutes a triumph. Her Bourgeois Era begins with an account of why this form of being good allows for mass human flourishing and enrichment. Not only have we gained the world we have kept our souls. She sees criticism of the bourgeois by the tastemakers of society she has named the “clerisy” as being both self-serving and hypocritical. She makes the following criticism in her book The Bourgeois Virtues:

The left side of the clerisy has never wavered in its 150-year-old campaign against the system that has made its arts and sciences possible. Most educated people in our time, though enriched by bourgeois virtues in themselves and in others, imagine the virtue of their lives as heroic courage or saintly love uncontaminated by bourgeois concerns. They pose as rejecting bourgeois ethics.

The educated and artistic class owes their very existence as a mass of society and not just a narrow Republic of Letters to the mass enrichment of society in the first place. McCloskey is firmly committed to the belief that the good life is also the profitable one in many cases.

Now all this is not to say that the two are identical in their praise of our condition. McCloskey is a progressive Episcopalian who praises modern contraception and the belief that abortion is between a woman and her doctor. This is ground that Lawler, as a conservative Catholic, simply cannot tread. Lawler is more circumspect seeing our heightening of Augustinian restlessness as having plenty of outlets that, while fun, will not alleviate our condition. A man can try many rivers before tripping into the Tiber. But what McCloskey and Lawler share in common is a basic orientation toward the ordinary person rather than away. While Lawler sees mixed goods in modernity, he affirms what is good as being authentically so, even in the exurbs. It is this love of hobbits that must be our starting place if we are to look at the world. We must love what is here, now and not fall into utopianism or nostalgia, and that means loving in part or in whole the tacky, hobbitity bourgeoisie.

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